Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.
I’ve long been fascinated about how the physical form of a city shapes our urban experience. Not only did I study urban planning, but I’ve played countless hours of SimCity, and built the best Lego cities known to humankind! But in all seriousness, my interest in the interactions between people and features within an urban environment affecting perceptions truly began while studying landscape architecture at the University of Toronto. I’ve written about this time and topic before, but skipped the most fun part: détournement!
Détournement is a technique developed by the Letterist International in the 1950’s. Originating from the French word meaning, “hijacking, rerouting”, détournement became a tool of avant garde social revolutionaries known as the Situationist International. They would take familiar printed images, objects, and pieces of art and augment/change them to alter their meaning. Imagery or a mainstream political concept were subversively reinterpreted for their political purposes, all the while maintaining a general familiarity.
The Situationists consider this not an art form, but an act of expression. Detoured images would reuse preexisting artistic elements in a new enablement, an integration of past or present productions into a superior milieu.
All of that is to say, Situationists set out to add seemingly disparate elements to purposefully create something altogether new. The key to a successful détournement was retaining the recognizable visual elements of the original source for the masses, while altering its meaning.
Détournement became an inspiration during the period I worked on my thesis. The concept and practice opened possibilities in relation to my very own design process. My thesis site of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto became my own testing ground for détournement. I set out to change the idea of the automobile expressway by simply adding and repurposing its pieces. I asked myself, “How can I combine high volume public transportation, high volume automobile traffic, bicycles, pedestrians, a main street type urbanism, and public open space all on this mega-infrastructure?” Well, it certainly wasn’t easy!
Tapping my own imagination, I began rough collaging, and incorporating the philosophical ideals of the Situationist to attempt to detourn the commute.
My project became a jumble of staged interventions, an attempt to retain the piers of the distressed freeway while creating a new surrounding steel structure to support the collage-like urbanism. Inspired by Constant’s, “New Urbanism”, I identified the commute as the easiest point to intervene in an individual’s everyday life. This would increase the chance for situations – chance encounters – along the way. Eliminating the banality of the everyday commute by forcing these disparate uses to coexist alters the way landscape architects and city planners interpret urbanity, planning, and design. In this way détournement becomes a catalyst for an entirely new type of urbanism.
Inspiration can be found anywhere. Landscape architecture merges many mediums and countless studies: art, botany, sociology, philosophy, music, mathematics, psychology, and anything else you can possibly think of. We operate within a nexus of nature, man, and intellect. Ideas outside of our immediate field like détournement can further expand our toolset. Never limit yourself and use your interest and background to detourn the current landscape design milieu.