[the protocol for removing trees from the Commons evidently entails busting up the brick and placing an orange cone on the stump]

[the protocol for removing trees from the Commons evidently entails busting up the brick and placing an orange cone on the stump]

The 40-year old pedestrian mall at the center of Ithaca, NY is currently being reconstructed according to a design by Sasaki Associates.  The project will cost an estimated $10 million and is projected to continue in two phases through June of 2014.  While a bit difficult to discern from the published documents, it seems to be what you would expect — contemporary, thoughtful, well- executed, and a bit generic.  Small nods are made to both place-specific qualities and regional characteristics while the landscape is organized according to generally acceptable principles like flexibility, durability, and change through the seasons. 

What I am interested in regarding this project is the possibility of a provisional landscape.  That is, a landscape which is both temporary– adopted for the time being- and which provides things.  With any public landscape, especially complex undertakings such as building new infrastructure or remediating superfund sites, the amount of time during which construction and maintenance operations render the public landscape private is substantial and results in a loss of use-value.  I’ve written before here why the recovery of this value is an opportunity for an expanded range of aesthetic experiences and should be of concern to designers of public landscapes.  It is, however, a very difficult case to prove.

The first iteration of the Ithaca Commons was constructed in 1974, giving the landscape a useful life of 39 years.  If that is taken as a stand-in for this next iteration, then by using the capital cost of this project projected out over 39 years, we know that there is a capital use-value loss of $384,000 due to the temporary privatization of the public landscape.  This is different from the direct use-value loss, which is the lost value of services (such as recreation) that can be provided by for-profit facilities, such as a gym or rock-climbing wall (in any case, these tend to be negligible in pedestrian malls, and higher in Robert Moses-style recreation parks).

[the plan for Ithaca Commons by Sasaki Associates]

[the plan for Ithaca Commons by Sasaki Associates]

This loss is in addition to the burden placed on businesses, which is substantial and a major cause for concern.  In response the phasing and staging of the project have been designed so as to minimize this disruption.  In the words of current Mayor Svante Myrick“We’re going to do [the reconstruction] in the most careful and deliberate way possible so that all of these businesses on the Commons can stay open and continue doing business for the entire time the construction is happening.  We’re going to phase it so that the obstruction is as minimal as possible.” 

A quick survey of the results of public meetings that occurred during the design planning process note under “Construction Planning” the following goals: 1) Construction must interfere as little as possible with the operation of businesses, 2) Access to Commons, businesses, and universal accessibility must be maintained, 3) Careful scheduling of construction hours, 4) Transition period should be a major focus of the plan.

What stands out is how the entire construction process is being defined negatively; it is something to be mitigated and finished as quickly as possible.  However, I am interested in the possibility that an instrumental approach will allow aspects of the provisional landscape to be turned from private to public, with the result being that the act of remaking this civic space becomes something to be celebrated and experienced in its own right.

[Robert Irwin's "Two Running V-Form"; Irwin recontextualized a banal material using paint and a new placement to expand the range of aesthetic experience they offer]

[Robert Irwin’s “Two Running V-Form”; Irwin recontextualized a banal material using paint and a new placement to expand the range of aesthetic experience they offer]

Public landscapes in our society are generally spaces of consumption (we consume experiences as well as goods and services in them) and the material practices that make it possible are viewed as a bothersome molting period that just has to be endured, or ignored, until it is over.  This can be clearly seen in a quote by the local executive director of the Community School of Music and Arts, who noted that they were “really looking forward to a revitalized Commons, once it’s done.” That is an appropriate response considering how construction and maintenance is plotted and executed.  It is also indicative of the low value we ascribe to the material operations that make our cities and landscapes possible.

However, it is a misconception that the Commons landscape is in a larval state right now.  The fact is, it is a landscape in its own right, one undergoing a process of radical change, offering its own aesthetic experiences, open to interpretations.  It is just as finished right now as any landscape ever is.  A stroll down the commons reveals a number of materials and objects in changing relation to one another, governed by a series of specific protocols yet bringing their own desires to the party.

