The Why-ness

Brasilia under constuction, 1958; the skeletal form of the Palacio do Congresso Nacional stands in the background; see image source for several fantastic images of Brasilia under construction

Proposing a public space project that aims to mesh industrial scale environmental remediation operations with all its noise, heavy machinery, danger, and restrictive skill sets with recreational programming that is typically more open, pleasant, and easy demands an honest reckoning with the question- WHY?

Why try to mesh picnicking with dredging?  Why not just keep things separate- let the park under construction remain walled or fenced off; keep the superfund site out of public view until it is cleaned up and ready for public consumption as new high-rise condos or waterfront parks?  In addition to the problem of perception (these places can seem chaotic, dangerous, smelly- not the ideal place for a waterfront stroll or the image many bureaucrats or real estate developers are interested in projectng), there are very real issues of safety liability.  A general contractor or municipal agency doesn’t want a happy couple blithely wandering into the operating radius of an articulated back hoe in operation, or traipsing through a puddle of coal tar residue.

I propose that Landscape Instrumentalism can contend with these issues- with this question of why- within a tripartite framework:  economic, aesthetic, and political.  From an economic perspective this approach allows forms of occupation during the construction and maintenance processes.  In the aesthetic realm it harnesses and claims the affects of the technological sublime, or at least aspects of it, and to engage their historical importance in the American psyche.  Politically, it enlarges the types of agency in the public realm to actors typically limited to acts of consumption.  Landscape instrumentalism is concerned with extensions and expansions of norms of behavior as well as spatial syntax.  The intended result is not only the creation of richer, more meaningful experiences, but also more space.


Economics:  use value

Economic value is the result of two main factors- use value and exchange value.  Following Marx, a commodity is something that is defined by its exchange value, whereas use value is the aptness of an object for a particular task- you buy a shovel because of its usefulness for a task, not because you can later exchange it.

Landscape projects have a life cycle which includes the construction and maintenance of the project.  Typically a public landscape is only public after construction or maintenance operations are completed.  Future users are kept at bay until a “substantial stage of completion” is reached, or until the mowing is finished.  For large projects, this can mean that significant portions of the project are not usable for months, years, or in the case of a place like Fresh Kills, decades, a result that is typically mitigated somewhat through phasing the implementation of a project, or by instigating intermediate and provisional programs.  In the case of smaller projects- a playground or neighborhood plaza- this means that the project is often closed for a season as new play equipment or plantings are installed, grading and drainage pipes are reconstructed, or fencing is replaced.

Taking the middle ground as a representative example, a neighborhood park is often closed for a year while undergoing construction or reconstruction that costs 2 million dollars.  We will calculate maintenance and operation costs at 5% per year (this can vary wildly and is used here only to make a point), bringing our total cost for the park over its lifespan to 4 million dollars.  In New York City, these places are typically reconstructed once a generation due to economic and social cycles (baseball becomes less popular, the equipment is worn out, and the city parks department has more money, for instance).  Additionally, closures for seasonal maintenance such as reseeding, tree pruning, or the regrading of the infield adds up to another year of closure over a generation and cost an additional 10% per year.  This means that roughly 10% of the use value of the park (2 years in 20) is lost; in our case that translates to 400,000 dollars.  In more extreme cases where major urban infrastructures are adjacent, above, or below the site these periods are often more unpredictable and protracted.  If a sewer main is being reconstructed, a road enlarged, or an exit ramp realigned, the loss of use value can be 20-40%.

The recovery of this use value could have significant economic impacts.  If designers develop and propose methods for capturing the use value of these public spaces, even at some initial additional expense, the result would be a net gain.  This can only be achieved through a materialist approach, wherein the material is taken as the physical landscape, the social desires, and the operation of the construction and maintenance machinery and procedures.  It is possible that a focus on instrumentality in the design process is the appropriate materialism for this situation.


Aesthetics:  the technological sublime

The Orange County Great Park under construction; note the opaque construction fence in the middle ground; you can just make out the temporary park beyond, with the berm peeking above the fence and the orange balloon taking off while a back hoe and a carpenter work in the foreground; the temporary park stage is an example of a design that takes advantage of the technological fascination, if not sublime, inherent in the construction of large works over extended periods of time; this design is exciting precisely because it intentionally captures some of the use value typically lost in a construction project

Landscape as aesthetic experience suggests some understanding of the European art-historical concepts  of “beautiful, picturesque, and sublime”.  At its most basic, the sublime can be understood as an experience of astonishment, meaning “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.  In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it,” (Burke, On the Sublime).

