Friday, July 29, 2011

Waits Awards 2011

Like a rutting goat, or a pig rooting through the detritus on the forest floor of landscape architecture, our correspondents work- tirelessly at times, at other times very much at their leisure- to bring you the strange and forgotten nuggets from the world of landscape.  After another year of “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it”, it is time to present the second annual Waits Awards [last year’s projects can be seen here].
[the FASLANYC team hard at work on the Waits Awards]

The Waits Awards are named in honor of scoundrel/conjurer Tom Waits.  We here at FASLANYC share his fascination with mythical characters as well as the belief that "all hardware items must be admired for their sonic properties."  A Waits signifies that a project relishes the particular and the bizarre, it values aesthetics without privileging beauty, it is simultaneously primitive and clinical.  These projects are usually highly tactical and lo-fi, simple and sophisticated, ultimately working to demystify the act of intervening in the landscape.

Rather than serving as an accolade for a job well done, the Waits Awards are meant to raise awareness of innovative initiatives and to stimulate dialogue and work.  Awards are not necessarily given out to recent projects, but there is an emphasis on timeliness.  We hope you will offer up your opinions and insights as well as bring our attention to other projects being undertaken that revel in the nuance and idiosyncrasy of innovative interventions.  Without further ado, we present the following projects as recipients of a 2011 Waits Award. 

(For the Waits experience, click on the song title before each award before reading the summary and following whichever links catch your fancy).
***





Steel Yard- Get Behind the Mule

The Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island is an example of landscape architecture enabling the retooling and reindustrialization of an urban work yard.  It is an alternative to the default landscape proposition at this scale:  to parkify such sites as part of the larger traditional development scheme to maximize immediate profits through commoditization of the landscape.  This is accomplished through a shift in scale of operation, repurposing existing constructions including the ground plane, and an emphasis on instrumentality and staging. 
[the Steel Yard (in center); here the weedy lawn is the strange brown shape in the center, surrounded by loading yards and staging grounds; the main gantries are to the north]

[something radical happening at night]

[the Steel Yard, with the gantries and the elevated lawn created from refuse corrugated sheet piling on the right]

 Of course there is a non-cynical reason for developer profiteering- between the contaminants that must be remediated and the obsolete structures that must be dealt with, brownfields are expensive to reconstruct as usable space.  At the Steel Yard the estimated cost for remediation alone was 1.2 million dollars.  Using a $600,000 EPA grant and the social capital accrued by offering classes and supporting local artistic and educational projects on the site since 2001, designers Mark Klopfer and Kaki Martin worked with the clients to scavenge reusable refuse and to organize volunteer labor for planting days and small scale construction projects.  Old sheet pilings were used to define the ground plane and retain earth, weedy grasses were planted, and the gantries were refurbished.  A pervious paving system was installed and rough earthen moats catch any runoff from the contaminated site, a precondition of EPA permitting for the project.

This lo-fi landscape is now a small-scale industrial hub in downtown Providence, serving as an alternative model for redevelopment initiatives in the city.  More interestingly, it is not a park that has idolized the ruins of some long-lost industrial past into a photoshopped landscape full of smiling kids flying kites.  Here, those same kids can learn to rivet sheet metal while a 1976 Mercedes Unimog drops off a load of reject scaffolding poles and the gantry is used to position a new side panel on a ’68 Airstream.
[the unimog, hauling some steel or something]




Mil Plazas- Talca, Chile- “Ice Cream Man

Built by architecture students from the University of Talca School of Architecture,Mil Plazas is a series of studies and prototypes culminating in seven plazas located in residual places in the city of Talca, Chile.  The paper presented at the 2009 International Congress of Architecture in Quito by the professors reads:

The Mil Plazas studio began as an academic practice that takes place outside of the classroom.  The construction of the plazas, their use by the inhabitants, and the resulting social impact has confirms their spatial function and generated new municipal institutions intended to continue the diverse effects begun by these interventions.

