PLAN 74: Article
Spirn Books Win Multiple Awards

Daring to Look and The Granite Garden Honored

Anne Whiston Spirn’s recent book Daring to Look (University of Chicago Press, 2008) has won the 2009 Great Places Book Award from the Environmental Design Research Association, for advancing critical understanding of place and helping foster the design of exceptional environments.

It has also won the 2009 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies – a prize that recognizes books ‘that break new ground in method or interpretation’ – and it won an Honorable Mention in the 2009 PROSE Awards from the American Association of Publishers for excellence in scholarship.

Meanwhile, another of Spirn’s books, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (Basic Books,1984), has been recognized by the American Planning Association as one of the past century’s ‘100 Essential Books of Planning’.

Not a bad haul.

The more recent book, Daring to Look, presents never-before-published photographs and texts by Dorothea Lange, the great photographer of America’s migrant and displaced people. The title comes from a Lange quote: ‘No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually. I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves.’

Daring to Look looks at a single year – 1939, in the depth of the Great Depression – when Lange began to write her ‘reports from the field’, or general captions, as she called them. Her eloquent essays of pictures and words portray America’s massive upheaval and resettlement, its private greed and environmental degradation, its public miscalculations and its efforts to restore hope. They also preserve an extraordinary moment in history, capturing a country and a people suspended on the brink of cataclysmic change. ??

Daring to Look tells how Lange accomplished this extraordinary work and explores the mysteries of why so few of her 1939 photographs are well-known and why only four of her seventy-five general captions from that year have been previously published.

In addition to Lange’s general captions of images and words, the book includes an analysis of her innovations and methods and their significance, as well as an account of Spirn’s own journey to the places Lange photographed in 1939, what Spirn saw there, the people she met and what they told her.

The EDRA jury praised the book for its insights into the nature of American places and the continued relevance of Lange’s vision at a time of renewed cultural and economic dislocation and hardship. The book is also, they said, a significant work of scholarship and a valuable addition to the study of American cultural landscapes.

Spirn’s other recently-honored book, The Granite Garden, examines how important it is to understand the natural settings of cities – their air, earth, water, plant and animal life, and ecosystems – to create better, more habitable urban environments. In 1984, it won the President's Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects and remains a standard university text. In the Boston Globe, Ian Menzies said it ‘deserves as wide a readership as Silent Spring’.

Anne Spirn is a professor of landscape architecture and planning with a joint appointment in the departments of architecture and of urban studies and planning. She has an international reputation as the preeminent scholar working at the intersection of landscape architecture and environmental planning, credited with playing a seminal role in applying theories and principles of ecological landscape design to urban areas. In 2001, Spirn received the International Cosmos Prize for ‘contributions to the harmonious coexistence of nature and humankind’.

Since 1987, she has directed the West Philadelphia Landscape Project linking landscape design, community development and urban storm water management through an action research program that integrates research, teaching and community service. The project was cited as a ‘Model of Best Practice’ at a White House summit in March 1999, and Spirn received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to begin a book about the project.

Spirn received her AB from Radcliffe College and MLA from the University of Pennsylvania. From 1979-1986 she was on the Harvard faculty, serving as Director of the Landscape Architecture Program there from 1984-1986. In 1986 she moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as Chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning and Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program.

She is currently involved in a new initiative at MIT in landscape and urbanism, exploring how landscape and design can redirect contemporary urbanization. The effort is centered in the school’s Joint Program in City Design and Development, a collaboration between the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Department of Architecture, also involving the Center for Real Estate and the Media Lab.

Intended for students of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and related fields, the initiative is focused on landscape intelligence – analyzing the forces that shape the built and natural environment and using that understanding to design strategic solutions to the most pressing environmental and social challenges of our time – including climate change, renewable energy, water conservation, landscape toxicity, deindustrialization, environmental justice, adaptive reuse and the design of cultural landscapes.

For more information on that program: web.mit.edu/landscapeurbanism/. For more information on The Granite Garden and other work: www.annewhistonspirn.com. For more information on Daring to Look: www.daringtolook.com.