Sunday, September 26, 2010

Myth and the Monsters of Landscape Theory

As the practice of landscape architecture expands like a strange attractor in the binary universe of capitalism, folding in on itself while it ever-expands outward, an oft-heard question that bears repeating is:  how should we understand, conceive of and interpret the landscape?  
[Is this landscape architecture?  who cares?]

Perhaps McHarg would say that it is best understood as a pristine nature to be disturbed as little as possible.  John Lyle and Joan Naussauer would say it is a complex system to be interpreted culturally and managed scientifically.  Ann Spirn would argue that landscape is best understood as a language.  Denis Cosgrove and Christine Boyer, among others, would argue for understanding the landscape as a cultural product.  James Corner might call for reading the landscape as a narrative, Tom Leader as a palimpsest.  Charles Waldheim, and Pierre Belanger vociferously state that it is to be understood as infrastructure.

And all of these might be correct, in a specific location at a given moment.  Perhaps we don't need a framework beyond that; if each designer or group is competent in each of those methodologies, and can choose from them for any given project, perhaps that is just fine.  Unfortunately though, designers, clients and their concomitant critics usually fall back into metaphor as a way to sell an inane and costly intervention.  And lord, do we hate that.
[how, exactly, would you define this landscape?]

Readers of this blog will recognize the familiar bang of our favorite drum when we contend that the landscape is best understood through myth.  It is something we typically drone on about every couple of months, but permit us 1000 words while we try to expound on why we think this approach is appropriate.  (We should note that all of the above critics/theorists/practitioners and many more provide amazing insights and we recommend looking into their work, hence the links).

The difficulty with the above conceptual frameworks is that they are limited; ie sure, the landscape is infrastructure, but it is also a language, a cultural artifact, a product, a dynamic networked system.  It is literally all of that and anything else you can put forth.  There is nothing it is not, and there is no way to bound it (which is not to say that specific conceptions of landscape as palimpsest, artifact, narrative, ecology, etc are not useful at a given point in time).  So how is mythology better?  It is expansive.

Let's look at the definition of mythology (in the venerable oed):
mythology- the exposition of myth or myths

Not helpful.  Let's look at myth:
myth- a traditional story, typically involving supernatural being or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

Okay, that is understood and a common definition.  But this pre-post modern definition of myth(ology) dating from the 19th century places an undue emphasis on the notion of totalizing effects wrought through the common shared beliefs of a group of people.  In The Wasteland, TS Eliot creates a mythology, through allusion, to all of historical western thought (and much of eastern, insomuch as it relates to western).  The Wasteland is an epic in 433 lines, with something like 60 allusions to 40 different writers- bits of culture, broken up by the Great War, reassembled into a single frame, all reinterpreted.  As elucidated by Nick Mount, when Eliot writes in the epigraph that "I had not thought death had undone so many" he is alluding directly to Dante, using him to build a new world; one in which a crowd of people waiting outside the gates of hell has become a group of daily downtown commuters (24th minute)- goddamn modernity!  Throughout, Eliot shows that traditional, totalizing readings of ancient "narratives, artifacts, and palimpsests" are not appropriate now.  So let's refine the definition of myth.

Creatively, we look to Roland Barthes and his work Mythologies to better understand what myth is about in this post-modern world in which old meanings have come undone and, as Joseph Campbell insists, everyone must make there own mythology.  In it, Barthes describes 28 modern mythologies, ranging from "The World of Wrestling" (our favorite), to "Plastic", to "The Blue Guide" [of France].  He could just as easily written of George Washington Cable's New Orleans guidebooks or the myth of George Washington himself (as others have).

It is the last essay, "Myth Today", which is most helpful (though least interesting).  In it, Barthes states that "since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse."

Whoa!  This sounds like Ann Spirn; the landscape as language with multiple readings, not limited to descriptive observations (ie, the formal qualities of a tree), but also lending itself to multiple and dynamic narratives.  In The Language of Landscape, Spirn states "landscape has all the features of language.  It contains the equivalent of words and parts of speech- patterns of shape, structure, material, formation, and function.  All landscapes are combinations of these.  Like the meanings of words, the meanings of landscape elements (water, for example) are only potential until context shapes them."  This in turn, smacks of Joseph Campbell's assertions that "the ultimate ground of the individual character... lies beyond research, beyond analysis... intelligible character is unfolded only gradually and imperfectly through circumstance."

