Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cathedral or Bazaar?

[a bazaar in Baghdad; image from flickr user micmol]

The other day we were spending a little time with Eric Raymond’s seminal essay “The Cathedraland the Bazaar”.  We do it periodically as a way of self-medicating against the annoying notion of emergent urbanistic ideologies bandied about in the halls of higher learning, and as a reality check for our own childish notions.  The 1997 essay about the design lessons learned from the Linux system is full of insightful, potent jewels that might inform new models of landscape practice.  More important, simply reading this nerdy computer man’s essay is an aesthetic experience:

Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew. I had been preaching the Unix gospel of small tools, rapid prototyping and evolutionary programming for years. But I also believed there was a certain critical complexity above which a more centralized, a priori approach was required. I believed that the most important needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

Linus Torvalds's style of development—release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity—came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who'd take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

Throughout the essay Raymond pays extra attention to the mechanics of the Linux system and his materialist analysis leads to surprising conclusions which are cleverly titled with captions such as “Release early, release often” and “On Managementand the Maginot Line”.  When diving in to details such as Linux kernel release mechanisms he bores down in on them, nerdily fumbling them around in his hands, poking it with sticks, and examining them under looking glasses.

My original formulation was that every problem ``will be transparent to somebody''.  [Linux creater] Linus demurred that the person who understands and fixes the problem is not necessarily or even usually the person who first characterizes it. ``Somebody finds the problem,'' he says, ``and somebody else understands it. And I'll go on record as saying that finding it is the bigger challenge.''

In the cathedral-builder view of programming, bugs and development problems are tricky, insidious, deep phenomena…  In the bazaar view, on the other hand, you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena—or, at least, that they turn shallow pretty quickly when exposed to a thousand eager co-developers pounding on every single new release. Accordingly you release often in order to get more corrections, and as a beneficial side effect you have less to lose if an occasional botch gets out the door.

But the problem with being clever and original in software design is that it gets to be a habit—you start reflexively making things cute and complicated when you should be keeping them robust and simple.

What strikes us is the emphasis on experimentation and execution.  Conceptualization is rightfully relegated to being the third wheel.  Within the field of landscape practice we would do well to take a page from this book and focus more on experimentation and execution and a little less on conceptualization.  Engagement with the medium itself has long been a fundamental aspect of landscape practice.  Some will object that there are very real barriers to entry with something like operating a backhoe or growing a forest, but the focus on conceptualization is most severe and striking within the academy, the very institutions that might marshal the resources needed to create opportunities to overcome these barriers.  And this is due to an almost singular focuson conceptualization (and representation).

Extending Raymond’s analysis, one could imagine a future where landscape education doesn’t occur solely in a building with a mac, a table saw, and an onsrud router as the only instruments with the surrounding landscape purely ornamental and maintain by crews.  Rather, a significant part of landscape education might allow for coir log installations, driving scale mockup sheet piling, propagating live stakes, and getting a heavy equipment operator’s license.  This leap would require us to wriggle free from the Eurocentric art-historical death grip, but it promises the chance to create more bizarre landscapes.
[there may always be a need for the cathedral, but that doesn't mean that we need to construct the whole academy around them]

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bolivia Mar

[Los Caracoles highway which climbs the Andes from Argentina to Peru; Los Caracoles were part of the Dakar 2010 rally landscape]

Last weekend saw the close of the annual Dakar rally raid.  We are particular fond of the race because the vehicles used are so extreme that they bring in to relief the direct way that instruments make landscapes:  the Dakar rally landscape is a sprawling line of mountains and cities and deserts and rivers covering the southern half of South America.  Without the specialized equipments of the Dakar rally these zones are spectacular sand dunes, trees, rivers, and ocean, but they are not the rally landscape until a class-T1 car goes crashing through the riparian undergrowth along the Rio Pisco ahead of a pack of 500 cc quad bikes.  This year’s race began on the Atlantic coast in the Argentine city of Mar de Plata, shot across the pampas, past the ruins of Epecuen, over the Andes Mountains in Chile, and through the Atacama Desert before finishing in Lima, Peru.  One place it didn’t go through was the Bolivian Litoral- the landlocked nation’s historical ocean access corridor.  Maps that predate 1883 reveal the nation was not always landlocked.  In fact, the Andean country enjoyed ownership of a wide swath of ocean access through the Atacama Desert.  While the exact borders and jurisdictions were ambiguous and contested since at least independence from Spain in 1826, no one seemed to much care until the discovery of massive amounts of saltpeter in the 1870’s.

