Saturday, February 26, 2011

Feral Ruderality- I like a landscape that drinks from the bottom shelf

In Gowanus news (really, we ought to just open up a desk at this point), there is an open competition around the Canal titled the “Gowanus Lowline”.  While the brief seems incredibly vague, they’ve assembled a great jury and an array of photos, maps, and community contacts.  We’re hoping that at the very least something more substantial than a park-ified Canal will emerge from the brief, a sentiment we presume we share with the organizers, given the clever title-as-jab.
[Brooklyn in 1874, showing the upper reaches of the Gowanus Canal (top left), note the crenelated edge of the East River, and the Navy Yards to the North (left); image courtesy of David Rumsey maps]

[Brooklyn in 1874, showing the mouth of the Gowanus Canal (top left), note the Eerie Basin of Red Hook (now occupied by IKEA); image courtesy of David Rumsey maps]

If you’re considering entering, check out this compilation of historical maps by one of the members of the organizing committee Gowanus by Design.  Registration is still open and submissions are due April 17th.

In vaguely related news, Fallow City by the studio Feral Office aims to take “the current crisis of the suburbs as a chance, and the most extreme situation of Detroit as its site… to develop new scenarios and new typologies for the emerging fallow cityscapes. The interventions propose more imaginative and public ways of using or mis-using the suburban forms.  A fallow season creates an interruption where unusual uses and forms can flourish.”

We agree with this notion, and have characterized it as the ability of terrains vague to generate new cultural mythologies.  Perhaps more than the video-game like populated environment created by Feral Office, we love their simple Google Earth observation of the marks left on the vacant lots of Detroit.  They posit that they are from the excavators that came through to knock down the houses, the tracks being rendered visible when the grass is cut.  This type of aerial espionage and speculation reminds of the more substantial recent post over on F.A.D. exploring “wetland glyphs” found in the Mississippi delta.  Both are worth checking out.
[Aviary Tower, "Fallow City", by Feral Office]

[Detroit as creative-class play pen]

[Excavator operations + aerial mapping = post-urban earth art]

[Comparing the differing patterns for variable size lots suggests what there]

 [anomalies, superimposed geometries suggest what might be emerging]

The notion of crisis a chance for opportunistic is very feral, or ruderal, and is something that was addressed in the recently released Berkeley Planning Journal.  Wonderful work is being done in this field by the Detroit UnReal Estate Agency, which we were introduced to in the recent release of Scapegoat Journal.

It’s good to see these types of ideas being developed, and we love the awkward first stabs at implementation and execution of concepts and ethics that folks like Julie Bargmann have been talking about for decades.  It promises the emergence of a new aesthetic that gets beyond “ruin porn.”
[undertaken in 1998, works like the conceptual sight plan for Roundhouse Park in Evanston Wyoming still serve as a harbinger of a still-emerging landscape aesthetic]

[landscape architecture beyond the park and the garden]

For us, we think the critical question remains this- can landscape/architecture contribute to the regeneration of the landscape in a way that gets beyond the massive infusions of money, power, and control that are inherent to the capital project?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Conscientizacao of the Landscape: An Interview with Kongjian Yu

Last year about this time we were paging through the saucy Harvard Design Magazine issue on pleasure and we came across an article by Dr. Kongjian Yu titled "Big Beautiful Feet".  He is the principal of the Chinese landscape architecture firm Turenscape, an incredibly prolific group that has gained wide recognition for design excellence in the last decade.  To be properly understood, the work of Turenscape must be contextualized as part of the rapid and ongoing urbanization of China, and situated within the contemporary China-United States cultural/capital exchange.

