The philosopher John Locke in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” stated that the human mind at birth is a complete, but receptive, blank slate ( “a scraped tablet” or “tabula rasa” as it is literally defined ) upon which experience imprints knowledge. Anotherwords, our entire resource of knowledge is gradually built up from experience or sensory perceptions of the outside world.

There is also the architectural or landscape “tabula rasa” modernist theory that everything must be original, arising from a clean slate.  This was advocated by Le Corbusier. Knock down the old, and in with the new.

In her excellent text on “Form and Fabric in Landscape Architecture”, Catherine Dee states four reasons for the inappropriateness of the tabula rasa approach. With the tabula rasa approach there is an ignorance of sustainability, an absence of context, precedent and history to the site.  There is a lack of sensitivity to the ecological value of established vegetation and lastly, it ignores the uses and meaning of the site for the local people.

The question arises philosophically...Can you really begin anew without some evidence of the past? All things are created in context with the past. All creations come with a precedent, a history, which in some way influences the next recreation, generation or iteration.

In Ian Mcharg’s seminal text “Design with Nature”, he argued against the arrogant and destructive heritage of urban-industrial modernity, a style which he described as "Dominate and Destroy."  He sought to interweave the worlds of the human and the natural, and sought to more fully and intelligently design human environments in concert with the conditions of setting, climate and environment.

At Jacob Javits Plaza in Lower Manhattan is a public space that has evolved through four, now five iterations in the last thirty years. Originally an open plaza, Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" was installed and became a lightning rod in commissioning site-specific art.  After court-ordered removal, traditional benches and planters were installed until Martha Schwartz redesigned the space. While many praised it's design, others were radically opposed to it.  Now it is in the process of being demolished and Van Valkenburgh Associates design is currently under construction.  While all designs were site specific, could we consider the treatment of this landscape as “

tabula rasa?"

2012 design by MVV Associates, © MVVA