Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Role of Terrain Vague in the Creation of Cultural Mythologies

the new feelings
will rise up
like fake blood
in crisp October
from the cracks
and the edges
of the graves
of our proudest moments
that's not a monument
it's a grave

the new feelings will probably be buried here too

               -the Dirty Projectors (The Glad Fact)

When the late Catalonian architect Ignasi Solà-Morales Rubió first applied the term terrain vague to the city he defined it as focused on "abandoned areas, obsolete and unproductive spaces and buildings, often undefined and without specific limits". He maintained, despite the tendency to search for ways of reincorporating these spaces into "the productive logic of the city", that their value was actually in their state of ruin and lack of productivity, that only then could they exist "as spaces of freedom that are an alternative to the lucrative reality prevailing in the late capitalist city". Well that's all well and good, I think. But to understand what that heady and loquacious philosopher was saying, one must really go to Staten Island. Alas.

On Staten Island we find Fresh Kills, that landfill-cum-park that embodies the fascinating social and environmental issues discussed at length by Elizabeth Meyer in her essay "Uncertain Parks". But that is not what we are concerned with, as it is not (nor was it ever) terrain vague.

Just a short stroll down Arthur Kill Road from Fresh Kills is the Staten Island Boat Graveyard, documented so well on Opacity. Here, in the armpit of Staten Island are deposited dozens of decaying, hulking ships' hulls (I counted 114 on Google Earth), all rusted and rotting, dragged here by the City of New York at the end of their useful life.

["lined up", three rotting ships]

["the Bayou Plaquemine"]

["wide", indeed]

The graveyard is difficult to access without a canoe, surrounded by marshy no-man's land, situated in an inlet between Staten Island and New Jersey. Here the ships can go to die in peace, spared the fate of fetish-ized glamorization so often prescribed to relics from our industrial past. In the absence of a preservation or commoditization impulse, they slowly rust away, collapsing on one another, depositing their iron and chemicals into the water and sediments of the inlet, bearing witness to the changes in a city that has passed them by.

This graveyard is an example of Rubio's terrain vague; an abandoned area, obsolete and unproductive without defined or specific limits. Considering Rubio's declaration that these places are valuable in their own right as "spaces of freedom that are an alternative to the lucrative reality prevailing in the late capitalist city", the question arises: what is appropriate here? Dismissing preservation and commoditization as antithetical to very idea of terrain vague, is there another approach, another language which will allow us to understand the cultural significance and environmental legacy embodied here?

Here at FASLANYC, we think that these places should be understood in terms of myth, where the landscape is personified and in dialogue with cultural context, forming the fabric of the cultural milieu. Peter Jacobs examined just this sort of relationship in his beautiful essay about the Canadian forests, "Folklore and Forest Fragments: Reading Contemporary Landscape Design in Quebec". Here the dialectic relationship between the land and culture is examined within a specific context in mythological terms. The forest is characterized as a being, with exploitable potential, that influences and inflects the people and culture that exist with it. Thoreau recognized this importance of this dialectic in his 1862 essay Walking when he stated, "A town is saved not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it."  Terrain vague should also be understood in these terms; the blessing of something previously bad.

This understanding opens the boat graveyard to a more varied cultural reading than the simple capitalist binary of consumption/disposal (that is, either commoditize it or keep it hidden away). This approach allows for the possibility that the iron-rich sediments could be harvested for ocean fertilizing, perhaps the steel and wooden hulls can act as an armature for specially designed reef balls which will provide habitat for species that can help detoxify the environment; industrial ecology strategies can be applied to repurpose the pollution and waste as opportunity.

As David Longstreth envisioned, new feelings will rise up from the cracks and the edges of the graves of our proudest moments, because it's not a monument. It's a grave.

[all photos from Opacity by Tom (Mr. Motts).  Please check out the entire series.  Also see thiscityismine for another great photographer of "terrain vague"]

Two new developments here at FASLANYC; beginning next week we will be taking part in an initiative spearheaded by the folks at mammoth.  It is shaping up to be a schizophrenic and idiosyncratic exploration of Varnelis' The Infrastructrural City including some excellent and prolific bloggers:  dpr-barcelona, free association design, two contributors to the polis blog, nam henderson, quiet babylon, and 765.  With so many smart folks chiming in, we'll stick to what we do best- petty, snarky commentary and intermittent posts.  Look for more details at mammoth this week if you're interested.

