Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't Look Back...?

This was definitely an eye-catching title on the ASLA snippet blog The Dirt... 'Don't Look Back', in response to a recent NY Times article that focused on a Alan Berger's restoration efforts in Italian Pontine Marshes. In summary, this: "...proposal to basically invent a natural system to purify heavily polluted waters running into the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. While such projects usually focus on restoration, he says, areas such as this site between Rome and Naples are beyond such thinking, calling for far more dramatic measures. And he has the attention of the Italian government."

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NY Times

The Dirt then poses the burning question... "What if landscape architects took the next step and, instead of designing with nature, designed nature itself?"

Does this question strike anyone as a little odd...? I understand the concept that they are getting at, but it seems a stretch to think this is terribly foreign ground for landscape architects venture forth and to 'design nature'... as opposing to all that 'designing with nature' we've been doing for some 100+ years. While the idea, obviously is beyond this - saying that mere healing isn't enough, but more heroic measures are needed. This is where we get active, and take the bold move of designing nature.

Via the NY Times: "Designing nature might seem to be an oxymoron or an act of hubris. But instead of simply recommending that polluting farms and factories be shut, Professor Berger specializes in creating new ecosystems in severely damaged environments: redirecting water flow, moving hills, building islands and planting new species to absorb pollution, to create natural, though “artificial,” landscapes that can ultimately sustain themselves."

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To set the record straight, this is not new territory. The extensive history of the profession has countless examples of significant manipulation of landscapes to provide machinic functions... and that we have used up the potential passive strategies and have become more active. The manipulation of significant natural areas in pastoral scenes is striking. The functional analysis and 'creation' of systems in the Back Bay Fens and the Emerald Necklace is just one example in history of this concept. On a smaller scale, living machines, constructed wetlands, artificial reefs, to name a few - create something 'artificial' but with a natural function. The question may be that of scale.

From the NY Times, the goal is to provide a large tract of land that can act as this machine: "He wants the government to buy a tract of nearly 500 acres in a strategic valley through which the most seriously polluted waters now pass. There, he intends to create a wetland that would serve as a natural cleansing station before the waters flowed on to the sea and residential areas. " As Berger explains further in P-REX: "The site strategy is to artificially re-introduce a gigantic new “wetland machine” for filtering, habitat, and biological exchange. Choosing a gigantic, consolidated wetland site will likely be more viable in the complex patchwork of land ownership. Given Latina’s situation, distributed treatment areas would be both enormously complex to purchase and ineffective to manage."

The origins of this 'active' and artificial approach may stem from a thorough reading of the site's history - and the acknowledgement that the original environment may be lost. Looking at some of Berger's work at the Pontine Marshes (initially discussed as well in L+U here), via the P-REX site. The summaries illuminate some of the history of the site, from draining, to facist restoration, to it's current state of polluted cesspool - while giving some more relevance to this line of inquiry - by starting with historical origins: "How was the reclamation of a vast environmental system (the marshes) regarded over different period of history: from the pre-Romans to contemporary times. What was the intellectual and conceptual framework for this type of landscape reclamation, and how was it represented and described in maps, drawings and texts? What relevance might this historical precedent have for contemporary understandings of landscape reclamation and urbanism?"

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So perhaps there is some merit to us acknowledging that we shouldn't look back to our old ways of doing things. This is progressive, important, and heady stuff. It reimagines the process and products of landscape architecture to include a socio-historical context, as well by manipulating ecology, seeing natural process as inventive technology. I think we've already made this step, perhaps in a tip-toe or baby step variety. So, on second thought... maybe this is the next step - we're just beginning to make strides.


  1. Interesting thoughts (and it really is a fantastic project, isn't it?).

    I too picked up on the same article, and had some similar thoughts, which I might expand upon:

    1. On Design Nature vs. Designing with Nature
    So this is in response to the contrast you picked up on, which I hadn't really thought through too much in relationship to this project, though I have thought a good bit about it (or something like it) in other contexts. I think you're very much correct that it is at once a bit of an odd dichotomy -- of course landscape architects have been designing nature all along -- but also expresses a truth -- that landscape architects have recently shifted both in their understanding of their relationship to nature (in favor of understanding nature as a constructed thing -- I'll come back to that in a second) and, as you say, more practically ("this is where we get active"), in being willing to affect not just the appearance of nature (the furniture) but also the processes of nature. There is a real shift there, and it is projects like this one that are responsible for effecting that shift. It is a shift that promises a greatly expanded role for landscape architects in society, too -- from cosmeticians who shrub up buildings to custodians of process, who mediate the processes that flow between society and nature.