And this makes sense.  For Spirn, the landscape is language, and for Campbell [though he's not speaking about landscape, I will construe it that way] there is a dialectic between different characters, be it the landscape and a culture or an individual and a particular event (such as a war, or a barn-raising).  Landscape is forms, systems, patterns, yet it is also informing other characters in a larger story.  The meaning that comes from its constituents (places, processes, objects) is influencing something else, in a dialogue.  How is that to be understood?

Here, Barthes offers us a very ugly, simple diagram:

For Barthes, myth is a semiological system, as is language.  But he argues persuasively that myth is a meta-language, a second-order system of signs.  As such, it is both the specific structures, forms, and processes that make up a landscape and the "meaning" those have (number "3" in the diagram) but it is also part of a larger system of signs, an inflexion of and in the culture that created it.  It is not a commodity created or a narrative pieced together, it is not solely an artifact of a historical moment.  Rather, it is, but it is also then informing the ongoing dialogue, changing the patterns, structures, and lexicons.  It is the embodiment of a historical narrative or reality, but as that embodiment (that "sign") it becomes a character in a larger semiological system.  As Barthes states, "what must always be remembered is that myth is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity:  its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning... [and] motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth:  myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form."
[a barn-raising in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada]

Much more could be said (though not by us), but we think it is this expansive understanding of the landscape that may offer a conceptual approach that can keep us from hyperbolic en vogue conceptions of the landscape that only serve to ultimately limit both our understanding of landscape and methods for intervening in it.  To be sure there are problems with myth as a means for understanding the landscape, (though not limits).  Any quick survey of critical literature shows that conceptions of landscape are constantly redefined, and it is likely that we are now working during an incredible historical moment, one in which the landscape will figure just as prominently in our post-hyper-modern meta-narrative as the oceans did during the 16th century, monarchs in the 15th, industrialists in the 19th, or capitalists and engineers did in the 20th.  Perhaps our understanding will be up to the moment.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dog Philosophy and Maintenance Manuals

Today we briefly touch on the fascinating subject of maintenance manuals.  Given the ongoing maturation of landscape urbanism theory and the fact that some of these projects are starting to be built, it worth considering different ways for how all of this stated emphasis on "performative capacity and emergent conditions" might actually play out.
[some new landscape urbanism- the don lands competition for toronto by stoss]

Maintenance for public spaces today is based on the paradigm laid down during the aristocratic renaissance period and famously codified in the management of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles:  a professional master gardener who was heavily involved in the conceptualization and design of the landscape then dedicates his life to seeing to the management of this particular landscape, all at the behest of a Western European potentate and vision for the place.  This model has been only slightly altered in 400 years, mainly due to the specialization of professions and the altered face of the monarchy.

And though Diogenes would not approve, this is appropriate if you are working on a fancy park that is a generator for a real estate economy.  Take the High Line:  designed by a heady cast of imported characters, it is now managed by brilliant horticulturalist Pat Cullina and a phalanx of workers.  And here it works so far.  The problem arises because some variation of this same model is applied to all public parks.  In most cases, the design/er is not as sophisticated and the maintenance is carried out by lowly-paid and divested pubic employees who wander around the premises picking up trash and cutting anything that looks like fescue to the nub when they aren't sitting in the maintenance truck by the curb.  This necessitates that the design be tailored to lowest-common-denominator maintenance operations, and the park inevitably begins deteriorating at its inception until it is reconstructed with another half-assed capital project.
["I do not want to be the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like all the rest."
- Diogenes]

Well, a few years ago Craig Verzone sat down with Chris Reed, one of the loudest proponents of landscape urbanism.  At about the 42nd minute Verzone steers the conversation to the ways new notions of management might be put in to practice:

Verzone:  Do you think the practice of landscape architecture will ever develop a more long term investment with the actual project, with the actual site?  Because it's rare that we hear of conditions when a landscape architect is... contracted to make a maintenance plan or is take [the project] into three, four, five years after.

