Saturday, October 29, 2011

Landscape Delicatessen

Our southern correspondent H Willis Montcrief reports on a fascinating project that has popped up in Central Virginia.  Known as the Foam Dome Home, the project is an experiment in living- part Heideggerian hut, part space ship, part modernist utopia.  It’s like the first house, but from the future.

[the foam dome home faces Hurricane Irene while the Blue Ridge Mountains look on from the West]

The project is the home of University of Virginia landscape architecture graduate student Seth Denizen and is wonderfully documented here.  It is a technical and ad-hoc amalgamation of expanded polystyrene, bamboo skewers, salvaged pallet racks, an old wood stove, heat-formed plexiglass, and a “fabric reinforced elastomeric system used to recover aged and deteriorated metal roofs.”  On the blog you can follow the project through the materials collection process, fabrication, construction, and the recent confrontations with hurricanes and earthquakes, all rendered with lots of detail in a delightfully acerbic tone.

Now, dome homes made of foam are not a particularly novel idea, having been around at least since the 60’s when hippyism and the Space Race combined to create an unparalleled utopian stew.  Their applications range from hippie enclaves to mass produced hobbit homes spread across the Japanese landscape like ticky-tack mushrooms.  But there is much to like about this particular foam dome home- the beauty, the resourcefulness, the conceptual rigor and sophistication, the lack thereof regarding architectural detailing, and the willingness to live in one’s own experiment.  The applied technologies run the gamut from cow fencing found in central Virginia applied as transverse bracing to a three axis Onsrud router with a “50 square foot milling bed divided into two independently controlled vacuum tables.”  The foundation for the dome is a platform made of pallet racks and reminiscent of the modernist pilotis ideal but springing from a pragmatic concern- making a side entrance into a dome is hard, but entering from the bottom is easy.

But the aspect we love best about the project is the way it creates a sort of landscape delicatessen- the bringing together of all sorts idiosyncratic characters (the Onsrud router, cow fencing, a central Virginia hill, refuse foam from a Worcester construction project) and setting them into new and surprising relations to one another, all within a specific place.  This suggests a materialist definition for landscape that gets beyond picturesque scenery, green infrastructures, snazzy noun urbanisms, or dynamic flows (all of which we tend to rely on).  This project suggests that the concept of landscape might be understood as a set of objects and their relations set within a bounded, larger context.

[foam dome homes in Japan]

[foam dome home is like the Douglas House by Richard Meier, except the total opposite; image from Dwell]

[a foam dome-type landscape, from the movie Delicatessen]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Frontier Mappings

Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was fundamental to understanding its importance in shaping American societies.  His frontier thesis stated that the continual presence and progression of the frontier westward across the continent was critical to shaping the American people and institutions, and that its disappearance in the late 19th century signaled a cultural crisis for the United States of America.

[an approximation of the American frontier in 1775 as characterized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner; this schematic has fundamentally shaped the popular mythology of the United States- from creeds and federal policy (westward expansion and manifest destiny) to popular culture and landscape design (Toby Keith anthems and Olmsted's design for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair).  And rightfully so]
The thesis was brilliant- for the first time someone recognized that the rules of the European frontier did not apply here in the Americas.  Of course, being the one to take the first major pass, there were some areas that needed more work.  Historian Walter Prescott Webb more precisely described the frontier, noting that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.”   Another historian of the American West, Herbert Eugene Bolton, argued that the American frontier can't be understood in terms of an inexorable, Anglo-centric march west.  For Bolton, the American frontier was a hemispheric condition of contested terrains; while the Anglo-Americans marched west, the French moved south, the Spanish moved north, the Russians moved east, the British controlled Canada, and the Portuguese expanded in all directions.  Purging Turner's Anglophilia from the Frontier Thesis (it was a common affliction at that time) and combining Webb's representation of the frontier concept with Bolton's, we start to render a more interesting and appropriate approximation of the American frontier.

