Sunday, November 28, 2010

La Salada Sagrada

Last weekend while lazing about resting on our laurels, we received a cryptic cable from DRDLM saying only: 

Que vengas ya!  Me vuelvo histerico, that’s why it smells the way it does.  – DRDLM (fiorito).  

Knowing that he was on assignment in Buenos Aires investigating the new developments in landscape design and trying to track down Max Zolkwer of Supersudaca, we grabbed our passports, a fistful of pesos, donned our lucha libre masks and headed to JFK International Airport.

“Fiorito” was the name of the villa where the great Diego Maradona grew up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, so we began our weeklong search for DRDLM there.  When we finally got to him he was babbling and frenzied, riding a child’s tricycle around and around with a dunce cap on like a hairless Russian bear.  Once he finally calmed down (it took copious amounts of argentine steak, wine, and Pall Mall cigarettes), he recounted some of what he had seen which we have translated and summarized for you here.  This post is the first in a two-part series on new developments in landscape in Argentina.
[DRDLM on assignment in Argentina; image courtesy of Monkeyworks]


The Feria La Salada market is the largest, most dynamic commercial economic zone in the city of Buenos Aires and the biggest informal market on the continent.  It employs over 6,000 people and draws over 20,000 visitors each day it is open, many of whom come in the 200 buses bringing people from all over the country just to shop at the market.  Over U$ 500 million annually is moved by the market.  Located on a formerly abandoned strip of land along the Matanza Riachuelo River on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the market is informal, illegal and absolutely critical to the well-being of thousands of families.  It also provides consumers who come from all over the country with the consumer goods that are too expensive in western-style shopping malls that have proliferated throughout the city in recent years.  And it is a point source of pollution and degradation for the beleaguered Matanza Riachuelo River.
[Feria La Salada at night, a bustling and fraught economic zone]

Begun 20 years ago by Bolivian immigrants, Feria La Salada grew exponentially when the economic crisis of 2001 forced huge portions of the population to the economic margins.  It is still growing.  The layout of the market is based on small rentable units that face onto streets running parallel to the river.  This almost-modular layout is essentially an extendable, flexible land use system that allows for every kind of vendor from shirt salesmen, cobblers, and fry cooks to set up easily, customize their space with a sign showing prices, and present their goods to the multitudes streaming by on the hard-packed dirt streets.  Its success is directly attributable to low prices- futbol jerseys here can be 1/10 the cost of a similar product from a store in the city center. 

The success of the market and complete lack of municipal regulation has subsequently given rise to a particularly economic strategy for growth- take the garbage generated by the market, dump it in the river along the banks, build on top of it when it’s high enough.  Of course, this short term solution creates more pollution in the river and a precarious building situation for vendors occupying these stalls, both of which work to undermine the long-term success of the market. 
[the bridge on the right is one of the main access routes into the Feria La Salada, bringing people from the field where the buses park, across the Matanza Riachuelo River on the old railroad bridge along an ad hoc pedestrian walk cantilevered off of the far side]

Current expansion strategies for the market include the beginning of regularization of activities, including the creation of a bus depot, a cinema and other entertainment facilities, and creating more credit mechanisms so that vendors can capitalize their operations and the market can begin to open for more days each week.  Simultaneously a new watershed-wide effort is underway to clean the Matanza Riachuelo, an effort that will certainly influence the future of the market and the way it grows and manages its activities.

One glaring question arises as a starting point:  why is the market located on the river?  Did it offer some advantage?  Was it due to some peculiar socio-economic or physical aspect of the environment?  And in the future, how might the effort to clean up the river work in concert with the need to address the accessibility and physical stability of the market?  (Why, through the landscape, of course!)  What are the lessons that can be taken from the ecological processes of the river basin?  And is there any way to make it so the smell of the Matanza Riachuelo at this area doesn’t induce vomiting?  Because vomiting is bad for business.

Key physical issues and possibilities exist here at the confluence of the most polluted waterway and the most dynamic and precarious economy in the whole region.  If entertainment programming, new areas for expansion, increased biodiversity, decreased pollution, and improved access are what is desired the Matanza Riachuelo must become a protagonist in that effort.
[the river provides the market with little more than landfill space, the market does little more than dump whatever can't be sold here]

So sayeth Don Roman De La Mancha.

Monday, November 22, 2010

NU v. LU: It's all Copacetic

You may or may not have heard of the recent dust up between proponents of “New Urbanism” and “Landscape Urbanism”.  Jason King over at Landscape+Urbanism has been following the proceedings and we suggest you check in there if you want to read a thoughtful, well-written series about middle-aged, elitist white guys lobbing softballs to one another to drum up interest in their particular political game:

- ok, Charles, here you go.  Now remember what we rehearsed.
- got it, Andres.  I’m sending it right back to you. 
- just be sure not to pop out to shortstop like last time.
[andres duany, devastating all landscape urbanists with his chiseled features]

It’s not that interesting.  Though each side brings up their points (and each side has good points) it’s less an academic debate and more an awkward slap fight between pubescent boys that leaves passersby befuddled and confused.  Whenever the game heats up this way (and by “heats up” we mean gets extremely GSD-centric, old white man-centric, hermetic, and anti-septic) we look for a way out, preferring instead to spend our days exploring urbanism’s nether regions.  Two of our favorites, which we hope to see more on, are the idea of “landscape ruralism” and F.A.D.’s “embodied urbanism” (this one in particularly is exciting, capturing a lot of new urbanism’s relevant ideas about scalar relationships between the built environment and the human body without the over-reliance on formulaic application of concept, without privileging sentimentality, and without proposing the city as a series of spaces and experiences to be consumed).

