Thursday, March 3, 2011

Towards a Mestizo Landscape Praxis

Today’s missive is what we’ll call a “working thesis”, which is not to say that anything is ever presented here in any kind of refined state, only that today we do propose a thesis and don’t just ramble on and on as per usual (starting after this sentence). 

Given our avowed interest in Turning South, we cast our nets that way whenever we can.  Recently we stumbled across a project that is doing a great survey- a series of interviews with young architectural collectives operating in Latin America.  Many of these groups will be familiar to landscape blog readers, a testament to the cumulative impact that young Latin American practitioners in general are having (check out the project by Fabrica de Paisaje out of Uruguay and FASLANYC-favorite Supersudaca about Caribbean tourism).  What is intriguing and innovative is not so much the content of the study, but rather the form that the study takes.  If you compare this with MVRDV’s infamous Costa Iberica polemic from the late 90’s, the interesting aspect is the insistence on using issuu to publish, not mysteriously-funded, European and bureaucratic architectural publishers.  The content takes off from there, and gets interestingly analytical in a very Lateral Office kind of way.

This surge should be seen in the context of a larger Central and South American economic and political resurgence that is accompanied by a decrease in the hegemony of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  It’s a topic we won’t dive into here, but you can check in over at the New School's Latin American Observatory, or read this issue of the Economist.  The question that must be asked is why?  Why the focus on Latin America?  Who gives a shit?
[the olympics, the world cup, a surging economy, forward-thinking water policy and governance, a population over 200 million, Sao Paulo is the industrial and financial and population capital of the continent- we can safely say Brazil is taking the fuck off]

We want to state emphatically that it is not an emphasis on Latin America that is needed.  Rather, it is an interpretation of the American Landscape as a mestizo condition, one that is endemic to all the Americas and fundamental to the very notion of America which is sorely lacking and necessary.  Let’s leave aside the fact that in regards to wealth disparity, economic volatility, colonial historicism, mythologizing, ethnic diversity and mixing, African and indigenous slavery, immigrant bias, population size, growth, and geography the Americas have much more in common with each other than with Europe.  Let’s limit today’s examination to a couple of simple questions of landscape- smashing and bigness.
[a Gini index map provides a spatial interpretation of income distribution by country; contrast and compare the Americas and Europe]

Smashing- America itself is a mestizo construction.  The variety of urbanisms that existed on the American continent- the dispersed urbanisms of the Amazon basin, the cellular urbanisms of Chaco Canyon, the ephemeral urbanism supported by landscapes managed at a continental scale of the plains people, the agricultural urbanism of the Mississippi Valley people, the megacity urbanism of Tenochtitlan, the cosmological urbanism of Tikal, or the infrastructural urbanism of the Incas- is wildly stimulating and unmatched in its variety and awesomeness.  None of these folks considered themselves American, or anything like it.  That term arose when the Europeans arrived and the groups began smashing into one another- their languages, their genes, their customs, their concepts of the landscape.
[plan of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), drawn from Cortes' description, published in 1524 in Nuremburg- this is also a fundamentally mestizo construction]

These were smashed into pieces large and small, varying by region, and recomposed in different ways.  Often the European pieces were recomposed on the outside, dominating subsequent perceptions.  It’s less clear who was at the core.  Names like creole, Acadian, mestizo, and criollo sprang up.  Shortly thereafter the American regions found a way to kick out their colonizers and take control of their own interactions.  The smashing kept happening as more and new people arrived from African, Europe, and Asia, creating the hot, hot heat of civil war, wild economic prosperity, and great income disparity.  Jazz and samba and tango and the blues arise.  Mixing and improvisation abound.

Bigness- The scale of the American continent had a profound effect on the mestizo condition, and the nascent mestizo mind began to shape this bigness.  In this dialectic, the effect took the form of the conception of the sublime, and the construction of landscapes of extraction at a continental scale.  The idea of the wild was conceived- a virgin land ripe for exploring, surveying, settling, tilling, and of course buying and selling.  Economies were created based on the extraction of staples (including the soil nutrients and water embodied in agricultural products) and the exportation of raw goods, a pattern that still largely holds and was profoundly influential.
[pivot irrigation agriculture in great plains]

The bigness of the American landscape has inspired a number of canonical texts in landscape including Corner and MacLean’s Taking Measures Across the American Landscape.   Unfortunately, these guys didn’t realize that they would find the same mestizo condition- defined by smashing and bigness- in the pampas of Argentina, the Andes of Bolivia, the central valley of Mexico, or the Amazon Basin in Brazil and that they ought to point their Cessna and their Subaru south to take a true measure of the American landscape.  This oversight is a result of what we’ll call the European Turn. 

The European Turn- European cultural practices and concepts have always had a fundamental influence on the American landscape.  That is undeniable, and just fine.  Alphand corresponded with Olmsted, Carlos Thays was French, Forestier worked in Havana, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City, and the English landscape style was adopted by Downing.  What’s more, the Army Corps of Engineers is modeled after the French Army Engineer School and American elites (and working class) with ethnic ties to Europe have often gone back and forth, transplanted seeds, customs, and concepts.  But in each of those cases, something very authentically American was created, neither European nor indigenous.  This changed in the second half of the twentieth century with the rise of the United States as an imperial power, the adoption of neo-liberal policies by military dictators in Latin America, and the proliferation of the International Style for the high-design elite and post-war suburbanization for the majority.

This European Turn is better understood if it is framed in terms of form, not content.  And for this, Innis’ theories of communication media are instructive:  communication media are either time-biased or space-biased.  Time-biased media are heavy and slow; space-based media are light and fast.  In his conception, European media were traditionally space-biased; based on the written word, transcribe-able and translatable over distances and through time and reliant on the rule of law.  Cultures built on oral tradition are time-biased and relational, requiring speech and personal interaction.