Concurrently, during April we'll be doing a four-part series on public agencies.  We've tended unfairly pick the low-hanging fruit and lambast those bureaucracies here at FASLANYC (and with good reason).  However, considering some comments regarding the recent interview with Kate Orff, recent bold moves by the DOT and other agencies in New York City, the initiative of private practitioners to get involved with large infrastructural projects, and the general emphasis on infrastructure in the contemporary discourse, it seems a good time to examine a bit of the history and politics, highlight several little-known and innovative agency initiatives in New York, and discuss possible future models for collaboration and innovation between agencies, private firms, and research and academic organizations.  If you have an idea or issue you think should be included, please send an email or leave a comment.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Conscientizaçao of the Landscape: An Interview with Kate Orff

Recently we had the chance to sit down with Kate Orff of Scape Studio, whose Safari 7 exhibition we reported on here last October. On March 6th she presented the paper "Jamaica Bay as Catalyst" at the MillionTreesNYC Symposium and this Wednesday, March 24th the Rising Currents exhibition at the MoMA will feature their "Oyster-tecture" proposal for negotiating sea level rise in the New York Harbor, along with those of four other teams.

[a mature oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day;
used as a landscape strategy, they are dispersed and scalable]

[changing environmental conditions are repurposed as
opportunity, in this case to restore the formerly flourishing
oyster beds that filtered the waters of New York Harbor.]

[the use of lo-tech, highly sophisticated strategies; fuzzy
rope with calcium deposits attracts the young oyster "spats"
serving to jump start the establishment of oysters]

Scape Studio has established itself in recent years as one of the most agile and interesting practices in New York City, one that is particularly concerned with environmental and social justice issues.  Part research team, part design office, part professor, they are busily building partnerships among teams of professionals, researchers and policy makers while simultaneously seeking to demystify the professions, encouraging the citizens to take an active part in the rethinking and remaking of their built environments. Realizing that new models of work- research, design, and implementation- are needed alongside the conventional methods for effecting change, they are actively seeking out and testing new ways of doing new things.

We sat down with Kate Orff to discuss their recent work, the trouble with traditional models in the current economy, the value of scale and connection in landscape strategy, and current trends and trajectories of landscape practice.


FASLANYC: It seems like at Scape you are constantly blurring boundaries, both laterally in working with professionals- blurring those differentiations in roles between science and art- as well as vertically where you involve constituents in new ways.  All this while aggressively trying to create your own projects by doing research and trying to convince people that "this should happen".

KO: Yes, that is true, and that's happening right now. I was just visualizing what you were talking about and it's true that there is this science-art spectrum and each project falls somewhere along that line. What's been very important to me is- and I think this has been magnified by the economic crash- that way of working having to do with the capital-intensive mindset of "make a set of drawings, someone bids the drawings" is going to get tired fast in terms of a methodology. It is also very limiting, in terms of your role, because you're in this box. I've started to learn that in a couple of ways; one is this certain methodology and way of working that pertains to an elite institution and an elite client and as soon as you change one of those variables it just doesn't work.

I’ve been in poor areas in Louisiana and in places like that the idea of making change just has no relationship to that methodology. You have to be smarter than that. You have to figure out new ways. It’s a tremendous challenge in terms of ideas and a tremendous challenge in terms of representation. That’s one of the things I’m trying to work on right now, to push this representation aspect of it.  The notion of this opaque high design and drawing doesn't work, and at the same time neither do diagrams and thought bubbles. So this process that your describing, I'm trying to put that together, to find that sweet spot on the spectrum.  It’s something that we did with Oyster-tecture and it's something that we are trying to do now with a project I’m calling Cancer Alley located in a super toxic zone in Mississippi. But I think your question is right on in terms of what is interesting, what is new in landscape: how do you work and how do you engage? How do you get past just being a respondent to a brief?  We have to respond to briefs too- which we do at Scape- but we are trying to find that new sweet spot between science and art and top-down and bottom-up methods.

FASLANYC: The practitioners of landscape and architecture are historically very conservative in terms of models of practice, and there's a reason for that- it's largely effective. But I get the sense from you guys you are trying to figure out real models for new ways of practice.

KO: Yes, we are trying. I came out of a tradition of feminist theory and sculpture. I don't want to say it is radical but it is a philosophical approach, and then I went into landscape. So I don't come at it from a service point of view but a process point of view, for better or for worse.