[a map of the campaigns for independence in 1826 shows Bolivia with access to the Pacific through the Atacama Desert]

[the monument to the sea at Bolivia Mar.  This is located at the end of the Interoceanic Highway; note the extremely strange spiral stair that terminates in the wire mouth of the female face at the top of the space frame; this monument is the center of the recreational area]

In the 19th century saltpeter was a main component of agricultural fertilizer and food preservatives.  It was also a major ingredient in explosives and rocket propellants.  Saltpeter was food and bombs.  And the largest saltpeter resources in the world were in the Atacama.  The War of the Pacific between Chile (backed by British capital) and the Peru-Bolivia Alliance left Chile in control of the Atacama and Bolivia without access to the Pacific.  Today the area is still contested and littered with national parks.  The saltpeter mines became obsolete with the discovery of the Haber process for synthesizing nitrates, and the mining towns are gone but Chile enjoys the wealth generated by the massive copper mines in the territory.  Bolivia enjoys Bolivia Mar.

Bolivia Mar is a 3 mile slice of dusty shoreline on the Peruvian coast just south of the tiny town of Ilo.  The result of a 1992 agreement between the two nation, Bolivia Mar is technically a piece of Bolivia, a gesture of goodwill from their Andean neighbor and consolation for the loss of their coast.  When the agreement was first reached it seems most hopes were pinned on vague notions about the power of private capital to develop random slices of terrain-cum-property.  The results have been bizarre, and while we kind of like things as they are- a strange combination of impotent national ambitions and industrial exploitation- it is clear that the intended results have not been achieved.  The recent pact ratified in 2010 is a bit more ambitious and specific.  The new plans for Bolivia Mar call for expansion of the existing port facilities at the nearby town of Ilo to operate as a binational port serving Bolivian industrial interests.  In addition industrial installation for the refinement of natural gas and iron mined in the Bolivian highlands are to be constructed and administered by Bolivia.  To the south a recreational zone is to be created at Bolivia Mar with fishing piers, hotels, and a promenade. 

[the Enersur dock just south of Bolivia Mar is one of the longest in the world; the complex is a thermoelectric plant using coal brought by boat and seawater to create electricity for industrial and domestic use in Ilo; the Suez Energy International company which owns Enersur, is exploring the possibility of exporting copper here from its Quellaveco Atacama location, scheduled to begin production in 2014]

What is one to make of this monstrous concoction of industrial-port-recreational facilities, all established in a historically contested territory filled with economic promise and political landmines?  This strange situation makes us ask wonder can a landscape approach generate beneficial relations, and point the way towards a re-knitting of this frontier landscape?  Bolivia Mar may be little more than a symbolic historical curiosity.  Or it may offer a chance to develop a new model for making the territory in a situation where resources are scarce, history is heavy, jurisdictions are contested, and the need for a solution is imperative.  We have no idea.  We are fascinated by this Bolivia-by-the-Sea, however.  Along the Peruvian coast west of the Lake Titicaca, and south of Lima a small slice of sand dune has been carved out for the industrial-recreational desires of the nation of Bolivia.  Might the port of Ilo be able to leverage this new bi-national status, the wealth of the Bolivian highlands and the opening of the Interoceanic Highway connecting Brazil and Peru to build itself as one of the great Pacific ports, offering an alternative to Valparaiso, Callao, and Los Angeles?  We imagine that new techniques of territorialization might be developed and deployed, resulting in strange synthetic landscapes.
[is Bolivia Mar what Tyson was referring to when he said "I might just fade into Bolivian..."??  If so, it only further confirms our hypothesis that Mike Tyson is the greatest landscape architect ever]

Friday, January 13, 2012

Gateway: National Parks and the Making of the Territory

Towards the end of 2011 the good folks over at PAP released a book about New York City’s best big park- Gateway National Park!  Gateway is seemingly unique among national parks; rather than an image of pristine wilderness offered up for the consumption of national tourists, it is marked by the ruins and wasted infrastructures of the old airfield and chimera-ecologies materializing in theleftover places around the edges of Jamaica Bay, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook.  Here the primary patrons are not busloads of tourists from afar, but locals living on the outer rim of New York City.  Outfall sewers and obsolete cold war defenses are as important as rock outcroppings and maritime forests.

