Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Today's Newsdesk: Gotland

[the uninhabited Akpatok Island in northern Quebec with sheer cliffs that rise 500 feet out of the Ungava Bay?  Or a post storm oil slick on the Gowanus Canal?]

[Akpatok Island]

We are pretty sure that Earth Day occurred at some point in the last few weeks, and rather than breaking from our cocoons and cautiously spreading our pollinated wings like a delicate butterfly warming and flitting about in the sunshine, we instead surfed the USGS EROS server.  What we found was just as good- stunningly beautiful satellite images of the Earth, as opposed to the regular ones found on google earth which we have grown desensitized to.

[the painted desert in the American southwest beautifully transitions to forest]

[the delta of the Yukon National wildlife refuge]

It seems unnecessary to point out the similarities in these forms and patterns and those of microbial landscapes or magnified geologies; mountains ranges and river deltas and mycorrhiza associations are all awesome things.  For a titillating vertigo check out the image of the Icelandic fjord and then read Tim Morton’s words on the “uncanny anteriority of the massive object”, (an excellent blog despite his nauseatingly intimate style that is like inviting you into the digital bathroom for scintillating conversation while he’s voiding his bowels). 

[an icelandic fjord]

[also an icelandic fjord, and its inertia-inducing causal properties]

We are particularly fond of the Earth Art 3 series because that is where Gotland makes an appearance.  According to the Gutasagan (Gotland Tale) the island was a magical place that rose out of the Baltic Sea every morning with the mists, before subsiding again every evening.  This would explain the Silurian reefs that are found all along the coastline, as well as the fact that the earliest known inhabitation occurred only 7,000-8,000 years ago (compare this with the Monte Verde site way down in southern Chile, which dates back at least 13,000 years).  Despite the late start it quickly picked up steam and before the founding of the Hanseatic League the city of Visby was the main center of Baltic commerce, and continued to have a prominent role in the proto-capitalist, proto-Westphalian Hanseatic League.

[Gotland in the Baltic Sea]

[the hanseatic league, gotland was a link to sweden and novgorod]

[a silurian reef in Gotland, similar to those that can be found buried beneath Chicago]

We still like to think of it as a magical land full of fjords and beasts, one that rises out of the mists every morning.  The reality is something a little less interesting, though it does bear a striking resemblance to Koolhaasian landscape infrastructurism.  In this birthplace of capitalism the treasures of Gotland, it seems, have been revisioned as a playpen for German and Swedish businessmen who need to do some eco-friendly race track driving, and we’re left a little cold.  Hard to argue with the slogan though:  Safety Ecology Racing.
[the Gotland Ring racecourse and eco-resort]

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Landscape Ontology II: Production, Extraction, and Generative Capacity

[phosphate mining in Togo]

In searching for an ontology of landscape practice, it seems good to consider the concepts of production, extraction, and generative capacity.  Our contemporary interest in terms such as “ecosystem services”, “performative surfaces/substances” and “green/soft infrastructure” suggests a link and this topic was probed to some extent by Mason White a few months ago.  Even so, the general bewilderment that these terms provoke suggests that a better understanding of them might be helpful in divining a truly landscape ontology.

Productive landscapes and Performance
Production is a loaded term that rose to prominence with the widespread adoption of industrial processes based on throughput systems.  In the industrial sense its meaning is something like “the action or process of making goods from components or raw materials; the manufacture of goods for sale and consumption.”  In her book Ecological Revolutions Carolyn Merchant notes that in the 18th century the term signified the “animal and vegetable productions regarding [sic] the power of nature to bring forth animals, trees, and herbaceous plants”.  Relatedly the term was applied to the results of religious and artistic practice (a definition still in effect today, considering that a Justin Timberlake performance is both a religious and an artistic practice). 
[Justin Timberlake in concert as religious experience]

[John Tillman Lyle's diagram of the industrial throughput system]

By 1825 the industrial revolution was in full swing and the term was redefined to mean “not the production of matter… but the production of utility, and consequently of exchangeable value, by appropriating and modifying matter already in existence.”  The concept of production here is similar- working matter into something useful, be it minerals and water into fruit, or cotton into new leggings.  But there is a fundamental difference- it is no longer the biological processes that are productive, but rather the mechanistic processes.  Granted, one could argue that is no difference at all, just a misconception.  But the conception of the term is precisely what is significant.

