Jeremy Foster: Toward a Practice of Landscape Research

May 1, 2014

A Profile of Jeremy Foster, Assistant Professor of Architecture

"The thing that I've always been interested in — more than anything else — is the construct of place," says Jeremy Foster, assistant professor of architecture. Foster's academic life has been a pursuit of an understanding of how this ambiguous construct permeates cities and landscapes. This trajectory has given him broad roots in academia, and an integrative — some would even say eclectic — approach to the built environment.

It has also meant that finding a home in the traditional disciplinary framework has been challenging; before settling into a tenure-track line in the Department of Architecture in 2011, in his previous seven years at Cornell he held adjunct positions in architecture, landscape architecture, and CRP.

In some ways, this movement from professional home to home was a continuation of a life in motion that he has long been accustomed to. Born in Liverpool and of European descent, Foster was raised mainly in South Africa, and transit between continents was frequent. "On both sides of my family, in each generation, people went back and forth between Europe and South Africa," he says. "So I grew up in this diasporic, émigré culture — my grandparents were German and Danish and English. That had a strong impact on me because I lived in this world where I was physically in Africa, but a lot that I thought about every day came from other, far away places."

Formative for Foster were annual family vacations spent in South Africa's empty, rugged highlands, but where, surprisingly, daily life was similar to rural England. "This was of course, as I now realize, a legacy of colonial history. At the same time, though, the affective quality of this place was sponsored by circulations of different kind — people, practices, images," he says. Foster credits this early "traveling sensibility" with launching his interest in "place and landscape" that has sustained a 20-year research and publishing career.

As an architecture undergrad at the University of Cape Town, he broadened his focus beyond architectural design. "In studio assignments, I found that I was more interested in the study of the surrounding cultures and natural environment," he says. "I was also intrigued by how notions of regionalism and historic preservation might inform design thinking."

To develop this interest at the graduate level, Foster studied at the University of Pennsylvania under Ian McHarg and earned a master of landscape architecture. He then worked in well-known design offices in Philadelphia, and taught part time at Penn before landing in the Ph.D. program in the Department of Geography at University of London–Royal Holloway. It was there that his interests in architectural and landscape design dovetailed with an intellectual framework that he could use in his research of places.

"In London, I was lucky enough to study with Denis Cosgrove, a major guru at the time," says Foster. "It was a transformative experience; geography [writ large] is a different discipline in Britain from what it is in the U.S. It is much more common and has a much higher profile. Although cultural geography was a sub-discipline, I was studying with the seminal thinker in that field, someone who was a profound humanist."

Foster's post-graduate studies were dominated by debates about the origins of the "landscape idea," and its taken-for-granted power: whether it is primarily visual and spatial, projection and image, or a realm of social and material practices, customs, and negotiations. These debates also had political connotations in terms of whether landscape thinking is a redemptive or a manipulative endeavor.

Foster continues to explore the implications of this "productive ambiguity" in his teaching as well as his research. An ongoing thread is exploring how visual representations — ranging from maps to photography and film — not only affect how people relate to landscapes and cityscapes, but often help shape them. This linkage between "seeing, thinking, and acting" is not only at work in society as a whole, but also in the disciplines involved in shaping the built environment, says Foster.

As a result, Foster argues, coming to grips with the "landscape idea" has ethical and even political ramifications, which extend into the kind of research one does. "Developing a theoretically informed, landscape- centered research program today is complicated by the fact that landscapes encompass so many different forms, and ways of making sense, of 'empirical evidence,'" says Foster. "The metrics at work in any given landscape include the aesthetic-expressive, the psychological-experiential, the socio-ethnographic, the cultural-discursive, the material-anthropological, the scientific-environmental, the political-jurisdictional, and so on."

In general, landscape research tends to break down into positivists who rely on methods borrowed from the applied social and natural sciences, oriented toward quantifiable findings, and those who use a more interpretative, humanities and arts based model, grounded in the history and theory of society, culture, and geo-aesthetics.

Although Foster leans toward the interpretative approach, thanks to his professional knowledge of the variety of practices involved in making, using, and sustaining material landscapes, he is uncomfortable cleaving along narrowly disciplinary lines.

So, he prefers to adopt what he calls a "landscape studies" approach, which celebrates landscape as an inherently hybrid medium: simultaneously an assemblage of material processes, a space of representation, and a vehicle of discourse. To this end, Foster focuses on writing projects that aim to be "simultaneously analytical and speculative, critically informed and creative." Drawing on geographical, architectural, and landscape architectural theory, art history, anthropology, and visual studies, they unpack the cultural production, use, and meaning of material regions, urban environments, and places.

Most of this writing has appeared in peer-reviewed journals with audiences outside architecture and landscape architecture: "Basically, my mission is to broaden awareness of the uniquely syncretic potential of landscape thinking as a vehicle for cultural, political, and aesthetic analysis." And Foster's subject matter, which is both historical and contemporary, can sometimes also seem disparate. His dissertation-derived book, Washed with Sun: Landscape and the Making of White South Africa (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), examines representations of the subcontinent during the period of national formation. But he has also written about war memorials, urban parks, urban peripheries, mining landscapes, and national parks. Currently, Foster is working on a book project that combines urban research, fieldwork, and scholarly writing to investigate how film can mediate new kinds of environmental citizenship in post-Fordist globalizing European urban environments.

In his teaching, Foster looks for ways to introduce the "productive ambiguity" of the landscape thinking into his classes. In the end, he believes the ideal landscape design educator is not someone with a Ph.D. in a particular area, but someone "familiar with the various landscape epistemologies, and attuned to how the speculative oscillation between them can generate original ideas and effective strategies."

"This is, after all, precisely what we expect of students every day, in the design studios that are the backbone of their education," he says "Put differently, a distinctly 'landscape' way of thinking is always, theoretically and methodologically, aware of its own contingency and incompleteness."

By Aaron Goldweber

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