Sunday, October 31, 2010

Studio Must Die! (and other ruminations on design pedagogy)

This week we bring a discussion that took place between the garrulous DRDLM and our lovable H. Willis Montcrief while they were milling around at the Rally to Restore Sanity.  The below occurred following a fascinating argument on the respective merits of the Ford Granada and bikram yoga and is a transcript of their discussion on design pedagogy.
___________

HWM:  I really think we oughta reexamine the way studio is working right now.  Thar’s all this effort to expand design agency and a general trend away from design as an artistic discipline and towards scientific intervention.  Which is fine I reckon- design’s big enough to grab both of ‘em. 

DRDLM:  Ya en este tiempo se había levantado Sancho Panza, algo maltratado de los mozos de los frailes, y había estado atento a la batalla de su señor don Quijote, y rogaba a Dios en su corazón fuese servido de darle vitoria, y que en ella ganase alguna insula de donde le hiciese gobernador, como se lo habia prometido. 
[this is the kind of thing on H. Willis' mind, when he's not thinking about landscape]

HWM:  If that’s the case, but design pedagogy remains studio based, it tends to relegate any investigation to pseudo-science.  Folks might say that the other school classes are for gettin’ all that info, but any semester with studio is immediately ren’ tasunder with the workload.  Sure, you can read a few essays er put together a powerpoint for a class er two, but to try an’ take on any real fieldwork or lab work or serious fabrication effort, well, you can pretty much forget that.  Which is too bad. 

DRDLM:  Viendo, pues, ya acabada la pendencia, y que su amo volvia a subir sobre Rocinante, llegó a tenerle el estribo y antes que subiese, se hincó de rodillas delante dél y, asiéndole de la man, se la besó y le dijo…

HWM:  Well, it just seems like studio’s a pretty good thing- allows you to learn a lot, put a lot of thangs t’gether in yur mind, practice investigatin’, iteratin’, producin’, and presentin’.  But a lot of folks think that studio is design, and I’m afraid that’s just not the case. 

DRDLM:  Sea vuestra merced servido, señor don Quijote mio, de darme el gobierno de la insula que en esta rigurosa pendencia se ha Ganado; que, por grande que sea, yo me siento con fuerzas de saberla gobernar, tal y tan bien como otro que haya gobernado ínsulas en el mundo.

HWM:  Well, if you look at what that fella did out in Portland recently, that’s pretty tough to pull off in a studio class.  Maybe you could set up some kind’a independent studio or somethin’ like that, but it sure ain’t encouraged. 

DRDLM:  Sea vuestra merced servido, señor don Quijote mio, de darme el gobierno de la insula que en esta rigurosa pendencia se ha Ganado; que, por grande que sea, yo me siento con fuerzas de saberla gobernar, tal y tan bien como otro que haya gobernado ínsulas en el mundo.

HWM:  Studio’s still about the big speculative project, and that teaches us to go work places doin’ that stuff.  But we could really use folks figurin’ out new ways to practice; I mean the studio dates back to the architecture atelier of the 18th century or somethin’ like that, when folks were workin’ for rich states, rich industrialists, and newly expandin’ corporations.  Well we still got all that stuff, but thangs ain’t exactly the same.  That historian Kazys Varnelis made a great point about the inability of architecture/landscape to question its deepest assumptions- this is one of them assumptions.

DRDLM:  Advertid, hermano Sancho, que esta Aventura y las a ésta semejantes no son aventuras de ínsulas, sino de encrudijadas; en las cuales no se gana otra cosa que sacar rota la cabeza, o una oreja menos.  Tened paciencia; que aventuras se ofrecerán donde no solamente os pueda hacer gobernador, sino más adelante.

HWM:  It ain’t that it's pedagogically wrong, but it absolutely is limiting and so it ain’t always appropriate.  It gets us thinkin’ how to do big projects for the elites, which is fine, but it’s a little borin’ if that’s the only way we’re practicin’ landscape architecture.  And it squeezes out everything else, which is too bad.
[one of the faces of non-studio landscape practice; image from free association design; see their recent posts for the great documentation of "ruminant urbanism"]

DRDLM:  Calla, Y dónde has visto tú, o leído jamás, que caballero andante haya sido puesto ante la justicia, por más homicidios que hubiese cometido?