This concept was predicated on an elemental belief of things.  That is, different things could be collected, harvested, broken down if necessary and then recombined according to a defined and repeatable process with the end result being considered the product “for sale or consumption”.  This is evident just as much in the annals of Good Housekeeping Magazine- which in 1910 touted a fully accessorized house as a factory for the “production of happiness”- as in the ramblings of Buckminster Fuller surveyed by White.  It is a loose term that may be shifting again, but all of these processes of production have something in common- landscapes of extraction.

Extraction and the Message of the Medium
Caricatures of landscapes of extraction are easy to conjure and fun to view from google earth.  They are also fundamental to the American landscape condition.  Though they far predate anything understood as America, their role in shaping the construction of industrial infrastructures and social institutions throughout the Americas was instrumental in the creation of the mestizo landscape.  Wherever they are located, landscapes of extraction are intricately tied to the industrial mode of production and as such the mines and oil fields and industrial farms are just as much an industrial urban phenomenon as the mill, the skyscraper, and the dock.
[Map of Canadian Pacific Railway lines, with Harold Innis's annotations from his doctoral research on the railway]

[Map of telegraph lines in Quebec and the Maritime provinces, Atlas of Canada, 1906]

What is critical to realize is that in a landscape of extraction its hundreds or thousands of possible realities and outcomes are reduced according to a teleology, and that teleology is intended to divine or create the raw material and energy needed for the industrial process of production.  This is not the same as a mono-functional landscape, which is an oxymoron.  However, the teleology itself- which is always incomplete when considered as a landscape- can be monofunctional.  This question of teleology is critical in defining and probing landscapes related to industrial production.  And though it inevitably spawns various other uses, appropriations, and relations, it is again the conception that is defining.

Generative Capacity
The generative capacity of a landscape is usually defined as something-like-production; after all, things are produced or created or generated from other things or aspects of things, be they collard greens, social space in a Moscow plaza or fiberglass insulation.  However, there is a difference between production and generative capacity, and that is in the conspicuous lack of a teleology.  A focus on the generative capacity of the landscape allows that efficiency is a completely mutable concept depending on mutable values of desire and time.  More important, it does not take an elemental view of things but rather an objective one, allowing that objects in relation to one another, whether a freeway overpass, a plume of industrial toxins in the soil, or a catalpa tree in a backyard garden generates new possibilities in an open and multivalent way as opposed to reducing and recombining them according to reproducible processes.  That is, a focus on the generative capacity of the landscape is a method of resistance, both from within and without modern industrial processes of commoditization such as real estate.

Of course, none of these landscape conceptions are mutually exclusive.  The generative capacity of the landscape is not conceived in a bubble as a place independent of landscapes of extraction and production but as a place of resistance, an alternative to dominant modes of appropriation.  So what does this have to do with landscape ontology?  In the comments of our first post on the topic, Nam brought up an important point that clarified the importance of tactical maneuvers in the landscape as a method of resistance and de-militarization of space.  A focus on generative capacity creating a landscape of resistance through tactical or strategic maneuvers might be considered a defining characteristic of landscape practice.  This resistance can be seen in the work of early landscape architects, paisajistas, agronomy engineers, and architects who thought of landscapes as urban entities that were an antidote to the “productive circuits”- the factory, the market, the dock- of the modern industrial city.
[the alberta tar sands in canada, a landscape of extraction; image source]

[hydrofracking after the initial pit has been drilled; image source]