Reed:  It is very rare... you could say maintenance manuals are one step towards that; the problem is they're prescriptive and they don't allow for testing or responsiveness over time, and frankly they don't lay out a whole lot of if/then scenarios.  You could imagine a very creative maintenance manual that says "if this set of conditions emerge then you do this, or this, or this..."  

I think we tend to- in larger scale planning or design projects- we tend to lay that out at the beginning and look at those points, not only when a landscape architect might be involved in the maintenance or management of the landscape itself or the ecosystem, but also in terms of the public process- at what point might you bring the public back into dialogue as a portion of the project is built out to then get new feedback on the new project?  They can actually experience the project on a daily basis, and then somehow feed that information back into the framework for how the project needs to evolve through time.

He brings up good points, and then doesn't go into them any further- we would like to see how that actually happens.  We wonder what Reed might have in mind when he refers to "very creative maintenance manuals" that will integrate environmental feedback and public dialogue into a fluid, non-prescriptive management process for a landscape?  Perhaps the excellent "Rebuilding Central Park" would be a start, given the scope, scale, and cultural significance of its subject?  Or the cultural landscape reports generated by the National Parks Service?  We would look to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books from our childhood, now made even more interactive and "non-linear" thanks to software technology and theory.  Perhaps the maintenance manual becomes a computer program, one which starts with the solid base of documentation provided by a cultural landscape report and then incorporates data from the sentient-cyborg landscape and the socially-networked constituency that uses the landscape.  

An enormously complex task and, to be sure, one that would be inappropriate to certain landscape interventions.  But, as Verzone and Reed recognize, we must construct a theory of landscape maintenance and management, one that doesn't exclusively rely on a poor man's bureaucracy-infused imitation of rennaissance landscape paradigms and afflicted with disenfranchised and disinterested communities.  Landscape interventions that get away from massive initial infusions of capital, instead focusing on management and enabling agency among valued actors is one promising way forward for theoretical development and intervention in the landscape.
[behold, your future maintenance manual]

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Yesterday was the final day of the national ASLA convention in Washington, D.C.  We dispatched our southern correspondent, gentleman landscape architect-bait store-and-bike-shop owner H. Willis Montcrief to the event to take stock of the situation and offer up some insights and opinions.  The following is his report.

Well, since this here's a landscape convention, I reckon you gotta start with the site- the D.C. Convention Center.  This thang here is an abomination.  It's massive, it's expensive, and disorienting.  Like the Belvedere hotel described by Varnelis, it's like somethin' outta The Second Coming, a rough beast slouchin' toward Bethlehem to be born.  Movin' on, the ASLA did organize various field trips to interestin' places in D.C. such as "Virginia Hunt Country" and a boat ride up the Potomac River.  Of course, many of those came at an additional cost.  Let's do a back o' the napkin calculation:  you'r-a profession'l; you pay $550 to register, $250 to get here, $200 per night to sleep (4 nights), plus you wanna go on a coupla these here trips.  You're gonna pay over $2500 for the conference.  Is it worth it?  Let's take a look.
[the D.C. Convention Center.  It's even worse in person]

The sessions are pretty right on.  Each day you get two, and they are all over the map in terms of content- green roofs and public policy, retrofitting suburban strip malls, wild urban plants, management of institutional knowledge, inside the army corps of engineers.  That's just a slice of the first day.  There ain't no way you can go to all the good stuff there.  Of course, even the ones you can go to will leave you wantin'.  You'll be a big, dim carpeted room, the talkers will be up on the dais and a series of powerpoints will be flipped through like it was 1999.

Can you learn from them?  Yep.  A lotta info and opinions are presented, albeit after they're taken out of the pantry, scooped from the can, put into the bleached filter of professional decorum, and slowly strained into yur opened mouth.  But these guys and gals are good, and the research and opinions are serious and very often well-considered.  However, do you get more outta 'em than you would by occasionally readin' journals, surfin' the 'net, and talkin' about them with your friends?  No.

