Pershing_Square

Taste. It’s an amorphous and subjective word that has affected the entirety of my career as a landscape architect. The problem began when I was a young practitioner working on large estates near Pebble Beach.  My boss at the time would prompt me continually: “The client has excellent taste. You need to be cognizant of it when you do your design.”

It was a warning I didn’t understand. What was this taste, and how do I get some?

I should note my boss was an excellent designer. While my crude scribbles would never quite congeal into a comprehensive whole, a bit of tweaking from him would ultimately make my initial ideas much better, never failing to please the tasteful. Twenty-five years later, and I am still a little fuzzy about what “taste” is. However, recently, I finally decided to go to the source itself for a definitive answer:

“So, Taste…can I call you that?” I like to start an interview on some common ground.

“You may,” Taste sneered. Uh oh, bad start.

“Um, tell me about yourself.” Softball question.

“Well, I am extremely good looking and successful. Everybody wants me, but nobody really knows me. Every time designers believe they have me, I simply change my mind, my image, and my appeal. I am seemingly unattainable, but occasionally achievable. When multiple generations of people change my name to ‘tasteful’, I choose to become timeless and a classic.”

Taste crosses its legs and looks bored.

“Like Falling Water, the Beatles, and the original Star Trek?” I offer.

“I’ve always been a Rolling Stones fan and a Next-Genner myself,” responds with a wide yawn.

“Okay, but…but aren’t you really just a construct of the current times? Is there really something timeless that you have to offer, or are you just a subjective aesthetic measure of a successful design that has been copied and re-packaged over and over until you are applied to things that don’t have any meaning in the application?”

“Is there a question in there? Because I have a driver waiting in the Bentley outside,” Taste spits back while texting on its iPhone.

Undaunted, I tried a different tact, “Let’s talk about Pershing Square in Los Angeles.”

Taste stops in mid-text.

“Where?”

The current Pershing Square designed by Ricardo Legorreta in 1992, with the fountain and bell tower. Photo by John O'Neill.

The current Pershing Square designed by Ricardo Legorreta in 1992, with the fountain and bell tower. Photo by John O’Neill.

“You know, Pershing Square? The oldest park in L.A.? It’s been at the center of the city’s financial district since 1866 and has undergone several major changes over the last 150 years, but has never really caught on with the public. The most recent remodel was in 1994, a design by famed Mexican modernist architect Ricardo Legoretta, and just as famous landscape architect, Laurie Olin.”

“So?”

At least my interview subject appears mildly interested now.

“Well, in 1994 that was a dream team, right? The odds seemed significantly in favor of this design team getting it right. Legoretta was at the height of his post-modern powers and Olin’s firm is still one of the most acclaimed to this day.”

“But?”

“But their Pershing Square design is almost universally reviled today. At the time, Mayor Riordan called the park ‘a breath of fresh air’, but now the only thing anyone wants to do with it is tear it down. The city seemingly did everything right: they got the developer to spring for a top-flight design team, the project was properly funded, and the vision was executed by the designer himself. What seems to have shifted was this matter of ‘taste’. Was this simply a matter of a shifting view of aesthetics? Is that why it looks so dated?”

Taste smiles and puts the iPhone face down on the table.

“Of course. It is true that I am somewhat subjective, but the tenets of my being are universal. You only know me if you strive for a universal perfection. I can only be created by a supreme sense of style and beauty that can only be achieved through an innate ability. This is why only a few in the world can have me. They are the elite, the cream of the crop, le sommet. Someone like you can never fully understand nor comprehend. I mean, U.C. Davis…now, if you’ll excuse me my publicist is calling.”

“Bull.”

“What?”

My response seems to have startled Taste.

“Bull. Oh, all agree with you is that you are subjective. However, everything else you said is pure bull hockey pucks. Good design is universal, not taste. Logoretta and Olin failed because they did not take the context of the site into account. They did not accurately comprehend the site’s history and the effects of a revitalized downtown. Their theme was too broad. They were not sensitive to the realities and needs to that community.

A successful park – as opposed to a successful building – is not something the surrounding community gazes at with awe. A successful park is part of the community. It evolves, it lives and breathes to the point that it disappears and becomes an absolute necessary part of that community. A successful park becomes an afterthought, but yet is an absolute necessary part of people’s daily lives. That’s why I think we landscape architects are always over-looked. People don’t realize they needed us until we are not there to design their parks.”

Taste pauses for a moment, a moment of confused thought upon its face, then only to return to its iPhone.

“What in the heck is an Aggie anyway?” my imaginary friend mumbles before dialing. “Roberto? Come pick me up in front, we are done here. No, tell Peter that a blob for a building is simply wonderful. And Renzo? Of course, a blimp is sooooo LA!”.

Taste breezes out the room, leaving the door open in its wake. Ahh, the story of my life. There’s just no accounting for good taste.

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