Monday, October 22, 2012

Landscape Signoff

After three years of writing faslanyc I am signing off.  I'll still be writing about landscapes, but I've started using twitter a bit (@faslanyc) and have left NYC.  Combined with the fact that the nature of my investigations, criticism and speculation has shifted, I find that this format no longer fits the bill.  All of the archives from this blog have been moved over to my new home at landscape archipelago where you will be able to find new work as well as links to pieces published with other outlets, upcoming news, and a couple of new projects that are starting to take shape.

I want to thank everyone I've had the chance to correspond with, interview, learn about, learn from, and occasionally harangue.  What started as a nerdy way to blow off steam on my lunch breaks in Manhattan has swelled to a landscape empire with tens of readers across the globe, mostly hunting for images of Costa Rica for some reason.  If you are so inclined I would love for you to come along with me to the new site.  Even better, start your own writing/research project about landscape, and send me a link.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Canals vs. the Cotton Gin


[the 1751 Fry-Jefferson Map of Virginia; this early survey shows the number of major waterways that were used for navigation just in the colony of Virginia including the New, the Roanoke, the James, the Rappahanock, the Potomac and the York; a more complete list can be found here]

The Industrial Revolution is often talked about in terms of technological advancements, new strategies for processes of production, or the reorganization of social relations.  However, in the United States it is possible that the changes occurring during this period are best understood through a robust landscape history.  More than the advent of the steam engine, the spreading of the railroad network, the organization of the mill town, or Taylorism, the American industrial revolution is best understood as widespread access to navigable waterways and the concomitant rise in cheap and fast transportation of bulk materials.

The difficult thing about defining the industrial revolution through technology and social relations is that they cannot explain the revolution itself- it remains a rather vague notion when any historical account is pressed for specifics and we are left only with knowing that something changed.  But the order-of-magnitude jump in the economy of materials transportation affected a massive scale jump in industrial activity.  If you had a technology or organized a new labor system that could make a thousand widgets a day, up from 20, that didn’t matter very much unless you could get them to markets cheaply and quickly (especially in the case of agricultural products).  The railroads affected a similar change in what has been theorized by technological historian WW Rostow as the takeoff thesis (part of his largely debunked theory of economic development).  However, as Fogel noted in his excellent work Railroads and Economic Growth canals precipitated a far greater jump in economy of scale over the preexisting conditions (wagon roads) than did railroads over canals.  And this massive scale jump, something like a phase change, is perhaps a better indicator of the American industrial revolution than is the invention of the cotton gin.

Of course the point could easily be argued around in circles, and many great historians and critics have taken up positions on different sides of the fight.  However, the fact that it is a discussion suggests that by considering canals (as well as railroad easements and interstate corridors) as landscape typologies, landscape architects might be able to contribute substantially to the field of the history of technology, and that we would benefit from turning away from our devotion to art-history.  And it suggests to me that the relationship between landscapes and instruments is deeper than it seems.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hast thou considered the Drillfield?


[the Drillfield of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in the late 19th century; note the yard lines for football games]

Last week I brought up some of the landscape projects and indigenous forms that shaped Thomas Jefferson’s thinking and suggested these may have influenced his later political and architectural projects.  One of his important projects that offers a particularly potent blend of architecture and politics is his Maverick Plan for the University of Virginia.  For its time the design was radical in that it offered an alternative to “one immense building”, instead proposing “a small one for every professorship, arranged at proper distances around a square, to admit extension, connected by a piazza”- a very clever idea that has been lionized ad nauseum by historians of that venerable institution.  While there is undoubtedly more to glean from the Jeffersonian canon through intricate epistemological jujitsu, I am interested in what might be gained by considering the organizational principles and landscape history of the land grant university down the great wagon road.

The Drillfield at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute is defined by scale and history.  With regard to scale, the place is huge.  The open area at the heart of the University of Virginia is known as the lawn.  The Drillfield would contain 7 lawns, and have room left over for a few Rotundas.  It is a monstrous, windswept space, leaving undergrads with mild hangovers to traipse across it during dismal winters and hot summers of Southern Appalachia.  When you are at the Drillfield you feel the Appalachians, you are at the institution created at the terminus of the Great Wagon Road and the start of the Frontier Road headed west to the Cumberland Gap.  There is no mistaking that there are big forces at play.