Landscape practice might attain or reclaim a distinct and exceptional character through a newfound focus on the generative capacity of the landscape itself.  To a minor degree, experimentation with the medium itself has persisted through time.  In the early 1900’s in the town of Mendoza, Argentina a native tree propagation nursery was incorporated into the new municipal park as an adaptive strategy to reforest the cordillera at the edge of the city.  In the 1950’s Roberto Burle Marx spent time collecting and cataloging to create new didactic compositions of native plants in Brazil, and right now Brett Milligan up in Portland is wandering around the city instigating goat-based maintenance regimes and vegetated graffiti in the gravel. 

But largely, and especially since the European Turn, landscape practice has been focused on the creation of spaces outside, and subordinate to the disciplines of architecture and engineering.  The current landscape practice (landscape urbanism) promises an alternative, but the emphasis on abstraction and systems, reliance on digital production of form, and reliance on productive landscapes undermines the very aspect of landscape practice that is unique (though not without a certain tension and many speculative critiques, which suggests this could evolve).  We might evolve other landscape practices, ones that draw on the methodologies of the bee super and the brew master as much as the architect and the engineer, and doesn’t jump the shark on the systems metaphor but grapples with objective material reality and the abstract system.  In this landscape practice fecundity abounds, jetsam and flotsam are found, and the landscape itself is a figure to be dealt with, to smash into or be subsumed by, to fragment or to float through, and to recoil from or destroy.
[a bee super]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Antarctica: Stromatolites and Rompehielos

Over on Wired today you can catch a quick report on some fascinating conical mounds in Lake Untersee, Antarctica.  Evidently, stringy cyanobacteria accumulate on the bottom of the lake floor over thousands of years, forming meter high mounds known as stromatolites.  Stromatolites are layered accretionary structures formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of calcium carbonate and sedimentary grains by the biofilm of cyanobacteria colonies.  Obviously.  This film continues to grow upward through the accumulated layer, continuing the process. 
[alternative reef structure:  stromatolites in Shark Bay in Western Australia]

[Antarctica from space- the Untersee is under there somewhere]

This is awesome, but the question arises:  who cares, other than the supernerds at wired?  Stromatolites actively form in a few far-flung places such as volcanic Andean lakes, under-ice Antarctic lakes, and Shark Bay in Western Australia, and are evidently some of the oldest fossils around; the earliest examples date back a solid 3 billion years to the Archean Period.  In addition, they formed the first reefs which likely enabled foundational ecologies critical to life as we know it.  Understandably then, scientists like to study these current stromatolites for clues about the beginning of life on Earth. 

We love that the concept of “incredibly beautiful microbial landscapes” and are drawn in by the prospect of imagining what else might be underneath the frozen ice sheets of Antarctica, just awaiting a good thaw.  Given our interest in the southern cone, we’ve kept an eye on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years.  The Peninsula is a continuation of the Andean "magmatic and deformation belt" and its close proximity to the city of Ushuaia, Argentina means that it shelters a cluster of scientific and tourist stations.  The Peninsula is also one of the areas in the world most affected by global warming

[the mean surface temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula has increase about 2 degrees Celsius since the period from 1940-1980; almost as drastic as the north pole] 
[the construction of the Argentine Belgrano Base on western Antarctica, in 1955; image source from the excellent histarmar.com.ar]

Given this, we can’t help but wondering what a future settlement might look like on Antarctica.  It could be a futuristic sci-fi terrestrial dystopia straight out of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 classic Last and First Men:  A Story of the Near and Far Future, or a more post-apocalyptic dune-scape excerpted from a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Given recent patterns of settlement and colonization, it will likely be a strange brew of historical temperate colonization culture smashed together and cooked up with a 6 months light/6 months dark solar cycle.