HWM:  Well, that’s anuther thang.  This point about workin’ for elites- political, economic, social, whatever- seems like it’s also a part of the pedagogy, startin’ from just how hard it is ta get n’ta architecture school.  Now, I’m not sayin’ it should be all opened up or whatever.  I ain’t real sure about that.  But it does seem like schools should be much bigger, an’ maybe there should be lighter versions of design programs- field schools, management schools, certifications, consortiums, extensions, stuff like that.  And you don’t have ta be a card-carryin’ member to get in there and get to work.

DRDLM:  Yo no se nada de omecillos, ni en mi vida le caté a ninguno; solo sé que la Santa Hermandad tiene que ver con los que pelean en el campo, y en esotro no me entremeto.  Pues no tengas pena, amigo, que yo te sacaré de las manos de los caldeos, cuanot más de las de la Hemandad.  Pero dime por tu vida:  has visto más valeroso caballero que yo en todo lo descubierto de la tierra?

HWM:  See, we got this idea that design is really a way of seein’.  Well, that’s a beautiful idea, an’ I really think thars somethin’ to that.  The ability ta innately read th’environment around us in terms of processes goin’ on, materials it’s made of, and have ideas about how to intervene in it is powerful, creative, empowerin’.  Why don’t we put ‘n emphasis on gettin’ that to more folks, at least to some degree?  I mean, mobilizin’ folks, empowerin’ ‘em- it’s a huge untapped potential for the thangs we’re all talkin’ about, but we seem to have all this invested interest in keepin’ the right to the city contained in our little technophilic circle. 

DRDLM:  Todo eso fuera bien excusado si a me se acordara de hacer una redoma del balsam de Fierabrás; que con sola una gota se ahorraran tiempo y medicinas.
[this is not DRDLM and H. Willis Montcrief debating the various merits of expanding pedagogical practices and design schools, but it's nearly as serious]

HWM:  I just think it’d be way more effective an’ interestin’ if we talked about what we’re really dealin’ with- we don’t need Anu Marthur to do some more esoteric brilliance, or WRT to project another technological monster- we already got them folks and they’re good at it.  Seems to me we need to get more folks understandin’ and carin’ about the environment- whatever that means in today’s world- and wantin’ to do somethin’ with it themselves instead of assumin’ some mysterious professional’s gonna take care of thangs.

DRDLM:  Has hablado y apuntado muy bien y así, anula el juramento en cuanto lo que toca a tomar dél nueva venganza; pero hágole y confírmole de nueveo de hacer la vida que he dicho, hasta tanto que quite por fuerza otra celada tal y tan Buena como ésta a algún caballero.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Agency of Writing

Central to the effort behind FASLANYC is the belief that the world needs more landscape architecture.  As such, this blog is at times an exercise in unabashed boosterism for intervention in the landscape by all manner of folks in all manner of ways, and were it ever criticized as such we would undoubtedly pee a little bit and grin impishly to ourselves.

It is with such effervescent, tumescent enthusiasm that we jump into this week’s topic- the agency of writing.  Landscape writing for a large public audience was fundamental to the development of the profession and its influence in 19th century urbanism.  It is well known that the dashing AJ Downing, in between visits to the haberdashery and high society parties in the northeastern US, was busy shaping public opinion regarding the validity of “a great central park with a naturalistic aesthetic” for Manhattan through his writing in The Horticulturist
[the dashing AJ Downing, just before going to the haberdashery]

Frederick Law Olmsted, inasmuch as he had a profession, was a journalist and maintenance man (granted, park superintendent) long before he ever thought of becoming a designer; in addition to dispatches for the New York Daily Times on slavery and the landscapes of the South, he penned articles for Downing’s Horticulturalist and later cofounded The Nation simultaneously while he and Vaux were starting their design firm.  His ability to influence perceptions and political discourse and mobilize various constituent groups was critical in bringing about the realization of Central Park.

