Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Process Landscapes

I was compelled to dust off my copy of the Landscape Urbanism Reader (ok, really just my notes), and look at a few key positions regarding the idea of 'process landscapes'. The following quotes stuck out as applicable to process, a major tenet of LU theory (all quotations from Waldheim, ed.):

Corner's (p.16) four processes: “…ecological and urban processes over time, the staging of horizontal surfaces, the operational or working method, and the imaginary.”

This is further elaborated by Corner in the essay Terra Fluxus (p.29) “Thus, dynamic relationships and agencies of process become highlighted in ecological thinking, accounting for a particular spatial form as merely a provisional state of matter, on its way to becoming something else, Consequently, apparently incoherent or complex conditions that one might initially mistake as random or chaotic can, in fact, be shown to be highly structured entities that comprise a particular set of geometrical and spatial orders. In this sense, cities and infrastructure are just as ‘ecological’ as forests and rivers.”

:: Soil, by Osuma Design - image via MoCo Loco

To tap into nature's inherent process is worth of exploration. To what extent, seems to be the crux of the conversation. This line of inquiry emerged in a somewhat related vein of accidental landscapes, from a post byGeoff Manaugh (of BLDGBLOG), on io9 that outlines some of these processes at work (Top 5 Ways to Hack the Earth). In essence, there are myriad wasy to 'create' landscapes in less direct ways, and the distinct possibility of a more focussed design approach using macro-strategies such as plate techtonics, magma flow, and wind/erosion to 'design' landscapes that were previously accidental.

:: images via io9

This was followed soon after by a post in BLDGBLOG regarding the 'Prosthetic Delta' and the ability to manipulate landform and water, in a figure-ground relationship. Specifically this was directed towards the Mississippi delta region, using a directed natural process (in this case, 3-D printing of landform) to create new delta configurations that would provide buffering from future hurricanes. Ok, the technology for all of these ideas is in more conjecture, and exists for the most part in either sci-fi lit or movies. But it is technically possible, or will be in the not-so-distant-future.

:: image via BLDGBLOG

Either way, let's look at the essence. What is technically possible (i.e. possible to acheive through technological advances) has grown and continues to grow exponetially. Man has evolved the capacity to create amazing change to the earth's surface and processes with our tools and technologies. This visionary new application is just a step beyond where we are, a bigger tool for bigger things, and more than likely, bigger mistakes.

There is a paradox in our continually developing world. Our development and impacts create change, for better or worse. Our technologies are used to create as well as to mitigate this change. Is it possible for this to be change in a positive versus a negative? Sure. Does the equation balance? Look around, the answer is pretty clear. The question is one of not intent or method, but overall magnitude. We have the capacity, through big technologies, to make enormous mistakes.

:: World's Largest Solar Farm - image via Treehugger

Back to technological creationism... some differences, on a continuum, are:

1. preventing natural processes from changing a particular result
2. allowing for natural processes to occur to shape a landscape,
3. making modifications to influence natural processes to a certain result, or
4. magnifying natural processes to create specific man-made cultural artifacts

Each of these requires thought and action (or deliberate inaction, which to me is action). At one end, we expend a ton of energy to maintain our cultural artifacts. In the middle ground we let alone, or make small tweaks to acheive a certain result or maintain equilibrium. On the other extreme, we use natural processes instead to create our cultural artifacts, but are caught in the catch-22... once we've created results (islands, or deltas, or magma buildings, or whatnot) - how to we prevent them from being destroyed by the same natural processes in which they were created? Or more likely, what gives us the right to create them in the first place.

:: Dubai Palm Islands via Flickr, gavinsblog

It's interesting to see the similarities between the Palm Isles, and the previous image of 'prosthetic delta'. Good v. evil perhaps? Once the technology is developed, who is to say how and when it is used? Our track record of restraint, has been, and continues to be, not something to brag about.

Which in a roundabout way, takes us back to the Landscape Urbanism Reader. Talk of process permeates the book, touched on by many contributors. Process landscapes are a possible remedy to the long-standing tendency to want to force our will upon the earth, regardless of motivation. Rather, it accepts our powerlessness to predict and harness natural processes in a consistent way, and highlights our willingness to let nature assist us in the creation and articulation of spaces. We're working in nature's turf, for starters.

:: Urban Plan, Vatnsmýri, Reykjavik, Iceland - image via WAN

While sometimes maligned for their inherent over-intellectualization of some topics, the significant Landscape Urbanists have perhaps discovered the key to success in our dialogue with the land into the future. While the implementation and creativity will still allow for vibrant and dynamic design, it also accomodates the natural processes which will continue to shape places after the designers hand has left. As Waldheim posits, (p.28) "This emphasis on urban processes is not meant to exclude spatial form but rather seeks to construct a dialectical understanding of how it relates to the processes that flow through, manifest, and sustain it."

We often talk of the difficulty of dealing in these constantly flucuating materials of landscape. As Richard Weller explains (p.75), this is part of the benefit as well: “Landscape architecture – insofar as it is implicitly concerned with materials and processes subject to obvious change – seems well placed to give form to an ecological aesthetic. Landscape architecture is not frozen music.”

Overall, process is a double-edged sword. It allows true ecology to come through without our tampering, but also requires us to give up some control over the final process, much the dismay of most designers. Our finished products become mostly irrelevant, because they are really only a beginning. In reality, this has always been the case, due to our inherent flux: we have little control over any 'final' design in reality, whether it be contrived, manipulated, designed, or imagined.
The last word, and the call to what I consider the great possibility of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, from Corner: (p.77) “…suggesting that it might represent ‘a truly ecological landscape architecture,’ that such a landscape ‘might be less about the construction of finished and complete works, and more about the design of ‘processes,’ ‘strategies,’ ‘agencies,’ and ‘scaffoldings’ – catalytic frameworks that might enable a diversity of relationships to create, emerge, network, interconnect, and differentiate.’”

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