Unfortunately, we are not capable or qualified to do that properly.  Fortunately, their work is rich enough to offer many veins for mining and given our concern with landscapes of labor, fun, and hedonism and our interest in the development of a new landscape aesthetic through an expanded understanding of recreation, we were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him in person.  We discussed the effort and strategy behind creating the first modern Chinese landscape architecture firm, the idea of labor as related to the “Big, Beautiful Feet” aesthetic, and understanding the practice of landscape architecture as a cultural-environmental framework.  
[The infamous red ribbon of the Tanghe River Park, in Qinhuangdao City, China, by Turenscape]

FASLANYC:  The name of your firm, what does it mean?

Konjian Yu:  Turenscape has a couple of meanings.  “Tu” in Chinese means earth- native dirt.  “Ren” means people, so it's literally “people of the native dirt”.  When you combine them it means “land and people.”  And it also has a pejorative connotation to the urban elite in Chinese; something like “lowly pumpkin.”

FN:  Almost like redneck, or country boy, or jibaro?

YK:  Yes, that's interesting.  I like it like that.  I chose the name based on my perspective of the profession during the course of my life.  In 1997 after two years at SWA, i decided to go back to China.  The reason i wanted to go back was the massive change happening in China.  I saw all the rivers being channelized, the cultural heritage disappearing, the landscape being dominated by urban sprawl.  This was in 1996 when I was visiting in China.  When i came back to the States i decided I needed to move to China to get involved and push for things to be done in what I considered the “right way”.  And I chose the name because i think we will eventually return to the earth, for living and survival.
[a bomb crater garden in London- 1943]
[A victory garden in Queens in 1943]

FN:  Prior to your return to China did the profession of landscape architecture have a role in the lands development that was going on or did you have to try and create it?

YK:  I would say we have a long history of garden-making in a traditional sense.  Landscape architecture just a decade ago basically meant garden-making.  The large-scale urbanization in China is really very recent.  When I returned virtually nobody was dealing with this type of land-people relationship.  So the name Turenscape was chosen as a means of differentiating landscape architecture from garden making. 

In my first years the [National] Commerce Department refused to allow me to register my company.  The reason is that landscape architecture is not an official profession there, and when you register they classify you according to which profession you fit into.  So they told me when i tried to register that there is only something called garden-making, there is nothing called landscape architecture.  That was part of the reason I wanted to return- I felt I had something to offer.

Another reason that it was difficult for me to register the company was because I wanted to call it “Turenscape”. 

FN:  They though it was a joke?  ["Redneck-scape?"]

YK:  Yes, so they refused it a couple of times.  Eventually i convinced officials there that this was a new profession.

FN:  What was that process like in China a decade ago?

YK:  First I had to show them examples from different places.  At that time the central government started up a venture that was a special place for young Chinese professionals coming back from overseas.  In some ways it was kind of like a Silicon Valley.  It was an experimental science park, a testing place.  You got a free space- an office- for you to hatch ideas, test new policy.  It was a pilot campus, and they were trying to attract people like me who wanted to try something new and influence the new urbanization policies.  In some ways it was a really groundbreaking program.

And it proved to be very successful for many companies.  Leaders in that organization helped convince the commerce department to register my company.  That was how Turenscape became the first Chinese landscape architecture firm in China. 
[constructed islands in a wetland increase habitat heterogeneity as part of the development of an aviary in Qinghuang Dao City, Hebei Province, China]
[wetlands at aviary in Qinghuang Dao City, Hebei Province, China]

[the 21 hectare Shenyang Architectural University Campus, Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, China]

FN:  Your landscape project at the Architectural University in Shenyang strikes me as an interesting combination of education and work through landscape processes that permeate the students’ lives.  A big part of the program is the planting and harvesting of rice by the students who use the campus.  From what I understand, it's not so much that the students are working there every day in the fields, but rather more of a ceremonial thing, where a couple of times a year they all come together.

I wanted to know how that process has changed through time and how that might continue in the future.  I ask that because you are involving the users- they do more than just walk through it or stop to admire it.  Rather, they have a role in the production of the space.  And I suspect that it might stimulate their own ideas.  Or resentment.