    I mentioned that I would come back to the shift in how landscape architects understand nature; I think that this shift, which might be expressed as moving from an understanding of nature as a single 'other' which stands outside of and seperate from culture to an understanding of nature as both an unmediated substance and a cultural construction, a dual understanding which James Corner captured well:

    "It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish two ‘natures’: The first, ‘nature’, refers to the concept of nature, the cultural construction that enables a people to speak of and understand the natural world, and that is so bound into ecological language; the second, ‘Nature’, refers to the amorphous and unmediated flux that is the ‘actual’ cosmos, that which always escapes or exceeds human understanding."

    This, I think, is important because it provides a theoretical terrain in which landscape architecture can assume this extended role (as mediators of processes) which I referred to above. Understanding that nature is culturally constructed begins to open room for action, as nature and culture are not perceived as opposed poles, but interrelated realms. There is a growing realization that culture and nature should not be considered dichotomously; this makes dialogue between nature and culture more appropriate and even necessary.

    2. On the History of the Marshes
    That first point had mostly to do with affirming that there is a shift in landscape architecture; my second point has to do with the realization that the history of the marshes has always been a history of designing nature (even if that design of nature was not consciously expressed in the terms that Berger might use). I'll quote myself here:

    "The Agri Pontini itself, after all, is itself reclaimed: disease-ridden marshland (the Pontine Marshes) transformed into productive agricultural land and settled city centers. Generations of Italians, from the Romans to Popes Boniface VIII, Martin V, Sixtus V, and Pius VI to Major Fedor Maria von Donat (a Prussian military officer) battled the marshes, concocting various failed schemes to drain the marshes (though they did succeed in penetrating the marshes with the Via Appia)


    This history reveals that there has been another, more subtle shift in the practice of remediation: in what counts as damaged and what counts as remediated. Where once the marsh was viewed as the problem, as a sort of landscape whose presence is compatible with human habitation, Berger is now suggesting that the marsh -- in some form, in perhaps an altered or designed form -- is in fact essential to sustaining human habitation. Perhaps restoration is even cyclical: marshes are drained to eliminate the threat of disease and yet draining is found to create the conditions for pollution and contamination, necessitating the human reintroduction of marshes into the landscape. In three hundred years, will future landscape architects need the develop systems to remediate the landscape that Berger's design seeds?"

  2. Great comment (and I really like your blog as well...) I think this is perhaps one of the critical questions of our time - and worthy of some dialogue for sure. The role of landscape architects as 'mediators of process' is one of the founding tenets of landscape urbanism theory, and requires a definite paradigm shift - not just in how we think and practice, but in the way 'design' for lack of a better word occurs. It's odd to think of how one would accomplish this mediation in the somewhat constrained role we occupy as LAs - and how to not only change ourselves, but demand the culture that we operate within to change with us. Or maybe our landscape architectural passivity can be shed and we can demand that design be not a finite site and timeframe, but a malleable, expansive, and long-term proposition.

    Will this result in better design - that doesn't need to be cleaned up with interventions from future designers? Probably not... as our knowledge, and the world (that nature and culture thing) will continue to evolve and change in tandem. In the short (ecologically speaking) timeframe, our designs will be more flexible, adaptive, and authentic.

    My feeling is that landscape architecture is at a cross-roads... in one hand, we continue down the road we're going, doing finite timelines and forgetting process and 4D elements - we will remain somewhat peripheral to major discourse (the cosmeticians, as you so aptly put it).

    The two forks take us down the art vs. science or nature vs. culture paths that we've tread on and worn out (and will continue to do so), realizing they meet at somewhere near the same place - and you can't walk one without inadvertently stepping on the other.

    My thought, and it's tangential but related to your well-crafted response - is that we take off in a random direction, acknowledging that the path is meaningless and that our not-knowing, but proceeding nonetheless - will get us to the proper destination. That's a profession I'd like to be involved in for the next 30-40 years.


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