On my recent walk through the Commons-under-construction, a backhoe excavator and jackhammer were each aligned with the street, bucket and hammer resting gently on the ground surface.  This is the result of a protocol, likely reading something like “all backhoe arms and treads shall be aligned lengthwise with the street so as to minimize transverse dimensions; all buckets and hammers shall be rested on the existing street surface to reduce strain on the hydraulic joints.”  So we have here the intentions of the builders (minimize physical obstructions and strain on the equipment) with the demands of the instrument (my dimensions are huge relative to the cross width of this street, and my bucket is way too heavy to hang in the air off my arm overnight) in a sort of duel, each compromising and negotiating to conjure forth a public landscape of conflict and a muddy, metallic strain of beauty.

[the backhoe excavator beside a jackhammer resting on the Ithaca Commons; observed by the author on a recent walk to the Commons]

[the backhoe excavator beside a jackhammer resting on the Ithaca Commons; observed by the author on a recent walk to the Commons]

There is something at stake here.  With our approach to landscape-making we are deciding whether all we care about is the product, or if we are interested in the process.  Do we only value landscape in terms of composition and meaning, which our art-historical bias has pushed us towards, or are we interested in and capable of understanding and engaging our cultural heritage of labor, machines, and technological expertise also, thereby expanding the range of aesthetic experiences in public landscapes and recovering lost capital use-value.

If we are, then I think there are three guiding lights we might turn to in order to develop the conceptual and technical tools to design provisional landscapes:  the history of technology, land art, and the trades.  I’ll write more on how landscape architects might engage the history of technology, draw from the land artists, and work with the trades in the future.  For the moment, it is interesting to think about what sort of provisional landscape might be conjured, and how it might define the processes and material operations of construction in a way that positively affects the local businesses and street life.  Small observation towers might be constructed, or new protocols written for the arrangement of construction machinery at the end of the workday, when the evening life of the Commons begins.  Or a simple but extensive scaffold system might be designed that both structures the phasing of construction and allows pedestrians to traverse the Commons.  The range of technical expertise, material choices, and machinery at work in the landscape might become an object of fascination and revelry, the Commons a landscape offering aesthetic experience beyond the thoughtful-but-generic composition that is a backdrop for community life.

[aerial view of the existing commons exploring how a scaffold system might arrange staging and phasing in construction while allowing pedestrians to experience the provisional landscape]

[aerial view of the existing commons exploring how a scaffold system might arrange staging and phasing in construction while allowing pedestrians to experience the provisional landscape]

satellite image of the Rio de la Plata; the large amounts of freshwater pouring from the Parana and Uruguay Rivers mean that the water contains almost no salt at Buenos Aires; strong, sustained winds out of the south east over the atlantic ocean can push a wall of water up the estuary, backing up the flow of the Parana and Uruguay- flooding the delta- and backing up smaller rivers such as the Riachuelo, resulting in floods in the low-lying areas of Buenos Aires

Sudestada events are meteorological phenomena particular to the Rio de la Plata estuary.  They occur when sustained winds out of the southeast push ocean water up the estuary.  When combined with high tide these events can raise water levels in the estuary 13 feet or more.  These events can cause flooding in low-lying urban areas, especially the densely populated zones around the Riachuelo, and when combined with heavy rains they effects can be devastating as the stormwater has no outlet.  When these floods occur inhabitants are in danger from the overtopping of bulkheads and levees by the disgusting and highly contaminated waters of the Riachuelo, as well as sewers backing up into the streets and basements of homes.  Personal damage to property and long-term health effects are proving devastating to residents.

A 2004 report in the Journal of Climatology classifies a sudestada as an event that raises the water level 8.25 feet or more for longer than 24 hours.  In the fifty year study period from 1950-2000, these occurred an average of six times per year, with a slight uptick in recent years.  At 10.25 feet the protective bulkheads and levees along the canal are overtopped in some vulnerable places in the lower portion of the Riachuelo basin.  These events occurred on average more than once per year during the study period and seem likely to increase given effects of possible sea level rise on the estuary in the future.