With intelligence, enthusiasm, and without money, the students were able to articulate ideas, gain donations, and technical and labor support to construct new plazas in five weeks, plazas that would not exist without their efforts.

The new plazas generated the recuperation and appropriation of new public space by local residents… Equally, the manual labor contributed by local residents catalyzed the creation of new community groups and social circles.  The architecture transcended its material reality to achieve a larger social impact.  This initiative has been key in convincing local companies to invest money in the construction of new, more permanent plazas in the coming year.
 ["cubierta de paraguas/covered with umbrellas", one of the installed plazas of Mil Plazas, using cheap red umbrellas, scaffolding towers, nylon rope, and an ingenious tensioning system; seen here in process, held up by the tension system before being pulled tight, or by 100 invisible people; image from la ciudad viva]

["plaza de pallets"; image from supersudaka]

It seems a bit easy to claim that this type of project is only possible with the free labor of students (and we typically would).  However, this project could also be seen as a pro-bono effort that reinvigorated specific places within a city and led to new capital projects; projects that are now undergirded with a particular ethic and material aesthetic and supported by a reinforced social infrastructure.  It is architecture that transcends its traditional role as the materialization of singularities.  And those are precisely the types of projects that can be instigated and executed by innovative collectives of daring individuals.

Obviously an outgrowth of the Arquitectura Directa manifesto by SuperSudaca [one of the instructors is a member], we love this project for the resourcefulness and sophistication exhibited.  And based on the title and the emphasis on ephemerality, permutation, and affirmative difference, we like to think that the project offers a sly tip of the cap to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus.




Oyster Reclamation Research Project- No One Knows I’m Gone

The Oyster Restoration Research Project attempts to restore 500 acres of oysters to the New York Harbor by 2015, and 5,000 by 2050, with the aim of using oysters for habitat restoration and water purification in the harbor.  In this sense, the oysters are conceived of as a biological agent within the infra-natural system of the New York Harbor.  The project organizes actors across scales ranging from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA to local ngo’s and secondary schools in active ways; local universities help develop and test methods for growing oysters, the high school kids at the Harbor School grow the spat, and the USACE works with local ngo’s such as the Bay Ridge Flats Oyster Project to build and monitor the oyster reefs.

The project aims to define policies and implement actions that create oyster reefs on a scale that will positively affect the NY Harbor, all while involving local universities, ngo’s and citizens who want to touch an oyster or wade out into the water.  And it is a research project, so monitoring and analysis is fundamental.  Construction and management strategies are adaptive and respond to new information.  Currently, the focus is on six pilot oyster reefs in different locations.  Different reef methods are being tested, and variable environmental conditions [salinity, temperature, pollution] are being monitored.  As the reefs expand and new ones are installed the methods will be refined with the hope of optimizing the latent potential of the harbor to regenerate its once-teeming oyster populations. 
[the reefs are made from a 6" layer of granite rip rap covered with a layer of clam shells and then a top layer of spat-on-shell oysters grown by secondary school students at the Harbor School; image courtesy of the Urban Omnibus]

[the USACE assists with the large scale installation of the reefs; here clam shells are being dumped over the rip rap base; image courtesy of the Urban Omnibus]

Whether the ambitious goal of 5,000 acres of oyster reef by 2050 can be met is unknown.  Any chance of that will rely on the generative capacity of the harbor itself once catalyzed by these operations.  Nonetheless, the coordination of activities and expertise across scales, from that of a 3rd grader in Queens on a summer day, to the NY/NJ Division of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is exciting and worthwhile.  It is a model for the type of educational environmental project that humans will be endeavor to undertake with increasing frequency in the future.