FASLANYC: So in that particular model, what is the value added of the designer, where suddenly the boundaries are blurry? If they are undefined it is hard to figure out what each contribution is worth. It seems that must be one reason most firms try to stay away from it- because it is hard to figure out.

KO: Yes, that's true, and everything is a commodity [in that model]; your design services are a commodity, but our way of working isn't really a commodity. It is really about trying to change something, which has no value except changing it in a certain better direction. So in terms of the authorship question, it’s also very blurry. I feel like I’m the author of certain processes. But those processes are also the product at the end and it's not necessarily clear what one does with that.

The value added of design in its ultimate form is synthesis and this notion of integrative thinking. There are lots of different trends in the world- climate change is happening, extreme loss of biodiversity is happening, urbanization is happening- and at some big level there is a failure to connect the dots. When I go into a situation that is what I’m trying to do, and I feel like that process of thinking across things and making connections is the design. Whether or not that is a value in terms of money, I doubt that. But that is the real value. In the Cancer Alley Project one person there is able to connect the dots between the chemicals the companies are dumping, the jobs being created, who lives there, where do they go, what's happening to the ecosystems, and I feel like that is major value added- that person who connects those dots in design terms. And I think that is why I gravitate towards landscape too, instead of architecture, because in a way landscape is a rubric which allows you to grab everything.

So with Oyster-tecture the value added isn't that we provided a plan that someone can like or dislike. We provided a way of thinking about the harbor, a way of thinking about resetting relationships, of using biology and life as a strategy for changing things and we provided, I don't know if you would say a vision, but a trajectory that would be useful to more broadly thinking about New York and the harbor and its cultural relationships. So I think that's value added but it’s actually the opposite of being commoditized. Someone couldn't hire me to do that in any kind of particular brief. That was exciting about this project. I was able to have conversations with people that were at a different level than "design as organization of elements in space" level, so that was good.

FASLANYC: Yes, well, that makes sense.

KO: I don't know if that makes sense (laughs).

FASLANYC: We were having a discussion on that topic [at faslanyc] and I was trying to say that our value added was in the role as generalist-craftsmen, though I have a bias towards things that are made. Nonetheless, if you expanded that definition a bit to say that you were crafting a vision or a process or an object then there are some parallels.

KO: Yes, I think that is interesting in terms of things that are made but I also think about it in terms of scalable units. The oyster; in this case, we are just starting with the one animal. It's kind of kooky, but it scales up from there in the same way that community-based design or ground-up design would. Rather than thinking about things that are made, we are thinking about tools that are provided.

FASLANYC: So it sounds like to me that you’re talking about architecture as enabler- an enabler of processes or social or commercial interactions or transactions? Architecture can take the form of these objects or oyster reefs or spaces but you’re looking at it in terms of processes it enables or catalyzes. Is that fair to say?

KO: I guess so. Landscape architecture is about a both/and situation, at least in my own experience. I’m going to do the cd sets and take the registration exams and have the argument about the detail, which I think is really important in terms of professional authority.  But I try to take on the other role too, which has a little to do with that but has to do with making change; making things that make change.  That second realm is less about making things and more about this larger trajectory, about scaling up towards some change over the long term, as opposed to implementing the capital-intensive masterplan, for instance.

[the Gowanus Canal as "flupsy"- a FLuid UPweller SYstem]

[the reef serves to dissipate storm energy and attenuate the
waves before they reach the shoreline; they also provide
create new habitat and filter water in the harbor]

FASLANYC: Yes, I think we are simpatico in terms of approaches on reconstructing the built environment, especially in terms of what is appropriate at this moment.

KO: I wrote an essay on Jamaica Bay.  It talks about Jamaica Bay as a case study of what we're discussing.  Jamaica bay is kind of the butt of America, or at least of New York; all the waste goes there, the sea level is rising, there are huge bridges, waste treatment plants; it's a poster child for big modern infrastructure from the 1920’s until now.  And you realize that there is nothing you can do that is big which can engage it- all the big stuff is done.  So then the only way to change anything there is to do a billion small things, dispersed and coordinated within that watershed/sewershed.  That was important for me because there was this moment when I realized you can't answer the question with the same old answer, you have to change the question.

FASLANYC: Like what Einstein said?

KO: Yeah, whatever that dude said.