YK:  Well, the president of the campus is very enthusiastic about the project and the yearly planting and harvesting festival, and the students have started doing some of the work- weeding and irrigation- on a regular basis.  Rice is also pretty easy to take care of.  It is very intensive to plant, but it's not such heavy labor once established.  My original thinking was to recognize that landscape is both a process and a picture.  But more important is the process, the time, the cycles, the harvesting, the planting, the whole process is the landscape.  It's about the experience and when this process becomes a routine, this cycle becomes part of the campus culture.  Maybe here in the United States the colleges have the annual football homecoming game, and it becomes the identity of the school.  In a culture of landscape-process, the landscape becomes a protagonist in the story, it takes on identity; it is a cycle for people to connect to the weather, the passage of time, the change in seasons.

FN:  It sounds like you're unconcerned with details, that you are more interested in the dialectic between these cyclical environmental processes and the local culture- it’s customs, conceptions, rituals.

YK:  Perhaps.  What we’ve provided here is a minimal design, a framework; the field walls are concrete.  There is nothing to change.  On one level, you just plant rice.  There's no reason to get rid of the paths, to cut the trees.  And the rest of the time you just follow the seasons.  All of my projects are minimal designs.  You might compare it aesthetically to the modernists’ design, but it's different, because in my case the landscape is productive- I don't want to maintain processes in stasis.

FN:  That term- productive landscape- seems loaded with potential and conflict, because there are different types of ecological productivity.  I would divide it two ways- environmental productivity and social productivity.  At the architectural campus you have a situation that is intensely productive in both ways- a particular type of architectural scholarship is concentrated there, and the large scale environmental processes are also significant.  I wanted to ask, what are other examples of designed landscapes that combine the two?  The one that jumps to mind is a farm.

YK:  Well, certainly, yes, but a farm could also be environmentally detrimental- a landscape of extraction- as opposed to productive.  May be if it’s an organic farm of some kind. 

FN:  That’s interesting- industrial farms as landscapes of extraction, much like a mine.  Materials and energy are imported to enable the extraction of geologic material.

YK:  Yes, many farms are like this.  Another distinction I think we should be clear about is ornamental gardens and productive landscapes.  Ornamental landscapes consume. 

FN:  And parks?  Are they ecologically productive?

YK:  Contemporary parks?  No, maybe community gardens, but they are lacking a specific aesthetic, though they still produce something, including pleasure.  I don't know, i don't think there are many landscapes at this scale that are socially and environmentally productive.
 [the Turenscape proposal for Grant Park in Chicago, the gridded field would have been planted in corn, the midwestern symbol of a productive landscape]

[a red ribbon bench would have woven through the park]

FN:  It seems to me that there are many good examples of leisure parks that are environmentally productive, at least to some degree; parks where you have a marsh, and walkway, and a field.  These things provide habitat and stormwater detention.  For me what separates the architectural campus is not productivity but the fact that leisure-work* of the users has been incorporated into the social and environmental program of the landscape.  You almost never see that unless you are talking about a community garden.

YK:  Actually we proposed for Grant Park in Chicago a similar concept- it was shortlisted but not accepted.  We proposed a cornfield right in the center of Chicago, irrigated with stormwater, very productive, involve the community, create an identity.  But obviously they didn’t like it. 

Americans I think, academically, are very open and sophisticated.  But when it comes to community-related or public issues related to voting, it seems the country can be quite conservative.  Obama has a vegetable garden at the white house, that is a good sign to have a more aggressive productive landscape architecture, but can this innovative concept be operated at the public scale? I am not sure. Intellectually Americans value this individuality but with the public you very much value a democratic system.

FN:  Which has some drawbacks.

