Active at Every Age: Women Who Changed the World at 30, 40, 50, 60, and 70
Vogue, October 2046
by Anna Weinberg
Vogue caught up with Embodied Landscape pioneer Jordana del Feld in her atmospherically decaying Belle Epoque apartment in the Recoleta barrio of Buenos Aires as she was packing to fly to New York to give a lecture at her alma mater, NYU, and then to California to visit her son, an astrophysicist at SpaceX. Jordana’s spritely spirit and still-lustrous long white hair belie her 70 years.
Jordana, first of all, thank you. You pioneered a grassroots movement that literally brought the developed world back to its senses. The early twenty-first century sounds like it was a complete nightmare. Without women like you, we would all be walking around like undead zombies.
Well you’re welcome, Anna. And you’re right. Life was intolerable back then. The pendulum had swung way too far in the direction of tech monocultures. The computer was king back then—I know it sounds implausible now, when we’ve learned how to tap into somewhat more of the vast latent powers of our own brains, but computers were used for everything. Because of this, the 1% of the population who ran the computers, usually young rich white men, got 99% of the world’s resources, and there was nothing left for anyone else. I was living in San Francisco and later Seattle at the time, and life looked more and more like Bombay. A world of billionaires and beggars and nothing else. Nobody wrote with their hands, nobody drew with their hands. Nobody spoke with their voices because they sent messages on their little hand-held computers instead. Nobody met friends in person because they got little empty-calorie quasi-friendly bytes from people they connected with through the computer. Millions, even billions, of jobs disappeared because of computers. In fact most of the jobs I had trained for disappeared because of computers…I planned to be a newspaper reporter, but then computers put newspapers out of business. I was a radio dj, and then computers put radios out of business. I spent a lot of money and time becoming a film/theatre/exhibit designer, but computers put me as a draftsman and model maker out of business. Libraries went out of business. Doctors went out of business. Small merchants went out of business. Houses and gardens were not designed by people, but by computers, and as a result, we had fewer and fewer public and private spaces in which we could feel our humanity and reconnect, with ourselves, with one another, and with the real world around us. Back then you would have had to have specified “the natural world” in that sentence, that’s how bad things had gotten.
Would you say that everything that we now consider the rich fibers of society and why so many of us have stayed on this planet despite growing colonization on Mars was, at that point, either seriously endangered or already bludgeoned into extinction?
I sure would. Renaissance healers like me, who in another age would have been valued as the saviors of the tribe, were penalized and marginalized at every step by a society that only valued a tiny slice of one special kind of intelligence, that I just didn’t have. But by valuing that special kind of computer-programmer intelligence and steamrollering out every other kind, and using that kind of intelligence to run the whole world (and, by extension, design the whole world), we created a world of unhappy, unliving, unconnected people who were depressed and touch-starved and fat and didn’t know how to hear their own bodies. We had epidemics of loneliness and depression, we had sicknesses that could have been avoided or minimized by body awareness, movement, and the higher t-cell counts that go with social interaction and touch, we had empty directionless purposeless people. We had welschmerz of pandemic proportions.
Jordana, what was your dream for the Embodied Landscape Movement when you began it?