That was a revelation for me because I feel like Jamaica Bay is this moment where everything comes together in terms of the kind of landscapes we are going to have to deal with- all the salt marshes are gone or going, the water chemistry is radically changed by estrogenic compounds which are turning all the flounder to female- it's this landscape, this water landscape, which forces you to realize there is no one park project or bridge that would be able to even touch this place.

FASLANYC: It seems that, regarding new ways of conceiving projects and approaching problems, there are parallel trends in other fields such as technology where things are generally becoming more diffuse and dispersed.

KO: Yes, there are definitely some parallel trends, and I think the worry with those trends- and maybe this circles back to our value added question- I think that scenario could go very well or very badly.  You would have to curate that process to some degree in order to have a desired outcome.  I don't have any qualms about saying that we need to increase biodiversity, to enhance social justice.  I think there would just be some things that you would put on the table as goals.

I have also thought about the Obama campaign in that vein. When I was writing this essay, I was thinking "we need to agree about the value of Jamaica bay as this piece of salt marsh infrastructure for the city."  What is the cultural value of that?  We have to get on board that this is of value and not just a sewage pit, and then there can be a lot of micro-actions that build up to changing towards that goal.  That’s one thing I've thought about in relation to other fields, because that certainly happened as a phenomenon in politics that I thought was very inspiring.

FASLANYC: So these issues could be addressed by top down measures when necessary, but they would be both supplanted and supplemented by smaller, dispersed, bottom up strategies? Because in situations like Jamaica Bay the capital-intensive interventions don't suffice as the only outlet for affecting change?

KO: Yes. Another big problem is there is a dearth in the ability to create a compelling narrative about the environment. One of the things that drives me completely bonkers is that I passed these tests that show I know how to drain water to catch basins and make ADA guardrails but I’m not asked to engage with things that are really dangerous like "can I dump hazardous waste in this pit and just cover it with clay"? I think that we have to be much more radical, coming at it not as landscape architects but as the cultural custodians of the environment. It drives me to a furious state that there are massive toxins in the environment, but they are at a different scale and we're not even in the room.  It is totally frustrating. I would say the same thing with the pattern of development. That is the trouble with being in the box, with providing design services for the capital project, working within the market economy; we are limited in our ability to address policy and the way that land is organized. We are definitely caught in this constrained, powerless way of operating. I get very agitated, as you can tell.

FASLANYC: Speaking of toxins and cancer-causing chemicals in the environment, that relates to an article I read recently in Places by Tom Fisher. He was saying that designers- he was speaking of architects- typically practice according to the doctor-patient model where a person comes to you asking for a service and you provide them with that service for a fee. He was pointing out that the medical field has another model- the public health model is what he was calling it- where you set policy and proactively seek to intervene.

KO: Yes, I think that is really good. I wish I had thought of it (laughs). But yes, it seems like there is this call and response thing that is just not really working at a certain level.

FASLANYC: But there is a difference; with public health everyone agrees that we at least put some money toward that, whereas regarding the environment we are still not in agreement. So it seems to me, though you don't call it the public health model, that Scape is cobbling together the professional model, the ngo model, and the academic model in whatever way provides an avenue? Or maybe it's very strategic, but I would assume that it's wherever you can get money? There's an emphasis on being agile and diverse, it seems.

KO: Yes. I would say that it is strategic in terms of pursuing interests that we have, but I didn't set out a defined way of doing that.

FASLANYC: But you have the Urban Landscape Lab and teach at GSAPP. How did you end up there and how does that work inform what you are doing at Scape?

KO: I met with Kenneth Frampton. He had written this paper called "Toward an Urban Landscape" which I read in grad school and I thought it was a great paper. I was introduced to him and I told him what I was working on- he's this very generous, intellectual man- and he was like "why aren't you teaching here?" I said "I don't know; many reasons, I suppose".  I had a week and I put together a syllabus and I then I was introduced to Bernard Tschumi who was the dean at the time and he hired me.  For me, teaching at the GSAPP is incredibly interesting because I’m not in a department of landscape.  That is compelling to me as a way of working because I get to bring to the table an attitude, a knowledge set, skills, and point of view that is particular.  It is more of a horizontal model where I get to work in a variety of ways in the school and not just be the person that teaches a certain class.

FASLANYC: And I assume that there is some crossover, that some of your former students now work at Scape?

KO: Yes, several.

FASLANYC: So beyond that how do they inform one another?