YK:  Yes, you become average; average-ized.  But intellectually you are very advanced.  This idea of productive landscape has been talked about a lot in the past 20 years, but not much real happens.  Why?  I think it is because of this system you have for making and implementing decisions.
[the planting of "Wheatfield" by Agnes Denes; 2 acres of wheat planted and harvested in lower Manhattan, 1982]

[Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor from the Wheatfield]

[Agnes Denes in the Wheatfield, view towards Lower Manhattan]

FN:  One of the reasons i was interested in how you started your company was because I agree, I think our theories are sophisticated and advanced, but  our models and methods for implementing theory are very conservative and very far behind.  When we go to build a public park, it is still using the same funding and political concepts and mechanisms that built parks 25 years ago [or 150 years ago], therefore it is difficult to implement anything other than the theories that were acceptable 25 years ago.

YK:  I have one small project in Boston, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.  It took four years.  It's a very small project.  In china we would build it in 6 months.  The architectural campus was built in 3 months.  That's a difference.  Could be good, could be bad.  If you have a bad design, then you are building a lot of bad stuff fast; it could be terrible.  And the majority of them are terrible. 

FN:  Ha-ha!  Yes, in some ways slow is good.

YK:  Yes, slow is good, and you get an average- not so bad not so good, and maybe you slowly advance.  But I think right now China, because it is so important to have something built immediately and sustainably, you need this kind of quickly implementable system to make something happen.  The challenge is how can we have more people doing more good design?  Instead of just a few people doing a few good designs.

FN:  This is the problem of our profession.  We, like most, tend to be somewhat parochial and paranoid.

There have been a lot of new parks in New York City at the water’s edge in the last generation.  How do those projects compare to this new aesthetic that you advocate for, the big foot aesthetic?

YK:  I think these projects, and project in general in the US are well done; a very good design, very detailed, well crafted.  If you do a similar project in China you will never get it done.  The reason is we are not so patient to spend so much time with the detail, and we don't have the craftsmanship yet to build this kind of design, like these modern designs here in the US.  In China it's impossible.  You don’t have this kind of skill set yet.  So my approach is totally different.  I will let natural process do the work, minimize human intervention. 

My approach- the Big Foot Aesthetic- it's not environmentalist.  In the US you have a very long history of environmentalism.  But as you said, most of the time environmentalism means leave it alone, no people; but without art, our profession becomes invisible. 

My approach is that we need art, a minimum design to make ecologies visible.  Like the Red Ribbon Park; we let nature do its work and leave it as messy as possible.  And then we insert a very delicate intervention.  It's like a red tie for a suit; it makes everything nice- pulls the whole thing together.  This approach is an adaptation to the situation in China.  The land itself provides a service, instead of consuming services. 

FN:  it sounds resourceful.  You use labor, design to the level of craft, take advantage of the ecology, purposing it as an opportunity.

YK:  A shiny, well-maintained park; you have to mow it, fertilize it, and irrigate it.  The landscape can provide   services, it can produce energy instead of consume it.  The landscape should absorb rainwater instead of draining to pipes.  I would say that here you have a very good tradition of modernism- detailed design, sharp materials, shiny surfaces.  At the same time you have a strong environmental movement- biodiversity, etc.  I take the middle pass- minimum design, but artful.

FN:  This idea of labor is something that interests me as well.  You are advocating for an aesthetic which is resourceful and enables people to do work.  I'm wondering if that argument for allowing people to work, especially in public spaces, could that have something to do with social class and status?

YK:  That is exactly it.  There is a long tradition in both the west and the east where class is defined based on whether or not you labor at something.  If you are working class you are low.  If you have small feet, long nails, light skin, it means you don't have to do labor, so you have much higher status.  And this holds in many cultures.  Yet labor is normal; people become human because they labor, because they work.  It is what defines us, it is a biological situation. 

When the elites wanted to set themselves apart they looked for ways to become abnormal.  The clearest way to do that is to not labor.  That is the reason that the elites would deform themselves, perhaps that is why supermodels are so skinny.  Now that was okay before massive urbanization.  The minority can live on the surplus that labor is making.  But when you look at history, usually the high class disappears.  The elites lose productivity, fertility, health.  The last Emperor of China could not bear children.  It is sacrificed for status.

