In contemporary designed environments, responsive technology seems to stop short at enhanced entertainment value. The “lights, cameras, action” approach to responsive environments is one in which landscapes and architecture try too hard to engage us, by lighting up or emitting sound as we approach, for example. This approach seems dulling, rather than evocative, because most landscapes already respond to us, in shifting patterns of shadows or in changing pressures of material beneath our feet, without mediation by technology. It is a welcome relief, then, that Cantrell and Holzman’s book, Responsive Landscapes, collects precedents of responsive technology in landscape that go beyond interactive entertainment value and advance the ongoing discussion in design fields of the dialectic between site and nonsite.
Many have written about the design process, production, and aesthetic potential of digital technology for landscape architecture, for example, Carl Steinitz’s A Framework for GeoDesign, Christopher Beorkem’s Material Strategies in Digital Fabrication, and Jillian Walliss and Heike Rahmann’s Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies. Yet there are few texts about responsive technologies that change how landscapes function.
Responsive Landscapes is organized in two parts: three initial chapters discussing theories of responsive technology and landscape to establish a theory of “digital ecologies,” followed by six chapters of precedents grouped according to the role technology plays in the project. Cantrell and Holzman understand the innate responsiveness of landscapes, independent of technology. They write, “Landscapes are inherently intelligent, the biologies that comprise landscapes have their own individual behaviors, logics, and reasoning that allow these systems to evolve through connectivity and response” (41). They further suggest a future of cyborg landscapes, meaning landscapes in which responsive technology solves real dilemmas or enhances landscape systems. The authors’ evocation of a cyborg landscape is not unlike the medical theories of a brilliant and polemic figure in digital culture: Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first optical scanner and a proponent of what he calls the “singularity.”1 Kurzweil’s singularity is the pervasive, biological fusion of human and machine within the human body. He predicts the singularity will occur within the lifetime of those reading this book review.