Lessons from Kazakhstan, lessons from the inside…

 

Eckart Lange

Should we all rethink and investigate what we could teach and learn out there in the real word rather than in lecture theatres, studios, seminar rooms, laboratories etc.?

If asked, most people would perhaps say that Landscape Architecture is a profession that allows you to go outside a lot. However, from my own experience I would say that Landscape Architects tend to spend most of their time inside, in fact to a good degree in front of a computer screen.

A few weeks ago I was in Kazakhstan at a UK-Kazakhstan workshop on rural energy. The workshop took place in the quiet period between the end of the spring semester and the start of the autumn semester. I.e . during a period of time when most academics have an opportunity to go on holidays. After it became clear that a trip to Kazakhstan started to materialise the natural reaction of my wife was why on earth are you going to Kazakhstan (and she was probably thinking, why on earth aren’t WE going somewhere, e.g. on holidays instead of going to Kazakhstan).

Personally, I have two reasons for going and there is no priority whatsoever among the two. First, I find the ‘…stan’ countries quite fascinating, as they sound a bit like exotic and uncharted territory. Of course, for those of you that have been there or who know about these countries, this is an impression that was perhaps true some centuries ago. Only because I/we do not know about something does not mean others do not know about it either. In particular, of course, the people from Kazakhstan will know their country really well. On the other hand, and just to put things in perspective, while we in Britain proudly discuss the advantages of the HS2project eventually connecting London with Birmingham via hi-speed train, in Uzbekistan the Tashkent to Samarkand high-speed rail line is a 344-kilometre (214 mi) high-speed rail connection that connects the two largest Uzbek cities already since 2011.

In the case of Kazakhstan in particular, a good number of us will have heard of the new capital Astana rising high from the Kazakh steppe (I did not make it to Astana so cannot sing any hymns on the architecture nor can I tear the architecture style apart), many of us will have heard of Team Astana and a few will have heard of the fabulous landscape of Kazakhstan with endless Steppe and very high dramatic mountain landscapes featuring rare species such as snow leopards and bears. A few years ago I read a book by Jon Krakauer on the dramatic failure of guided trips to Mount Everest. One of the guides who survived at the time was from Kazakhstan and I wondered then about the topography, having to correct my image slightly when realising that the Kazakhstan mountains are by far higher than anything in Europe. Second (in case you have forgotten, the first reason was the ‘…stan’ countries), the workshop topic was in an area where I have some experience and that I find very interesting. So, third, the combination of both is pretty much ideal.

Not to get too much side-tracked, my starting point was that I was really curious to see the mountains close-up, but that was impossible as we as workshop participants were more or less locked in a large conference room of a top hotel in Almaty. Fyi , Almaty has 1.7m inhabitants which is about 10% of the Kazakhstan population. Not only that we were locked in the conference room, it seems that there is a universal pattern of conference rooms without any windows. The same applied to our Almaty conference room. Fortunately, the hotel itself did have lots of windows with about half of them facing towards the fabulous mountain panorama. And of course, worse comes to worse, there was no time of going anywhere other than on a short trip to the Kazakh steppe north of Almaty where a new solar power plant had been installed. My suggestion to visit a hydro-power project in the mountains would have ticked the renewables box as well, in addition to my personal mountain box, but of course last minute changes to conference itineraries cannot be accommodated. Those who ever organised a conference know what I am talking about (especially when it comes to some great ideas and suggestions from clever conference participants). In my particular case the fixed itinerary of course did not help me. First of all, I had to go to the Steppe (when in fact I would have preferred mountains). Second, solar power, isn’t really something that excites me that much anymore. The whole South of Germany where I am originally from, is full of it, and you can see it either on every roof or in dedicated solar farms.

There are two lessons to be learned. If you only go for a short business trip somewhere, the likelihood that you are going to see what you really want to see is close to zero. I.e. that means one should take just a bit more time, in these hectic times, remember the workshop was in holiday period and I still did not have my holiday by then. But also it seems we as landscape architects, landscape planners, landscape researchers etc. we tend to talk about our subject, to model our subject, to visualise our subject (my domain …) without hardly ever having the time to go out and explore the real world. This includes teaching as well. Landscape could in large parts be taught as a field-based domain, but the opposite is the case. We stay inside pretty much most of the time (as I did at the Kazakhstan workshop, which was btw. a fabulous experience and a huge success in cross-cultural collaboration).

Should we all rethink and investigate what we could teach and learn out there in the real word rather than in lecture theatres, studios, seminar rooms, laboratories etc.? Ok, you could say, it is raining and miserable today (and you are probably right given the time of year), but how about going out a little more frequently on not so miserable or even sunny days?

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