Now this value, this vestige of elite culture, has spread throughout the environment- everything from buildings, to landscape, to pets.  We must reverse this value system.

FN:  You make the assertion that people will go back to the land, to these other values and aesthetics, for survival.  But why is it changing now?  Why is your argument relevant now?

YK:  Because of the massive urbanization and our shrinking resources.  If an ornamental garden requires many resources but there is only one of them that's fine, but if the whole city is an ornamental garden then we cannot afford it. 

FN:  Because of the ecological imperative?

YK:  That's right.  If 10% of the people or places are unproductive, that might be fine.  If 90% of the landscapes are unproductive, that's not fine.  The human being will march toward death, like the last emperor of the last Chinese dynasty. 
[Turenscape proposal for Grant Park, Chicago; leisure walks juxtaposed with irrigation canals and corn fields]

[A corn field in winter; cycles and traditions of planting, growing, and harvesting are integrated into Chicago's urban fabric]

FN:  One thing that caught my ear earlier is how the days of planting and harvesting are becoming tradition, a part of the culture for the students at the Architectural campus.  As this has been occurring over the last 8 years I’m thinking that they like it, they enjoy it- it's meaningful.  It seems that although there is an ecological imperative perhaps another attraction is the pleasure of working.  An architectural education, for instance, is often very abstract; very rarely do we get to do some work with our hands.  Perhaps they like it because it involves pleasure, and novelty.

YK:  That's right; the work is helping them become people.  It’s very Marxist.  Marxism holds that people will eventually enjoy doing work, enjoy being healthy.  We will switch these values- if you drive a Mercedes you are low class.  If you ride a bicycle, that is high class.  Everyone will value labor.  That's the revolution.

FN:  Well, that's provocative.  And optimistic.  The kids at the architectural school, they enjoy the work, but maybe they enjoy it because they're not a farmer; they don't have to do it.  It's a tradition, they're doing it with their friends, but it's not like if they don't do it they don't eat.  It is leisure-work:  recreation.

YK:  That's true.  Here, labor is aesthetic.  It is more than survival, it is beyond survival.  It is a new culture.

(We want to note that the entire interview took place in English.  While we take for granted Kongjian’s ability to speak excellent English, we want to acknowledge and thank him, as the interview couldn’t have happened without his grace in speaking our language.)

*leisure-work we define as a form of recreation- meant to recreate the body and soul- as opposed to production.  While leisure-work may have some productive value (just as production-work may have some recreative value) and they may take similar forms, their motivations are ontologically different.

Conscientizacao as used by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the influential theorist of "critical pedagogy".  The term refers to "learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.  Our current working-definition for conscientizacao of the landscape is understanding landscape/architecture as educational project.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

If MacGyver went Mapping

We here at FASLANYC love lists.  And MacGyver.  Imagine our glee then when we discovered this list of problems MacGyver solved.  Recently we reported on a MacGyver-esque mapping initiative- grassroots mapping.  Grassroots Mapping, like MacGyver, might be described as an ‘outdoorsy do-gooder’ organization, but we prefer their description:

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers used helium balloons and kites to loft their own "community satellites" made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost. In some cases these maps may be used to support residents' claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

A contingent of these folks recently made their way to the ol’ Gowanus Canal for some grassroots mapping and produced some beautiful imagery capturing the street salting operations of the New York City Department of Sanitation.
[the New York City Department of Sanitation Salt Lot, along the Gowanus Canal in January, 2011; photo courtesy of Hans H at the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and Liz Barry at the Grassroots Mapping organization]

[Mississippi Coast during the Deepwater Horizon Disaster; note the boom with the oil soaked into the shoreline several yards deep; all aerial photos courtesy of flickr user Gonzoearth]

[Black Rock City, Nevada- Burning Man, 2010]

[composite of the aerial mapping along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn at the end of Second Avenue]

It seems possible that the mission of Grassroots Mapping might be strategically applied by Gowanus residents to help document industrial polluters, or understand the surface spatial implications of the progress of the incredible No. 3 New York City Water Tunnel.

