Thursday, July 21, 2011

Source: Terrain Vague - de Sola Morales

A formative source in thinking about indeterminant spaces is Terrain Vague, a 1995 essay by Spanish Architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales.  The essay starts with a discussion of the idea of photography, which is mentioned by the author as vital to our understanding, particularly through photomontage and their inventive juxtaposition of forms, aiding our ability to explain the urban realm. Conversely, with its ability to frame and 'edit' the urban conditions - resulting in a disconnect of image from reality.  As mentioend by de Sola-Morales, "When we look at photographs, we do not see cities - still less with photomontages.  We see only images, static framed prints." (109)  From this jumping-off point of photography comes the 'non-space' of terrain vague, as defined by the author:

"Empty, abandoned space in which a series of occurrences have taken place seems to subjugate the eye of the urban photographer.  Such urban space, which I will denote by the French expression terrain vague, assumes the status of fascination, the most solvent sign with which to indicate what cities are and what our experience of them is." (109)

The etymology of the definition is explored, due to the lack of a clear translation into English.  First, the concept of terrain (as opposed to the concept of land) is more expansive, including more spatial connotations and the idea of a plot of land fit for construction, meaning that it has more direct ties to the urban.  Vague, on the other hand - has ties to a range of ideas.  From German 'woge' which is tied to the movement of seas - we get "movement, oscillation, instability, and fluctuation."  From French, the roots lie in 'vacuus', which yields connotations of vacancy, emptiness, and availability.  Another meaning is derived from the Latin 'vagus' which is most closely related to the origins in landscape urbanism thinking giving "the sense of 'indeterminate, imprecise, blurred, and uncertain.'"  (110)

Thus the dual concept of a plot of land defined by indeterminacy is the key to understanding of terrain vague, which has both a spatial as well as a social connection - defined by what it is, but that being specifically defined by how the space is used.  As de Sola Morales mentions, these become "spaces as internal to the city yet external to its everyday use.  In apparently forgotten places, the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present." (110)

These spaces have an innate duality - due to their marginalization, they have the sense of externality ot the order and security of the city making them alluring as a way of out the typically homogenized urban realm, meaning they become "both a physical expression of our fear and insecurity and our expectation of the other, the alternative, the utopian, the future." (111)  Identified as a certain 'strangeness' which has been cataloged throughout urban history as tied to the social dislocation of our shift to urban dwellers - most notably captured in Georg Simmel's 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' and our evolution to the blase cosmopolitan. 

This is captured by de Sola-Morales as 'estrangement' which becomes the formative construction of the terrain vague: "The photographic images of terrain vague are territorial indications of strangeness itself, and the aesthetic and ethical problems that they pose embrace the problematics of contemporary social life. What is to be done with these enormous voids, with their imprecise limits and vague definition?"   Thus these become fertile ground for artists whom "seek refuge in the margins of the city precisely when the city offers them an abusive identity, a crushing homogeneity, a freedom under control.  The enthusiasm for these vacant spaces - expectant, imprecise, fluctuating - transposed to the urban key, reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of our city, before ourselves." (112)

Terrain Vague is a difficult concept - being essentially 'non-design'- but is also powerful in its ability to theorize on the margins of the ordered world in which we reside.  On the difficult side, the actions of a designer is somewhat in opposition to the unstructured configuration of these spaces.  As de Sola Morales mentions:  "the role of the architect is inevitably problematic.  Architecture's destiny has always been colonization, the imposing of limits, order, and form, the introduction into strange space of the elements of identity necessary to make it recognizable, identical, universal."  (112)  This innate desire to transform disorder into order leads to a catch-22 in the employment of design 'agency' within these structures, as mentioned in the text:
"When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magin of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy." (112)

While design is about form, there is still plenty of potential in exploring the concept of terrain vague, as it offers the opportunity to give shape (both spatial and social) to an existing urban phenomenon of indeterminancy, tapping into the city inhabitants continual seeking of "forces instead of forms, for the incorporated instead of the distant, for the haptic instead of the optic, the rhizomatic instead of the figurative." (112)  It is still unclear how we use this, but further investigation should yield the possibilities of learning from this existing urban condition - not trying to recreate it, which is inevitably an exercise in futility, but looking at the ability to allow disorder, not fall into the trap of modernism in trying to rationalize and organize all of the spaces within a narrowly defined set of uses.  Can it work?  de Sola Morales posits that:
"Today, intervention in the existing city, in its residual spaces, in its folded interstices can no longer be either comfortable or efficacious in the manner postulated by the modern movement's efficient model of the enlightened tradition.  How can architecture act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reason?  Undoubtedly, through attention to continuity: not the continuity of the planned, efficient, and legitimized city, but of the flows, the energies, the rhythms established by the passing of time and the loss of limits... we should treat the residual city with a contradictory complicity that will not shatter the elements that maintain its continuity in time and space." (113)
More on this as we tie together threads of the 'terrain vague' with the ideas of 'heterotopias' and other models of indeterminate 'otherspace' in the urban context.  In classic urbanistic inquiry, the field of study has been identified, theorized, and classified - the translation of this into actions of architecture, urban design, planning, and landscape architecture - is another, more difficult jump.  But then again, that's the fun, no?

