Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Oasis Cities

[the irrigation acequias that line the streets of Mendoza, feeding the plane trees and tipas trees which would never grow in such an arid climate without irrigation; the acequias are also excellent at collecting trash; the cobbled appearance of the acequias is due to a local technique of roughly cementing stones in order to diminish erosion while still encouraging water infiltration]



Last week we spent some time in the Argentine city of Mendoza at the foothills of the Andean cordillera. We've noted our interest in the city as an example for understanding historical urban form to large-scale hydrological system in an arid climate. While there we had a chance to speak with Guggenheim Fellow Ricardo Ponte about his specialty: irrigation through acequias and their ability to generate urban form in the American landscape. Ponte, an architect and sociologist by training, has made a career studying the irrigation systems throughout the western mountainous regions of the Americas, and is using the Guggenheim Fellowship to extend his study up in to the United States and Canada.

The importance of irrigation for agriculture and city-making is not particularly novel, although Ponte's architectural work tracing contemporary urban form in Argentina back to indigenous irrigation systems and techniques uncovers a facet of this story that has been largely ignored by architects and landscape designers. One of the most interesting points he impressed upon me, one worth testing and verifying further I think, is the relationship between the desert and the oasis in terms of creating habitable space.

According to Ponte, the Spanish concept of irrigation and urbanization was closely related to the Arabian concept (possibly developed in concert). This he summarized as "living in the desert, producing in the oasis." So agricultural production was concentrated in the irrigated zones and people inhabited the dry areas. He then noted that this concept was inverted in Mendoza despite being a Spanish town, and that this inversion whereby people adapted agricultural practices to the desert and then lived in the oasis seemed to be common in many American cities, especially those that could trace their history back to indigenous roots, such as the Huarpes and Inca in Mendoza. This is the reason that Mendocinos enjoy tree-lined streets, effervescent fountains and open acequias flush with running water on every street while the surrounding agricultural terrain is covering with grapes and olives particularly adapted to the desert climate, such as the Malbec grape that the region is known for.

We are struck by this inversion of the Mediterranean concept and its causal link back to indigenous forms of living as evidenced in the acequias of Mendoza and traced by Ponte. Perhaps this inversion would help us grapple with the hydrological history of Los Angeles so often maligned by urbanists. At first glance (which is also all we have afforded Mendoza at this juncture) it seems that a very similar history has taken place in Southern California, where the ducks and farmers were robbed of the water at the oasis of Owens Lake and it was dedicated to resplendant palm-lined streets, green gardens, and beautiful fountains in Los Angeles. At any rate, there is much more that could be said about Mendoza (though we think that pretty much covers it for LA), and we will do so at some point in the near future.

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