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.


  1. The Bryant Park Project is privately funded, but maintains a public space. This could be worth mentioning as the discussion carries on about private companies investing in the public sector...

  2. thank you for the suggestion, ryan. We will certainly talk about that type of project/initiative. Private/public partnerships in terms of funding and maintenance but also design process and strategy will be addressed, likely in the second week of April. Please check back if interested, and feel free to raise any points, leave any comments, or point out any ommissions.