Originally published in 'Anyplace' - edited by Cynthia C. Davidson (1995) - citations here are from 'Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism' (Almy, ed. 2007)

Source: Whatever Happened to Urbanism? - Koolhaas

In 1995, Rem Koolhaas & Bruce Mau published 'S,M,L,XL', one in a line of oversized volumes so fondly disseminated by the Dutch.  Amazon mentions the work as "extraordinary, massive, and mind-boggling 1,300-page book combines essays, manifestos, diaries, fairy tales, travelogues, a cycle of meditations on the contemporary city--and complex illustrations..." giving shape to a mixed bag of visuals and texts on the work of OMA/Koolhaas and their speculations on the city.  One short essay, 'Whatever Happened to Urbanism?' by Koolhaas is fixed into the literature of landscape urbanism, quoted by many - specifically a key, oft- mentioned fragment:

"If there is to be a 'new urbanism' it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries, not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infra-structure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions - the reinvention of psychological space." (123)

The term 'irrigation of territories with potential' always struck me as akin to pissing in the wind - perhaps just in its alliteration, but as a phrase it does resonate with many of the formative elements of LU theory - particularly the idea of uncertainty, hybridization, infrastructure, and process above form.  The other important idea that fascinates me is the concept of 'urbanism' when realized in Euro-centric terms as 'study', whereas Koolhaas definitely considers urbanism as a more active endeavor, stating in the context of rapid urbanization, that "urbanism, as a profession, has disappeared at the moment when urbanization everywhere - after decades of constant acceleration - is on its way to establishing a definitive, global 'triumph' of the urban condition?" (122)

This demise of the urban is rooted in the reactions and rejections in the professional and educational realms to the mid-century pinnacle of high-modernism - which has caused a retreat into nostalgia.  Koolhaas considers the irony of this as the current form and idea of a city has totally shifted - becoming "beyond recognition," summed up as "'The city no longer exists."  Thus the clinging to nostalgia comes at the exact time when the classic idea of the city, the context urbanism, was snuffed out by rampant urbanization that erased our understanding and approaches to the fuzzy realm of urban/suburban/hinterland that currently exists.  Koolhaas claims then:

"For urbanists, the belated rediscovery of the virtues of the classical city at the moment of their definitive impossibility many have been the point of no return, [the] fatal moment of disconnection, disqualification." (122)
The result is that urbanism is gone, replaced with architecture... creating a gap in the overall understanding of the city beyond that of the architectural object.  This focus on architecture "exploits and exhausts  the potential that can be generated finally only by urbanism, and that only the specific imagination of urbanism can invent and renew.  The death of urbanism - our refuge in the parasitic security of architecture - creates an immanent disaster: more and more substance is grafted on starving roots." (123) 

While I would say there has been a re-emergence of urbanism since the mid-nineties (albeit an urbanism confused with urban design and planning), the overall idea of an urbanism project is still valid - and the resultant current dialogue/discussion is vital and gets to the root of non-design urbanism.  As mentioned by Koolhaas, "Redefined, urbanism will not only, or mostly, be a profession, but a way of thinking, an ideology: to accept what exists." (123)  Thus,
"To survive, urbanism will have to imagine a new newness... We have to imagine 1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right."  (123)  

This is what we lost in the disaster of the modern project, the ability to think big, and perhaps fail, while trying to deal with this unprecedented urban condition.  This has left us with small ideas tiptoeing around the crisis under the rubric of safe interventions or tepid theorizations.  The final words then ring true:  "What if we simply declare that there is no crisis - redefine our relationship with the city not as its makers but as its mere subjects, as its supporters?  More than ever, the city is all we have." (123)

Originally published in 'S,M,L,XL' (OMA/Koolhass/Mau - 1995) - citations taken from Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (edited by Almy - 2007).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading the Landscape: The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism

The next essay from the Landscape Urbanism Reader is by David Grahame Shane, entitled 'The Emergence of Landscape Urbanism'.  This essay builds on Waldheim's essay and further elaborates on the origins of the theory - with a broad take on the historical foundations and precedents around landscape urbanism as mentioned in the introductory text: “Shane surveys the growing body of literature attendant to landscape urbanism, while tracing the institutions and individuals implicated in the discourse, especially as they relate to the disciplinary formations and discourses of urban design.” (17)

As far as defining landscape urbanism, Shane mentions that the concept "has recently emerged as a rubric to describe the design strategies resulting in the wake of traditional urban forms.” (58) and echoes Waldheim in describing it as encompassing: "the practices of many designers for who landscape had replaced architectural form as the primary medium of citymaking.  This understanding of decentralized post-industrial urban form highlighted the leftover void spaces of the city as potential commons.” (57-58) Furthering this defintiion that provides a way out of the current methodologies of urban design practice.

“Landscape urbanists want to continue the search for a new basis of a performative urbanism that emerges from the bottom up, geared to the technological and ecological realities of the postindustrial world… implies an opportunity open urban design out beyond the current rigid and polarized situation to a world where the past building systems and landscape can be included as systems within urban design.” (65)
Shane mentions this in terms of creating new "recombinations and hybridizations, liberating the urban design discipline from the current, hopeless, binary opposition of past and present, town and country, in and out." (65)  but does mention that although filled with potential as noted above, "All of landscape urbanism’s triumphs so far have been in such marginal and ‘unbuilt’ locations.” (62)  This is another common refrain from critics of landscape urbanism, and it is worth noting that the ideas of contemporary urbanism and its potential solutions are very different in distant open spaces as opposed to dense urban fabric, which is valid, but also misses the point that the theory is attempting to address this situation, not, as many posit, blindly accepting sprawl as a given and deciding to operate within the residual post-industrial or generic Koolhaasian fields of landscape within the periphery.  Rather there is a residual fabric of corridors, edges, and other surfaces that can be re-engaged within this ideology.

