“McHarg’s Entropy, Halprin’s Chance: Representations of Cybernetic Change in 1960s Landscape Architecture,” Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes (2014).
In the 1960s, responding to numerous economic, environmental, and cultural changes, landscape architects began to engage greater temporal complexity within the design process. The representational innovations of Ian McHarg and Lawrence Halprin were particularly influential during this period, introducing new ways for landscape architects to depict and relate to landscape change. McHarg’s ecological models established a scientific basis for landscape management. Derived from systems ecology, they employed quantitative methods to track change over time, prioritizing predictability and systematic manipulation. Halprin’s open scores defined methods for community decision-making. Adapted from postmodern dance and experimental music, they amplified uncertainty, creating circumstances in which stasis was unachievable and chance was embraced.
Ecological models and open scores were markedly different, but in certain ways they embraced similar ways of seeing. Their interdisciplinary lineages reflected this similarity: systems ecology and postmodern dance both adopted ideas and methods from postwar cybernetics. Depicting a systematic temporality in which interacting components composed shifting aggregate wholes, cybernetic approaches enabled landscape architects to incorporate newly complex inter-relational information into drawings. Yet they also included a tendency to contrast the temporality of systems against their management. Accordingly, cybernetics bequeathed the field of landscape architecture with a question: to what degree can – or should – landscape architects seek to control living, changing, and unpredictable natural systems?
Exploring this dilemma, Ian McHarg and Lawrence Halprin introduced new ways to represent temporal environments, promoting different attitudes regarding landscape’s uncertainties and the designer’s power to direct change. Tracking the influence of postwar cybernetics on the field of landscape architecture reveals how interdisciplinary influences brought new conceptions of temporality and control into landscape architectural practice, altering the field in the 1960’s and beyond.