Of course, it can also be used to document hedonistic ephemera such as burning man; equally beautiful.  Or applied to document the effects of the Gulf oil spill.  MacGyver would be proud, though he would have used dental floss.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Landscapes are Mythological, Buildings are Iconic?

Early last week some provocative images showed up over on freeassociationdesign that referred to the new book by Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought.  We ourselves have only recently been introduced to Morton through his book Dark Ecology, an esoteric and slightly neurotic read that we are enjoying.  Morton, of course, is part of a larger community of philosophizers all orbiting around Graham Harman (who has been extremely busy in recent weeks) and his theories of Object Oriented Ontology- OOO for the initiated which has spawned a number of doctoral theses and some interesting blogs and conferences in recent years
[ooo-h, behold the objects slamming into one another, or barely missing; 
photo from flickr user optimusprime2111]

What does this have to do with landscape?  We are not sure.  The basic premise of the OOO smacks of Walter Benjamin’s idea that historical objects should be allowed to collide with one another at random (as opposed to being part of a carefully curated narrative) and seems consistent with much compelling 20th century architectural thought.

An object-oriented ontology certainly seemed to drive the creation of Brasilia or Frank Gehry’s formal explorations, and may be right in line with the work of Eric Owen Moss in Culver City, Los Angeles.  This thinking seems not only provocative and particularly apropos in American Megacities where infrastructures slide in and over fields or slice through fabric, but also in the post-industrial wastelands of our manufacturing towns where the mythical form holds sway; captivating our attention and proliferating in pop-culture images while generating new forms of operating in the urban landscape.
[Eh, Mssr. Own Moss, it appears some objects have collided in this here building of yours]

Of course, it is unclear to us just how this philosophy is different from the literary post-modern, other than the fact that it is pedantically opposing the “Linguistic Turn” in philosophy.  Also unclear is why the majority of these folks that are so interested in objects don’t simply move to Brazil where in just a few weeks they can take part in the billions of objects of all kinds that will be smashing into one another, instead of merely peering down at the objects while they themselves wither. 

At any rate, in addition to his two books on ecological thought (which may prove to be substantial enough to be added to Carolyn Merchant’s work on the subject) Morton is working up a little piece called No Landscapes.  We hope to get our hands on it, and surmise that it is likely a speculation towards the idea that there is no medium within which objects collide, or touch, or miss one another.  Rather, it’s a vacuum, or another object.  Whether or not it is a series of semantic backflips aimed towards repositioning (or destroying) a landscape ontology, we are interested to know.  Since the inception of the profession of landscape architecture, landscape practice has been largely based on the architectural model.  The possibility of ontological difference between a practice of landscape and architecture is something that we hope to probe in the coming year.  Given our professed opinion that landscapes are best understood as mythologies (or cosmologies) as opposed to the iconic characteristic of buildings, we suspect that there may be a difference.
[objects running in to one another in 1906, or maybe they still are now, in the photo- we hope to find out; photo from the histarmar organization]

Of course, we may not get that far- we prefer being a smashing object, rather than reading and philosophizing about them.  And spring is coming.
[1850 "Celestial Atlas- Nebulae" Asa Smith, a map of objects that smash, from David Rumsey collection]
[1875 map of the northern night sky by Adolf Stietler, smashable objects with lightly mapped connections, from David Rumsey collection]

Thanks to reader R. Dye for the tip about Morton's work.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Animal Grace of Adriaan Gueze

[the New York Harbor and Governors Island]

Getting back to NYC, Places is carrying an interview one of our correspondents did with Adriaan Gueze of West 8 this week.  The themes range but the piece is focused around the Governors Island project in the New York Harbor.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Monica Porto, Plan Verde, and reading of the American Megacity

Like a dog returning to their favorite poop spot, we here at FASLANYC tend to focus in on those two eastern American metropoli- New York City and Buenos Aires.  However, in recent months some rumblings have surfaced in the two largest American cities- Mexico City and Sao Paulo- that are worth noting, especially in light of the effort to understand mega-cities as primary drivers of innovation.