:: Louisville Waterfront Park - image via

The precise operational dynamic of works of landscape urbanism is one thing - but to move beyond this and think of ways in which the concepts that interweave into practice is a different approach altogether.  The landscape urbanist project, if you would call it such, is addressing all of this (hence the term distiguished from the suburban), and Shane does explain that “The recent discourse surrounding landscape urbanism does not yet begin to address the issue of urban morphologies or the emergence of settlement patterns over time. The problems of this approach is its amnesia and blindness to preexisting structures, urban ecologies, and morphological patterns.” and concludes that “Landscape urbanists are just beginning to battle with the thorny issue of how dense urban forms emerge from landscape and how urban ecologies support performance spaces.” (63)

This essay is way to dense to capture in any detail, but does offer some thought provoking historical origins of theory spanning the last century.   The change in urban form and dynamics through this time period are exp
ressed by 'decompression', evolving from the ideas of Post-Fordist modes of production, deindustrialization leading to shrinking cities, and the resultant postmodern organization that "became obvious in the 1990s with the proliferation of sprawling cities, gated enclaves, residential communities, megamalls, and theme parks.” (59)

This context of contemporary urbanism is best captured by the provocatively wonderful 'City as an Egg' diagram from Cedric Price, which contrast three city morphologies "traditional, dense, ‘hard-boiled egg’ city fixed in concentric rings of development… the ‘fried egg’ city, where railways stretched the city’s perimeter in accelerated linear space-time corridors out into the landscape, resulting in a star shape… and the postmodern ‘scrambled egg city,’ where everything is distributed evenly in small granules or pavilions across the landscape in a continuous network.” (64)

:: City as an Egg - image via Archiable

A wide array of projects are included as examples.  Some are more obvious or oft-mentioned, such as the Parc de la Villette, Downsview, and Freshkills competitions, and also the East River Competition conducted by the Van Alen Institute.  There are some new ones, includingWest Market Square by West 8 (1994) which is a space owned, maintained and programmed by the city, but " which is also free at times to be occupied by local people of all ages, under the surveillance of cameras and local police.” (60) marking a new example of heterotropic space.  The New Town Competition entry from Koolhaas/OMA from 1987 is another precedent where the residential form is shaped by, in the words of Corner, "linear voids of nondevelopment." (60) hinting at the concept of privileged site over architectural form.

Other examples include the unbuilt Greenport Harborfront project in Long Island (1997), which is an example of  “the concept of ‘performative’ urbanism based on preparing the setting for programmed and unprogrammed activities on common land.” (59) which is reflective of some of the later work from Field Operations as well.  A built example of the idea, in a more architectural and site scale context, is the sculptural Osaka Ocean Liner Terminal by FOA, where the architects "turn the concept of the green roof into a dynamic, flowing, baroque parkland setting… Pier and park, two previously separate urban morphologies, are hybridized so as to become inseparable.” (65)

:: Yokahama Terminal - FOA - image via Matt Kingstreet

Shane references an even more extensive list of references, which provide some great historical precedents.   Many of these cover basic historical urbanism, such as the work of Kostof (The City Shaped, The City Assembled), history of the Western/US landscape by Slater and Conzen, and early 20th century writings on garden cities from Howard and regionalism, specifically 'Cities in Evolution' by Patrick Geddes from 1915.  Other writings include later writings of Lynch, Rowe, as well as McHarg's 'Design with Nature' and shifts to more contemporary discussions from Harvey and Soja for exploration of postmodern urbanism, writings from Guy Debord 'The Society of the Spectacle' from 1995 and the explorations by Garreau of the edge-city phenomenon from 1991.

::  Tyson's Corner Edge City

A fundamental aspect discussed by Shane is the connection to landscape ecology, specifically the work of Forman (Landscape Mosaics) and Forman & Godron (Landscape Ecology) and mentioning that its strength "is the consideration of the geographical landscape and the ecological cause-effect network in the landscape.”(61)  The connections of landscape ecology and its roots in Europe are important due to the differing relations between nature and culture (rather than just dealing with landscape sans humans).  As Shane elaborates:
"European land management principles merged with post-Darwinian research on island biogeography and diversity to create a systematic methodology for studying ecological flows, local biospheres, and plant and species migrations conditioned by shifting climatic and environmental factors (including human settlements.” (61)

Finally, the essays captures some of the more recent writings tied closely to LU theory, mentioning 'Stalking Detroit' (2001), 'Mississippi Floods' by Mathur & da Cunha (2000), 'Reclaiming the American West' by Berger (2002), 'Sub-urbanism and the Art of Memory' by Marot (2003), and 'Recovering Landscape' edited by Corner and published in 1999 - which i would consider a close precedent to the currrent discussion.  Stalking Detroit is also an important contribution, offering essays by Waldheim and Corner and provides context, within the prominent shrinking city model of Detroit for a changing city typology.  "After Ford' by Schumacher and Rogner, “provides a most convincing explanation for the relation between modern urbanism and Fordist economic imperatives, as well as the surreal spectacle of decay and abandonment found today in many North American industrial cities.” (57)

:: Shrinking Detroit - image via VIA Architecture

The work in Stalking Detroit, although unbuilt, provides some examples of potential operational methods of landscape urbanism.  One project discussed was Waldheim's 'Decamping Detroit', which illustrates a four stage process for recolonization of space in the shrinking city, including "Dislocation (disconnection of services); erasure (demolition and jumpstarting the native landscape ecology by dropping appropriate seeds from the air ); absorption (ecological reconstitution of part of the Zone with woods, marshes, and streams); and infiltration (the recolonization of the landscape with heteropic, villagelike enclaves.” (59)

 :: Decamping Detroit (Waldheim) - image via detroit disurbanism project

This context of deindustrialization and surburban sprawl is a consistent theme, moving away by necessity from the modernist planning ideology and including a different reading of the city, focus on urban morphology, activated with new strains of thinking from landscape ecology with a goal, as explained by Shane:  “A determination not to accept the readymade formulas of urban design, whether ‘New Urbanist’ or ‘generic’ urbanist megaforms a la Koolhaas.” (64)  The key this is a reversal of normal processes, which "opens the way for a new hybrid urbanism, with dense clusters of activity and the reconstitution of the natural ecology, starting a more ecologically balanced, inner-city urban form in the void.”(59)

Check out as well a longer version of this article from the Harvard Design Magazine (pdf) and I would highly recommend 'Recombinant Urbanism' from 2005 for an exhaustive study of urban modelling processes.