[Thomas Jefferson's Maverick Plan of the University of Virginia; the open lawn that is the structuring element of the plan would fit in to the Drillfield seven times]

The history of the Drillfield is twisted and rambling.  Rather than the materialization of a southern aristocrat’s idealization of the proper social relationships of an intellectual institution, it is the result of experimental uses and militarization.  Originally the field served as the horticultural farm for the Virginia Agriculture and Mechanics College (later to become Virginia Polytechnic Institute).  In 1894 a portion of the field was given over to cadet maneuvers and for use by the football team.  At this time the Drillfield blended proto-intramural and intercollegiate athletic events with military exercises, agricultural experimentation, quotidian life, as well as what European theorists would call the fete or ‘ephemeral happenings’ but which are known in southwestern Virginia as ‘snowball fights’.  The first snowfall of the year brings all classes to a halt so that the student population can divide in to cadets and civilians and engage in some wintry tactical maneuvers. 

The Drillfield does not care.  It doesn’t care about me or my ideas of the spatial relationships that are proper for pursuing higher education.  But it does offer spaces of possibility and new forms of use adapting to the needs and shape of the community of which it is a part.  And it is in line with the land grant tradition created in part by the visionary geologist William Barton Rogers.  In the 1830’s Rogers was a professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Virginia where he tried unsuccessfully to start an engineering program.  As noted by technological historian Edwin Layton, he had better luck implementing his ideas for a polytechnic school after moving to Boston, founding a little institution known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[This past spring the snowfight tradition metastasized into something called SnowJam 2012!  A large scaffold was set up on the Drillfield and 40 tons of snow was trucked 150 miles down Interstate 81, the modern iteration of the Indian road that became the Great Wagon Road; the Drillfield has an interesting capacity to unique impressive logistical maneuvers that echo a rich and violent past with hedonistic celebration]

The principles embodied in the land grant ideal- agricultural experimentation, scientific applications of technology, militaristic operations, and quotidian life- seem germane to contemporary concerns in the practice of landscape architecture and urbanism more broadly.  And the Drillfield- big, nasty, and possible- is there as an object lesson, offering a way to break the art-historical hegemony of our current landscape pedagogy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Triangulating Jefferson


[US Coast Survey 1851; this map shows the baseline used in the first US Coast Survey, the line was established on Fire Island; image courtesy of Stony Brook University]

Triangulation refers to a technique used in surveying and political action as well as research within the social sciences.  In surveying, the term means the dividing of an area into triangles using known points and distances; angles are then measured from the known baselines to a new point, and its distance is calculated given existing information.  This technique was used especially in circumstances that were difficult to survey by traditional means, allowing for the staking out of new territory along coastlines, in the atmosphere (pilot navigational charts), or in outer space (GPS satellite surveys).  Within the social sciences, triangulation refers to using more than two methods in a study in order to test results.  In political action, like in chess, the term signifies a specific maneuver in which an opponent is left with the move and at a disadvantage. 

What I’m interested in today is what this method for the staking out new terrain might reveal when considering the social and material implications of Thomas Jefferson’s landscape designs.  While little discussed, many of Jefferson’s original interests and design projects were concerned with landscape practices and concepts.  In 1763 he made a study of navigation on the Rivanna River and subsequently lead a project to make it navigable as far as Milton, VA. In 1773 he was appointed surveyor of Albemarle County and even though he quickly resigned the post, he would use surveying to organize his experimental and productive agricultural landscapes.  Around this time he also undertook the first systematic proto-archeological project in the United States, leading the stratigraphic excavation of an Indian mound near the Rivanna River.