But something has happened in the last 150 years.  Popular writing in the profession has been abdicated.  Sure, there have been and continue to be a few excellent efforts through the years- Landscape, Places and Volume are three that come to mind, though those have always been for a largely academic audience.  In recent years the accessibility and readership of a few blogs as well as online publications such as the Urban Ominbus or the Center for Landscape Interpretation is an encouraging phenomenon, the trend to develop project-specific blogs in support of major park initiatives is a bizarre and wonderful bird, and Jane Wolff’s recent Delta Primer was a worthy effort to make reading about landscape interesting and accessible.  In general, however, the popular conception of landscape remains outside of the influence of these efforts.  This is because the above developments, when compared to the media machines of the Scripps Network, hardly register.  And most damningly, our academics- our most brilliant and respected writers- dare not cover themselves in the stink of the common person, put on the bear-shirt, and enter into the contemporary discourse.

Well, this is too bad.  Because now, instead of Olmsteds and Downings, we have the folks over at HGTV guiding the popular conversation at best there is an occasional piece by a newspaper architectural critic.  And architectural critics are not a bad thing, but given that only the major metro newspapers still pay to keep these guys on staff, on the rare occasion when a landscape project is discussed the discourse is skewed toward big names, big cities, and big projects.
[seriously?  Seriously; the popular voice of landscape]

The result is that while the profession and the discourse is growing, it remains the purview of technophilic and academic specialists who politely whisper to the policy makers and the capitalist lords that maybe, perhaps this or that should be considered, if there’s some money and it’s not too politically unpopular.  This conversation takes place using an esoteric and hermetic jargon, and while there is a place for using a specific and technical vocabulary (such as giving us something to hate, or at least pick on), the emphasis on florid verbosity and hyperbolic proclamations is simply not interesting.

We here desperately hope for more voices from the profession, all in dialogue and refining one another while deigning to enter in to the larger conversation.  It is pathetic that the two major discourses in the fields of landscape today are an exclusive academic club and the commoditized broadcasts from a media conglomerate.  There are thousands of capable and thoughtful students, practitioners, and aficionados, and auto-didacts who have their own ideas, insights and critiques.  We should look to those two innovative fields that we lift all of our metaphors and vocabulary from- software and ecology- and develop publishing efforts- magazines, books, podcasts, pamphlets, websites and videos- that can bring insightful, informative, and critical writing to a larger audience.  More of us should put on the goddamn bear-shirt.
[this gentleman has donned the bear-shirt]

Monday, October 18, 2010

Small Scale Meme Watch

The notion of small, tactical interventions with long-range, large-scale ramifications is one of our favorite themes here at FASLANYC, and projects with this focus figured prominently in the inaugural Waits Awards this past July.  


Well, right on cue the Princeton Architectural Press published Small Scale:  Creative Solutions for Better City Living (the title may or may not have been lifted from a Better Homes and Gardens Back Issue).  So it was with great excitement that we placed it in the wicker basket in the bathroom and began an in-depth reading over the next week.
[Caracas, Venezuela, site of Urban Think Tank's metro cable system, a part of the MoMA "Small Scale, Big Change exhibition; image courtesy of Cretique]


The choice of cover image for the book- a zoomed in aerial view of the High Line- is highly dubious.  What exactly does this say about small scale projects?  That they are incredibly expensive, exclusive, and high maintenance?  That they are beautiful?  They are a continuation of the decades-long effort to photoshop of our industrial heritage into a spectacular yuppie playpen where everything is pretty and prosaic?  Well, yes.  But let's keep moving.