Reading the Landscape: Landscape as Urbanism

The next essay in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, following 'Terra Fluxus' and the initial 'Reference Manifesto' is a longer essay by Waldheim exploring the idea that landscape is most suited to the modern metropolis, being "uniquely capable of responding to temporal change, transformation, adaptation, and succession... a medium uniquely suited to the open-endedness, indeterminacy, and change demanded by contemporary urban conditions." (39)  This idea could be considered one of the formative structures on which landscape urbanism is built, explained by many writers as a response the failings of architecture and urban design to cope with the complexity of the urban situation, leading to Waldheim's apt, but somewhat hyperbolic statement that "the discourse surrounding landscape urbanism can be read as a disciplinary realignment in which landscape supplants architecture's historical role as the basic building block of urban design." (37)

:: Lower Dons -  River + City + Life by Stoss LU

Ironically, this essay explains clearly that landscape urbanism theory has its origins in the same rejection of modernist architecture and planning, and the retreat to "policy, procedure, and public therapy." (39)  This is a common refrain from contemporary planners as a way to distance themselves from top-down, totalitarian schemes of the mid-twentieth century, which has led to a renaissance of engagement in both community and context that makes all urban design and planning better but also a tendency to favor specific strategies.  Corner is quoted as well, mentioning that "only through a synthetic and imaginative reordering of categories in the built environment might we escape our present predicament in the cul-de-sac of post-industrial modernity, and 'the bureaucratic and uninspired failings,' of the planning profession." (38)

I think at heart it means there is room for both a rejection of modernist planning, along with a rejection of some contemporary approaches as well which may be suited for some situations but not appropriate for all.  As an alternative path to new urbanism, rational planning and similar strategies, the fixed nature of deterministic planning must be questioned - thus forming the heart of this debate, Waldheim mentions:  
"the very indeterminacy and flux of the contemporary city, the bane of traditional European city-making, are precisely those qualities explored in emergent works of landscape urbanism." (39)

The context here is important, as many critics of landscape urbanism point out some form of 'anti-urban, pro-sprawl, pro-car' agenda within the writings, whereas proponents of LU might be summarized as arguing that the current forms of urban planning and design are alternatively 'anti-reality,' as they don't acknowledge the messy reality of shrinking, decentralized, globalizing, capitalist, sprawling, market-driven, polluted, socially diverse and complicated nature of the modern city.  Thus beyond a palliative that uses greenery to mitigate urban ills, the definition includes a more expansive field of view, including infrastructure systems (water, waste, transportation), post-industrial sites, waterfronts, linear systems, public open space, as well as more traditional urban-scaled landscape projects.

 :: The Contemporary Context - image from Drosscape - Alan Berger (link)

The context of environmental movements is important as well, as this drives the landscape architecture to a new relevance in sustainability (yet a marginalization in such contemporary processes such as LEED).  Invoking ecology as a "model for process" (39) where projects "appropriate the terms, conceptual categories, and operating methodologies of field ecology: that is, the study of species as they related to their natural environments." (43)  Corner warns of the ecological being solely about advocacy that leads us into the distance of humans from the natural environment, summing current environmentalism as "nothing more than a rear-guard defense of a supposedly autonomous 'nature' conceived to exist 'a priori' outside of human agency or cultural construction." (38)  Applied in a holistic manner to a range of systems and project types listed above, this fundamental advantage of landscape urbanism and its ecological viewpoint allows for "the conflation, integration, and fluid exchange between (natural) environmental and (engineered) infrastructural systems." (43)

These fundamentals of cultural ecology draw on historical precedents like Olmsted's Emerald Necklace, urban development in Barcelona in the 1980s and 90s, and the human-shaped landscape of the Netherlands, which is often used as a model for a non-pastoral idea of shaped (i.e. cultural) landscape that differs from the American frontier model of verdant wilderness).  More specifically, Waldheim mentions some of the other formative competitions, including the less ecological Parc de la Villette (1982) as well as more recent examples of Downsview Park Toronto and Fresh Kills Landfill which strongly incorporate the ideas of ecology.

:: Downsview proposal by Corner/Allen - image via ecosistema urbano

La Villette, on the other hand, focuses on ecologically inspired idea of indeterminacy in spatial arrangement and programming, with both Tschumi's winning entry and the OMA/Koolhaas plans providing "a nascent form of landscape urbanism, constructing a horizontal field of infrastructure that might accommodate all sorts of urban activities, planned and unplanned, imagined and unimagined, over time." (41)  Thus the fluidity of the plan is the generation of adaptable, not fixed, form - able to react and change, quoting  Koolhaas from 'Congestion without Matter':
"the program will undergo constant change and adjustment... the underlying principle of programmatic indeterminacy as a basis of the formal concept allows any shift, modification, replacement, or substitutions to occur without damaging the initial hypothesis." (41)
Other current practice that fits into landscape urbanism derive from global context, such as the work of West 8 in the Netherlands, which allows for a wider latitude in cultural conceptions of open space that have been implemented including the Shell Project (Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier), Schipol Amsterdam Airport, and Borneo & Sporenburg, the last referenced as "an enormous landscape urbanism project... suggests the potential diversity of landscape urbanist strategies through the insertion of numerous small landscaped courts and yard, and the commissioning of numerous designers for individual housing units." (46) 

:: Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier - West 8

In addition to the work of West 8, inventive work in the post-industrial realm is evoked, including historical precedent like Seattle's Gas Works Park by Richard Haag, and the more expansive contemporary Duisburg Nord Steelworks Park by Latz & Partners - the model for reclaiming post-industrial landscapes as a cultural landscape.