KO: I haven't really thought about it because it's so much about design, which sounds simplistic. But it's about design as a way of thinking; I work with students through this design curriculum by leading these studios, and then I work in my office by leading design processes in the real world. I’m sure someone else has a better answer, but for me that is it.

FASLANYC:  I actually assumed there was a much more sinister and complex reason behind it.

KO:  I wish.  But I actually think that is good to separate them out.  I’m the same person, just in a different context.

FASLANYC: Well that's very noble.  I'm taken aback.

KO:  No, I wouldn't say noble.

Another thing that I use the studios for is investigating starting points.  Many schools start with what is essentially an rfp: "design a park according to this program".  I ran a studio called the New Zoo Studio where I gave each student an endangered animal and that was the starting point for the project and the most amazing work came out of it.  That has nothing to do with Scape, but it was a question of how do you open of something that is interesting and have this discussion on a different level.

Columbia has also been important to me in that it allows me to take some risks because I have this teaching job.  I feel like I can fail.  I think that is also interesting; failure is fine in many ways, important. If the office fails or if teaching fails it’s just another way of moving forward.

The Rising Currents exhibit will be at the MoMA beginning this March 24th until October 11th. MillionTreesNYC will be making many of the materials and research presented at the recent symposium available at this website. Lastly, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) will be placing some of the boards from the Safari 7 exhibition up in place of those ghastly advertisements for face peels and cheap flights to Puerto Rico plastered all over the subway walls.  A limited amount of MTA passes will also be printed with the Safari 7 logo. Get it one if you want, but definitely take the 7 train- it's an interesting ride.
[the edge of the Gowanus Canal is planted strategically,
creating social spaces and reducing runoff pollution]

[the oyster reefs, pilings and fuzzy rope are merely catalysts;
the focus of the design shifts from the constructed piece to
the biological processes; the "unit" is the starting point, as
opposed to the site plan]

[Note: The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was the site of Kate Orff's Oyster-tecture proposal. A good synopsis is here. The idea of using simple fuzzy ropes to guide the creation of bivalve habitat that will help mitigate rising sea levels and attenuate storm surges is particularly timely and a great example of a "Lo-fi landscape". While the bivalves work hard filtering 50 gallons of polluted water each day, the new Superfund work on the Canal will be aimed at dredging the sediments. Meanwhile, the "Spongepark" of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy will be working to filter and retain polluted stormwater otherwise pouring into the Canal (which is actually the main current polluter of the Canal). If all three of these initiatives can clear the litigious hurdles and be made to act in concert, there is a real chance that the Gowanus Canal will be a thriving, industrial, constructed ecological social space for the next generation.

Conscientizacao as used by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the influential theorist of "critical pedagogy".  The term refers to "learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.

All images courtesy of Scape Studio.]

Sunday, March 14, 2010


        It was just a little while ago

      almost dawn
      blackbirds on the telephone wire
      as I eat yesterday's
      forgotten sandwich
      at 6 a.m.
      an a quiet Sunday morning.

      one shoe in the corner
      standing upright
      the other laying on it's

      yes, some lives were made to be

      - Charles Bukowski
[the unfortunate Charles Bukowski]

The modern paradigm in landscape architecture is the creation of leisure and beauty for the passive user. This mandate doesn't come from within the profession but exists in a dialectic with cultural expectations.  Joan Iverson Nassauer explores this relationship at length in her work on the interface of the cultural expectations and landscape ecologies.

However, this is not another rant about how we need to incorporate work into the landscape processes (much to the disappointment of my tens of readers). Instead, what I'm interested in today is what landscape architects can learn from the work of Charles Bukowski, that hideous, disgusting man.

The above poem was written by the man. We here at FASLANYC don't read much and so can't offer pithy insights but we can say that we like it. It is so direct, so honest, so devoid of hyperbole and in true Bukowski fashion it ends with a gut punch, a punch which doesn't leave you writhing on the floor, but makes you realize just how hollow you are on the inside. And he's talking about himself.

Bukowski was many vile and interesting things, but there are 3 themes in particular where landscape can learn from his work:

1. the ability to take the nasty, the damning, the painful, the destructive- much of it self-inflicted- and make it meaningful, interesting, alive, and sometimes beautiful (without privileging beauty).

2. utterly embracing the underbelly of the American Dream.

3. he was prolific.