Several months ago mammoth brought up Parag Khanna’s interesting thesis that “the city is increasingly becoming a more important entity than the nation-state,” an argument Khanna compellingly relates by correlating contemporary cities with medieval counterparts.  He then asserts that what is needed is a redrawing of the world’s borders- a new map- along infrastructural lines and presumably according to some logic he will elucidate in his chillingly-titled recent release How to Run the World.   While it would be a life’s work to prove the primacy of the contemporary city in relation to the nation state regarding political importance and cultural prominence, its effect on landscape and urbanism in recent decades is undeniable. 
[an informal favela in Sao Paulo; that water comes out at Buenos Aires]

Khanna’s assertion smacks of dromology and is supported by developments in policy and design, especially regarding climate change.  While international conferences on economic and environmental policy have been perceived as ineffectual, cities across the US have been rolling out publicly accessible guidelines and design and planning tools for public spaces, and entering transnational agreements to work toward goals on biodiversity, carbon emissions, and public transit.  The most ambitious and salient of these is the Plan Verde of Mexico City.

This pact has been in effect for Mexico, DF for 3 years and was agreed to at the recent World Mayors Summit on Climate by over 140 cities, including all of the American megacities except New York.  It calls for setting targets for reducing emissions, construction of public bicycle and public transit systems, and for new water infrastructure and policies so that fresh water aquifers are not depleted.  Much like the PISA (Integrated Environmental Remediation Plan) of ACUMAR in Argentina, this plan is conceived of as a “live document”, with resources being devoted to monitoring dynamics, dialogue with constituent groups, and adapting policy.  The ability of this plan to be imported by the metropolises that recently signed the pact will be a test of the Khanna’s hyperbolic thesis and its focus on infrastructure.

Further South in the financial and industrial capital of the continent, Monica Porto is working to translate Brazil’s controversial water policy into a system which does not externalize environmental costs- a radical notion to actually put in place, and one to which we tip our hat.  In the Amazon basin, engineers are hard at work building a hydrological infrastructure on the scale of what once existed as Brazil takes off.  Porto’s work could prove even more vital, given that Sao Paulo shares the la Plata watershed with the capital cities Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Montevideo, Asuncion, and Sucre, as well as 70% of the combined GDP of those countries.
[the Falls of Iguazu, at the junction of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina]

At a more tangible, urban level these developments beg the question- if national borders are fast becoming obsolete economically and environmentally, and are either obsolete or serve as flash points for conflict politically, then why redraw the map?  Are there other forms of cartography that might be more useful?  Might we better understand and intervene in urban geographies through tiny taxonomies, hydro-period graphs, and architectural field guides?  With our interest in the manual, we can’t help but think that this thinking might have a corollary in the urban project.  Rather than conceptualizing our readings and understandings as a plan, a whole library of manuals might be produced, edited, or curated.  

Make more manuals, not maps.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Excavating Urbanism: Algae and Infrastructure in Chaco Canyon

One of our fascinations here at FASLANYC is the myriad historical/mythological alternative forms of American urbanism. We are huge fans of the American landscape in all its sublime and banal magnificence; nowhere else has the human species confronted bigness, population loss, immigration, and excess (of function, materiality, and energy) at such a grand scale.