Let's move on to the expo.

I walked into the expo, vomited, got dizzied, and passed out.  When I came to, I was in the fetal position next to a neatly stacked pair of pavers in front of a brightly colored display while a smiling, middle aged man of great girth tried to give me his business card and a glass of unsweet tea (an affront).  As I sat up, all around me were brightly colored metal bars and drab, new-fangled materials formed into questionable objects.  As I stumbled through the rows, looking for that sweet, sweet neon gleam of an exit sign, I was assaulted on all sides by puffs of fog and tufts of grass-like substance, I stumbled over containers and benches of hideous proportions and materials, and was nearly undone by a giant display of prison/play equipment.  Sweet Jesus.
[the expo, no photos are allowed on the floor, lest you steal valuable trade secrets]

The expo is where you go if you want people to tell you about stuff that you can put places, I reckon.  It was a horrible, horrible scene- a cavernous subterranean room with a black ceiling and carpeted floor, gridded little plots for each poor entrepreneur there to push their product, and middle-aged, successful but unsatisfied professionals all milling about, trading little paper pieces and smiles.  Nowhere was there an example of someone who'd figur'd out how to use them products in a neat way, and there absolutely were not any places for materials and methods which weren't pre-packaged products.  Where was the creative reuse of pallets and recycled concrete?  Better yet, where were the tradesmen?  The welders, plumbers, machine operators?  I'm guessin' they had better sense than to come 'round and passed the afternoon with a cool one in one hand a fishin' rod in the other.

Seems to me that the industry expo is some kinda outgrowth of the state fairs and such, when farmers, ranchers, mechanics, manufacturers and the like would get together and show off their new equipment, techniques, and lines of produce.  They'd swap secrets and sell their wares, make good connections for the comin' year and education the resta the folks 'bout what they was up to.  That kinda changed with the auto industry and the spectacle of the car show.  Here Detroit- the corporations- flexed their muscles and wowed the competition and the regular folks with their ingenuity and power.  That was the start of the expo.
[the splendor of the Chicago world's fair]

The expo was always a place where you go for a day or two.  In that short time you learn all the latest innovations, you get wildly entertained, and you have a social experience.  It's cool to see and be seen.  In many ways, the state fair and the expo are kinda like the world's fair.  But like the world's fair, the expo seems ta have peaked in the 70's and despite material and technological advances and a wildly differ'nt social, ecological, economic, and political context, the expo is pretty much the same.  And when you're not showing cool cars and big 'ol heifers and tractors, but rather some shitty synthetic turf and concrete planters- yesteryears bricabrac scaled up- it just don't work at all.  No one likes it.

So to sum up, the convention center's no good, but the content of the sessions is.  The networkin' might make it worth it, except in those cavernous impersonal non-places whatever cool energy a nerdy group like landscape architects might generate immediately dissipates.  And the expo is an abomination at this point, 30 years past it's prime if ever it had one.

But I was thinkin- those folks up in Canada at the Reford Gardens gotta good thing goin' with their yearly garden festival.  They make new gardens every year, make 'em pretty cheap, and each one is an experiment in materials and construction methods.  And it draws people- both to help design and build 'em, and to come check 'em out.  If you figure in the cost of stayin' in these big cities and puttin' on these giant conventions (a weird little historical moment whose time has passed), then why not move toward havin' regional conventions with a national one every four years.  Heck, why not have a truly American one (includin' South and Central America) every ten years too.  And instead of havin' comp'nies come set up their dumbass booths and try to rope unsuspecting passersby into taking their business card, they could instead sponsor part of a garden, giving material donations in-kind and the equivalent of their salesman's expo expense account to an installation.  Piggy-backin' on the success of the ASLA green roof (which is pretty cool, and includes all sorts of monitoring of the systems up there) these installations would be small gardens, kinda like them up at Reford, each one showcasin' materials, thinkin' about themes, an exuberant exploration of the medium of landscape and the methodologies for intervenin' in it.  This kind of expo- a World's Fair writ-small, would delight visitors and educate the designers that come for the convention.  The only employment that comes out of these expos now is for salesmen.  Assembling expo gardens would employ designers, craftsmen and laborers.  We need less salesmen and more tradesman.