First of all, Anna, I hardly considered it a movement when I began it. It started as everything starts in this life: as a response to frustration and suffering! People think they’re motivated by pleasure, but they’re motivated even faster by pain. [Pauses.] —I was already 40 when I began. I had already had a hard life, marked by continual, exhausting struggle. And it began in landscape architecture school, because at the time we didn’t yet have a label for Somatic Naturalism. (You have to remember—this was the dawn of the 21st century, and most people were not in their bodies back then.) I didn’t want to go to landscape architecture school in Seattle, I wanted to be a dance teacher in Buenos Aires. But I was drowning in debt from my prior grad school, I couldn’t find steady paying work of any kind, not even awful jobs, and, most of all, I had a little boy. Even if his father would have allowed me to take him, which he never would have, I could never have taken my gentle little Aquarius to Argentina. He’d have been dead in five minutes, hit by a car, or kidnapped, or at least beaten up by the local kids. I needed some reasonable hope of being able to provide for him and for myself on a steady basis, and I moved to Seattle so that his father and I could continue splitting custody of him: his father worked for Google (an early forerunner to Zenith), and there was a Google office in Seattle. But at the last minute his father decided he didn’t feel like moving to Seattle, so he stayed in San Francisco with my little boy. He also decided I couldn’t have my little boy for the summer either, because he (the father) would miss him. So I spent my time in Seattle heartbroken and full of nightmares, but I was helpless, because according to California law at the time, I was a criminal. I had broken the law by leaving San Francisco, the city of his father’s residence, and by doing so I lost all rights to my child. But if I stayed in San Francisco…well, I couldn’t go on welfare because I hadn’t had a real job, and I couldn’t live in the homeless shelters because they were all overflowing. I didn’t think living on the streets with the crack addicts was a good example to set for my son. So I started a new life, and it was really hard. But all that suffering just made my work more immediate and more meaningful.
My dream for the Embodied Landscape Movement, as you call it today, was that we could heal the individual and society by providing meaningful somatic, physical, energetic interactions with public spaces. (We added private spaces later because they paid well, but the gestalt was originally public.) It was like group therapy.
Can you give an example?
Well, I always valued real materials. Back then, everyone was drowning in smooth surfaces. Smooth concrete sidewalks, smooth acontextual jungle gyms that bore no resemblance to anything you’d find in nature, windows that didn’t open, smooth flat buildings that had no connection with the outdoors. I stole a lot of ideas from the Japanese; I liked shinkenryoku years before it caught on with the rest of the West, I liked their “health paths” (stone and pebble walkways in public parks) that promoted healthy feet and good balance, I liked a public playground in Seattle that was made up of real trees that had been worn smooth by so many feet climbing on them. I liked sand to walk on, tree branches to grip, bare feet. I hated chairs and tables and was actually terrified of returning to school because I knew I’d be expected to sit a lot. I liked herbs that smelled and plants that made food. I preferred goats to lawn mowers. When I arrived in Seattle I was mesmerized by the symphony of the wind wafting through the tree leaves, because it’s not a sound we had in San Francisco. I loved that sweet apples literally fell from the trees. I wanted people to feel, with their bodies. If a design element didn’t viscerally connect with me, tactile, olfactory, auditory…if it didn’t help me focus and organize my energy into a rooted, easy, sustainable harmonic balance with myself and with the natural world, I didn’t use it. In fact I tried to undesign. I tried to stay out of my own way as much as possible and let nature take its course as a conscious choice.
And that was how we ended up with spaces like your Urban Wilderness in downtown Barcelona, your Children’s Musical Farm in Mendocino, and your Forager’s Climbing Maze at Harvard University. Jordana, you’ve always considered yourself primarily a dancer. How does dance figure into it all?
[Chuckles.] Haven’t you read my bestseller autobiography, Dancing About Architecture? It’s all the same stuff. Dance and somatic naturalism…as you get older, Anna, you’ll realize that we only ever learn one big thing over and over, but in lots of different ways. —It was really painful, not being able to dance as much as I wanted to. But that just meant my designs had to dance for me. They had to make other people feel. Dance is the art of organizing, focussing, rooting, and connecting your energy. Embodied landscape design is the same, but on a larger scale, and instead of just you, you get to do it for lots of people at once.
So true. Jordana, thanks so much for your valuable time. I just have one last question. What would you say is important and unique about landscape architecture?
When I arrived in Seattle I bought an old copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with beautiful illustrations, and as soon as I had done that, I suddenly understood that this was what was special about landscape architecture. It’s our chance to go into the woods and bring rational balance to the emotional world. In the symbolic language of theatre and of literature, the language of the subconscious, the natural world is like our animal selves, the anima, the irrational world of feeling and instinct. Landscape architecture is the art of organizing our conscious, rational, intellectual selves into harmonious balance with the morass of everything we cannot put into words. It’s the art of allowing each side of humanity to bring out the best in the other, and as such, create environments that will bring about the same in everyone who experiences them.