Working toward this reorientation, it is useful to focus on the second of Jefferson’s three major building projects in western Virginia- Poplar Forest.  As the red headed stepchild of the Jeffersonian canon, Poplar Forest has rarely received attention alongside the well-known constructions at Monticello and the University of Virginia.  It is something of a transitional project chronologically, aesthetically, and technologically.  For that reason it promises insights into both projects.  An examination of Poplar Forest with a focus on landscape and indigenous built forms promises insights into the design of Jeffersonian social and educational institutions that have remained inaccessible to Eurocentric epistemology.
[Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA, from the eastern mound; the summer kitchen is in the foreground and the main house is in the background]

Poplar Forest is a main central house with a large geometric mound on either side, and impressive lawns to the back and front.  Current theories about the existing mounds asymmetrically located on either side of the house draw directly from European architectural theory:  the mounds are supposed it to be a direct adaptation of Palladian concepts, intended to imitate a symmetrical fa├žade with wings that terminate in a pavilion.  Jefferson used earthen mounds at Poplar Forest- a radically different technology than a Palladian pavilion- but even the technology is attributed to European precedents he had seen; in the ornamental gardens of European aristocrats mounds were sometimes constructed throughout to create vantage points for surveying ornamental surroundings.  It is supposed that Jefferson took these known forms and concepts and created his arrangement, bringing in mounds close to the house to serve as cheap stand-ins for Palladian pavilions.

This explanation is decidedly Eurocentric and simplistic.  While this is not necessarily bad, it is highly problematic with respect to issues of aesthetics, technology, and context.  For instance, why did he plant the mounds with trees, obscuring views, if they were traditionally used to provide vistas over immediate ornamental grounds?  What about the fact that Poplar Forest was never intended as a public house for entertaining, but rather as a working farm where Jefferson could make some money to pay off his debts and get away from the never-ending string of guests making up his public life centered at Monticello?  Why were the mounds constructed asymmetrically and off-axis if they were intended to imitate Palladian forms?  Were these truly only a cheap stand-in for more stately Palladian pavilions?  And as to the idea that they provided a convenient disposal site for excavation from the South Lawn, couldn’t this material have be disposed in almost any location without the hassle of compaction techniques and geometrical construction needed to create the mounds?
[Artists’ rendering imagining the archeological dig of an Indian mound undertaken near Monticello by a young Thomas Jefferson; the vertical elevation is exaggerated and indicates the various stratigraphic layers that Jefferson made note of in the mound’s construction]


Jefferson’s views of the Indians in Virginia were complicated.  In addition to implementing policies that stripped certain nations of their land claims he had communicated his desire that “your blood will mix with ours; and will spread, with ours, over this great island [all of North America].”  Writing to Benjamin Hawkins during the period in which he was constructing Poplar Forest, Jefferson said on February 18, 1803:
The ultimate point of rest and happiness for [the Indians] is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people.  Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the United States, this is what the natural progress of things will of course, bring, on, and it will be better to promote it than retard it.

This vision of Jefferson provides impetus for a new thesis- American settlements as an exceptional blend of imported European traditions and indigenous practices and concepts, set within a landscape that was larger and more violent than anything that Europeans had experienced.  It is known that Jefferson had great interest in the mound structures of the native peoples that were located throughout Virginia and had even undertaken an excavation of one in the 1770’s.  Writing later he noted that:
“many [mounds] are to be found all over this country.  These are of different sizes, some of them constructed of earth, and some of loose stones… There being one of these in my neighborhood, I wished to satisfy myself whether any, and which of these opinions was just.  For the purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly… It was a spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base, and had been of about twelve feet altitude…”

Certain facts arise from his early archeological work that might bring new concepts in to view when considering the landscape and architecture of Poplar Forest.  That the sizes, proportions, material construction, and regional context were all similar in both the Indian mounds of the area and the mounds at Poplar Forest suggest that there is much to be learned from a more in depth consideration of the influence of Indian burial mounds, and indigenous architectural practices in general, on the architecture, landscape design, and ultimately public policy of Thomas Jefferson.

Despite being one of the most digested public figures in the history of the United States, and entire history is waiting to be written which considers Jefferson’s work from a landscape perspective with a particular focus on the influence of indigenous forms and practices.  In doing that work we might gain some insight in to Jefferson’s understanding of and interest in indigenous settlements, and how he saw them “blending together” with those of the European settlers and African slaves?  While the above questions have been traditionally considered from a general sociological perspective, a study that focuses on the landscape design of Poplar Forest might provide new insight not only into the design and construction of the Lawn and the grounds of Monticello, but also help us to understand the Public Lands Survey System, and other ambitious landscape projects in the Americas.
[west mound with view toward the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond; some trees remain on the mounds, although historical documents suggest that the mounds were much more heavily planted according to Jefferson's original design]