Wider Horizons of the American Landscape
[an approximation of the actual American frontier in 1775; French territory is green, Spanish is dark blue, Portugese is yellow, Dutch is orange, British is red, Russian is pink, areas contested between the British and French are light blue, indigenous nations are mapped with white labels; borders are fuzzy and territories are not homogeneous blocks, but rather heterogeneous zones of conflict and potential]

A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary.  A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its presencing.” [paraphrased]
- William T. Vollman, Imperial
Combining the work of these frontier historians with that of geographers and landscape architects such as Richard Campanella, Elizabeth Meyer, and Peter Jacobson, it is possible to understand the American frontier as a landscape condition:  a constructed environment consisting of autonomous objects in relation to one another within a larger context.  The American landscape is a hemispheric condition with overlapping and contingent jurisdictions over expansive territories characterized by bigness and smashing.  The rivers are bigger, the mountains are higher, the deserts drier, the forests taller, and the horizons wider.
The frontier is non-directional.  It is not a thick band of open, receding land at the edge of society but rather a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and colonizing interests are smashing into one another over and over.  The frontier in the American landscape is not Turner’s blank space or Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge.  It is defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions at different scales.  It is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities- control is ambiguous, there are real and perceived dangers, and there is latent potential.  This contingency and potentiality generates the frontier conditions which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  As a landscape condition, the frontier is endemic to the American landscape; marked by difficult terrain, massive government investments, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Materialism, Realism, Hadidism

["Completed for the northern terminal of the city’s B tramline, our concept utilizes overlapping fields:  echoing the energetic movement of cars, trams, bicycles and pedestrians; fusing together to form a constantly shifting but clearly delineated whole.  In the car park, floor marks and light delineate a ‘magnetic field’.” – text from ZHA website]

[“Completed for the big box shed of Charlottesville, Virginia's Pantops Shopping center, our concept utilizes comingling fields echoing the confluence of hydrological systems of the Appalachian foothills comingling with the Rivanna River as well as the markings of cows that dot the hillsides, stupidly chewing on fescue to form an amorphous yet specific region clearly legible from outer space. The result is the creation of a ‘magnetic field’ at least as attractive as the Starbucks anchoring the eastern end of the shopping shed.” – text made up on the spot after two sazeracs.]

Panning around on Google Earth one is likely to discover novel perspectives on infrastructural networks and massive environmental construction projects.  There are also bizarre delights like the one above which is all the more striking for its aerial resemblance to the early and much-published Hoenheim-Nord project by Zaha Hadid Architects.  These are the types of projects which begs the response:

If that is the answer, what the hell was the question?

In the case of the ZHA project the question is almost certainly "How can we make every building project look like one of Zaha's paintings from the 70's?"  While not without merit (that's right, it must be softened with a double negative- it's that lame), this idealist approach produces results which elicit the following response, "No, no, I get it...  (head shaking) That's some stupid shit."  In the case of Hoenheim, it looks cool and cheeky and you can take a rad aerial photo of it, but then all of those criteria are easily satisfied by the roof on the Pantops shopping center.

A general characteristic of landscape/architectural practice is the receiving of problems-as-stated, which are then critiqued and solved according to very sophisticated formal, technological, and sociological methods.  Unfortunately, we deploy those methods to investigate the wrong problem and end up with situations that are wildly inappropriate, or "stupid shit".  Gilles Deleuze offers some insight into this tendency and the nature of problems:

We are led to believe that problems are given ready-made, and that they disappear in the responses or the solution. Already, under this double aspect, they can be no more than phantoms. We are led to believe that the activity of thinking, along with truth and falsehood in relation to that activity, begins only with the search for solutions, that both of these concern only solutions...  A solution always has the truth it deserves according to the problem to which it is a response, and the problem always has the solution it deserves in proportion to its own truth or falsity - in other words, in proportion to its sense...  'solvability' must depend upon an internal characteristic: it must be determined by the conditions of the problem, engendered in and by the problem along with the real solutions.  (Difference and Repetition, p 158)

