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)  

1 comment:

  1. unrelated to your post -- there's an interesting 45 minute audio podcast show about F. Olmsted on the excellent Chicago radio show / podcast by Milt Rosenburg called, The Extension 720 Podcast from 720 WGN, available on Itunes.


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