[A few years ago we made our affections for the slice of Gateway known as Floyd Bennett Field known by penning a few rough verses on the future of recreation for the Urban Omnibus.  Popular contemporary conceptions of the American landscape might be characterized as “Europe on steroids”.  We think this doesn’t go far enough into the heavy and psychoactive drugs.  It is better characterized variously as “Europe on steroids, cocaine, peyote, and meth-amphetamine”.]]

The book features some solid essays by FASLANYC-favorites Ethan Carr and Kate Orff and publishes the results of the 2007 ideas competition held by the Van Alen Institute.  The format and price approach the scary-in-more-ways-than-one realm of coffee table tome and begs the question: wouldn't the objectives of this project be better served through an internet platform?  Nonetheless, the essays are comprehensive and daring, and while the competition entries already seem dated- featuring all the stuff that all the competitions in 2007 featured- together they serve as a powerful ode to the potentiality of the place.  Part activist propaganda, part speculative exercise, with just a dash of serious scholarship, the book is a good bookend to the first phase of Gateway’s rebirth.  

The Gateway book adds to the frothy ferment surrounding National Parks in recent years.  Since 2007 there have been two competitions by the Van Alen Institute, the St. LouisArch grounds project, and the hallmark that any historical fact needs to be considered significant- a Ken Burns documentary.  These are all part of a larger environmental and economic conversation, thrown in to relief by the Great Recession and slashing of government budgets, about the future of our federal lands.  The dialogue surrounding these huge swaths of our patrimony is typically focused on wilderness conservation and the public good of recreation and tourism as an antidote to the ills of 19th century urbanism.  No doubt there is much truth to this, and many folks smarter than ourselves have spent their considerable careers crafting the narrative.  But that is not what interests us today. 

[We can say from experience that what Floyd Bennett Field needs is not further study, but some people out there flying more model planes, playing soccer, growing and building habitat, and racing bicycles.  Here’s to the hope that future academic articles on the Gateway National Park don’t end with the familiar “needs more study”, but rather “do some shit.”]

Focusing on national parks, a quick survey of the history of the wider American landscape brings an alarming historical trend to the surface.  The idea for national parks originated in the United States as the country was quickly expanding west, seizing lands fromMexico and staking claims in California to ward off British Imperial designs (at that time Canada was still British).  The official history states that they were an outgrowth of a philosophy articulated by Olmsted in his 1865 report on Yosemite.  According to National Park Service HistorianDwight T. Pitcaithly the idea was one of:
leisure based on nature's regenerative powers for an urbanizing society. [Olmsted] believed… that the essence of park land should be in establishing a contrast to the pace of the modern world…  Olmsted envisioned a need for ordinary citizens to maintain perspective in their daily lives by being exposed to, and encouraged to contemplate, the natural [sic] rhythms of the natural world. 
This official history is generally accepted, despite the extremely suspect reading of Olmsted (did he really think that parks were anti-modern, providing only contrast to everything that was contemporary?  Did he really think that ordinary citizens in their daily lives were just going to hop on horseback at the end of a tough day at the mill and head down for a breath of fresh air at Yosemite?  Methinks not.)

Well, this is all well and good.  Never mind that these national parks were located several days travel from any nearby populations, much less those of a verifiable city- at that time San Francisco was the only population center in the top 100 in the West, and that thanks to the Gold Rush of 1849.  What is more, getting to these places was exceedingly difficult, as the Golden Spike wouldn’t be driven for four more years, and the car was not yet a twinkle in eye of a prepubescent Henry Ford.  It would be decades before National Parks were created within a day or two of the urban populations- all of the pre-depression parks were west of the continental divide, save one or two exceptions.  The argument has been made that this was a far-sighted move, one in which Olmsted and others anticipated a future in which these areas would be near urban populations.  What is more, they foresaw that these places would be under threat from those urban populations they were meant to serve if not protected.  And that is true.  So we made some national parks.  Took city parks, scaled them up, and put them under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

