Presidential Lecture: Iowa State professor explores critical landscapes

AMES, Iowa -- There's more to landscape architecture than moving dirt and planting flowers. It's an intellectual field and a critical activity that grounds our lives in place, says Mira Engler.

The Iowa State University landscape architecture professor will discuss her ideas on critical design and present examples of her work during the fall Presidential University Lecture. "Critical Landscapes: From Pork Barrels to Otherworldly Dumps and Gardens," will be at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6, in the Sun Room, Memorial Union. A reception and poster display will precede the lecture at 7 p.m. in the South Ballroom.

Engler says the discipline of landscape architecture exercises practical, ecological, socio-political and aesthetic sensibilities with critical judgment to create productive, equitable, healthy and enjoyable places for human use.

"In critical landscape practice, designers are critics and physical design is in itself a mode of criticism," Engler said. "All human space -- particularly public space -- is infused with activity and intentions, tension and conflict, freedom and oppression, politics and ideology."

She says critical design probes beyond why a place is shaped the way it is or how it functions.

"Critical design also asks what is the message behind the form or space? Whose aesthetics are used? Who is included in this place? Who is excluded? Who will benefit from it? What did we give up to make this place?" Engler said.

During her presentation, Engler will demonstrate this mode of inquiry in her built and theoretical works of the past 10 years. The lecture will form a collage or ensemble of work and ideas woven together.

Engler's work has achieved national and international recognition. Her "Otherworld Garden" design was one of 14 chosen for the Westonbirt Festival of the Garden in the United Kingdom in 2004. Her proposal for rehabilitating the Hiriya landfill in Israel was a part of an exhibition on "Reclaiming Metaphors Out of the Dump" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1999. Engler earned national awards for "Rural Reliquaries" in the American Society of Landscape Architects' Visionary and Unbuilt Landscapes Competition in 1995, and for "Outdoor Waste Furniture Show" in the ASLA's Movable Landscape and Site Furnishing Competition in 1994.

"My work has sought to uncover existing layers and histories of place, both natural and cultural. It respects the past and present," Engler said. "It gives full consideration to existing buildings, spaces, uses and users, and -- when needed -- gives them new forms and functions. This approach enables the creative protection of places."

Some of Engler's work has involved the rescue of sites that carry a stigma -- places inflicted with abandonment and waste. Such sites play an important role in preserving cultural diversity and memory, she said.

Her 2004 book, "Designing America's Waste Landscapes," unravels the significance of closed landfills and sewage plants and endows them with new uses. The book focuses on societal ideas about waste, waste-handling practices and their physical manifestations at the margins of society. It examines the complexities of these sites, reviews efforts to sanitize the city and disguise waste sites, and proposes alternative designs.

"My aim is to elicit the contradictory destructive and constructive powers of these landscapes and to help us see their potential for future use," Engler said.

Her talk will include a brief account of recent physical urban developments in Des Moines and her concern about some urban processes dominating the city, which she has expressed through public art work -- the 2003 "pork barrels" installation in the East Village.

Engler has a bachelor of landscape architecture degree with honors from Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, and a master of landscape architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She is pursuing a PhD in architecture and urban design from the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Presidential University Lecture Series highlights faculty excellence in learning, discovery and engagement. Iowa State faculty members are chosen by the university president to present lectures from their areas of expertise on topics of interest to students, faculty, staff and the general public. This lecture series is organized by the Office of the President with funding from the Miller Endowment, Inc., established through the generosity of the late E. Wendell Miller, and the Committee on Lectures (funded by the Government of the Student Body).