[the haunting installation "Silent Evolution" by Jason deCaires Taylor; this quality is created by the ever-changing quality of the light combined with the impossibility of staying still while in the ocean]

The Museum of Underwater Modern Art is located just offshore in Cancun, Mexico.  Sure, it’s shameless tourist attraction, as are most museums.  But it’s a good one.  The familiar forms frozen in familiar positions being slowly colonized by mollusks, covered by sand, and inhabited by crustaceans and fish is enough to horrify a spring break reveler while filling them with wonder.  In addition to sculpting the forms, the artist Jason deCaires Taylor formulated the concrete to be textured and pH neutral to promote coral growth.  Most exciting, the ocean is both the medium and the context:  its organisms and currents effect the sculpture, and this effect grows over time, and people and fish are given a hemispherical perspective in their approach, being able to swim up and around at any angle.  The museum is open-ended and ongoing.
[the generative capacity of the ocean is radically transforming the sculpture in loosely anticipated but completely uncontrollable ways] 




Ghost Train Park- “We’re All Mad Here”

Ghost Train Park was created by Peruvian art collective Basurama, in Lima, Peru.  The design appropriates the structures of a never-finished elevated electric train with other, smaller refuse from the city and turns it into a playground.  Begun in the early 80’s, it was to be a monument to neoliberal productivity, orderly progress and convenience.  Now it’s a messy and exciting world of trash for kids.  But it’s a very specific trash well-treated (tires stripped of their inner walls, columns painted exciting colors) and it’s an exhibition of resourceful assembly.  The result are swings and ladders of all shapes and sizes suspended from the shade-providing superstructure of the “ghost train”.

In this case, the designers function almost as the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of a catalpa tree, helping the social activities latent in the surrounding area put down roots in previously unoccupiable terrain. The delirious use of colors and refuse at an exhilarating scale are exciting, and the swings and ladders are made from tires and cables and ropes that can be easily replaced.  Comparing this project to the High Line reveals something almost like a faith in the agency and intelligence of others on the part of the designers.

[trapeze-scale children's swings are suspended from the existing train structure

[unique structural moments become areas for special ziplines and tire ladders]





Olmsted’s Blank Snow- The Briar and the Rose

Olmsted’s Blank Snow is a project by architects Sergio Lopez-Piñeiro and Nicole Halstead of the University of Buffalo.  The project aims to take advantage of the snow that blankets Buffalo each winter, and the plows that are tasked with clearing it, to create an architecture that is “liberated from externally imposed roles, meanings, or functions… enabling all sorts of predicted but also unexpected possibilities.”
[Olmsted's Blank Snow in Buffalo, NY]

 [the mounds slowly melting in the springtime]

The site is the terrace of Front Park near the shore of Lake Eerie in Buffalo, New York.  Designed by Olmsted and Vaux in 1870 as part of the Buffalo Park System, “The Front” (the original name, before it was parkified) is a 37 acre park located on a bluff overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Eerie towards Canada.  It was initially conceived as a public connection to the water and unique setting for recreation and civic display.  To this end The Front was integrated into the city’s carriage, bicycle, and pedestrian circulation systems and the large terrace was paved and surrounded by gardens, playing fields, and the Lakeview House.  When it opened in 1875 The Front was Buffalo’s most popular public space.  That all ended in the 1950’s with the paving over of the Eerie Canal and the expansion of the Peace Bridge crossing into Canada.  It is decidedly less interesting now, and is largely forgotten.

Within this context, Olmsted’s Blank Snow seizes on the ephemeral and contingent nature of the winter landscape and proposes to create a series of snow mounds meant to frame views, allow for greater vistas, and encourage appropriation by the few who venture there.  This is achieved not with an illustrative plan and capital expenditure, but by simply modifying the specification for how the paved terrace in the park is to be plowed.  This project, through engagement with the medium and the instrumentality of things via the operating manual, takes advantage of the abandoned landscape as a place of solitude and potentiality. 
[the municipal park and greenway system designed by Olmsted and Vaux; the Front is located on the left midway up, bordering lake Niagara]

[a plowing plan prepared for the snow plow operator]


[multiple plans can be created after each snow fall, owing to the nature of snow; all images from the project website]





The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency- Cemetery Polka

The DUEA is a project that works to find, collect and combine new practices that are generating in the city of Detroit because of the particular circumstance of city that has an abundance of infrastructure, space, and building material but relatively few functioning social or political institutions or capital for a city of its size.  Focusing on efforts that provide an alternative to the conventional cycles of gentrification, the project examines and engages with the many variable forms the act of city-making takes when there is no hegemony.

