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Reflecting on Landscape and the Academy

Bliss Symposium Award

John Wang, Harvard University, B.A. Candidate History of Art and Architecture (Design Studies). Class of 2016.

Having the opportunity to participate in the Garden and Landscape Studies symposium at Dumbarton Oaks was truly a privilege and an honor. The speakers brought together a wide array of perspectives on this year's topic 'Landscape and the Academy' and transformed the way I understand our built and natural environment. In particular, presentations by practitioners of landscape architecture showed me the significance of landscape design in helping cities and community tackle the ecological challenges of the 21st-century. The more historically-oriented papers revealed a fascinating story behind how the American campus came to look the way it does. Between speakers and discussions, I also had the opportunity to have many incredible conversations that made the experience not only intellectual but also social.

Mellon Travel Award

Ehsan Sheikholharam, North Carolina State University, PhD Candidate,School of Architecture

Thank you very much for the Mellon Foundation Travel Award. It was a wonderful occasion to attend the 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium “Landscape and the Academy.”

I had a blast listening to the wide range of topics and critical discussions. The thematic arrangement of the talks was ideal, providing an intriguing rhythm in the sequence of subjects while allowing a refreshing transitions from one to the other. The penetrating discussion after each presentation was particularly engaging and brought additional perspective into the already rich content of each section. Despite the general tendency in QA sections where discussions might swerve off-topic, the moderators were specifically successful in keeping the conversations aligned with the subjects. Symposium’s self-consciousness in scrutinizing similar subjects from multiple points of view allowed for a multifaceted understanding of the real issues we are facing today.

I believe the closing panel discussion was the pinnacle of the event. Through the impromptu responses and spontaneous provocations, one could see through the theoretical underpinnings stripped from linguistic veils and aside from the imperatives of academic etiquettes. The confrontation of different positions shed vibrant light on invisible facets of some of the most controversial topics: exporting the American higher educational model to the countries—primarily to the Middle East—without supplementary intellectual and cultural grounds, or alternative mode of thinking about the design of campuses where students’ experience after graduation could be radically different precisely because they will be absorbed by the new realities and responsibilities. I thought it would be wonderful if the symposium could afford two panel discussions—one at the end of each day. I am not sure if all the 14 panelists could have assumed the opportunity to join the conversations due to the time limitation and thematic relevance. 

Beyond its tremendous didactic capacities, the symposium was structured to be a perfect milieu for exchanging ideas between eminent scholars and brilliant minds. I had the chance to talk to some of the legendary figures in the discipline and received insightful reflections on my research on the “implications of the unconscious in landscape.” There was a remarkable interest in the book that I am now editing precisely due to its subject. The book is a collection of essays from a two-part symposium 2012-13, titled East-West Dialogues organized by the University of Miami School of Architecture and co-sponsored by DOCOMOMO-US/Florida. Focusing on the modern campuses, their landscapes, and their design principles, the book shared a common ground with some of the presentations. The inspirations from the symposium enriched my way of thinking about both my own line of inquiry as well as the profundity of concerns in the design of complex landscapes such as university campuses.

Again, I truly appreciate the travel award and look forward to future events.


Jenn Thomas, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Landscape Architecture

A few days before I left for the Landscape and the Academy symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, I served as a reviewer for the sophomore landscape architecture Site Design Studio final presentations at the University of Illinois.   Over the semester, students grappled with redesigning the perennially problematic transportation corridor on the western edge of campus (Wright Street).  Bus and bicycle routes were reconfigured, pedestrian and social zones were reimagined, and students offered a variety of solutions that mimicked various urban “green street” initiatives while also often integrating recent successful design precedents they saw on a class trip to New York City.  Their design proposals reflected the current educational and professional moment, a moment that can trace its institutional heritage well beyond the confines of this present place and these specific concerns.  We all were, in our own way, participating in a dialogue about Landscape and the Academy.  It was a fortuitous precursor.

Like any institutional facility, campus landscapes persistently adapt and respond to shifting educational and community needs.  As an emerging historian, learning about how this may have occurred in the past is fascinating; pondering how campuses should or could be in the near future is more challenging, due to the complex and speculative possibilities.  In the past, the term university “campus” may have evoked an imagined landscape, one of demarcation and bounds, yet most of the symposium speakers revealed that there was and continues to be a curious tension regarding that characterization.  Main campuses, field stations, branch campuses, university preserves and forests—were university landscapes ever really bounded?  The short answer is yes, by a host of cultural, pedagogical, and hierarchical priorities of a given moment, which become manifest in the academic landscape overtly and covertly but notions of bounded-ness and unbounded transition inform what constitutes an academic landscape.   This has had both intentional and unintentional consequences, which then generates subsequent responses and further (re)designs.  After Landscape and the Academy I have more questions than answers but as someone who researches institutional landscape histories regularly, I thoroughly enjoy pondering issues that various presentations induced.

I noted in an email sent to John Beardsley that, “…the speakers and … topics convey[ed] a wide range of perspectives and rich intellectual substance … it was a lot of fun to be a part of the activities during the speaker Q & A [as a Mellon Travel Award recipient].  I think it also helped facilitate … subsequent conversations.  I really enjoyed the symposium!”  I hope that a publication will be forthcoming as a result of Landscape and the Academy because I would like to be able to revisit the topics and have access to a more in-depth analysis of the scholarship presented. 

I would like to thank everyone at Dumbarton Oaks and the Garden and Landscape Studies program again for awarding me the Mellon Travel Grant.  The symposium provided a wonderful opportunity to hear and meet interesting scholars and helped broaden my understanding of the history of landscapes and the academy.