But today we want to head in a different direction- Magical Urbanism.  That’s right.  Now, you might think this has to do with the Kafka-esque literary genre.  Perhaps you would expect a drug-addled Don Roman pontificating about the relevance of Cortázar, Borges, and Bolaño to contemporary urbanism, or the magical wonder that Huell Howser brings to the world.  Or maybe you are thinking H. Willis Montcrief will weigh in with a landscape critique of the influence of the Fania All-Stars on urbanism.  All valid points; but today we wanted to take a look at what the painting of Neo Rauch might bring to the topic.
[what does Roberto Bolano know about urbanism?  Plenty]

Magical Urbanism is, of course, the blending of the fantastical and the real in pictographic mythologies that are strange yet familiar.  Expressions of power, hate, beauty, toil, industry, and nature all find purchase here.  Characters from the past- strange men in uniforms, old wash maids and beggars- spring to life to intimidate the office worker or dress the business man.  Yet, this urbanism is not so pedantic as to formulate anything, relying instead on a methodology that:

views the process of urbanism as an extraordinarily natural form of discovering the world, almost natural as breathing.  Outwardly it is almost entirely without intention.  It is predominantly limited to the process of a concentrated flow.  I am deliberately neglecting to contemplate all of the catalytic influences that would have the power to undermine the innocence of this approach because I would like to express a degree of clarity in these lines by way of example.  [note- I substituted "urbanism for "painting" in the first sentence of Rauch's quote]
[is this urbanism?  it's definitely landscape]

[old urbanism?  landscape urbanism?  nope-  Magical Urbanism]

As a method for painting, the effect is obvious- prolific, striking, and haunting.  As a method for urbanism it is perhaps a bit more dubious, but instructive nonetheless.  As noted in the excellent essay by Peter Connelly, one of the defining characteristic of landscape is the notion of openness, increased connections, and new relations between historical realities and new possibilities.  As a professional methodology this is extremely difficult to construe; it barely works for painting, where only someone like Neo Rauch seems to be capable of pulling it off.  Perhaps landscape urbanism currently comes closest, but there are serious limitations to how it is practiced, as New Urbanists everywhere will be happy to point out. 

Nonetheless, as noted by Peter Reed a recent piece for Topos, the field of landscape urbanism is still not fully defined and may yet evolve new methods, strategies, and concepts.  Of course, we could probably get there faster if fewer of us were fighting over the scraps from the table of civil engineers, developers, and politicians, and embraced the possibilities in landscape architecture for defining urbanism and intervening in the landscape.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Agency of Mapping: Acts of War

This dispatch comes from our Latin American correspondent Don Roman de la Mancha somewhat belatedly.  Translating his missives can take a while because, while FASLANYC is a bilingual operation, no one here speaks the other’s language.  As such, DRDLM’s dispatch had to be painstakingly exhumed, translated, edited, and posted; an arduous task given that he tends to use antiquated literary prose to express the most basic landscape concepts.  Nonetheless, we now present you with his ragged report.

Once upon a time James Corner penned a nice little exhortation to make more maps (and then proceeded to beat the entire landscape department at UPENN about the head and face until they became a pseudo-scientific, mildly speculative cartography school).  What Corner manages to do in a mere 11,000 words is make a compelling case that mapping is a creative act.  By making decisions, conscious or not, about what to include, emphasize, or relate to other various aspects of the map, the act of mapping itself is a cultural project, a way of intervening in the landscape.
[the territory in dispute, as formerly rendered by Google maps]

Apropos of this notion, recently there was a development in Central America that speaks specifically to the agency of mapping.  Evidently, Google got hold of some old data from the U.S. State Department and haphazardly drew in a small piece of the Honduras-Costa Rica border incorrectly, prompting the Nicaraguan army to casually stroll into defenseless Costa Rica and plant the ol’ blue and white on this piece of Caribbean coast.

The result was a nasty little dust up that resulted, ultimately, in the Nicaraguan official blaming Google.  He claimed that the reason he thought that piece of Costa Rica was actually Nicaragua and promptly rushed a regiment in there was because it showed up in Google maps as such.  Now that’s agency.  But this got us thinking about something interesting that we noticed over on bldgblog just a few weeks ago:  trap streets.  In bldgblog’s words, trap streets are “deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.”  What if this border dispute was the result of a “trap border”, a deliberate cartographic error introduced to induce an aggressor nation in to attacking a rival?
[Is this Costa Rica or Nicaragua?  Let's ask Google.]