[a map from the Powerhouse Detroit project, outlining parcels for possible future projects] 

In the initial issue of Scapegoat Journal, Andrew Herscher explained the concept behind the project, unreal estate, “as a waste product of capitalism, is by definition an alternative to that structure’s products.  As such, the urbanism that unreal estate invites, provokes, sustains or endures diverges not only in its authorship from conventional urbanism, but also in its ideological orientations, culture agencies, and political possibilities.  In the same essay, Herscher profiles several “listings” from the “Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit”, which include the Car Wash Café, described as an open-air auto storage facility/party venue/barbeque garden/personal museum.

The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency is an attempt to understand, disseminate and strengthen alternative forms of urbanism being generated by the terrain vague real estate situation the city.  Through mapping, scavenging for old doors, painting houses slated for demolition garish colors, or creating bizarre entrepreneurial combinations liberated from the profit motive as primary driver, the project is an example of urban practice that registers a departure from conventional urbanism without destroying difference.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Academy of Dunces

[don't you dare, you dirty little beast, you rat bastard sonofabitch]

Geoff Dyer had a fantastic piece in the New York Times last week on the tendency of academics to roll up their writing into "a kind of zero-sum perfection" in which "the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-oriented sign-posting is matched by all the retrospection."  The piece is hilarious, contains more than a hint of truth, and is a recommended read.  

As Ian Bogost noted, the criticism is so damning because the author appropriates the same rhetorical tricks and assumes the same snide tone that he is accusing a particular art historian of (and personally because we are guilty of it).  Bogost terms this "academic mumblespeak"; the tendency of academics in the arts and humanities (including designers) to craft phrases like "In this paper I will argue that the thermal gradation relating to lignin-based material products; "lumber", is decidedly less trans-locational than that of ferrous tensile members...  (two sentences later)... as I have previously noted (lather, rinse, repeat)."  How frequently is the interesting nugget in an academic paper so thoroughly tossed into a gigantic, bland word salad that you lose all hope of ever discovering it?

This practice is similar to that which Timothy Morton has dubbed "Everything You Can do I can do Meta" and commonly referred to in our field as "design speak".  This is not to say that all academic design writing is this way; in fact some of it is compelling, technical, and very clear.  But it occurs with enough frequency to merit addressing.  One of our initial posts lamented the metaphor fixation of contemporary design criticism, and we have been critical of the practice of "technophilic obfuscation" while optimistically hoping to goad more good design writers into engaging in popular discourse.  Whether any of that is true or it is all misguided, the recent writings by Bogost and Dyer suggest that these tendencies come from a place of fear and a desire to intimidate, rather than resulting from a curious and honest investigation and analysis of reality.  David Foster Wallace says it best:

It probably isn't the whole explanation, but, as with the voguish hypocrisy of PCE, the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer's own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar's vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer's erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak ("revenue enhancement," "downsizing," pre-owned," "proactive resource-allocation restructuring") that it's tempting to think AE's real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.
--Harper's Magazine, April, 2001

Or, in the decidedly less intelligent words of our very own DRDLM:  Write more better.  Write more.  Better.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Landscape Ontology III: Potentiality


[Dipsacus fulonum, common teasel, is simultaneously an invasive weed, a machine age implement, a gorgeous perennial, habitat, or an armature for collecting on, depending on who or what you ask]

A few days ago we posted DRDLM’s findings on some of the historical and contemporary infrastructural efforts in Brazil.  In that post the concept of potentiality surfaced as a consistent theme, a shiny medallion luring farmers, politicians and industrialists into the jungle.  And while the post highlighted a number of well-intentioned projects that met their demise, there have been just as many urban, industrial and infrastructural undertakings that have met with more success, be it the garden-and-causeway urbanism of the indigenous people in the northeastern Amazon, or the contemporary hydrological infrastructures of Sao Paulo