The list of references is long, with some of the formative writings that have been incorporated in the structure of landscape urbanism, including ecological regional perspectives of Geddes, Mumford, McHarg (Design with Nature), the urban city-theory of Lynch (Image of the City; A Theory of Good City Form), and more recently the expanded realm of the polycentric city with Rowe (Making a Middle Landscape), Lerup (Stim and Dross) and Koolhaas (Delirious New York; S,M,L,XL).  Koolhaas marks the shift in thinking towards landscape using Atlanta as a prototype, stating that "Architecture is no longer the primary element of urban order, increasingly urban order is given by a thin horizontal vegetal plane, increasingly landscape is the primary element of urban order." (42)

:: 2008 Aerial View of Atlanta - image via Ace Aerial Photography

An important contribution to this is an 1995 essay by  Kenneth Frampton entitled 'Toward an Urban Landscape' in which he expands on the early essays on critical regionalism with a focus on the "need to conceive of a remedial landscape that is capable of playing a critical and compensatory role in relation to the ongoing, destructive commodification of the man-made world." (42)  He continues with two main points privileging landscape: "First, that priority should now be according to landscape, rather than to freestanding built form and second, that there is a pressing need to transform certain megalopolitan types such as shopping malls, parking lots, and office parks into landscaped built forms." (43)

 The second source worth exploring in more detail is the essay 'Mat Urbanism - the Thick 2-D' by Stan Allen (2001) - which expands the flat horizontality of the field with imbuing these suficial space as a process landscape.  "Increasingly, landscape is emerging as a model for urbanism. Landscape has traditionally been defined as the art of organizing horizontal surfaces… By paying close attention to these surface conditions – not only configuration, but also materiality and performance – designers can activate space and produce urban effects without the weighty apparatus of traditional space making.” (37)

This essay is another building block in the tradition of urbanism as exploration and study, not yielding specific answers to these questions but looking at the history of critical thought and linking to some of the formative analyses done, as well as some of the preliminary precedents that have emerged in the past century.  Critics have claimed as well that many of the concepts of landscape urbanism theory is not necessarily new - which is true, but is also a claim which sort of misses the point.  We should always look back to sources to inform our current thinking as there is much to be learned from both successes as well as failures - and by looking at new ways to apply these lessons to our current context (which I would posit is unique to cities throughout history).

Thus, Waldheim encapsulates the context of landscape urbanism within this historical framework, where:  "…the ability to produce urban effects traditionally acheieved through the construction of buildings simply through the organization of horizontal surfaces – recommends the landscape medium for use in contemporary urban conditions increasingly characterized by horizontal sprawl and rapid change.” (37)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Chutes and Ladders

Hear this transit authorities, we need more of these in the urban realm... the 'Transfer Accelerator' is real life chutes and ladders, in this case a slide as a bypass to crowded stairway at the train station of Utrecht Overvecht designed by Utrecht-based firm HIK Ontwerpers.  Function and whimsy.  Gotta love it.

:: image via Dorpspomp Overvecht

Check the video too for the experience...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading the Landscape: Terra Fluxus

This essay, Terra Fluxus by James Corner, from the Landscape Urbanism Reader is considered one of the seminal texts in formulating landscape urbanism theory.  Obviously it has had an impact on me personally, as I used it for the name of my firm, with a respectful tip of the hat to Mr. Corner.  The concept and imagery associated just with the term 'terra fluxus' is powerful, and encapsulates what I consider a new methodological paradigm for landscape architecture (which is the lens in which i tend to read and incorporate LU theory) that gives prominence to process while retaining the role of design. 

While formulating the conceptual basis of landscape urbanism, Corner mentions the dual binaries of landscape and urbanism - with the assumption that there are different states of 'being', mentioning "the total dissolution of the two terms into one word, one phenomenon, one practice.  And yet at the same time each term remains distinct, suggesting their necessary, perhaps inevitable, separateness." (24)  This sort of hedging is pretty common - leading to some of the gray area within discourse - is it landscape, urbanism, or both? (often leading people to throw up their hands and say - well what the hell is it!).  I think of it as indicative of the inherent urbanistic challenges which landscape urbanism seeks to address whereas the complexity of the urban condition cannot be oversimplified, at least in analysis. 

:: Fresh Kills Landfill - image via PSFK

In the true sense of urbanism, this is about analysis and development of theoretical positions in which to operate - many of which are not fully realized but are nonetheless, thought provoking.  As Corner mentions: "the union of landscape with urbanism promises new relational and systematic workings across territories of vast scale and scope, situating the parts in relation to the whole, but at the same time the separateness of landscape and urbanism acknowledges a level of material physicality, of intimacy and difference, that is always nested deep within the larger matrix or field." (33)

Corner's main argument includes development of  four provisional themes, which include processes over time, the staging of surfaces, the operational or working method, and the imaginary.  In brief, these include the following summaries:
  • Processes over time:  derived from ecology, the temporal aspects of landscape urbanism eschews the deterministic modes of modernist planning and new urbanism, addressing "how things work in space and time" leading to a "more organic, fluid urbanism" (29)  The movement away from fixed, linear, mechanistic models complicates the development of solutions (including both design and representation, much less construction), but is captured in the title of the essay as oppositional to 'terra firma', and opens the new view of terra fluxus, which values "shifting processes coursing across the urban field." (30)
  • The Staging of Surfaces:  gives proimance to the horizontal surface as a "field of action," and able to operate at a wide range of scales, from the sidewalk to the "entire infrastructural matrix of urban surfaces." (30)  This derives from Koolhaas in his 1995 essay "Whatever Happened to Urbanism" where he prioritizes urban infrastructure by the, "irrigating of territories with potential... staging the ground for both uncertainty and promise." (31)   Mechanisms to achieve this include the grid (an overlay of flexibility and legibility) that is operated by users through choreography (aka diverse groups of people interacting with space in time, creating "an ecology of various systems and elements that set in motion a diverse network of interaction." (31)
  • The Operational or Working Method:  the complexity inherent in the first two themes means development of a new mode of representation that require new techniques "to address the sheer scope of issues here are desperately lacking."  While in the tradition of urbanism, the solutions are unresolved, Corner does imply the importance, stating that "this area alone, it would seem to me, is deserving of our utmost attention and research."  This implies a direction for future study in the contemporary metropolis to test and vet these techniques.
  • The Imaginary:  Corner provides distance from his predecessor, McHarg, but invoking the need for creativity, not just rationality in coming up with solutions within this framework.  The implementation of design within public space engages the spirit of the urban population, acting as "containers of collective memory and desire" and furthermore "places for geographic and social imagination to extend new relationships and sets of possibilities." (32)
These four themes connect the temporal aspects of ecology with the intellectual history of design - something that at least for landscape architecture goes hand in hand, as we deal with the organic materials that never rest in a state of completion but are always active and evolving.  The distinction here is not purely literal, but captures landscapes' conceptual scope, in Corner's terms "its capacity to theorize sites, territories, ecosystems, networks, and infrastructures, and to organize large urban fields." (23)  This has parallels not just in manipulation of open space, but as a way to tackle the ongoing complex nature of cities, this yields a "looser, emergent urbanism, more akin to the real complexity of cities and offering an alternative to the rigid mechanisms of centralist planning." (23) 