Regarding the first point, landscape architects claim to be working on this, and admittedly a few are serious. These tend to be people who have the protection afforded by institutional support. However, the majority of the professionals that even acknowledge our environmental legacy merely employ the rhetoric as a disingenuous marketing strategy. This can be understandably attributed to market realities- what people are willing to pay for. But it is also an approach that is spear-headed by our professional organization ASLA in licensing and lobbying practices.

The second point is related and largely ignored. Living his whole life in Los Angeles, Bukowski was particularly suited to relate this nasty side of the American Dream. I've never been forced to go to L.A., praise god, but it is undeniable that it is the true American City: located at the edge of manifest destiny, the source of unmatched luxury and squalor, choked with its own excess, an unparalleled combination of environmental beauty and degradation, the epicenter for illegal immigration and unbridled ambition. It devours the dreams of the masses that flock there and remakes the broken into gods if only they'll give up their souls. It is American in a sense that is larger than the United States; it is todoamericano. Bukowski captured this honestly, and even if I couldn't specifically relate, it was interesting.

Lastly, Bukowski was prolific. He wrote. He wrote about writing. He wrote about failing at writing. He worked at it, and was thoughtful, but he didn't create precious works. He didn't work himself into a Proustian sweat fussing over a single work, a picture of life observed from the other side of an ornate fenestration. He lived a life, admittedly a vile one, and then he wrote about it.

We here at FASLANYC are fascinated by what may be wrought by an embracing of the Bukowski mentality among landscape architects and we think it is particularly relevant today. We need new attitudes, new models to confront the challenges facing us- exponential loss of biodiversity, extreme environmental degradation and pollution, and rapid global urbanization.  Trying to reconcile and proactively engage these issues while working under the beauty and leisure paradigm will not do.

One example of this, briefly mentioned here before, is the Red Hook Farm in Brooklyn. We emphasize this farm to dispel any fears that a Bukowski-scape would necessarily be filled with disgusting old drunk perverts. Profiled in the USDA publication Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-Being through Urban Landscapes (available here for free), the farm is one example of embracing this mentality.

The farm, sprouting like a bountiful ailanthus from a blacktop park, doesn't negate the nasty legacy left behind by previous decades. It uses it- soil was spread out over the asphalt expanse, a greenhouse was constructed by volunteers, schoolkids, and interns, compost is brought in from local restaurants and food is sold to them. Programs focus on school kids in the area and the space is open to anyone during operating hours. During the summer the farm partners with farmers from outside the city to run a farmer's market. And it grows; from 1,000 square feet of raised planting beds and after school programming 7 years ago, the farm now has 40,000 square feet, composts over 80 tons of waste per year, runs programs for 7,200 school-age kids, and a CSA for 40 families.

The Red Hook Farm is a Bukowski-scape. It takes the nasty, the damning, the painful, the destructive- much of it self-inflicted- and makes it meaningful, interesting, alive, and sometimes beautiful.  It utterly embraces the underbelly of the American Dream- the legacy left post-WWII urban policies, by drug and crime economies, the undefended communities harmed by classist and racist initiatives and by self-destructive tendencies.  And it is prolific- the farm is growing, and not just producing more food, but expanding social interactions, forms of recreation, education and work, and diversifying local economies.
[intern from local school working the beds,
photo courtesy of "efbrooklyn13" on flickr]

[greens for farmer's market and local restaurants,
photo courtesy of "hbomb" on flickr]

[greenhouse built on the old blacktop park, Red Hook Farm.
photo courtesy of "ledthread" at flickr]

Landscape architecture should get over our Proustscape fixation and embrace this Bukowski mentality. There are great examples of this, notably the work of Achva Stein in that very same Los Angeles 20 years ago (for which she was the first of two landscape architects to ever receive the Chrysler Design Institute Award. The second? James Corner).  This type of work should get more attention than who-the-hell-ever's recent pretty park-as-commodity promising to boost real estate values. And not because of some bullshit altruism, but because beauty is beautiful, but it's just not that interesting.

Just ask Bukowski.
["it's not that interesting"  - Charles Bukowski]
Information about Red Hook farm from USDA "Restorative Commons" resource cited above and from conversations with Added-Value director Ian Marvy in January 2010.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Corner Broadcasting Company

[Since the opening of the High Line in New York City, James Corner Field Operations has been going gangbusters gathering big commissions across the continent, the most recent being a 2.8 billion dollar green infrastructure project in Atlanta and the new civic space in Santa Monica, California. FASLANYC recently moderated a discussion on these projects as well as the other recent commission won by Field Operations, the Cleveland Public Square. Drawings have been released for the Cleveland project and so it is the subject of more criticism. Also discussed is FO's expanding influence and trends in their portfolio of built work.