By moving away from idealist methodologies and the over-reliance on abstraction and critique just a bit, and toward materialist and realist methods, the practice of landscape might recover and reclaim surprising directions and insights through cross pollination and experimentation.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Triple Frontier

The town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers where they slip out of the Shenandoah Valley and head toward the Chesapeake Bay.  Here the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together.  The place was identified by George Washington in 1785 as the ideal location for a national armory despite all evidence to the contrary- lumber and hydro power were abundant but metal and skilled mechanical labor was extremely scarce and had to be shipped in.  Of course, as the President of the Potowmack Company, which was concerned with the improvement of the Potomac River for shipping (a topic we’ll return to later) and a landowner along the lower Potomac River, Washington was particularly interested in the establishment of an industrial center in this region and if he needed to use the leverage of the federal government to do it, so be it.  In the 1820’s it was the place where John C. Hall worked out the fabrication of metal weaponry using interchangeable parts, a production innovation which revolutionized the production of everything from M1819 breech loading rifles used in the Seminole Wars to iPads. 

[the rugged topography surrounding Harpers Ferry was extensively surveyed during the Civil War; this map, made in 1863, clearly shows the Potomac and Shenandoah passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the low point at the confluence occupied by the Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Armory, and the small incorporated town of Bolivar (named for the Liberator himself) located uphill on the way out of town to the west]

[The towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar today, surrounded by National historical parkland; the Amtrak railroad still stops in Harpers Ferry, though the highway passes the towns on the southern Virginia edge of the pass before switching over to the Maryland side just downstream]

Nowadays, the picturesque twin towns of Harpers Ferry and Bolivar, West Virginia are little more than depressed, tourist destinations held up by federal money as a center of the National Parks Service and holding a line on the National Register of Historic Places.  The mountainous terrain, Amtrak train, and ruined canals create a picturesque landscape where the town sits looking through the mountain pass.  But just one hundred and fifty years ago, the town was North America’s own Triple Frontier, the place where North, South, and West came violently together, catalyzed by federal infrastructure, smashed together with local people and mixed together with a steady stream of drifters and explorers.  The outcome was dastardly.

[the booming site of Harpers Ferry at the start of the Civil War; the railroad and power canals are built, along with large industrial factories including flour and saw mills, in addition to the Arsenal and Armory; worker's housing lines the roads out of town, which is surrounded by a wooden stockade; to the right up on the hill is the local church]

[Harpers Ferry in 1861 during the Civil War, looking east from a hill near Bolivar; the church can be seen downhill in the center; soldiers and cannon occupy the foreground; like many border states West Virginia was a conflicted battleground, raising regiments for both the Union and Confederate Armies; Harpers Ferry changed hands several times though West Virginia would ultimately settle as a Union state]

In 1796 the federal government purchased land at Harpers Ferry and construction began on the United States Armory and Arsenal.  The stated intention was to provide the nation with redundancy in arms manufacturing along with the sister armory in Springfield, Mass (which enjoyed better access to important things like metal and workers) and was closer to the nation’s new capital at the mouth of the Potomac.  The undertaking was fraught from the beginning, with federal control and influence in manufacturing processes being constantly resisted by the local population and difficulty finding competent foremen, skilled craftsmen, day laborers, and people willing to implement industrial manufacturing processes that emphasized repetition and replicability, but with townsfolk more than happy to angle for the contracts and jobs that the new federal government was eagerly supporting in hopes of diminishing our independence on European firearms.