 :: Master Plan Diagram - image via Shelby Farms Park

Therefore rather than a method to expand landscape architectural discourse, it addresses the much larger dichotomy of nature versus culture, repositioning landscape not as the city's 'other' but as coterminous in overlapping with the purview of contemporary urbanism.  This moves us away from the purely rational, oversimplification of the city process, and the blind faith in market forces to shape our urban areas and at the same time exploring new methods, such as Kahn's diagramming of Philadelphia vehicular circulation, aimed at "representing the fluid, process-driven characteristics of the city." (30) and derived from central place theory modelling of Christaller and Hilberseimer showing "flows and forces in relation to urban form." (28)

:: Diagram of Christaller's Central Place Theory

In the context of this nature/culture divide, there are two elements of importance in relation to built work.  First, although acknowledging the early integration of landscape in urban settings (epitomized by Olmsted's Central Park and the work of Jens Jensen) - there is the need to move beyond the idea of landscape as pure scenery or as a palliative (which is encompassed in the hollow, Radiant City concept of the 'green complex' championed by Le Corbusier, which is both formless and anti-contextual).  The towers in the park lacks purpose in its rationality, but there is also a need to expand the environmental rationality of McHargian analysis into a realm of philosophical grounding that is not anti-urban, but allows for creativity and imagination in combining the ecological to the urban.  The extension of the natural combined with the infrastructural is mentioned selected precedents, such as Olmsted's Back Back Fens projects in Boston, which is an oft-citied example of ecological urbanism, and a precursor to landscape urbanism, despite its cultural leanings towards the natural, as well as the configuration of the city of Stuttgart, Germany in funnelling mountain air through the city to both cool and cleanse the environment.

:: Back Bay Fens (Olmsted) - image via Landscape Modeling

An interesting modern precursor to the landscape (and) urbanism worth noting is reference to Victor Gruen's idea of 'Cityscapes' from the 1964 publication 'The Heart of the Cities: The Urban Crisis, Diagnosis, and Cure', which are part of a variety of different 'scapes' that define the city.  This distancing from landscape as urban 'other' is vital in forming a new view of urban nature and landscape as including "the built environment of buildings, paved surfaces and infrastructures... not the 'natural environment' per se, as in untouched wilderness, but to those regions where human occupation has shaped the land and its natural processes in an intimate and reciprocal way." (26) 

:: Plan for the Perfect City - Gruen - image via If I was an Imagineer

While mapping a potential conceptual approach to landscape urbanism, the essay also provides some of the fuel to current fires of competing urbansim, the viewpoint of desire for a new, more flexible planning alternative is clear.  Referencing Harvey's 1990s 'The Condition of Post-Modernity' in clarifying this line of thinking the aforementioned theme related to processes over time and yields the terminology of indeterminacy, as Corner mentions:
"In comparing the formal determinism of modernist urban planning and the more recent rise of neo-traditional 'New Urbanism,' the cultural geographer David Harvey has written that both projects fail becasue of the presumption that spatial order can control history and process.  Harvey argues that 'the struggle' for designers and planners lies not with spatial form and aesthetic appearances alone but with the advancement of 'more socially just, politically emancipatory, and ecologically sane mix(es) of spatio-temporal production processes,' rather than the capitulation to those processes 'imposed by uncontrolled capital accumulation, backed by class privilege and gross inequalities of political-economic power." (28-29)
To return to the distinction between terra firma and terra fluxus, from the fixed to the fluid - the power of the ideological shift is immense, whether you agree with the tenets of landscape urbanism or not.  The power of this essay, removed from the context of the debate over 'urbanisms' is that we need to develop a different, more expanded set of values in design and planning that will are response to a true accounting of the complexity of cities, whatever your ideological leanings.  I fall into the camp that gives us the ability to focus on multiple 'urbanisms' to exist to address these complex urban phenomena.  In this view, the role of 'urbanism' is understood as the study of urban systems and not the development of solutions - providing an understanding and not a blueprint.  If one can take anything from this essay, it provides some possible tools to address complex systems in planning and design, to understand a wider contextual viewpoint, and develop new methods for understanding and representing these systems.   

:: Stommel Diagram - image via resilience science

In the ensuing application of disciplinary practice, we can then use this information and employ the imaginary in crafting solutions armed with our best information, not a predetermined idea of what should happen.  The sum total of this approach and these solutions are grounded in the view, from Corner, that "the projection of new possibilities for future urbanisms must derive less from an understanding of form and more from an understanding of process - how things work in space and time." (29)  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Reading the Landscape: LU Reader broken down

Our previous excursion into online readings was sort of disjointed, sparsely commented, and for the most part not terribly fruitful.   There was some good discussion, but I think a combination of format, content, and time constraints added to the difficulty in exploring the Landscape Urbanism Reader to the degree I would have liked to see.  Also, the planned weekly updates on chapters never materialized - beyond the first introductory missive on Waldheim's 'A Reference Manifesto'.  Nonetheless, we may retool the concept for another book in the future - but in the meantime, I wanted to explore the content, as I took a somewhat more methodical approach to the essays - breaking it down to tease out some key points... including:

  • Definitions of Landscape Urbanism
  • Urban Context - what conditions are LU responding to?
  • Key Urban Concepts that shaped LU?
  • Representative Projects/Precedents
  • Key References
Sso in the next couple of weeks I'll post on these chapters, starting with Corner's 'Terra Fluxus', and would love for some comment and discussion to ensue, as these formative essays are some of the most powerful (and misunderstood) in the landscape urbanism discourse.  In addition to the essay-by-essay exploration, there seems the need for some more cross-concept analysis (i.e. a focus on precedents, various definitions, etc.) that could be analyzed and displayed in some infographic analyses...