Whatever the result, we can be sure that the rompehielos will play a fairly important role.  Rompehielos, or “icebreakers”, are ships designed to smash through the great ice sheets that ring Antarctica, maintaining Napolean-like lines of communication to the scientific bases as well as guiding tourist ships.  Rather than plowing a furrough directly into the ice sheet, the hulls are shaped and weighted to climb up on the ice and then use the weight of the boat to smash down through it like an overweight walrus humping its way across the beach.  You laugh, but the ability to cross the wicked currents of the Drake passage, smash through thousands of kilometers of ice, and overwinter while frozen into the Larson Ice Shelf and still supporting a crew yet not being crushed by the expanding ice is impressive.  The bases of Antarctica deserve their own praise, but the rompehielos are what catch our fancy.
[it's a cold and lonely life as a rompehielo.  also an awesome one with it double hull and ice horn and diesel powered engines]

[lord shackelton's Endurance expedition to Antarctica was not able to withstand the extremes; the Endurance froze into the see and was eventually busted by the winter ice]

[the Argentine rompehielo Almirante Irizar, moored in Buenos Aires for repairs]

In the Antarctic continent, and other extreme locations, it is easy to be fascinated by the microbial life forms, but we hold that landscape architects should consider microscopic agents in everyday field situations as well.  As we scurry around looking for methods and advantages in combatting environmental degradation or regenerating biological and social processes, we might look to the fungus and the bacteria, leaning on the mycologist and the brewmaster just as much as the planner and the engineer.
[future landscape architects, looking for some rad microbes to cultivate]

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Los Angeles: Ask the Dust/Access Control

What if the representation of Borromini’s chapel one is constantly shown in architectural education was not charcoal drawings from a Bismarck’s Grand Tour, but rather the specification book and field notes used to communicate the construction process, observations and calculations, work logs, and performance specs necessary to actually construct the dome?  In that vein, and drawing on Walter Benjamin’s exhortation that random objects from the past should be allowed to collide together randomly, a notion that smacks of Graham Harman’s object oriented ontology, we are interested to know what types of site readings and speculative interventions might be generated by splicing together different literary genres and conventions from particular moments in time (as opposed to image-centric and photoshop-reliant design speculations).  Which is not to say there is no room for the image.
[an image of borromini's chapel, we'd love to see the field notes, contracts, and specifications for construction; image source]

To explore this a bit we’ve chosen Ask the Dust from 1939 by John Fante, a Los Angeles screenwriter and novelist (and progenitor of Bukowski and the other misfits of Sparrow Press) and spliced it with the chapter on Access Control from the 1970 Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering Street Design Manual, published a year before Reyner Banham’s Four Ecologies.


Los Angeles, give me some of you!  Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
When a fully controlled freeway or partially controlled highway is developed through a City, some existing intersecting streets must be cut off in order to prevent promiscuous access to these main arteries.  It is uneconomical to provide grade-separated crossings or to leave a large number of dead-end streets. 
[parking and power generator adjacent to One Wilshire on Wilshire Boulevard in downtown los angeles]

[LA river; at the base of the upper wall ruderal vegetation rules, on the sides of the trapezoid anti-graffiti dominates; the central channel is overflowed with spring snowmelt]

Then I went down the hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories, and on down Olive to the Philharmonic Auditorium, and I remembered how I’d gone there with Helen to listen to the Don Cossack Choral Group, and how I got bored and we had a fight because of it, and I remembered what Helen wore that day- a white dress, and how it made me sing at the loins when I touched it.  And so I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise, and the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad, and the black pavement still wet from the fog of the night before.
Full control of access gives preference to through traffic by providing access connections with selected public roads only, and by prohibiting crossings at grade or direct private driveway connections.  Partial control of access gives preference to through traffic to a degree that, in addition to access connections with selected public roads, there may be some crossings at grade and some private driveway connections.  Freeways are examples of fully controlled access highways.  By the very nature of city streets, provisions must be made for access to abutting property.  This means that the City’s main concern is with partial or limited access control of streets.

