Ugly Nature
LA+ Iconoclast Design Ideas Competition
The University of Pennsylvania, Stuart Weitzman School of Design
Philadelphia, PA, United States, November 2018

Richard Weller, Jenny Osuldsen, Charles Waldheim, Lola Sheppard, Geoff Manaugh, Beatrice Galilee

Presented by LA+ from the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, this ideas competition asked for a redesign of Central Park starting from scratch.  The competition sought to explore the following questions: what is the aesthetic of our contemporary relationship to nature?  What is the role of large urban parks?  What are the relationships between aesthetics and performance?  How does past land use influence future uses?

A tree is utterly indifferent to standing or being cut down.[i]  The very last tree on earth will give way to an ax just as easily as any other.  Advocacy on behalf of a tree must recognize that nature does not pass moral judgement.  Murder, destruction, and vandalism are neither supported or discouraged, nor are there any punishments or acts of revenge.  If every tree in central park was cut down, only we would mourn their passing.  And as with ethics, so to with aesthetics.  Only we judge the smooth young beech against the rugged old oak.[ii]  The beautiful, sublime, or picturesque may be qualities of nature, but they are not known to it.

How hard this is to accept when the first garden confuses both.  Eden is said to be a place of moral purity and absolute beauty.  There, without death or decay we would find no maggots, no fungi, no fallen leaves, or no seasons.  The energy of nature that constitutes the sublime and the temporality of nature most important to the picturesque, had no relevance until the first apple seeds were released.  Similarly, there would be no need for moral standards and legal protection of nature unless its destruction constituted a challenge to our well-being.

We know the association between beauty and moral superiority is false.  What is worse is that the beautiful, as a finished absolute ideal, will always negate a processes-based understanding of nature embedded in place and time.[iii]  Death and decay, energy and time, are necessary to make sense of, and design for a changing environment.  Perhaps the ugly will be more useful than the beautiful, specifically in its property for that which is not there and should be.[iv]

Here then is a proposal that challenges the notion that the ugly is environmentally inferior.  The fixed site plan is rejected in favor of a grounded perspective, where the nonexistence of the cut trees is preserved, but the stumps are trained to sucker profusely.  In addition, an argument is made that it is time to rethink the goals of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Recreative leisure is surpassed by the need for a fully comprehensive attitude towards parks as collaborative components in a functional dynamic ecological unit, in which Central Park will be the first true addition.  There is no return to Eden.  Death and decay, energy and time, are necessary allies in any realistic response to environmental degradation.  We can not save nature, but it still might save us.  omnia mutantur, nihil interit

[i] Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? (1996), 53.
[ii] Uvedale Price, On the picturesque (1842), 84.
[iii] Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Artforum 11 (1973): 124.
[iv] Mark Cousins, “The Ugly,” AA Files 29 (1995): 4.