The Politics of Topography

Olmsted Brothers Preliminary Plan for Washington University, 1895. Courtesy Washington University in St. Louis Archives

In 1895, the Board of Trustees of Washington University hired the landscape architecture firm of Olmsted, Olmsted & Elliot to develop a preliminary plan for a new campus site at the edge of the city. At that time, Forest Park was indeed a forested park, and the hilltop campus was a site of sharp gullies and savanna-like grasses and trees.

Topography of the WashU site, 1899. In all the competition entries, this topographic site-plan was only to be found in the files of the Olmsted entry. Courtesy WashU Archives.

construction_lanscapesInto this landscape, Olmsted Brothers projected a picturesque campus with a sweeping entry that both followed the contours of the site as well as their longstanding design tropes of meandering paths and jaunty disposition of buildings. But within this pastoral vision, they also set the tone for what would become the defining characteristics of the campus–a set of nested outdoor rooms or courts, arranged orderly along the hilltop site.olmstead_revised_planBut within four years, having been invited to take part in the final, international competition for the master-plan of the campus, and with the site having doubled in size, the meandering, topographically responsive entry of Olmsted’s preliminary scheme gave way to a centralized plan linking Forest Park and the University. Here, then, lies the fate of this site. Every entry into the competition–from Olmsted to Cope & Stewardson, and from Cass Gilbert to McKim, Meade & White–projected this axis across the contours of the undulating landscape. To think otherwise, it seems, was to give-in to the specificity of place and context. And here, perhaps, lies a prolegomenon to the politics of topography.

View looking east from the hilltop during construction, 1899. Note the forest of Forest Park. Courtesy WashU Archives.

The Hatchet


In 1906, one year after the first and only Tree Planting Day on the WashU campus, the University Yearbook adopted this logo.

An incredible day today in the University Archives and Special Collections. A complete privilege to be paging through the original Olmsted campus plans, the adopted Cope & Stewardson plans, the failed campus competition entries, and the early 20th century tree inventories. Special thanks to University Archivist Sonya Rooney for her introduction to the collection and invaluable assistance.

Certainly more to come….

Under the soil, life


Last week we began our inquiry into tree life under the ground with a careful, suggestive introduction to root/fungus relationships with biologist and plant ecologist Scot Mangan. A specialist in what he describes as the ‘biology of dirt,’ Scott introduced into our conversation a range of ways to understand the mutualism of mycorrhizal relationships as well as the selectivity of fungal pathogens. Ecto-mycorrhizal associations are those tuned to the sort of oaks we are working with, as we follow a range of issues related to differential allocation, root architecture, and basics of sub-surface growth. In the photo above, Scott leads a discussion in reading the possible signs of the presence of mycorrhizal  associations as we view the stunted, blunt growth of fine roots.

Arboreal Convening

onetree_treeworkaheadWe have been studying the biological functioning and ecological interrelationships of a tree, but they also exist as uniquely social and legal objects in the landscape. For whom does a tree do its work? What work, exactly, is it doing? And who is responsible when it fails? Trees relationship to law, risk, and property confer a unique sort of status to the public nature of ownership, and challenge some of the more abiding categories of boundary definition and maintenance.

There is a certain poetry in the ambivalent language of risk: imminent, probable, possible, improbable. These are the categories of contingency that an arborist brings to their assessment of a tree. Duty of care speaks to the legal pact we enter into when we plant and maintain a tree, as we dance around the threshold of the probable and the possible.

David Gunn of the Missouri Botanical Garden ascending tree with double rope technique.

The conversation and field-session was led by a cast of the region’s top tree experts: Skip Kincaid (former Commissioner of Forestry for the city of St. Louis, now with Hanson’s Trees), Ben Chu (Horticulture Supervisor at Missouri Botanical Gardens), Kent Theiling (Horticulturalist at WashU), Bill Spradley (President of Trees, Forests, Landscapes), David Gunn (Arborist at Missouri Botanical Gardens), and Russel (Forestry Division of St. Louis). In addition, we were joined by ecologist Doug Ladd, artist Marilee Keys, biologist Scott Mangan, and outdoor educator Guy Mott. A sincere and resounding thank you to all!

Weathering a February flurry, as Ben Chu narrates the climb.


Introduction to a Tree


Wonder is a function of the degree of resolution—in birdsong, in optics, in philosophy, in theology.

-Charles Foster, “In Which I Try to Become a Swift”

Doug Ladd, until recently the Director of Conservation at Missouri Nature Conservancy, led us on a wide-ranging, foundational conversation on the meaning and biology of trees, and the abiding link between temperate forests and humans. Treeness, he argues, is best understood as a morphological definition of something that conferred advantage. Here, he skipped from tree to carnation to dandelion to draw out a point on adaptation, and the increased fitness through natural selection. The conversation took us through the ancient Quercus prelobata, oak fruits, cache trees of woodpeckers, green tree reservoirs, apical dominance, and cellular senescence, and forward through our own Quercus palustris and their native flatwood habitats.

With an initial, deceptively simple prompt to construct a model of a tree, Doug in fact introduced into the discussion two questions: what is a tree, and what is a model. Here, the question of relationships–of the network of associations that allow something we call a tree to emerge in the first place–proved to be crucial. As we sketched and annotated our clumsy tree diagrams, questions of reproduction, fungal associations, structural stability, water and nutrient exchange, and habitat were all teased out of the conversation. The model of one tree quickly gave way to the idea of a vast biological system that happens to include a tree.

The Tree Itself

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law–those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.

This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.

Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars–all this in its entirety.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

–Martin Buber, I and Thou

[with special thanks, and endless respect, to Chesney Floyd for this reference]

One Tree?

We might do well to argue up front that there is perhaps no such thing as one, single, isolatable tree—trees exist as intensely interconnected organisms that thrive and indeed require a range of mutualist associations through which energy, nutrients, and information is exchanged. An understanding of one tree quickly gives way to an understanding of the community of trees, and throughout the studio we will consistently interrogate the ways that our landscape imaginaries might be tuned to embrace this arboreal collectivity. Throughout the semester, we will use the allee as a laboratory—asking questions of the trees, asking questions of their context, and asking questions of ourselves.

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