Tuesday, May 25, 2010

War With the Newts or, the Makers of Margins Will Rule

This post is part of the collective reading of The Infrastructural City hosted by mammoth and is about the fourth chapter titled "Margins in Our Midst" by Matthew Coolidge, of the excellent Center for Land Use Interpretation.  It concerns the Catholic Church, Newts, and the possibilities inherent in the investment/extraction binary.  If you feel up to it, check out mammoth's earlier piece on the topic.  

The most striking passage of "Margins in Our Midst" is the last:

"California is the leading consumer- as well as producer- of aggregate in the nation.  These holes may be owned by Vulcan, Hanson, United Rock, or the Catholic Church, but they are holes we all dug together.  For every pile there is a pit, for every pit a pile."
[the bizarre and subtle cover of Karel Capek's book]

This phrase is eerily reminiscent of that fantastic dystopian sci-fi satire The War with the Newts, a book whose wonderful, dark, and clever story I will now reduce to two lines:  Humans find the next perfect technological solution to their terraforming needs- Newts!  whom they immediately master, putting them to work as slave labor.  It opens up a golden age of industry and commerce until the newts turn the humans' strategies against them, methodically carving up the land for their own purposes, playing different nationalities and ethnicities off of one another, before eventually subjugating the humans and their lovely dry land.  On page 234, as the newts are making their way in from the coast lines and beginning their inevitable assault on the inland territories, a conversation takes place between two characters, after one has spotted a newt in the Vltava River in the heart of the Prague:

'So men will serve the Newts.'

'That's right, if you want to call it that.  They'll simply work in their factories as they are doing now.  They'll just have different masters.  When all's said and done, it mightn't be all that different...'

'And you're not sorry for mankind?'

'For God's sake leave me alone!  What can I do?  It's what people wanted; they all wanted to have Newts, commerce wanted them, and industry and engineering, the statesmen wanted them and the military gentlemen did.  Even young Povondra said so:  we are all responsible for it.  Of course, I am sorry for mankind!  But I was most sorry for it when I watch it rushing headlong to its own ruin.'

And yet, perhaps that's a bit bombastic taken out of context.  Prior to the last statement, "Margins" gives an interesting if somewhat inchoate survey of the different mining pits of and operations of Irwindale and the social and ecological dynamics they render on the landscape.  Mammoth previously noted that these landscapes of extraction are fundamental to contemporary society.  In fact, they have been always been a fact of urbanization.  These landscapes are typically found at the edges of cities, or cities are founded at their edges.  Their exploitation- the extraction of their resources- allows for investment at the margins of these gravel mines, rivers, forests:  constructing buildings, irrigating farms, building roads.  
[urban center in the kingdom of kush; the associated pit is
somewhere around here...]

[the pyramid of the sun in teotichlan, Mexico
along the Way of The Dead]

In Irwindale, as Matthew Coolidge notes, both municipalities, non-profits, and business enterprises are having difficulty figuring out what to do with these left-behind pits.  In part, they don't immediately lend themselves to contemporary uses and patterns.  Yet, their privileged location at the periphery of the city, in this case Los Angeles, and the fact that they demand innovative uses if they are to be used at all promises the chance to invert the extraction/investment binary.  

Thinking about the city as a human and capital resource to be exploited or extracted and possible new uses as the unique attractor for the capital, can Irwindale reinvent itself, creating a more complex and diverse relationship with the city?  Can the quarries allow the city to create a system of huge lakes, creating a water storage system and bourgeoisie recreation area for LA’s rednecks?  Maybe a series of industrial grade orquidearama’s could be built for the world’s albinos?  Maybe Irwindale can grow down the side of the pits; the cliffs become apartment armatures and ant farm-style office buildings?
[who wouldn't want to live under one of these?]

The author alludes to the deviant/creative activities that occur in the recreation zone alongside the Santa Fe Dam.  Could landscape architecture, or design, lend some purpose or structure for the creative repurposing of these zones reversing the extraction/investment binary?  Perhaps the newts could live there?


  1. So who's the newts? Seems like you're making a pitch for the recuperacion of the pits, but which group of people do you see doing so?

  2. That's a good question!

    The newts are a cautionary tale and if I had to choose, I would say the newts are "machines", or the idea of hi-tech, mechanized interventions, which is why I'm skeptical of most of the projects brought up over on DPR-barcelona.

    A lot of those come out of the 70's and glamourize/fetishize hi-tech interventions and architecture.

    I would say a more promising estrategia de recuparacion is offered by landscape ecology. I would bring in Kristina Hill, Joan Nassauer, Steven Handell, or Richard Forman and look at larger strategies for the region ,which is of course what made the pits in the first place as described by M. Coolidge, though they were almost purely short-term economic in focus. That, and the fact that we can see from the photos that some of the pits are already retaining water, are why I mentioned possibly tying in to a water strategy for the region.

    As an aside, I think some promising developments could come out of the "interstial recreation zones" and the patterns of use and intervention that are currently forming around these areas mentioned by Coolidge. Though the author didn't elaborate there, I think that those patterns are probably idiosyncratic and interesting in that they are cultural uses adapted to the conditions of that zone and while they may not be desirable according to certain values, they could perhaps offer a way forward that is more about investment in the place and seeing any new intervention as an outgrowth of specific site characteristics and cultural values.

    okay, that's all the buzzwords I know. Sorry I had to resort to that, I just don't know the place, and there is only so much to glean from the essay.

  3. If the site was just existing before the mining, we could probably just let it exist again. However, if absolute productivity is necessary, lets make it a lake and farm raise some fish