One of our ongoing efforts here at FASLANYC is to excavate and further develop an ontology of landscape*.  In earlier ruminations we established the concepts of territorialization and generative capacity as fundamental to landscape ontology.  That is to say that Hernan de Soto, Johnny Appleseed, and Robert Smithson are all fundamentally concerned with demarcating a piece of the earth’s surface and engaging this as a medium.  
[the pre-inca complex of Caral, Peru; a sophisticated and urban-scale example of territorialization and generative capacity of the landscape dating back 5,000 years; image source] 

The importance of territorialization- the demarcation and control of a specific piece of the earth’s surface- can be seen in both the history of landscape practice and by examining the etymology of the word itself.  A simplified argument can be made with the Spanish words “pais” (country as in “nation”) and “paisaje” (landscape).  The close etymological link between the ideas of “nation” and “landscape” is something we hope to explore further in future work, but suffice it to say that surveying, map making, notational systems, or otherwise “taking stock” as well as bounding, fencing, patrolling, policing, or otherwise controlling the land are fundamental to landscape-making.

Generative capacity is defined by engagement with the medium of landscape itself through abstraction, experimentation, cultivation or otherwise.  It is in this way that landscape practice differs significantly from engineering which is defined by a teleology.  Generative capacity is best understood as an engagement with the land (a defined piece of the earth’s surface) as a medium, not merely something that can be deconstructed and quantified as assemblages of geologies, biologies, and social patterns.  Denis Cosgrove and Donald Worster have done much work to clarify this perspective, and a further exploration of the idea through the theories of Marshal McLuhan would be helpful, were we not too thick to comprehend it.
[generative capacity and territorialization of the aqueduct-landscape of Ayacucho, Peru]

Today we propose that a concern with potentiality is the third pillar of landscape practice.  Potentiality- pure capacity for becoming- is the ingredient that creates the ephemeral and contingent qualities of landscape.  Over on Larval Subjects Levi Bryant has a great piece on this topic which helps to clarify our muddled thinking.  In it, while discussing Graham Harman and Bruno Latour’s thoughts on the subject, he states:

Quality or local manifestation (the actual), by contrast [to potentiality], is purely creative, a genuine and novel event in the world. This is because power, potency, or potentiality, in actualizing itself, must negotiate all sorts of material differences to become what it is. As a consequence, the quality that an object will come to embody can never be fully anticipated on the basis of the power that an object possesses. Here I distinguish between “endo-qualities” and “exo-qualities”. Endo-qualities refer to qualities produced as a result of the contingent path that internal processes of the object trace in actualizing themselves. Objects must contend with their own past materiality in actualizing their powers. The thoughts that I have at this moment must contend with the thoughts that I have had, with the things that I have experienced, with the things that I have written in reaching actuality. I have a power to think, yet the actualization of this power must navigate this materiality or actuality of my being in becoming actual. As a consequence, the thought that I now have becomes a novel event, a new creation, or something that couldn’t have been anticipated based on the power to think alone.

Landscape practice is tricky and ambiguous because it is concerned not only with possibilities (accepted operations within the territory- people sitting on a park bench, daylilies spreading in a planted bed) but with potentiality which serves to open up routes of deterritorialization**.  In the process of translating potentiality into a “quality or local manifestation” landscape practice is concerned with the transgression of the boundaries and limitations set up by territorialization or the material qualities of the soil or flora in a particular place. 