[a 1956 NPS map showing the nation's national parks and monuments.  By far the majority of the parks were in the West, though this has changed a bit post WWII]

This was America’s best idea!  Our greatest invention!  Our mountains and forest and rivers were bigger, more drastic, more majestic!  An entire art-historical theory- the sublime- found its footing and took off on the strength of these natural objects.  This was the raw material of our future society which we could put up against the great cultural monuments of Europe and the Far East!  Unfortunately it does not explain why no national parks were created east of the Mississippi until half a century later and why many of them were located at the edges of contested terrains which had been taken from Mexico or were loosely controlled territories with no state governments and sparse national populations.

A similar trend can be observed throughout the Americas.  Huge swaths of Hawaii were made national parks before it was ever a state.  The majority of the lands of the Darien Gap on the border between Panama and Colombia are administered as a national park, a phenomenon that holds true for most modern Central American borders.  The massive Venezuela-Brazil border is almost entirely national park, as is much of the border between Peru and Bolivia. 

Our thesis here today is that national parks in the American landscape are more than conservation-recreation machines; their primary purpose is geo-political.  Creating national parks was first and foremost a historical act of territorialization of the American landscape.  Recreation for future populations and the conservation of natural objects and ecosystems was a major factor, but this was of secondary importance to the acts of territorialization needed to construct a national landscape in the expanses of the Americas where populations were thinand heterogeneous, capital was concentrated in a few hands, and borders werecontested.  Take the case of Parque Nacional Iguazu in the Argentine portion of the Triple Frontera zone of South America.

The falls of Iguazu had been known to Europeans at least since their discovery by Spanish explorer de Vaca in 1541.  A Jesuit mission was established ten years later, but the population remained entirely indigenous until 1881.  The territory was under Paraguayan jurisdiction until it was ceded to Argentina as an outcome of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864.  The area remained a contested zone and largely unsettled by Argentines until 1902 excursions into the area, much like those undertaken in Yosemite30 years prior, convinced authorities in Buenos Aires of its importance.  Despite an almost non-existent national population, its strategic location at the border with Paraguay and Brazil as well as the recreational possibilities the area might one day offer to tourists was enough to convince the government to buy the land and build a tourist town and military port.  

In subsequent decades landscape designers Carlos Thays and Benito Carrasco authored reports on the potential of the place and editorialized in the national newspapers about the importance of conserving the falls and the surrounding jungle.  Eventually the land was purchased and designated a future national park and zona militar (military base), a vision which came to fruition in 1928 as Argentina’s first national park.  Thays was chosen to provide the urban plan for the city located in the new national territory with the objectives of supporting the touristic-military objectives in the national interest.

[the contested zones of the land-locked nation of Paraguay- Puerto Iguazu is in the little elbow where the pink and orange meet to the far right; the orange zone is now part of Argentina, the various other orange areas were also once claimed by Paraguay but have been ceded to or taken by other South American countries since 1811]

This particular case makes even more clear the geo-political role of national parks in the American landscape and suggests that parks are not only landscapes themselves, but are also mechanisms for the construction of larger landscapes- national territories.  In the Americas they not only accommodate tourists and conserve natural objects and ecosystems, they also offer a way for the national government to establish a control regime in a contested zone which creates new and different opportunities for populations, economies, and ecologies to develop.

Of course, that could all be crap, so much horseshit on the side of the trail to Old Faithful.  But we think that this reading of national parks in the American landscape might offer a potent lens to view the urban national parks that have been getting so much attention in recent years, be they the DC forts, Gateway National Recreation Area, or the St. Louis Arch Grounds. 

We have suggested before that the frontier is now in our cities.  This relation seems even more tightly coupled in places like Gateway and the DC forts, where military installations preceded the creation of a park.  If national parks are a uniquely pan-American instrument for dealing with the American frontier, and the frontier is an urban fact in our post-industrial cities, then what are the means by which an urban park constructs the national territory?

[given the contested history of the Falkland Island/Islas Malvinas and their potential to one day serve as a stopover on South Seas trading routes and a point of departure to the warming Antarctic Peninsula, we are guessing there is a decent chance that one day huge chunks of them will be designated as a national park]