Immanuel Kant claimed that the sublime experience could be either mathematical (an encounter with extreme magnitude or vastness) or dynamic (the contemplation of a violent scene by a bystander who is safe from danger).  In The American Technological Sublime David Nye asserts the historical importance of the sublime aesthetic in the American landscape, noting that “ever since the early national period the sublime has served as an element of social cohesion, an element that was already quite evident when the first canals were dug and and steam engines were first harnessed to trains,” (p XIV).

Nye’s major contribution was to recognize that especially within the American psyche, the sublime experience was not at all limited to natural or ruined classical forms but could be an “amalgamation of natural, technological, classical, and religious elements into a single aesthetic,” (p 23).  Importantly, he makes the connection that the technological sublime is concerned with a politics of perception.  The public’s experience of technologies in operation can create specific, attractive effects; a landscape of the technological sublime can offer aesthetic experience that doesn’t privilege the beautiful or the picturesque.

I do not claim that machinery operating in the landscape is always a case of the technological sublime.  Issues of scale, perceived danger, familiarity, and semiotics all effect the resulting experience.  However, an appreciation of and engagement with the technological sublime by landscape-makers can create landscapes that offer the public aesthetic experience beyond the scale and range of the waterfront park or the panoramic promenade with industrial ruins employed as stylized tropes.


Politics:  the right to the city

The right to the city is understood here as the right of urban inhabitants to engage with all of the decisions and actions that produce urban space.  This includes the traditional right of participation as well as the more radical right to appropriation.  In the first case, inhabitants’ desires and ideas are filtered through institutions of the state- people vote for a mayor who appoints public commissioners who mobilize a bureaucracy to design and implement promised visions:  build new schools, remake the local football field, create a bike lane system.  The second right is a bit more tricky.

There are very good reasons that the right to appropriation is not legitimized to the same degree as the right to participation.  A New York City in which anyone who wants can go around blasting holes in the sidewalk, ripping up sections of Broadway, or planting new trees in the middle of the Long Meadow in Central Park would be problematic, if exciting.  And so the default is to totally deny this impulse, despite the violently negative ramifications it inflects on our democracies and urban spaces, elucidated so brilliantly by Henri Lefebvre (and others, including Mark Purcell and David Harvey).

The practice of landscape architecture traditionally reinforces this divide, with its practitioners and theorists working as functionaries for the walling off of material-instrumental acts in the landscape, making them the preserve of technocrats, experts, politicians, and their wealthy patrons.  The results have disastrous consequences for politics of power in democratic urban spaces, often resulting in bizarre and inappropriate definitions of “successful”, “good”, and especially “public” spaces- it is fundamentally a destruction of space.

Despite this institutional weight, people still clamor and realize their right to appropriation; mass occupations and protests occasionally occur, graffiti has been elevated to an art, food trucks set up shop until they’re made to leave, and leftover “vague terrains” are captured by opportunistic communities because no one else cares enough to kick them out.  While claiming interest in these efforts- bottom up initiatives, emergent programs and ecologies, etc- the landscape design profession offers precious little in terms of new forms and programs that might honestly grapple with these serious issues.  This is not through negligence or malfeasance.  Rather, we have not developed the method for devising these new spaces, and so we end up making parks and promenades with stylistic flourishes.

the vacancy and perceived dangers along the banks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn have created an operating space where alternatives to traditional institutionalized landscape design can occur; here the volunteer organization Gowanus Canal Conservancy has set up a small scale urban nursery where volunteers- anyone with the time and desire- have the capacity to design, install, and maintain local parks, street tree plantings, experimental ecologies, and bird habitat

Some Conclusions

Coming back to the original question of WHY, I hold out hope that landscape practice can embrace these conflicts and potentials latent in public landscapes and develop a method for creating space.  The design, construction and maintenance of public spaces exert real demands and create real conflicts among various materials, actors, and agents- there are good reasons that things work as they do.

However, considering the detrimental ramifications of this way of working along with the latent opportunities embedded in the economic, aesthetic, and political aspects of these places, I believe there is a need for a method to confront these situations and contend with these issues, and that a landscape approach can be developed into this methodology.  Instrumentalism holds that “the activities of thinking and knowing occur when an organism experiences conflict within a specific situation.”  This project of landscape instrumentalism is meant to explore a method for confronting these issues and negotiating these situations.

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