The format of the book is also questionable.  It is a conventionally sized, bound, and printed architectural publication with each project getting a couple of pages- a superficial summary and several images.  It is literally perfect for bathroom reading, and for that we are thankful.  However, as it is also priced like a conventional architectural book ($34.95) it is a bit expensive for the 'reading room'.  More importantly, being a publication focusing on "small scale" projects, it is a missed opportunity.  The notion of a publication of 'small scale' urban intervention begs to be published as a series of newspaper inserts that can be wheat-pasted around town or assembled cookbook-style in a three ring binder, or perhaps as downloadable pdfs from an on-line wiki that gives actual details instead of superficial commentary?  It should be somehow open-source, downloadable, cheap, and mutable.
[the delightful Temporary Event Complex by Boora in Portland, Oregon; erected from scaffolding and construction fencing, the installation transforms an asphalt parking lot, image from Boora]


The conventional format is not necessarily indicative of the content, however.  The majority (51%) of the projects are interesting, and as such the book serves as a nice little catalogue of contemporary projects.  But the editors seem to have caved to some mysterious outside pressure to include high profile projects through any means necessary, and so in addition to the High Line, we also have the Marsupial Bridge, EOM's Art Tower, and SHoP's Mitchell Park proclaimed as 'small scale'.  Confused, we went to the introduction to see how small scale is defined:


"Urban interventions address the increasing density and limited availability of land in cities by identifying and using leftover urban spaces or voids or unrecognized tears in the city fabric.  They are eminently achievable:  they do not require years of permitting and government oversight, and they are not prohibitively expensive.  These little architectural insertions do not require tremendous use of natural resources or whole-scale demolition of existing fabric, and suggest solutions to the larger problem of energy consumption."


Alright.  That's enough.  It goes on, and its very fine, but the inclusion of the above projects under the professed banner of 'small scale' is nothing more than a political move to curry favor with influential designers and perhaps snag a few extra buyers.  It is, however, tactically savvy, much like a "small scale urban intervention".  


But there are many highlights:  playful interventions, historical geography writ-large, altruistic efforts, clever metaphors, and ephemeral installations.  The diversity of projects and practitioners experimenting with new typologies is exciting and though lacking in specificity, it doesn't claim to be a handbook.  Each project write-up address to the client's role and relationship to the designer as well as the input of users.  Funding for projects is never more than alluded to, neither is the permitting process discussed.  Also, the technocratic and bureaucratic limitations are alluded to at best, a terrible oversight given the subject matter and the stated interests of the book in the above quoted introduction.  
["railings" by greyworld was installed in London and Paris, guerilla-style, sans permits; the railings are tuned to play "the Girl from Ipanema" when you run a stick along them.  seriously]


On a related note, the MoMA recently followed suit and opened its show titled "Small Scale, Big Change:  Architectures of Social Engagement" featuring several interesting projects from across the globe.  The show features one of DRDLM's favorites (though one of his less interesting works in our opinion) as well as the housing project highlighted by mammoth in their excellent "best architecture of the decade" piece.  


You can find a good critique of the show over on Places Journal so we won't do that here.  However, one question does come to mind:  how do you define 'small scale?  In Small Scale:  Interventions for Urban Living, the working definition of a small scale project seems to just be "anything that is not huge."  The MoMA show is curated much more carefully and though economic, temporal and spatial scales all vary widely, it is clear that for them 'small scale' is defined as the relationship between the investments and the evolving results of the project, a difficult criteria to quantify or even qualify, but no matter.  The major shortcoming of these projects is that they are limited to those funded by governments and philanthropic organizations, leading Ourosuoff to conclude in his summary of the show that "even if the architectural conscious is evolving, it will take more than architects for that to matter".  
[small scale?  The "complexo do manguinhos" in Rio is featured in the MoMA's current exhibition]


This statement is both obvious and oblivious, seemingly absolving the designers he usually touts, as well as those appended to the Small Scale publication while offering no real criticism or insight.  The fact is, designers working in the free market aren't beholden to the 'greater good' any more than anyone else is.  Except where we claim that mantel.  And we have a long, illustrious history of doing just that.  But there are a number of designers, and others, who are working to wiggle around the limitations of philanthropic and governmental funding, including some of those in the MoMA show.  It is too bad that piece of the discussion is left out, because it is and will continue to be the most interesting aspect in the future.
[the "red location museum of struggle" in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, completed in 2005 looms over the nearby neighborhood]