Now I reckon you could say that linkin' the conventions that closely with gardens could tumble the profession back to the front yard.  And that might be a danger.  We oughtta ask Claude Cormier and Chris Reed how doing the garden festival up at Reford worked out for them.  There's probl'y a lotta things that would have to be worked out- it would be hard and risky, which might be why the good folks at ASLA haven't done it yet.  And so we're left with a little suburban-style ASLA-ville for an expo.  We need to know our materials, and the products out there, but seein' 'em disembodied and strewn about the basement of a convention center like some kind of post-modern material freak show will not suffice.
[the excellent Safe Zone by Chris Reed and Stoss]

- H. Willis Montcrief

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Argentina's Future is Very Bright

In keeping with the recent theme of disgusting industrial canals in major American cities, a couple of interesting noticias have developed recently on the Matanza-Riacheulo in Buenos Aires.  The Riachuelo, as we noted here a few months ago, is a disturbingly polluted industrial canal bordering the La Boca neighborhood along the southern edge of Argentina's capital city.
[a precious little courtyard in La Boca, with its colorful little houses]

La Boca is a feisty barrio built on the backs of immigrant Italian labor and industrial shipping and manufacturing.  In 1882 the barrio seceded from the nation of Argentina over a labor strike, in 1935 they elected Argentina's first communist congressman, and it is the home to El Diego's home team- the renowned Boca Juniors.  The river that forms its southern border is also one of the most polluted sites in the world.
[La Bombanera, home of the Boca Juniors futbol juggernaut]

Some facts:
+The pollution of the Riachuelo has been a problem for over 200 years (the government first began promising to clean it up in 1811).
+Over 3000 industrial companies including tanneries, meat processors, textiles, and petrochemical companies dump their untreated waste directly in- 82,000 cubic meters every day.  80% of this comes from just 65 companies.
+Trash from residents is dumped directly in the river.
+The name Matanza-Riachuelo means "killing stream", drawing its name from the slaughterhouses and tanneries that populate the headwaters of the river.
+3.2 million people live in the watershed of the river, 1.2 million of which are poor.
+35% of residents do not have regular access to potable water and 55% do not have sewer service.
+Near a Shell Oil refinery there is a settlement named Villa Inflamable (flammable village); 50% of the children here have lead in their blood.
+13 informal settlements are located along its banks, including Villa Inflamable.

Because of bad governance by politicians, irresponsible residents, lack of municipal services, and wildly unregulated private- and very profitable- industry, this river is literally a symbol of death (the killing creek).  A government agency- Autoridad de la Cuenca Matanza Riachuelo (ACUMAR)- has been created to study the issues surrounding the river and to propose solutions and oversee their implementation. 
[the Riachuelo]

Given this situation, a couple of interesting developments are worth noting; one is the biggest of the big, involving huge sums of money and complex hierarchical bureaucracies, the other is not.  Last year, the World Bank was convinced that ACUMAR had its act together and was worth an investment of some U$840 million dollars to clean up the river, regulate polluters, and enforce the regulations.  An additional U$450 million will be available to provide social services.  It should be noted that the government of Argentina has over U$1 billion in international loans to clean up the river, with little noticeable difference yet.  The cleanup is estimated to cost an eventual U$6 billion by 2025 to completely clean up and regulate.
[Che, el carajo que tiren por el rio me quema el ojo]

In other news, supersudaca recently ran a workshop at the Centro Cultural Espana Buenos Aires (CCEBA) that was open to all interested students and professionals.  The workshop was organize around the notion of creating an image of a futures that are possible, positive, an innovative.  Titled with the cheeky name "Riachulo" (sexy river), the workshop functions to connect people around a specific issue with the goal of producing a specific, positive image to add to the cacophony.  The notion of an open exercise, structured around education and work , is a great adaptation of the charrette idea (normally an exclusive/elite club of academics and students) and a more tangible alternative to the abstract design competition.  

