Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Landscape Forensics Lab

[a forensic mapping of the Exolgan logistics depot along the Riachuelo Canal in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the image is a composite of google aerial photos over 10 years- areas that are blurry have been subject to more structural movement; areas in blue are 2001 structures- including roads and sand piles; yellow are 2005 structures; red are 2010 structures; it becomes clear that a new path has developed crossing the highway in the top right corner, likely due to the new housing by the highway; the central area has largely fallen in to disuse, with the blue/yellow building to the right being deconstructed and the boat loading ramp falling in to disuse; this means that the luffing cranes are now standing idle, with informal paths now crossing to the newly paved tow path road]

Recently we were driving through Indiana in our Volvo station wagon munching on some granola and listening to NPR when we heard a short bit about one of our favorite subjects- landscape archeology.  The piece highlighted the work of Harvard urban archeologist Jason Ur and the work he is doing pairing high resolution declassified spy satellite photos with powerful image recognition software to identify sites where soil has been disturbed according to patterns consistent with sites of human occupation.  He then uses a powerful computer algorithm that is able to pinpoint the locations of likely sites of ancient inhabitation for a given photographed landscape through extremely close pattern analysis.  The computer algorithm is more accurate by an order of magnitude than the traditional method of gridding off a plot and traipsing through the field. 

And that gets us thinking.  A landscape architect should open up shop as a landscape forensics lab.  Forensics in this case wouldn’t be limited solely to the realm of legal arguments- although that is being done in fascinating ways- but rather would be the methods and techniques used to reconstruct highly specific evidence for argumentation reinforcing some position.  Built on the landscape architectural tradition of close and detailed site readings, and relying heavily on the excellent Archeology of Garden and Field, this lab would also incorporate radical new methods:  balloon aerial mappings allowing for specific high resolution aerial maps of contested terrains in change, D.I.R.T. Studio’s deductive mappings of generalized industrial processes onto historical Sanborn maps, F.A.D.’s 1-to-1 scale mappings with genetically engineered seeds designed to sprout purple in the presence of chromium, or composite photographs showing the accretion and removal of structures, machines, and landforms. 

[change in the confined disposal facility "yarara" in the Port Dock Sud at the mouth of the Riachuelo on the edge of the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina; the growth of the facility over time- from yellow to blue to red to green- is at times informal, insecure, and insufficient for the storage of contaminated materials]

Application of these techniques would allow for the recreation of highly specific places and open up new, actionable lines of work- rather than basing our designs off the topographic survey, we might draw from a host of highly specific documents, deftly deploying novel methods for each project, and demonstrating through a robust practice how we might understand Graham Harman when he states that time is always reversible… but space never is.

In some ways this is not new- each landscape project has always relied on a number of documents (site photos, building codes, master plans, soil borings), and many of a smaller scale do not even use a topographic survey.  However, the ability to develop and deploy a wide range of forensic techniques within the economic constraints of a project budget might be something we are capable of, but it not something we actively pursue.  If we did, one could imagine resultant project documents taking the shape of field manuals, or field work in the form of installing simple monitors and robots with algorithmic scripts that continually construct the landscape.  Instead of paying for expensive topographic surveys of entire sites, the grids might be localized, with the money saved going to aerial and deductive mappings and historical research, the construction of digital and analog models as well as speculative seedings.  Imagining a career of analyzing, collecting, building, and tracing, little kids might grow up deciding between Indiana Jones or Roberto Burle Marx.  Okay, that’s a bit much.  But we are interested in the ways that landscape practice might expand, and the adoption and continued development of forensic techniques points and exciting way forward.