At any rate, "small-scale" may or may not be the best way to characterize this type of work.  We think not, preferring instead to think of these interventions as jams/hacks, accelerated/decelerated landscapes, lo-fi interventions, and research-based practice (which is explicitly what Jauregui's practice is).  But the definition is useful, and both the show and the book are worth checking out if you get the chance.  Please drop us a line and let us know your thoughts.  We recommend the bathroom by the cafe in the MoMA for maximum osmotic effect.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ol' Man River and The Lonely Goatherd

Over on FAD, Brett Milligan has been dutifully documenting a delightful little landscape intervention in downtown Portland, starring a vacant lot and a flock of goats.  Realizing that the property owner is required by the city to keep the lot mowed, FAD brokered a deal between the owner and a goatherd owner to have the lot mown by goats.  It is something that has evidently delighted passersby and is a great little study in landscape ecology, landscape management, and the social life of small urban spaces.


Goats and people share a long, tortured history in the landscape mythologies, stretching back to the kingdoms of the ancient near east and including the unforgettable lonely goatherd.  To dig into one of these a bit more here on our own side of the Atlantic, we dispatched southern correspondent H. Willis Montcrief down the Mississippi to the New Orleans, Louisiana.  The following is what he came back with.
[the sweet, sweet lonely goatherd, heading to New Orleans]




****


Down here in New Orleans, everyone knows 'bout the mess created by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers in the 20th century, culminatin' in the Katrina fiasco in 2005.  A lotta folks had their lives uprooted, and lot made money writin' books about it since then.  The thing is, as some 'a them writers noted, in a certain manner of thinkin' the catastrophe was man-made, and the politically motivated flood-defense system for Ol' Man River was a big reason for it.  That system has been updated and changed through the years with new landscape infrastructures, includin' the Bonnet Carre Spillway.  And it's there that we find our goat story.


A coupla' quick things:  as geographer Richard Campanella has noted, the Ol' Man is a "great land-makin' machine", like a garden hose sprayin' middle America back and forth across the Gulf.  You can see this by lookin' at a map an' noticin' how the edge of Louisiana is all jagged and hangs out into the Gulf a' Mexico.  The land of New Orleans is real young, only about 10,000 years old, and the River woulda' switched course down the Atchafalaya River fifty years ago if it had its way, but the Army Corps built the giant Old River Control Structure and changed that.  That's nothin' if not impressive.


In 1927, the Great Flood gave impetus to the Corps line the River with levees and freeze New Orleans where it was, the result of decades of planning.  So be it.  But this decision had some real deleterious effects on the larger delta, robbing it of fresh water and sediment and allowing salt water from the gulf to push into the marshes, killing the cypress swamps that were previously a great buffer from gulf storms.  It also required more constructions in the name of taming the Ol' Man:  the Davis Diversion project, the Old River Control Structure, and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.  
[the Old River Control Structure, where the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River meet]


The Bonnet Carre Spillway
The Bonnet Carre came about as a result of the realization that the levees-only flood-defense system was not sufficient:  during big floods the water couldn't get through the channelized river bed fast enough and would threaten the levees near New Orleans.  In 1927 the levee below New Orleans had to be dynamited to save the city, consequently destroying the poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, an injury that is still smartin'.  The Army Corps realized they needed a pressure release valve.  So they built the Bonnet Carre.
[the river levee being dynamited in 1927, washing out St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish below New Orleans]


The Bonnet Carre is located at the site of previous breaches of the natural levees- it's one spot where the river wants to jumps its banks.  It is a massive dike system of 350 identical bays with timber 'fingers' and guide levees that shunt flood waters inta Lake Pontchartrain.  During a flood, the Mississippi River Channel can move 1,250,000 cubic feet of water per second without jumpin' its banks or breakin' a levee.  The Bonnet Carret adds 250,000 cfs to this capacity.  It also creates a strange hybrid landscape.  Ya' see, the spillway has only been significantly opened seven times- about once a decade.  In the meantime, it is a low-lyin' spot between the River and the Lake that has to be kept mown in order that flow between the two can be kept clear.  Yearly 'leakage events', where the Army Corps pulls a few 'fingers' in some of the bays, allow a little bit of the annual spring floods into the spillway to replenish the water and sediment.  The result is a landscape maintained in a perpetual state of semi-flood, a patchwork of grassland, scrubby swamp, ponds, and channels.