This dance based on the tension established between objects and relations (for example, a dogwood tree is a home to an oriole, but a sculpture to a landscape gardener, and a genome to a biologist) suggests an understanding of the landscape as a spatial mythology or a cosmological constellation (as opposed to a system); the landscape and its referents become protagonists in a heated dialogue with the other objects and their desires, and constantly enter in to new relations, and break off old ones.  A nighthawk and chrysanthemum weed arrive and flourish in a rubble strewn lot in Toledo intended to stand vacant.  A bee colony constructs a hive in someone’s favorite peach tree.  High chromium and mercury levels from the abandoned thermometer factory allow ailanthus and black locust to flourish in the vacant edges because no humans dare excavate the soil. 
[landscape representations might come to more closely resemble celestial maps rather than the engineer's diagram, if an authentic landscape ontology were more fully developed; image source David Rumsey maps]

The medium itself is loaded with the potential to inflect or define the conversation at a given time, always in a contingent and ephemeral way.  And this potential cannot be exhausted by any particular relation or manifestation.  In terms of landscape potentiality is the capacity of the medium that exists outside of the act of territorialization- the land in service to humans.    Concern with these potentials, the indeterminant and contingent nature of landscapes, are fundamental to landscape practice.
[a shift in emphasis from classical composition to aggregated constellation- varied styles and aesthetics slammed together- doesn’t change the fact that it’s still music]


*the aim in developing this ontology is to define how it is different; not through negation by asserting what it is not (it’s not art, it’s not architecture, it’s not engineering, etc.) but by affirming what it is becoming:  what is the landscape-ness of landscape practice? 

** thanks to Nam Henderson for bringing this point up in earlier conversations

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Post-Flood Occupancy

[Aerial view of the literally emerging Argentine town of Epecuen, 2011; image source]

Tangentially related to mammoth's long-running and fascinating siftings on floods, the Atlantic profiles the case of the Argentine settlement of Epecuen.  Settled in 1920 on the shores of an inland lagoon about 6 hours south of Buenos Aires, the town was a bustling resort that welcomed visitors from the city who came for the supposed healing properties of the saline waters of Laguna Epecuen.  Between 1950 and 1970, the 1,500 inhabitants welcomed upwards of 25,000 visitors each summer to the bustling town protected from the lagoon's waters by a slender earthen dike.


Laguna Epecuen is the final lagoon in the saline hydrological system known as the Lagunas Encadenadas del Oeste de la Provincia de Buenos Aires receiving water from the increasingly saline lagoons but having no outlet.  As such, it is the largest and most variable of the lagoons, with the highest salt content (10x that of sea water).  In the 1970's and 1980's, unusually large amounts of rain in the province slowly built up the water level in the lagoon system and increased pressure on the dike protecting Epecuen.  In 1985 that dike gave way.
[Villa Epecuen on the edge of the lagoons in 2011; the town is re-emerging from the lagoon, completely salted over and mostly dead or dormant]

[the same spot in 2003, thanks to Google Earth's historical aerial imagery]

[Epecuen Lagoon and surrounding area, 2011; the white, crusty topography surrounding each of the lagoons, and Laguna Epecuen along the entire eastern and southern edge, give evidence of how high the 20 year flood waters were]

All inhabitants left save one, and the town remained underwater for the next two decades.  In the last five years lower water levels in the lagoon have opened the town back up, and the lone inhabitant reports that people have been coming around to explore, shoot movies, reminisce, and try to reclaim materials or lands (this last task has proven a bit difficult, what with the crust of salt now covering everything it didn't already dissolve).  If this wasted town can be considered terrain vague, this place is perhaps another example of what we have argued for before- that the role of terrain vague in the creation of new mythologies is paramount.  And the mythical form (that which is ahistorical yet suggests a history) resulting from the fracturing of the historical narrative is one of the reasons these terrain vague sites are so interesting and meaningful.

[the stairs are all that's left of a house that has mostly dissolved, or not dissolved; image source]

[the former slaughterhouse of Epecuen; image source]


[a man compares the view of main street 25 years ago to that of today; image source]

Reports have surfaced that this lone, grizzled inhabitant who has supposedly spent the intervening 25 years alone, "reading the paper and riding his bicycle", is our very own Don Roman de la Mancha.  We approached him about this topic, about which he had only one comment:  "No comment."
[is this the mysterious Don Roman de la Mancha cooking on wood stove that burns salted sycamore trees scavenged from the town?  "No comment".