Around the time that Innis was working on these theories the International Style was taking hold.  Perhaps the fundamental tenet of this style is that architecture is about space.  This is a wonderful notion and was revolutionary at the time, but like a good red wine held in clumsy hands we got a few nice sips from it, spilled it on our shirt, and ever since its stain has been the pink elephant in the room.  This idea is so pervasive that until the term architecture was appropriated by other disciplines (politics, economics, software engineering) we forgot that concepts of space and volume were not fundamental to the definition of architecture, only modernist architecture.  The space-bias of historical European communication media is consistent with the other tenets of the International Style- structural columns not walls, repeatable elements arranged intelligently.  And this space-bias is also related to the European spatial concept of the Westphalian state and Euclidean geometry.  All three were developed with the idea of assembling extensive territorial empires with specific systems for surveying, sending communications, and constructing habitation and sheds and infrastructures.  Modernism was the apotheosis.  The idea of the European Westphalian state died in WWII, and it never existed in the Americas.  But in the United States, we have not understood this.  We have tried to scrub out the stain from the red wine, and what we need to do is change the shirt.
[it could be said that we need more of this]

Since the European Turn we have, in succession, idealized the Bos Park, bastardized Corbusier’s urbanism, and canonized Parc du la Villette.  Landscape Urbanists can’t talk about a project without relying on a French philosopher, and most of the travel fellowships, scholarships, and appointments in landscape and architecture send our brightest to European capitals to rehash some lovely, sweet stories about those old tourist towns.  Speaking at the Architectural League in New York a few years ago, Corner harkened back to the time of the Sun King, letting out a wistful sigh and positing that landscape design was better then.  The notion that Versailles or Bos Park or La Villette would ever be considered relevant in the American context is an extremely dubious claim.
[Bos Park in Amsterdam.  The product of a poldering system overlaid with a two hundred years of forestry science and social recreational programming for an ethnically homogeneous society- absolutely not an American park]

Towards a Modern Mestizo Landscape Praxis- The reality of the mestizo landscape has been lost because of the modern focus on designers ( almost-Ayn-Rand-like in their conception).  While the landscape/architecture narrative is shaped by the designeratti, the medium itself has been constructed by the bureaucracy, the farmer, the surveyor, the engineer.  And the real taste-makers are not found in the elite circles as might have been the case in Victorian England or Louis XIV’s France, but in the pages of Good Housekeeping and O Magazine.  Our best designers and theorists dare not put on the bear-shirt and go down in to the pit. 

But of course, this also was not always the case.  AJ Downing and William Cullen Bryant wrote extensively in The Horticulturalist and the New York Post, and Olmsted was a trained journalist well before ever thinking about designing Central Park.  We need more of our writers to tailor a message to these outlets, and to do that we need to talk more about labor and technology in design.  Fundamental to the making of landscape are the cultural practices embodied within it (writing, pile driving, concrete production, recreation mythologies, real estate speculation).

We here think that a move away from the capital project and the plan set in favor of the maintenance manual and funding-by-aggregation is another way towards a modern mestizo landscape practice.  Whatever the case, the American landscape that continually arises from the smashing together of things within a place defined by bigness is a particular condition, one that calls for a modern landscape praxis.  To do it we may have to redirect a little of the fawning attention flowing east since the European Turn, and to instead turn south.


  1. Brian,
    Nice "more than a ramble!" You may find Berrizbeitia's sources on cultural hybridity and mestizo culture relevant to your explorations. Check out Parque del Este (Univ of Penn Press).

  2. great point. thank you for the comment and the tip.

    Berrizbeitia is someone I've only just begun to dive in to, but she (along with Martignoni on a much more superficial level) seems to be one of the only voices that have managed to reach the north since modernism. There is Truelove's book about Schjetnan too, but precious little else it seems...

  3. Very nice...

    One thing that strikes me is the fact that America itself is a mestizo construction. The variety of urbanisms that existed on the American continent- the dispersed urbanisms of the Amazon basin, the cellular urbanisms of Chaco Canyon, the ephemeral urbanism supported by landscapes managed at a continental scale of the plains people, the agricultural urbanism of the Mississippi Valley people, the megacity urbanism of Tenochtitlan, the cosmological urbanism of Tikal, or the infrastructural urbanism of the Incas- are all historical models, no?

    Would contemporary interest in informalism or what?, be the appropriate contemporary version. Or are you interested in exactly how to uncover, re-discover and re-apply these older models, forgotten (as a result of the Euopean turn) to a contemporary context?

  4. Hi nam-
    thanks for the question. you are right that the list i gave are all historical models, or rather historical speculations based on historical documents, landscape archeology, archeology.

    i'm not advocating for a contemporary model necessarily, though I'd love to hear if you have specific thoughts regarding that. If anything, I'm currently thinking that we need several models, tons of models. But my point for the moment is that we should delve in to the mestizo nature of our landscape, and start being much more critical of european models. it's not that they are irrelevant, but that they are often inappropriate (due to lack of heterogeneity, or at least a different kind and a difference in scale). BUT, it's not an anti-europe rant, rather that we should look south a bit more, because the mestizo condition of the American landscape is a shared one, and we'd have a lot more to learn by grooming through South American landscape projects, than by constantly seeing what's on tap in Spain or Holland.

  5. couldn't agree with this BUT, it's not an anti-europe rant, rather that we should look south a bit more, because the mestizo condition of the American landscape is a shared one, and we'd have a lot more to learn by grooming through South American landscape projects, more....

  6. Nice article, thanks for the information.