To combat the most serious flooding issues- caused by a sudestada combined with overland rain- ACUMAR is developing a macro/micro drainage strategic plan.  This plan calls for the creation of 10 large reservoirs in the upper basin of the Riachuelo (macro-drainage) and for new urbanization patterns to focus on minimizing damage to property, health, and habitat in the urban areas.  This is opposed to the historic strategy of simply trying to flush the water away as quickly as possible, which often causes issues downstream, especially when the water cannot go further downstream because of a 10 foot wall of water being pushed up the Rio de la Plata.  Under this strategy stormwater in urban areas (micro-drainage) should be retained and allowed to percolate into the soil or small-scale surface or subterranean reservoirs where possible.

a map showing ACUMARs macro-drainage strategy for the Riachuelo watershed; the metropolis of Buenos Aires is in grey, the watershed of the Riachuelo the irregular red line, the macro-drainage reservoirs are in blue positioned outside of the city; this strategy will reduce flooding pressures on the Tierra Plastica site near the mouth of the Riachuelo during events when a sudestada combines with overland rain


Given the frequency and severity of these events the design strategies for Tierra Plastica must be aimed toward the objective of retention and percolation.  In addition, while the bulkheads and levees in the lower basin prevent all but the most severe flooding, and there is a tradition of private adaptation (building the first floor higher) in the neighborhood of La Boca, the long term strategy of Tierra Plastica must take in to account more severe and frequent sudestada events as indicated by the trends of the last 30 years, as well as the effects of possible sea level rise on the estuary.  Lastly, while damage to health and property must be limited, the phenomenon of flooding itself is an important cyclical aspect of the hybrid ecology of the Riachuelo.  The salt water intrusion and elevated water levels bring seeds, sediments, salt, and organisms to the ecosystems as necessary nutrients and provide a sort of inadvertent locomotion for certain residues and organisms in the landscape.  These annual cyclical events should be leveraged as power- as work- for their instrumental effects, a moment when humans retreat inside from the weather, and a new world is created.

sections through the Tierra Plastica portion of the Riachuelo; the text on the left side of the channel in the sections indicates the historical depths of the channel and the white layer is newly accumulated sediment since dredging ceased; on the right side of the channel in the sections are the water levels along the floodwall of during specific events such as daily tidal fluctuations, an average sudestada, a major sudestada, and the highest ever recorded

Dock Sud; to the left is the Exolgan container port, to the right is the Shell and YPF petrochemical facility; in the middle is the Canal Sur; to the far right on the edge of the Rio de la Plata is the Yarara confinement area for contaminated sediments; a tiny but noticeable breach is visible in the southern containment dike in the new cell; it is unclear if this cell is in use yet

While the fecund Reserva Ecologica is located on the northern side at the mouth of the Riachuelo, the southern side is seemingly its opposite.  Both, however, are the result of a major industrial city pushing into a silt laden estuary; the two faces of Janus.  The south side is known as Dock Sud.  It is the main petrochemical port and largest port in Argentina by operated tons.  In addition to gas and oil it supports containerized shipping as well as sand mining operations.  The port began in 1888 as a swampy, low-lying terminus to the Southern Railway which was British owned and operated until nationalization by Juan Peron in 1948.  The port was constructed as a public entity which it remains today- its shipping channels and bulkheads are maintained by the provincial port authority while the storage, unloading, and manufacturing facilities are constructed by the tenant companies.

There is pressure on the port to expand in the future, especially its container and petrochemical operations.  In addition, sediment dredging and the disposal of contaminated sediment is a significant cost to the port and a major area of concern for the residents in the densely populated surrounding area.  Each year the port must dredge approximately 1,100,000 cubic meters to maintain their facilities at the required 10.4 meter depth.  Fully one third of this is considered heavily contaminated, coming from the Riachuelo.  The other two-thirds (740,000 cubic meters) is dredged from the exterior of the port, mainly the entrance channel (Canal Sud) which connects Dock Sud to the trunk line in the middle of the Rio de la Plata.  While the clean sediment can be disposed of at sea, the contaminated sediment dredged from the Riachuelo and interior of the port must now be either treated or confined.  The issue is one of murky jurisdictions- the federal constitutional amendment mandates that the environment must be protected, the port is part of the Province of Buenos Aires, and much of the pollution in the port comes from the autonomous district of the city of Buenos Aires.