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Brazil and Potentiality


[the estado do morumbi in Sao Paulo, on inauguration day in 1960; the stadium was opened only partially completed with a capacity of 70,000; the stadium once had a capacity of 120,000, though that has been reduced]

South American Correspondent Don Roman de la Mancha reports that the hysteria and speculation on Brazilian infrastructure is predictably heating up.  In the last decade the nation has enjoyed economic growth and stability (going from an IMF debtor nation to a creditor within a six year span) while implementing progressive social reforms.  Given this, it is not surprising that the expanding middle class is demanding more consumption.  More interesting for our purpose is the appetite for infrastructure they are exhibiting (this post on Pruned gave some early indication of this trend). 
[World Cup 2014 host cities, spread all over the country]

[a beltway under construction in Sao Paulo]

Both the World Cup and Summer Olympics are coming to this sprawling nation within a two year span beginning in 2014.  With host cities spread over an area larger than the whole of Western Europe*, and mega-cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio requiring significant upgrades to existing transit, sanitary, telecom and logistical systems, and a wealth of freshwater, productive farmland, and hydrocarbon and mineral wealth, the demand for infrastructure is understandable.  Partnerships with Peru to construct the inter-oceanic highway and open up further trading with China and India, or buddy loans to Argentina allowing them to repay their own World Bank debts and continued cooperation with Venezuela and the other nations of the MERCOSUR suggest that Brazil might be establishing an American hegemonic block that is not dominated by the US sphere of influence established by the Monroe Doctrine.  Truly, Brazil is taking the fuck off.

Of course, this has happened before.  Once a heavily populated region, the extent of which we may only now be beginning to understand, the landscape claimed and settled by the Portuguese adventures in the 15th century was not a virgin tropical paradise but rather an urbanized infra-natural landscape undergoing a massive and violent process of what might today be called “re-wilding”.  However, instead of an ill-conceived public housing project, this rewilding process was taking place on a continental scale in a landscape unlike anything ever seen by Europeans, who interpreted the landscape as an untouched, pristine wilderness.

The allure of Brazil- what might be characterized by the unwieldy word “potentiality”- seduced the Portuguese across the Line of Demarcation, drew British surveyors into the interior, and inspired Kubitschek to make like Fitzcarraldo and build Brasilia.  Drunkenly rifling through the annals of failed Brazilian utopias and underfunded exploratory and infrastructural undertakings, DRDLM stumbled across the story of Fordlandia.  Founded in 1928 by Henry Ford as a company town in the middle of the Amazon, the town was intended to cultivate and manage a rubber plantation to provide cheap tires for his booming car business.  Unfortunately, Ford’s men choose infertile, rocky soil and planted all the same species of rubber tree close together in a plantation, allowing them to share pests and blight freely.  
[aerial view of Fordlandia on the Tapajos River in Brazil in the 1930's]

[Lincoln's may not be the most suitable vehicle for the Amazon]

[the Fordlandia powerhouse in 1934]

The factory town was relocated downriver to Belterra in 1933 without having produced any industrial rubber.  With the advent of synthetic rubber production in 1945, the investment was considered a massive failure and abandoned.  Musty, rotting ruins still stand and are undergoing rewilding once again, testament to the contingent and ephemeral nature of Brazil’s potentiality.
[Fordlandia powerhouse today]

[Check here for information on the international competition to design the Olympic Park in Rio.]

*loosely defined to include “western” and “northern” Europe as defined by the United Nations Statistic Division

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sediments: Here Comes Everything

Today’s post on sediments is the final excerpt from the Field Guide to Urban Industrial Canals which can be seen and downloaded for free from Issuu.  If it interests you check it out, and if you find it particularly helpful, interesting, or weak in a particular area we would love to hear about it.
[the rio de la plata estuary; uruguay is on the left and argentina is to the right, with the city of buenos aires in grey; the estuary carries massive sediment loads from the heart of the continent- the basin includes five national capitals and Sao Paulo;  the rio de la plata and its delta (in the foreground) is formed by the confluence of the rio parana and the rio uruguay]