But there's a problem.  The Spillway is over 7,000 acres!  And given its geographic location- the rich, humid Delta- all manner of vegetation is constantly bursting forth- it'd be a jungle in a decade.  Well, back in the early 40's when petrol was more expensive and machines a little more rough, the Army Corps decided to try usin' goats for the task.  They put 6,000 out on the spillway and let 'em roam.  In the 1941 Guide to the State, we can see that there spillway "has been set aside as a game preserve and is reverting to a wild state, and ponds of water remaining after the [flood] waters receded have become good fishing spots.  More than 6,000 goats have been turned loose in the spillway between US 51-61-65 and Lake Pontchartrain to eat the grass and weeds that would otherwise retard the flow of water."


Word has it, the Bonnet Carre goats met their untimely end a few years later when the river flooded and the goats refused to get their feet wet for a meal.  I reckon they starved to death by the time the flood waters receded in the spillway.
[the Bonnet Carre spillway]


The lonely, poor goatherds of Central Park
I reckon the utility of goats had been known for a while.  Not only are they domesticated and willing to eat almost anything, their four-chambered stomachs break down all that fibrous stuff  they come across and make it into rich fertilizer.  But this utility is also bad.  In Rosenzweig's story of Central Park we can read how a New York Times reporter in 1856 "described the residents [of the lands to become Central Park] as 'principally Irish families' living in 'rickety... little one storie [sic] shanties... inhabited by four or five persons, not including the pigs and the goats.  The park site allowed Irish immigrants, many of whom came from rural areas, to grow food or keep hogs and goats as they had back home."  Keepin' pigs and goats, while pretty hip these day, was not urbane in the 1850's.  
[goats are out, bush hogs are in]


Recreation and Spectacle- basically, an Urban Park
Today, the Spillway is a big-time recreation destination; mostly anglers, hunters, and atv riders- sportsmen.  Yearly 'leakage events' through the spillway are engineered to replenish ponds and swamps here with water and sediments, and when needed the Bonnet Carre stands ready to move water at 250,000 cubic feet per second from the River to Lake Pontchartrain.  Historically this happens about once every ten years, and every opening is an event:  men marvel, women gasp, children frolic about.  The news media descends and fireworks are shot off from the NORCO petroleum refinery on the banks of the river (I made one of those things up).  It's a real spectacle:  people controllin' nature, as long as nature has no objections, that is.
[goats in a vacant lot in Portland; image from FAD]


SO, there's a couple of things that grab my attention.  This notion of spectacle and recreation is exactly what FAD's got goin' on up in Portland.  Of course, up there it's a byproduct of a useful strategy and it's in exactly the opposite context- the goats are a strikin' contrast to the rubble-strewn vacant lot and surrounding city.  Here at the Bonnet Carre, the scale is so vast and everywhere is petroleum plants, cypress swamps, earthen levees, and the Ol' Man.  But, imagine 6,000 of those furry little fellers moving around on the high ground, munchin' and gruntin' en masse!  You come upon 'em in your atv and as you fly by they casually look up, grinnin' and chewin'.  Spectacular.


The second notion that crosses our mind is that of efficiency.  When the first herd of goats died and post-war gas prices went down, they were replaced with machines and petroleum in the name of efficiency.  But efficiency, like design, is really a question of perspective and values.  Sure, it takes goats a while longer to mow 7,000 acres than it might a bush hog, but their four-chambered stomachs process the vegetation more thoroughly than simply chopping it with a quickly spinnin' steel blade.