Main Street after the show, midnight:  neon tubes and a light fog, honky tonks and all night picture houses.  Secondhand stores and Filipino dance halls, cocktails 15 cents, continuous entertainment, but I had seen them all, so many times, spent so much Colorado money in them.  It left me lonely like a thirsty man holding a cup, and I walked toward the Mexican Quarter with a feeling of sickness without pain.  Here was the Church of Our Lady, very old, the adobe blackened with age.  For sentimental reasons I will go inside.  For sentimental reasons only. 
In addition to access control, a frontage road provides circulatory movements for local of subdivision traffic.  It provides continued access to the abutting residential, industrial, or commercial properties remaining.  It provides, for short distances, an alternate route parallel to the main highway or freeway.  Its chief function, however, is to keep local traffic isolated from the main highway except at predesignated access points.
[obligatory taco truck; utility provision, especially electricity, seems critical to the geography of taco truck ecology]

[the 101 at night, expansion joints in the concrete papered over with sealant]

[LA river, the bridges and power lines are obvious, the UFO in the top right is a little less conspicuous]

I tossed my shoulders and swaggered away, whistling with pleasure.  In the gutter I saw a long cigarette butt.  I picked it up without shame, lit it as I stood with one foot in the gutter, puffed it and exhaled toward the stars.  I was an American, and goddamn proud of it.  This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America.  From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire.  Camilla’s people had had their chance.  They had failed.  We Americans had turned the trick.  Thank God for my country.  Thank God I had been born an American!
The alignment and grade determination of the frontage roads are treated in the same manner as those of most other city streets.  Design problems encountered will be covered elsewhere in this Part of the Manual.

I went up to my room, up the dusty stairs of Bunker Hill, past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet.  Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at the windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.  The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun.  And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mache homes were castles.  The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home.  These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians.  With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.
There are several advantages in cutting off access to a street.  Normally a street, no matter how unimportant, is used by some traffic not destined for or originating in that particular block.  Such traffic is eliminated entirely on a dead-end street, increasing the street value for residential purposes because of decreased noise and odor and increased safety.

After a while, after big doses of the Times and the Examiner, you too will whoop it up for the sunny south.  You’ll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you’ll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you never will possess, and the hot semi-tropical nights will reek of romance you’ll never have, but you’ll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.
Areas zoned for industry, commerce, and multiple residences are usually subject to heavy vehicular use.  Where this type of property abuts a major or a secondary highway, the heavy flow of traffic generated in this area can sometimes create a complex traffic problem.  Not only is vehicular access to the property impeded, but through vehicle movement along the major and secondary highways is seriously restricted.
[secure subterranean parking at one wilshire]

The restless dust of Los Angeles fevered him.  He was a greater wanderer than myself, and all day long he sought out perverse loves in the parks.  But he was so ugly he never found his desire, and the warm nights with low stars and yellow moon tortured him away from his room until the dawn arrived.  But one night he talked to me, left me nauseated and unhappy as he reveled in memories of Memphis, Tennessee, where the real people came from, where there were friends and friends.  Some day he would leave this hated city, some day he would go back where friendship meant something, and sure enough, he went away and I got a postcard signed “Memphis Kid” from Fort Worth, Texas.
A solution, or at least a partial solution, sometimes lies in providing some means of access control.  In this regard, in addition to its other uses, an alley, where properly located, may serve as a means of access control.  The access control is generally accomplished by denying ingress to and egress from the major or secondary highway to the abutting property.  The alley is located at the rear of the property and provides vehicular access to the intersecting local streets.  Off-street parking, residential driveways, delivery service, and garbage trucks are handled in this manner.  This type of access control eliminates points of conflict where vehicles enter into a heavily congested street other than at an intersection.  It also leaves lanes that would otherwise be used for parking, loading, etc., open for through traffic.
[let me be clear faslanyc- you don't know LA.  Which is totally fine, of course.
-John Fante]