The result was something of a wild west boomtown.  Not only was John Hall off in a factory perfecting the machine process of interchangeable parts that would revolutionize manufacturing, but southern gunsmiths were cranking out firearms to meet federal quotas, bristling at Yankee foremen, and drinking and hunting when their counterparts up in Springfield were hammering away.  The construction and operation of the Armory was badly mismanaged by local landed gentry who’d received federal posts through good connections.  All while a constant stream of homesteaders made their way through the town, working for a season or a fortnight until they had enough money to keep heading west, looking to take advantage of westward expansion and the soon-to-be-signed Homestead Act.  There were also tons of guns just lying around the town.
[Harpers Ferry looking west across the Potomac from Maryland]

[Harpers Ferry in 1862, the B & O Railroad Bridge was destroyed after the Antietam Campaign in Maryland]

[a map showing the Union and Confederate states as well as the western territories beyond the Mississippi; Harpers Ferry was not only tossed back and forth between North and South and at the very center of the jurisdictional ripping-in-two of the state of Virginia; the third state, Maryland had its own major conflicts, being a slave-owning Union state; Harpers Ferry was also a gateway across the Appalachians and into the Ohio River Valley for the multitudes that were thronging west along with the railroads]

A flashpoint occurred just before the civil war, when abolitionist John Brown set up shop and hatched a plan to take over the US Federal Armory with twenty-two trained men, capture and distribute the weapons stored there and incite a slave rebellion throughout the Southern States.  The raid on the armory was successful but the rebellion decidedly less so.  He and his remaining men were captured by federal forces two days later.  Civil war wasn’t far.

But rather than a nuanced and/or redneck rehashing of Civil War themes and stories, what we are most interested here today is the landscape condition of Harpers Ferry at that historical moment.  In 1862, when the Homestead Act was signed, this landscape was the locus of a violent collision between North, South, and West, each with their own ideas, mythologies, and regimes of control.  Like the Triple Frontera in South America or the Darien Gap in Central America, this landscape has something to teach us about the American frontier landscape- patterns emerge.  A large federal infrastructure (the canals, Armory, and railroad), oppositions within local politics, a difficult terrain, cultural violence and collision, overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions heavy with potentiality created the conditions for an American frontier landscape.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Today's Newsdesk

[definitely a monster/fossil; the unrealized monument to Christopher Columbus for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was intended to "convey visitors by lift to the Equator, and thence by spiral railway to the North Pole"; sounds like modernity..]
Over on Dirt a friend of ours, Dasha Lebedeva, has posted a write up on a recent lecture by FASLANYC favorite Camilo Restrepo.  He recently visited the University of Virginia School of Architecture and gave a public lecture titled "Monsters and Fossils:  Ideas Towards a Mongrel Architecture."  We fucking love the Foucaultian characterization of architecture as either a monster [unknown and threatening] or a fossil [historical, mysterious], and the mongrel metaphor for architecture in an age of unparalleled information and material exchange is ultimately optimistic.  He speaks of architecture and landscape in terms of something that "creates difference through the design of relations in space." Check out the write up over on DIRT if you are interested.

Also worth noting, Places recently ran an interview with landscape architect Chris Reed, as part of an ongoing series (see Matt Urbanski of MVVA, Dilip DaCunha and Anu Marthur, and Adrian Geuze of West 8).  Stoss' 2006 "Safe Zone" entry in to the Metis Reford Garden Design Festival is still one of our all time favorites [see the 2012 Call for Entries to the Festival here].  We've had a chance to hear the fellow speak a few times over the past year and simply put, the dude (and his Stoss cohort) is articulate, smart, and damn good.
["Minsur" from the photo series "country infrastructures" by Camilo Restrepo]

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Triple Frontera

Just downstream from the world's largest hydroelectric facility, at the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana Rivers, is a zone known as the Triple Frontera.  Located on the mighty Parana and Iguazu Rivers, the area is one of the fastest growing, most important, and most dangerous areas in the Southern Cone of South America.  Located where the territories of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, the Triple Frontera is made up of the cities of Ciudad del Este (Paraguay), Foz de Iguazu (Brazil), and Puerto Iguazu (Argentina).  Since negotiation and construction for the bi-national Itaipu Dam began with the Iguazu Act in 1966, the population of the Triple Frontera has grown from 60,000 to over 750,000.  The zone is centered over top of one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world- the Guarani Aquifer

