Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Landscape Ontology I- Landscape Architecture as Land Assault Strategy

In recent decades the language of landscape architecture has taken what we in the gay porn industry call a “hard turn” towards militarization, with words like terrain, operations, tactics, strategies, performance, and of course, infrastructure all on the tip of every young tongue vying for tenure or the next big municipal park project. This, while our language for describing and conceiving of landscapes as anything other than X_park or Z_scape has remained utterly impoverished. So, in our musings on landscape ontology it seems appropriate to begin with an examination of the history of landscape architecture in terms of the militarization of space, and try to draw a conclusion or two about what future implications might be. 
[photo by Paul Virilio highlighting the beautiful militarization of landscape; image source]

We have noted before that infrastructure is a modern (and limited) concept, first used to describe military installations and their supporting structures and systems, and only recently coming to signify all manner of networks and objects considered critical to society. We reckon Antoine Picon’s writings on the subject to be the most thorough around, though any cursory google search of the term or simply looking at the history page on Army Corps of Engineers’ website will get the point across. Of course, the tight coupling of landscape architecture and the militarization of space predates the concept of infrastructure and our recent fascination with it, but there is an earlier example of the relationship of militarization techniques and landscape design. This can be seen in the influence of the practice of surveying upon the practice of landscape architecture.

In the 19th century military engineer Egbert Viele produced a magnificent survey of the island of Manhattan, an effort which landed him the post as the chief engineer of Central Park, and very nearly won him the design commission for the new public landscape. Architect and landscape designer auto-didact Thomas Jefferson was even more ambitious 80 years earlier, conceiving of a great abstract grid divided into townships 6 miles square and strewn orthogonally across the American continent. This vision was codified in the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785 and replicated hundreds of times across the continent (and evident today in our nation’s political boundaries west of the Appalachian Mountains). With its capacity to generate forms based on local cultural and environmental variation within a given and abstract set of parameters, we today might be tempted to envision this as an early analogue parametric design. But a historical view would trace it back to Gunter’s Chain. 
[Egbert Viele's survey of Manhattan Island; with a name like Egbert, he was never going to win the design commission...]

[a 6 mile by 6 mile abstract town plan in the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785; the numbers correspond to specific town uses- to make up an instance, 21 is always a school, 11 is always a church and so on]

 [Gunter's Chain, the great conquistador of the North American continent]

The Gunter’s Chain was a surveying implement of 17th century England that could be carried by a man and his horse as he rode through the fields and forests, demarcating stuff. This dimensurator was made of 10 links of metal 7.92 inches long and fitted together by brass rings to measure 22 yards. 22 yards by 220 yards- 1 chain, by 10 chains- made 1 acre, and 1 square mile was made of 640 acres. (For a delightfully nerdy mathematical speculation on exactly how these measurements were derived, click here).  These numbers seem ridiculous when compared with the decimal system. However, in its original application, the system was a brilliant synthesis of the traditional English land system- based on the amount of cultivated English countryside a person could work in a day- and the more abstract decimal system.  It also made possible the accurate surveying of the industrializing England for legal and commercial purposes- real estate. And real estate was fundamentally a part of the first municipal park.

This general trend toward militarization of space is something that we find ourselves advocating for with the push for landscape projects as tactical interventions enabled by field manuals. Some of the first and still most highly developed field manuals have been developed by military institutions. These can be seen as nothing more than another evolution in the militarization of public space, one consistent with the dromological theories of Paul Virilio. 
[Virilio would love Ft. Tilden and its Nike Missil bunkers shoved into the dunes of a NYC park]

It seems that embedded in landscape ontology we have both the infrastructure paradigm and the concept of real estate, both made possible by employing spatial military techniques for delineating, abstracting, and constructing territory- methods of control. This notion of control, in some form, does seem to be fundamental to landscape practice.  But this alone is not a satisfactory landscape ontology.  Indeed, the practice of landscape predates the concept of modern industrial infrastructure, and Egbert Viele did not get the commission for Central Park.

In our next post on the topic, we’ll look into the idea of productive landscapes and landscapes of extraction, especially in terms of performance and what we’ll argue is the generative capacity of the landscape.  We also hope to consider the landscape architect alongside the civil engineer and the ecologist. We welcome any observations, criticisms or questions which could blow apart our position here, or help focus it over the next week. 
[landscape architects/border patrol guards in the Indian Paramilitary regime]

(Of course, it should be more than a footnote, but the idea of the militarization of space cannot be discussed without suggesting that interested readers head over to the excellent, and now dormant, subtopia blog for years’ worth of work on the subject).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Today's Newsdesk

Here at FASLANYC we do a relatively poor job of staying informed and up to the minute.  Nonetheless, it is spring time and that can only mean one thing- it’s time for SYMPOSIA!  In that spirit, we post this report from southern gentleman, bait shop owner, bicycle repairman and landscape architect H. Willis Montcrief on two promising events coming up at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
[Two images from “The Park,” Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs of voyeurs watching people having sex at night in Tokyo parks. The series was last exhibited in 1979, image via New York Times]

Queer by Design is hosting a lecture and presentation by Philly-based artist Chad States:
Much has been accomplished by examining the built environment through lenses of marginalization. Race, ethnicity, economic status, and gender are increasingly considered germane, if not fundamental, to approaching design. Sexuality is inextricable from a host of contemporary concerns --erotiphobia, transphobia, homophobia, epidemiology, mental health, policy, and the policing of public spaces, to name a few-- and deserves its place at the table.
[chad states at the University of Virginia School of Architecture]

We don’t know States well (though you can read about it in the NY Times here and here) but love the chance to see some work regarding sexuality and hedonism in public spaces and consider it critical to a human and expansive understanding of what public spaces are, can do, and should be.  We assume it will be provocative and thoughtful and for those of you who will be too busy with Landscape Urbanism conferences, we’ll try and report back in a week or so.


From their website, Turning Urban:  Innovation in Megacities “This symposium will pose the question of whether extremely large cities and urban regions are loci of innovation and adaptation, or whether the rapid pace of change overwhelms adaptive processes. Participants will compare examples from cities around the world in an effort to identify spatial armatures, temporal trajectories, and conditions that invite innovation.”
[turning urban?  burning urban?  either way, should be interesting]

The symposium, which one of our correspondents is peripherally involved in, pulls together a cast of characters from across a wide range of disciplines including designers, environmental scientists, policy makers, economists and engineers.  While we aren’t sure what to expect from that group in terms of sexy images and pithy remarks about “inhabitation of synthetic operatives” whatever LU-bs you are after, we are excited by the possibilities inherent in gathering many disparate perspectives from afar and smashing them together OOO-style for three days.  Two of our favorite American megacities will be making an appearance as well.  Drop by if you are so inclined.

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.