The direct, tangible steps, exhibited at the CCEBA combined with the massive power of bureaucracies and capital enabled by the World Bank and the Argentine government is a promising combination.  But then, "Argentina's Future is Very Bright".


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Landscapes of Fun: Labor, Hedonism, and Experimentation

This post wraps up our reporting on the Gowanus Canal, the Canal Conservancy, and the Canal Nest Colony.  By no means exhaustive, we encourage you to get in touch with us here, or go straight to any of the sources should you want to know more or simply verify the dubious provenance of some of our facts.  For our earlier posts on the subject see Part 1, 2, and 3.

The future of the Canal Nest Colony must be seen in the context of the other initiatives birthed along the Gowanus Canal in recent years.  In addition to the left over industrial uses- scrap yards, bus repair shops, concrete plants, and warehouses- the 00’s saw a wealth of endeavors by idiosyncratic communities emphasizing experimentation and education, labor, and hedonism.  In addition to the Canal Nest Colony, the Dredgers, the Oyster Farm, the Dumpster Pools, the Gowanus was also the site of the Spongepark Study and the Oyster-tecture Proposal and was made an EPA Superfund site.  The Gowanus Canal Conservancy, perhaps the most serious of these efforts, has even begun design work for a series of EPA and DEP-funded pilot projects in the vicinity.

In its capacity to attract creative/scientific agents the Gowanus Canal is a testament to the enduring ability of post-industrial wastelands to captivate the contemporary urban imagination, at least of those fortunate enough to have a bit of leisure time.  And that is a key point; livelihood is now divorced from labor, and the result is a massive portion of the population that no longer desires recreation solely in the form of repose and "healthful socializing".  While the consumption of public spaces and experiences- spectacle- is still the dominant mode of recreation, the efforts along the Gowanus Canal offer evidence that there is a desire for other types of recreation, ones that involve work.  The notion of leisure-work as a recreational activity is not a new one- hobbies have been around for a long time.  But given the repopulation of urban centers and the changes in the nature of livelihood-earning in recent decades, future public spaces should be programmed to allow people to exercise their creativity and knowledge in the form of labor, because that can be fun too.

Or not.  But it is difficult to imagine the Gowanus  Canal as a Hargreaves-esque fun park, or a Field Operations-like "lifescape".  Public spaces for leisure, mostly parks, are still being programmed according to the Olmstedian recreational paradigm (with a few tweaks to pay lip service to contemporary technology ecological issues) and this no longer completely fulfills the desires and meets the needs of the public.  
[this neighborhood park in Brussels, Belgium, offer residents a simple utility hookup and a staging ground to build a little storage facility and undertake projects.  Incorporating programming for people to undertake hobbies in this urban area where they can share resources, and work out the public/private accessibility issues of the garden seems to have created a vital and idiosyncratic urban space, as opposed to another park that has to be maintained and which no one uses]

As for the Canal Nest Colony specifically, this past week a new garden was installed at the end of Bond Street with the help of volunteers.  For the rest of the Fall, the team will be working with NYC Million Trees to get the donated trees delivered and cared for until they are installed with volunteer help in October.  Next year the composting operation will be fully functional all year, the seasonal nursery will be back, and the Chimney Swift tower that never was will be back on the docket.  New members and contributors want to try to create a floatable planter that could be anchored along the bulkhead CHUBs-style to help absorb small amounts of nitrates and petroleum.  Perhaps a study will be done of the plant communities that have colonized the banks and their horticultural and ecological value can be understood and publicized.  The energy and support of the Canal Conservancy will surely influence the direction, and the GCC will be working on related pilot-projects to retain stormwater, and new volunteers and teammates will likely contribute.  

At any rate the efforts on the Gowanus, nascent though they may be, are an example of city government agencies, local organizations, and groups of interested people doing some stuff together, at no cost to anybody.  It is evidence of human agency in many forms at multiple scales in the most ghastly locations, and testing ground to do something fun.