Because of differences in border controls and patent laws in the three countries, the Triple Frontera is a center for the manufacture and popular saleof manufactured goods and contraband.  Stolen autos from nearby city centers such as Buenos Aires are processed here and resold in secondary markets.  The contraband and narcotics trade is supposedly run by bands of organized criminals of various degrees of sophistication.  There is evidence that the FARC runs significant narco-traffic through here, using the area as the southern hub for the cocaine trade, supplying the capital cities of the Rio de la Plata region (Asuncion, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Brasilia, as well as Rio and Sao Paulo are all in the watershed).  International terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Queda maintain cells and logistics assistance within the Triple Frontera and terrorist attacks that occurred in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 may have been perpetrated by terrorist cells based in the Triple Frontera zone.

The area is considered the most destabilized and dangerous in all of South America outside of the FARC-controlled regions of Colombia (including the Darien Gap).  The terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires prompted the formation of the “Comando Tripartito de la Triple Frontera”, a loose organization consisting primarily of Argentina border patrol, and Brazilian Air Force and intended to coordinate methods of territorial control and contain organized crime and terrorist activity in the region, especially the small narcotics planes coming from Bolivia and Colombia.  The Argentine border, considered easier to control because of the much smaller population in Puerto Iguazu, is seen as a key in the policing efforts.  Post-September 11th has seen an intensification of the efforts with the advent of the “3+1” effort (including the United States). 
[just downstream from the Itaipu Dam, the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) inextricably links Paraguay and Brazil; completed in 1965, the year before the Itaipu Dam negotiations began, most of Paraguay's imports and exports pass over the bridge; it is the main artery for smugglers in the area and a gorgeous piece of Brazilian modernism]

[the Itaipu Dam on the Rio Parana, inextricably links Paraguay and Brazil; beginning in 1966, the dam is a result of 30 years of negotiation and construction by the two nations; in 2000 the dam generated over 93,000 gigawatt hours of electricity, supplying Brazil with 20% of its needs and Paraguay with 94% of its electric power]

[the Triple Frontera zone; Paraguay is the left 1/3 of the image, Argentina is to the south and Brazil is to the north; huge swaths of the rain forest in Brazil and Paraguay have been put into agricultural production, much of the Argentine side is protected as a national forest (modeled on the North American system); the Itaipu Dam is just north of the image]

 [agricultural production dominates the shores of Lake Itaipu in Brazil and Paraguay, just north of the Itaipu Dam]

All of this geopolitical intrigue is fascinating and horrifying (and treating it is beyond the scope of a FASLANYC post).  The combination of the hydro-geological and technological sublime with the Falls of Iguazu and the Itaipu dam just a few kilometers from one another is absolutely unmatched.  On top of that add an exploding population, large-scale resource exploitation, violence and ambiguity in jurisdictional authority and a large percentage of the world’s freshwater and you quickly realize that we are dealing with a massive and severe situation, one brimming with potentiality and generative capacity.  Leaving aside judgements regarding the legality and justice of certain actions, it is the fact that here they find space to operate and to generate new forms that is so intriguing.  Were the area under the control of a single national regime, or the geography not as varied, this would not be the case, for better or worse.

This situation can be best understood and studied as a frontier landscape, a condition fundamental to and common throughout the Americas.  We would suggest that an ontological understanding of borders and frontiers, and the differences between them, are key to developing a uniquely American landscape praxis.  In the case of the Triple Frontera, the ambiguity and opportunity afforded to alternative activities is created by a large heterogeneous population divided by different regimes of control , all settled in a vicious and potent geography that is difficult to police.  At the Triple Frontera, the frontier is in the city.

[inside the Itaipu Dam- a gratuitous nab from wikipedia]