The critics are our very own Don Roman de la Mancha (DRDLM) and a guest critic demanding to be called Big Smoove (BS).]

[James Corner, 1996, just before vomiting]

BS: Field Operations is literally exploding all over the map right now, and they've recently won major commissions in the Southeast, Midwest, and the West Coast.

DRDLM: Es verosimil que estas observaciones hayan sido enunciadas alguna vez y quiza muchas veces; la discusion de su novedad me interesa menos que la de su posible verdad.

BS: Have you seen the Cleveland project? That rat bastard!!  1996 James Corner would never stop vomiting if he could see that proposal. He would fill up one trash can and then grab the next and just keep going. Jesus God!

DRDLM: Cotejado con otros libros clasicos, el Quijote es realista; este realismo, sin embargo, difiere esencialmente del que ejercio el siglo XIX.

BS: Oh-ho, Buddy! It's a mean bastard of a park, a ge cross between bad modernist design and a parametric wet dream from sophomore year. There is no context, no acknowledgement of the constant shade on the southern end or the larger connections within the city. The river? The lake? Who cares?

[Cleveland's Public Square with cloudy sky and misty buildings,
rendering by Field Operations]

DRDLM: Joseph Conrad pudo escribir que excluia de su obra lo sobrenatural, porque admitirlo paracia negar que lo cotidiano fura maravilloso: ignoro si Miguel de Cervantes compartio es intuicion, pero se que la forma del Quijote le hizo contrponer a un mundo imaginario poetico, un mundo real prosaico.

BS: And the renderings? They show Cleveland badly photoshopped in a surreal and dreamy state!! Mists arising from the bio-morphic hill with a backdro of beautiful buildings!! Jesus GOD!!  It's the glossy manifestation of the most heinous theses of DeBord's Society of the Spectacle (#'s 59, 169 and 170).

DRDLM: El plan de su obra le vedaba lo maravilloso; este, sin embargo, tenia que figurar, siquiera de manera indirecta, como los crimenes y el misterio en una parodia de la novela policial.  En la realidad, cada novela es un plano ideal; Cervantes se complace en confundir lo objetivo y lo subjetivo, el mundo del lector y el mundo del libro.

BS: Field Operations has really mailed it in on this one. Jesus! And the papers and critics are all too happy to give them a free pass based on the recent success of the High Line. Never mind that the High Line had a construction budget of 130 million, accomplished architects Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, planting design by master gardener Piet Oudulf, the full support of the affluent community of Chelsea, and is a tightly controlled and highly maintained public space. The architecture critics of the LA and NY Times (and most others) gloss over this in their relentless boosterism of the shiny and beautiful, but it has to be considered in a place like Cleveland.

DRDLM: Tambien es sorprendente saber, en el principio del noveno capitulo, que la novela entera ha sido traducida del arabe y que Cervantes adquirio el manuscrito en el mercado de Toledo, y lo hizo traducir por un morisco, a quien alojo mas de mes y medio en su casa, minetras concluia la tarea.

BS: This weak offering stands in contrast to their work out on Staten Island at Fresh Kills. Also, it is the opposite of the small, thoughtful and elegant project recently profiled here on FASLANYC, the CHUBs project located on the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland just a few blocks away from Public Square. There are other wonderful initiatives taking place in Cleveland such as those over at the Cleveland Land Lab where they are proposing models for building cities that aren't based on growth. Corner's is not one of them.

DRDLM: Ese juego de extranas ambiguedades culmina en la segunda parte; los protagonistas han leido la primera, los protagonistas del Quijote son, asimismo, lectores del Quijote.

BS: The Atlanta Beltway project is more difficult to critique as there are not yet any substantial design documents released. However, based on the fact that this project more closely resembles FO's Fresh Kills Park and not the High Line, it is promising. The processes taking place over on Fresh Kills are unique and it is there that FO is doing significant work.

DRDLM: Es conocida la historia liminar de la serie; el desolado juramento del rey, que cada noche se desposa con una virgen que hace decapitar en el alba, y la resolucion de Shahrazad, que lo distrae con fabulas, hasta que encima de los dos han girado mil y una noches y ella le muestra su hijo.