Will probably do a similar thing for some of the other key texts, such as Kerb 15, Topos 71, Center 14: Landscape Urbanism, Large Parks, A Manual for the Machinic Landscape, Stalking Detroit, Recovering Landscape, The Mesh Book, and selected essays from other key texts and sources... (along with continuation of the 'Red Brick Chronicles') - so lots of good stuff that would be great to construct the foundations.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Reading List: Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA

'Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA' published in 2011, is edited by the Infrastructure Research Initiative of SWA including Los Angeles office principals Gerdo Aquino and Ying-Yu Hung.  This is supplemented with contributions from Charles Waldheim, Julie Czerniak, Adriaan Geuze, Matthew Skjonsberg and Alexander Robinson.  While ostensibly about landscape infrastructure, this type of book is a new sort of publishing hybrid that has emerged, combining the firm-specific work of a monograph within a more topical subject matter on a particular typology or approach to project work.

I think this may become a new trend in publishing, as it provides firms with the opportunity to showcase work, but also offers a more expansive vehicle for exploration of themes and inclusion of more collaborators, making the book both more widely marketable while putting the work of the firm in the forefront of emerging trends.  This differs somewhat from the Dutch examples and their production of brick-like graphic tomes of research and work.  This collection of essays and case studies benefits from the inclusion of more voices, although is similarly directed at positioning a firm within a certain intellectual and conceptual frame of reference.

This frame of reference, landscape infrastructure, is not altogether new, but is definitely one of the more emerging ideas within landscape architecture and urban design, which is reflected in the description of the book, per the SWA website:
"INFRASTRUCTURE, as we know it, no longer belongs in the exclusive realm of engineers and transportation planners. In the context of our rapidly changing cities and towns, infrastructure is experiencing a paradigm shift where multiple-use programming and the integration of latent ecologies is a primary consideration. Defining contemporary infrastructure requires a multi-disciplinary team of landscape architects, engineers, architects and planners to fully realize the benefits to our cultural and natural systems."
The book exhibits some of the exploration of these topics, picking up on what Aquino mentions as the aim of SWAs Infrastructure Research Initiative "as a testing ground for engaging and redefining infrastructure in the context of future growth in our cities and towns." (p.7)  This is echoed by Waldheim, and the research of the firm and the position of infrastructure as a way to "enter contemporary discourse on landscape as a form of urbanism." (p.9) and is thus connected to the more well-known broader goals of landscape urbanism and other 'adjectivally modified' forms of urbanism. (for more on this, read Aquino's interview on Archinect 'What is a Park?')

Waldheim's essay is followed by exploration of landscape urbanism and infrastructure by Hung, which gives some more detail on the history and specificity of these connected trends.  The distinction offered is that this is a 'next step' "for the further inquiry as a city's development and economic future is in direct proportion to its ability to collect, exchange, distribute goods and services, resources, knowledge, and people across vast territories." (p.16)  The ideas of landscape infrastructure therefore are given more detail, including the relationship to 1) performance - allowing for metrics; 2) aggregation - scalable collectivity; 3) networks - working towards connectivity; and 4) incrementalism - allowing for changes and adaptation, as well as expansion over time.   While I'm not convinced this is altogether new territory, it is important nonetheless, and the sum of this exploration in defining what I would call a subset, not an expansion of what falls under the rubic of landscape urbanism.

Further essays include Czerniak's exploration of making infrastructure more 'visibly useful' (p.20) and additional discussion by Geuze and Skjonsberg on 'Second Nature' expanding on previous writings derived from John Dixon Hunt and the expanded concept of the cultural landscape that is not pastoral, but is made up of the entire working landscape (infrastructure) that is shaped by man through direct and indirect means.  The final essay by Robinson takes on the ability to modulate, not to suppress or to make off-limits, flows by implementation of new infrastructural systems, using examples like the Los Angeles River, with the goal of providing expanded open space opportunities in the metropolis.  All offer ideas worth exploring, giving an additional dimension of understanding to the infrastructural landscape.

If this new type of book is the trend, it's a welcome one.  The idea of a monograph is somewhat anachronistic and indulgent - so I can see how firms and publishers alike would move towards this value-added approach.  The book is richly detailed and provides interesting exploration of topics.  The 14 case studies of projects - organized per Hung's four areas of performance, aggregate, network, and increment - are introduced with a concise description and many graphics, exploring the process as well as the product - showcasing innovation beyond merely showing off a project.

While not comprehensive case studies with data and other information, there is some meat on the bones of these cases, making it useful beyond the 'wow' factor in informing other projects.  Obviously the urban scope of SWAs work makes this a broader geographic range of work that touches North America, as well as China and South Korea.  This gives the work a context of both our indigenous urbanism as well as developing solutions in rapidly expanding globalized urban areas as well.