[the Canyon de Chelly by Edward S Curtis, 1904- the Southwest, once an American urban center, remade as ahistorical myth of the wild west]

Recently we’ve come across some exciting work in the nascent field of landscape archeology on Anasazi urbanism (though really, almost everything in landscape archeology can be defined as exciting).  First, let’s offer a working definition of landscape archeology- it applies the rigor of archeological methods (gridding out zones, careful measurements of objects, data collection) to landscape processes and territories as opposed to individual sites or objects.  This leads to fascinating applications of stratigraphy and aerial photography, methods which are influencing the practice of landscape, much as geology did in the mid-19th century.

At any rate, Chaco Canyon was very likely the center of a large, sprawling urbanism spread out across the mesa and connected to the Canyon- the cosmological center of the society- by transportation and storm water infrastructure.  The aerial photography reveals the development as a cellular structure, a networked urbanism of accretion.  This is utterly contemporary, as if Mat-Sys and the Network Architecture Lab birthed a child and sent them to cotillion with Mitchell Joachim and Lateral Office.  Everywhere is roads and canals and pods, “thick” surfaces, vessels, and conduits. Boy, howdy. 
[modern American tourism infrastructure overlaid on Chacoan urbanism]

Over on the excellent Canyons Worldwide, Richard Fisher has been poking his lens and nose in and around Chaco Canyon and the cache of scientific literature it has generated (the website is excellent, by the way, and we recommend spending some time with it) for several years now and he has a very curious hypothesis.  The harsh environment of the mesa would have made agriculture extremely difficult, both because of the sparse rainfall but also because of the lack of organic fertilizer.  In this essay (specifically pages 6, 14, and 18) he starts with the hypothesis that “if the Anasazi built structures (canals, pits) that retained water, that is what they were built for.”  Wow.  That’s why he’s paid the big bucks. 
[an excavated canal in the Chaco Canyon region]

But let’s examine it; what he’s discussing are the hundreds of lines and depressions in the Chaco Canyon zone that all appear to be some kind of networked infrastructure.  These have been hypothesized as the standard Mesoamerican constructions of this geometry- roads, ball courts and “grid gardens”, a hypothesis he is rejecting as they still leave open a gaping question- how did this seemingly unproductive land support an urbanism so highly developed?  He proposes that they were actually a vast storm water retention system that was able to generate bio-fertilizer (as opposed to our petro-mineral fertilizer) used for farming, not just flush the water away.  Basically, these canals would guide storm water to depressions where it would pool for days, giving rise to teeming algal blooms catalyzed by the crypto-biotic soils of the surrounding mesa.  This fertilizer would then be harvested and used for crop production which was effective enough to produce the massive, sprawling urban agglomeration apparent as archeological sites in the dry canyon that today supports only tourists.  He constructs this hypothesis with an examination of existing scientific literature and then tests the hypothesis with a diy recipe for the fertilizer:

1 gallon distilled water
3 cups native mesquite/palo verde detritus
1 cup interior of dove nest
1 tablespoon night soil
2 cups material from below wild bird feeder
2 tablespoons dead insects (drowned bees, ants, wasps)
1/2 cup charcoal
2 tablespoons bird and rodent droppings

Let mixture stand in the sun for five days at 75-105 degrees Fahrenheit and average 50% humidity.
Ionization test for nitrogen and phosphorus
1. Sweetwater Phosphate=369mg/L Ammonia=215mg/L
2. Sweetwater/Organic Mulch mix Phosphate=401mg/LAmmonia= 227mg/L
(testing by Tom Huntsberger, Analytical Services Lab. Northern Arizona University August 4,2003)
Dr. Dean Blinn: this is a very high quality organic liquid fertilizer.
[Pueblo Bonito, a center of urbanism in Chaco Canyon]

We admire those methods!  Just imagine if the Anasazi could enter our design competitions today!  They would have an NYC and Los Angeles branch office in no time.  Much like the Amazonian urbanism, the urbanism of the Anasazi was dispersed, resourceful, infrastructural, and cosmological.  How utterly todo-americano.