BS: It will eventually be seen as one of the great travesties in early 21st century landscape architecture that FO is garnering more praise for the High Line as opposed to Fresh Kills. As noted over on mammoth on their influential "architecture of the decade" piece, it is at Fresh Kills that FO is constructing new urban ecologies and putting into practice their influential theories of landscape urbanism. Their work on the High Line however, is nothing more than a modern mashup of 1980's landscape theory- the landscape as image.

DRDLM: Las invenciones de la filosofia no son menos fantasticas que las del arte; Josiah Royce, en el primer volumen de la obra The World and the Individual (1899), ha formulado la siguiente: "Imaginemos que una procion del suelo de Inglaterra ha sido nivelada perfectamente y que en ella traza un cartografo un mapa de Inglaterra.  La obra es perfecta; no hay detalle del suelo de Inglaterra, por diminuto que sea, que no este registrado en el mapa; todo tiene ahi su correspondencia.  Ese mapa, en tal caso, debe contener un mapa del mapa, que debe contener un mapa del mapa del mapa, y asi hasta lo infinito."

BS: The proposal for new park in Santa Monica is also unknown at the moment. LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne is obviously pleased that Corner will be working out there. But the scope and scale of the project is closer to that of Public Square or the High Line and for me that strikes an ominous note. There is, of course, a learning curve to anything. It is not surprising that he is proving more adept at large scale planning and design given his prior scholarly work. Perhaps he will quickly learn the intricacies and nuance of specific site context and realize that conceptual ideas are merely an organizing principle for any given project and not an underlying truth; the landscape is not reducible to a concept.

DRDLM: La obra es perfecta; no hay detalle del suelo de Inglaterra, por diminuto que sea, que no este registrado en el mapa; todo tiene ahi su correspondencia.

BS: However, hubris is the enemy of learning, and while long renowned for his pretentious intellectual attitude, it is now reaching a new level. In a phone interview he and Mr. Hawthorne were discussing the new Santa Monica project. When discussing the budget, Corner had the temerity to remark of the 25 million dollar budget that "it's hardly generous, but it's not bad". Well, excuse us, Mr. Corner. Excuse us for not having 130 million to throw at a project!! Excuse us for putting only 25 million toward the park in the middle of the worst recession in 80 years when forced furloughs, state budget crises, home foreclosures, and long-term unemployment are all common place.

DRDLM: Ese mapa, en tal caso, debe contener un mapa del mapa, que debe contener un mapa del mapa, y asi hasta lo infinito.

BS: Maybe you won't be able to use glass railings and weathered steel extensively!! Oh, Jesus! What will you do if you can't bring on Piet Oudulf and Liz Diller??? Sorry we can't roll out a phalanx of high society patrons for every project that you do. Jesus, God!!! I'm all for spending money on public space, but whining about project budgets for public spaces, especially when your only significant experience is designing for the elites in the rich cities of the world, is weak sauce.

DRDLM: Por que no inquieta que el este incluido en el mapa y las mil y una noches en el libro de Las mil y una noches? Por que no inquieta que Don Quijote sea lector del Quijote y Hamlet espectador de Hamlet? Creo haber dado con la causa: tales inversiones sugieren que si los caracteres de una ficcion pueden ser lectores o espectadores, nosotros, sus lectores o espectadores, podemos ser ficticios.
["Stranger than Paradise", Jim Jarmusch, 1984.
Hip New Yorkers out of place on the shores of Lake Erie]

BS: The dichotomy in Field Operation's portfolio is striking. The quality of his smaller projects do not measure up to the larger projects, which show show real promise (based on previous academic work and the initial stages of Fresh Kills Park). I don't fault FO for going after various kinds of work; in fact I applaud the initiative to move towards a general practice encompassing various typologies. But, lord, I hope their work doesn't keep getting a free pass. They are obviously a well-connected and capable group, especially Mr. Corner. But they are lined up to do a huge disservice to Cleveland, and the locals seem to be naively excited about this weak sauce being served them.  Field Operations is doing some excellent, significant work.  But they are also doing some bad work.

DRDLM: En 1833, Carlyle observo que la historia universal es un infinito libro sagrado que todos los hombres escriben y leen y tratan de entender, y en el que tambien los escriben.

[The above was edited for clarity by FASLANYC]