[the sediments of rio de la plata add to argentina's coast line every year just south of buenos aires; here the petrochemical dock in 1927 at the mouth of the riachuelo, with the canal sarandi in the foreground; all of the watery area framed by the jetties in the center is now dry land occupied by the expanded port facilities; image source]

The sedimentation process is one of deposition and accumulation.  In rivers it typically occurs in places where the current slows down.  In a pre-industrial river the main sediments are bits of clay and sand and pebbles from upstream that form beautiful sandbars and oxbows and influence the river’s course over time.  In an industrial river- one that has been canalized and is dredged and used for barge traffic- these pre-industrial sediments are mixed up into a frothy stew with all the industrial materials and wastes, as well as the runoff and suspended solids from the street gutters and sewer system of the surrounding city.  All of these substances tend to settle out along the bottom of the canal and have to be regularly dredged in order to keep the channel clear for barges and boats.

Dredging operations ceased for many canals sometime in the mid-twentieth century, usually around 1950, when the size of ocean going traffic became much larger and the canals weren’t able to easily be widened because of the constructions along their banks.  As the sediments piled up, the capacity of the water channel for moving water was seriously reduced and in some cases flooding problems are exacerbated as is the case in the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. 

Continually dredging a canal where industrial operations have all but ceased is a difficult expense to justify when municipal budgets are tight, despite the flooding and environmental issues.  Once the canal begins to silt up, it becomes impossible for the neighboring water-dependent and water-enhanced industries (such as scrap yards, coal yards, steel mills) to use it; once all of the neighbors have turned their back on the canal, the falloff in water quality can be precipitous.  This suggests that, whenever possible, new uses for canals that require a navigable channel would improve water quality and might help reduce flooding and environmental problems.

Sediments on industrial canals inevitably contain serious substances that are harmful to many organisms, including humans.  For that reason they are often left “down there” below the surface of the water, where no one has to worry about them too much, unless you happen to live nearby.  Companies and governments usually have politically expedient reasons for not dredging the sediments- they are highly contaminated with toxic substances.  In addition to stirring up the pcb’s and heavy metals and tars that are mixed in on the bottom of the canal, the sediments that are dredged cannot be disposed cheaply- hazardous waste dump sites are incredibly expensive. 
[sediments along the gowanus canal, brooklyn, 2010]

[sediments along the riachuelo canal, buenos aires, mid 1930's; image source]

The sedimentation process occurs on the banks of canals as well, where tides, flood waters, street runoff, as well as people deposit all sorts of jetsam and flotsam.  This material is most often considered a nuisance- shopping carts are deposited at street ends, plastic bottles and old wood scraps find their way into the chain link fencing that edges many places along the canal.  While this material is mainly a nuisance and it is rather difficult to think of a possible reuse for it other than simply cleaning it up, the deposits are evidence of material eddies in the city.  The contemporary urban environment is like a highly regulated waste stream, with food and water and consumer goods coming in, being consumed, and then deposited and whisked out of the city- the municipal solid waste system.  Appropriate mobilization and management of this system is perhaps the key catalyst to any urban project.  The biological capacities of canals to consume human waste when properly managed, and their tendency to accumulate the trash that escapes the waste stream suggests they should be an area of focus for sanitation departments in cities. 

Specific sedimentation patterns could be strategically utilized- the canal is an eddy in the urban ecology of waste, transportation, and also everyday use.  They offer an alternative to the highly programmed recreational park, the commercial shopping mall, or the office park.  It is something of a no man’s land, and by providing simple access around the border and across its width, and finding a way to reduce the exposure to the toxic substances, entire ecosystems of local populations of plants and animals including humans would spring up along its banks.  Indeed, to a limited degree this already occurs and need only be encouraged in the lightest possible way to generate a fecund alternative to the overly programmed recreation park, the commercial shopping mall or street, and the office tower.  People and things might come here and to sit outside of the rushing city currents for a while, watching the sediments swirl by.
[the gowanus as brooklyn eddy]