The Army Corps dismisses the demise of the goats as an experiment in maladaptation.  This justifies the change in policy to reliance on cheap fuel and machines.  But perhaps their untimely demise is more a question of proper management- would it take much to have an elevated pen to keep them in when the spillway was flooded each spring?  Goats are probably not always the best option.  But there is also no reason (other than stupidity) that stupid machines and cheap fuel should be defaulted to.  At times, goats would likely be much more economical environmental management regime, in addition to the social and fertilization benefits they may offer.  And at the Bonnet Carre, when they have to be rounded up for the 'leakage events' and floods, perhaps they can be put to work on the myriad vacant lots that pepper New Orleans, FAD-style.  
[john darnielle wants you to use more goats]

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Septuagenarian Sewers and Superfund Sites: the Northeastern Urban Condition

Just last week in NYC Mayor Bloomberg announced ambitious plans to invest up to 1.5 billion in green infrastructure:  "environmental techniques to reduce the flow of sewage into the city's waterways".  In the same week, a twister touched down in Brooklyn and dumped a heavy rain shower in the sewers, causing this heinous, Delillo-esque "stormwater outfall event" in the Gowanus Canal.
[image courtesy of the Infrastructurist.  Check out this great interview from their archives on the topic]


The initiative shown by the mayor is encouraging and landscape architects are salivating at the chance to implement some of the forward-thinking policies that have been developed through pilot projects and speculative designs for decades, but first things first.  We suggest poking around on this excellent and informative website for all things sewer-related, from ancient history to the historical debate surrounding combined vs. separated sewer systems.  And for those of you with a New York City-bent, please check out this study put together by National Geographic (just click on the individual categories on the right to learn more than you wanted).  A cursory glance through back issues of the free MSW magazines is also necessary.


The notions of creating a permeable city, papering it over with performative layers, constructing the city as an articulated surface, or creating cyborg cities are all valid concepts.  What these grandiose visions really represent is infrastructure as a combination of mechanical and landscape systems at multiple scales.  Variations of this concept have been studied and piloted in smaller cities for decades (and we would argue, is fundamental to the very idea of infrastructure).  And the fact that they may now be implemented as policy in New York City, where entrenched corporate and political interests, centuries of de/construction, and layer upon layer of bureaucratic oversight often combine to choke out innovation, is significant in its own right.  This is a good thing.
[this articulated surface created by ancient amazonians is a pure landscape 'infrastructure']

[this articulated surface, created by modern americans, is also landscape infrastructure]

Of course, it is nothing new.  In fact, all of our "infrastructures" can be seen as a combination of landscape and machine; in the case of sewer systems in NYC, stormwater runs along a street curb (landscape), drops into a pipe (machine), gravity feeds to a larger sewer pipe carrying stormwater and sewage (landscape + machine), is pumped to a treatment plant (machine) and is released out into a water body (landscape).  Unless, of course, there is too much water within a short period of time.  In that case, the unholy mixture of row sewage and petroleum-infused stormwater gushes into the nearest adjacent body of water.


We love the idea of simply multiplying the scales at which sophisticated systems of landscape and mechanical infrastructure are working and expanding the scope of issues they are affecting.  The inherent capacity of the Landscape, its bigness in scope and scale, lends itself to this.  Instead of limiting the systems to stormwater and sewage, the systems will also become social amenities, create places of work and leisure, provide productive ecological habitat, and create opportunities for silviculture, aquaculture, and even agriculture.  All within the context of a serious appreciation for the mechanical systems of the 19th and 20th centuries and an understanding of the unintended consequences and opportunities created by that modernist teleology.
[the cover of Scientific American showing the construction of a 19th century NYC sewer]


None of this is new, but it is a new development for New York City, one building on the earlier efforts of city agencies, private-sector consultants, and academic researchers from far and wide (curiously, the efforts and voices of citizens and residents is not clear) and the well-connected and well-publicized designers du-jour (favorites of the mayor) are likely licking their chops.  And we hope that most of the projects will be administered by the DOT and the DDC- currently the most innovative of the NYC agencies- with oversight and input from the DEC, DEP, DPR, Office of the Mayor, City Planning, EPA, DCA, DOB, Design Commission, NYCHA etc (at some point there, we just started making up acronyms).  As the major urban center in the northeastern conurbation where combined sewers, a bureaucratic quagmires, and superfund sites are endemic, it is a move that could have implications in cities across the northeastern US.  It will be interesting to see what happens.