While bldgblog spirals the notion of trap streets inward, speculating on how trap rooms create a psychological thrill-world mediated and navigated by use of an iphone, I am especially intrigued to consider the geo-political implications of trap “geographical entities”.  What if hackers working for the Argentine government move the border in Google maps to incorporate small slices of Uruguay where they have been trying to build their paper factories for years?  “Look, Google says that land is Argentine, so back off.”  On a scale closer to home, perhaps corporations in Texas can pay Google a bit extra to have their factory annexed by Mexico for tax season, or politicians can gerrymander their own districts using “my maps” without having to wait for a sympathetic governor to be elected.

At any rate, the agency of mapping as a critical, creative, and political act is undeniable, as is its propensity to be used and abused for nefarious purposes and as a means for consolidating or subverting power.  Given such a dim future, I for one turn an optimistic eye towards that most enviable, venerable of all mapping traditions:  the treasure map.  Using the agency of maps as a means to power is certainly a venerable tradition, but I prefer to believe the methodology was not created by surveyors of the Medici family, but rather as means for pirates young and old to recall where they put their buried treasure.  Power is one aspect of the agency of mapping, but another aspect?  Exploration, fun, and adventure.  The pirates of the Caribbean.

[treasure maps are awesome]

Google changed the map.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Complications with Complexity

complex n 1: a whole made up of two or more separable or identifiable elements [synonyms composite, compound]  2: hard to separate, analyze, or solve [synonyms byzantine, complicated, daedal, elaborate, intricate, labyrinthine] [related bewildering, confusing, distracting, disturbing, baffling, confounding, mysterious, mystifying, obscure, vague, involute]  3: a group of repressed desires and memories that exert a dominating influence on one’s personality or behaviors

complication n 1: the quality or state of being complicated  3: a disease or condition that develops during and after the course of a primary disease or condition

complicated adj 1: consisting of parts intricately combined  2: difficult to analyze, understand, or explain
[the mycorrhizal mycelium of a simple pine sapling- wildly complex; image courtesy of the folks at the University of Aberdeen]

It is time to address complexity, or rather the widespread use of the word.  In the last decade it has become one of the pillars of technophilic obfuscation- one of those vague terms used to dance around ideas or elaborate issues in a completely unjustified and ostentatious manner.  Recently, over on Places Journal there was an article titled “Infrastructural Ecologies:  Principals for Post-Industrial Public Works”.  The title was a mouthful but the article made some very thoughtful, interesting points.  Yet at the end, we get this admonition:

America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex, and urgent.  Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.

Holy Lord!  We are doomed!  Doomed!  Doomed!  Doomed! 

But wait a second- the author has just spent 3,000 words meticulously describing various contemporary infrastructure projects around the world and then raising some good questions and critical observations.  So why the language at the end? 

The unnecessary emphasis on complexity struck a familiar chord with us- it is a recurring trope, one that designers fall back on when demanding that their work is important.   A quick survey of two of the influential texts of contemporary landscape theory yields the following:
Recovering Landscape (11 essays, published 1999):  complexity- 15, complex- 29
Landscape Urbanism Reader (14 essays, published 2006):  complexity- 29, complex- 53
Utterly fucking absurd.  At this rate, future LU publications will require mention of “complexity” in every paragraph and if the author fails to comply the word will just be inserted into every other sentence during copy-editing.
[an afternoon surfing the web and drawing landscape details in cad- unbelievably complex; image courtesy of the excellent CNVerge]

[the movements of one team during a game of soccer- unfathomable complexity; image from mammoth, by David Marsh]

The overuse of “complexity” is obviously rhetorical- a political act.  Political action through design activism is a prominent topic in recent years and likely to become more so, given the rate of change in our economic and environmental situations and the fact that intervening in the landscape is fundamentally a political action.  But this use of “complexity” is also ontological, attempting to define the very foundation of landscape theory through the term.  The problems with this approach are two-fold:

One, defining anything as complex is meaningless, because everything is complex.  Literally everything.  From the sophisticated financial instruments of globalized late-capitalism to a jolly afternoon watching two chums hit a ball back and forth across a net, everything is as complex as one's understanding of and familiarity with it.  Always emphasizing the term is not necessary.

Two, as a political act it has consequences.  And in this case those consequences are something we here at FASLANYC hate- emphasizing complexity excludes and mystifies, suggesting that normal folks couldn’t possibly understand what is going on and that any new interventions are best left to the technoratti.

Now granted, by emphasizing complexity and offering it as the conceptual foundation of landscape, these theorists are attempting to differentiate their reading of the landscape- focused on process, possibilities, systems, and unknowns- from modern and post-modern conceptions.  But the problem with this specific etiology is that it is not intelligent.  By choosing to define landscape through complexity we make it vague and meaningless, because complexity is based on understanding, not essence.  As a method for expanding definitions something in order to gain operating space (intellectually or politically) this is excellent, but it stunts the dialogue by saying nothing with a lot of words.  There are other ways to expand the agency of landscape. 

It is our hope that more landscape writing can become like this piece, communicating subtlety, complexity, technical aspect and beauty in a concise mythology that is compelling and erotic.  Of course, we may not all have the ability or time to write at that level, but if we really desire increased political agency, we would do well to relax with the complexity fetish.
[also complex; but why talk about it that way?]