This cross cultural and multi-scalar range of projects offer a glimpse into the complexities inherent in tackling large-scale infrastructural projects.  This applies to both the content as well as the visualization, with interesting graphical representations that attempt to communicate temporality, adaptability, and fludity (which is no small feat).  I will leave you to check out the book for more and decide if the $70 (US) price tag is worthwhile, but the breadth of information makes this a valuable addition to the library of those landscape and urbanists working in these arenas and interested in ways, as Waldheim mentions in wrapping up his essay, to identify "the discourse around landscape urbanism generally, and infrastructure more specifically, as an entry point into contemporary readings of landscape as a cultural form." (p.13)

[images from the book - copyright SWA]

Source: Axioms for Reading the Landscape - Lewis

Doing some readings of seminal texts for an upcoming essay/book chapter on landscape urbanism, and want to capture some of the content, at least in fragments.  'Source' will be the code for snapshot of a particular essay - not a thorough review but an abstract and some specific reflections.  In this case the instructive 'Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene' by geographer Pierce Lewis (1979)*.

The main thrust of Lewis is to provide a roadmap for reading the 'cultural landscape'.  The concept of understanding this wider view of 'landscape' is important, as it moves us from the more bucolic associations of the term to one in which it is understood as part of the human experience.  The associations of the word landscape are covered often and referenced in literature on landscape urbanism, which eschews the idea of 'landscape' as beautification, rather echoing Lewis as encompassing "everything from city skylines to farmers' silos, from golf courses to garbage dumps, from ski slopes to manure piles... in fact, whole countrysides, and whole cities, whether ugly or beautiful makes no difference." (p.23)

This expanded view of landscape is vital, as it moves us from viewing nature as a detached process to a more broad idea of landscape, even the most banal, as attached with cultural meaning, and in the words of Lewis: 

"Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form." (p.23)
The Axioms, then are derived from a dearth of academic scholarship on the ordinary, in the vein of J.B. Jackson, giving us the grammar and usage for this cultural landscape.  The axioms therefore, are:

1. The Axiom of Landscape as a Clue to Culture
 In essence, our culture and who we are is reflected in our landscape, per the quote above our 'autobiography' in a visible form.  This includes some corollaries to this, including that of 'cultural change', implying that changes to landscape reflect changes to culture, the 'regional' corollary, that the landscapes in certain regions indicate differences of culture; the corollary of 'convergence', meaning that homogenization of culture is reflected in the landscape; the corollary of 'diffusion' whereby changes in culture and landscape occur through imitation; and finally, the corollary of 'taste' where the cultural landscape form is tied to culture.

2.  The Axiom of Cultural Unity and Landscape Equality
The presence of items in the cultural landscape almost always reflect the culture - and they are assumed to be equal with others.  Lewis uses some examples, such as the equality of the ubiquitous McDonald's to a architectural landmark like the Empire State Building.  This gives us the latitude to not elevate certain aspects of the landscape as more important that others in a hierarchy, but give equal weight to the ordinary, at least in terms of what they say about our culture.

3. The Axiom of Common Things
There is inherent difficulty in reading the landscape through traditional academic methods, for a number of reasons.  The lack of study of the 'ordinary' is due to these elements, as content, seeming to be of lesser value to scholars.  Therefore, we look to journalism, trade journals, advertisements, travel literature, and the occasional enlightened author to paint this picture of the 'common' elements of our cultural landscape. 

4. The Historic Axiom
The content of the cultural landscape cannot be divorced from history, as the past provides the context in which certain elements were constructed.  This is expanded with the corollary of 'historic lumpiness' which shows not a linear timeline but in fits and starts; the 'mechanical' or 'technological' corollary, where the actual mechanics of creation and the technologies used, such as the lawn and it's devices for care, need to be included in the reading - in the words of Lewis, "where things started, when, and how." (p.30)

5. The Geographic (or Ecologic) Axiom
Similar to history, the geographic context of the landscape must be understood, giving specificity to place in determining the spatial relationship that is shaped by culture. Culture is a major driver of the arrangement and use of places, thus determination of what is there is definitely tied closely to the opportunities and constraints that exist there.

6. The Axiom of Environmental Control
Related to geography, there must be knowledge of the physical environment in which cultural landscapes exist, and this influence on the spaces.  Not just the land use of human-defined spatial arrangements, these derive from climate, topography, geology, and other environmental features - which in turn are reflected in how we build, the use of energy, and myriad responses to the local patterns of the environment.

7.  The Axiom of Landscape Obscurity
The issue of legibility is key to reading the landscape, and this axiom reinforces that although messages exist, they are somewhat difficult to extract or translate.  The reaction is to look at other sources for this information, but much of what we seek is not available, is sometimes contradictory or difficult to confirm.  The only way to be sure, is to go right to the source and that this "alternation of looking, and reading, and thinking, and then looking and reading again, can yield remarkable results, if only to raise questions we had not asked before." (p.32)

Together these provide a working method for urbanism, which is not derivative of a preconception or prescription, but based on the actual, on the ground interaction with the cultural landscapes in which our decision-making rests. 

* The essay was originally published in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes by (Meinig & Jackson, 1979) and reprinted in Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (Almy. ed., 2006) - page citations from Almy, ed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pruitt Igoe Now

Another good ideas competition, Pruitt Igoe Now the infamous St. Louis housing complex that was demolished in 1972 and considered one of the touchstones in the 'death' of modernism.  The site is typical of the towers in the park ideal most notably ascribed to public housing and derived from version of Le Corbusier's Radiant City designs.  In this case, bars of housing were interwoven with roads, parking, and open space within immense superblocks as seen in the aerial and plan of the original development.

From the site: "Pruitt Igoe Now seeks the ideas of the creative community worldwide: we invite individuals and teams of professional, academic, and student architects, landscape architects, designers, writers and artists of every discipline to re-imagine the 57 acres on which the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was once located."   What could the site be today?

Part of the site has been rebuilt as a school, but a large portion is still undeveloped, and has developed its own feral ecology, as shown in these before and after shots of the demolition of building C-15 in 1972 and the same site in 2010.

Even if you aren't interested in the competition, a quick tour around the site gives a really fascinating look at some of the history of this contentious site.  Also, check out the new documentary 'The Pruitt-Igoe Myth' for some more background... here's the trailer.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History – Film Trailer from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Vimeo.