the action chart for the Tierra Plastic project shows the relationship of the Riachuelo to the port through sediment; in this case, the contaminated sediments are the instrumental aspect of the landscape, organizing the entire network around itself; the future Camalote disposal facility is indicated; capital dredging is shown in thicker lighter grey arrows, maintenance remedial dredging in darker with a darker arrow; the black boxes alongside the names of objects indicate their depth in relation to mean sea level


The sediments of the Riachuelo-port complex offer a fascinating and terrible situation.  The objective of this project related to the port will be the disposal of contaminated sediments.  The Riachuelo and Dock Sud are inextricably linked by geography, hydrology, the shared industrial history, and they share in the ambiguous and contentious jurisdictional morass.  This situation can be read through the common link that ties all of these themes together- sediment. Sediment pours down the Riachuelo, 640,000 cubic meters per year, half of which is dropped out in the port, the other half of which continues down out in to the Rio de la Plata.  All of it is considered heavily contaminated, affecting the lives of people nearby and the port’s operational costs.

The industries and urban settlements polluting upstream raise the sediment disposal costs of the port considerably.  Additionally, the pollutants from the port itself are flushed back in to low-lying neighborhoods during storm events and floods.  Given the projected expansion of the port within the next 20 years, deeper channels will be needed.  This will in turn require more dredging each year, a fact which projects future dredging of contaminated sediments to increase to 500,000 cubic meters annually.  Currently no dredging is done in the Riachuelo until it reaches the port zone that begins at the Exolgan logistics center.  This fact is evident in aerial photos and geo-soundings of the Vuelta de Rocha turning basin; it is no longer used and currently holds approximately 16 feet of contaminated sediments.  This sediment is then dredged and disposed of in the Yarara disposal facility on the eastern edge of the port next to the Rio de la Plata.  The facility is poorly constructed and filling up quickly.  It’s protection dike of 3 meters is subject to overtopping and wave battering and needs to be reinforced and safely closed.

The 2009 report on stormwater drainage for the Riachuelo basin noted that due to the high levels of contamination in the sediments, which would be dislocated and possibly released by dredging, a 1995 report recommended that no dredging occur.  However, this is being reconsidered due to necessities of using the canal for navigation and recreation (p. 134).


diagram above illustrates dredge volumes in Dock Sud port by year; diagram series below just above illustrates different disposal structures considered for the new Camalote site; a near-shore confined disposal site is chose as it offers the best combination of secure containment, reduced costs, and fill for new port facilities

actual and projected increases in shipping, by tons operated; though Dock Sud is currently Argentina's busiest port, it is expected to triple the number of tons moved in the next twenty years; most of that growth will come in containerized shipping, though petrochemicals will continue to grow as well

The cost of the treating the 320,000 cubic meters of contaminated sediments is approximately ten times that of confining it (50 million to 6 million).  This cost would increase with additional dredging needed for channel deepening.  In addition, it is possible to reuse contaminated sediments as fill material for new port constructions if the disposal facilities are properly constructed.  For Tierra Plastica I am proposing a constructed near-shore disposal facility (see diagram above) to be constructed for confinement and use for new port facilities.  This proposal draws from and adapts the conclusions of the “Sustainable Management of Contaminated Sediment in Puerto Dock Sud” report by Kay Croonen of TU Delft/U of Buenos Aires.

This construction, named “Camalote” on the map below, will allow for the Yarara facility to be properly reinforced, protected from storm events, and closed, and for 90 hectares of territory to be reclaimed for port expansion.  The construction may be created from geotubes filled with mined sand, lined with local “tosca” clay, and reinforced with rip rap of construction and demolition rubble.  By providing a place for the contaminated sediments and logistical support in their transport, and allowing ACUMAR to concentrate funds on prevention of further contamination and the installation of sewer and industrial infrastructure, the port will limit the amount of time they need to pay for the disposal of contaminated sediment.

The remediation dredging will be carried out by multiple proposed tram dredges (number to be determined) and will continue for 5 years.  Further remedial dredging will likely be needed in the future due to the high number of industries and neighborhoods throughout the Riachuelo basin.  A system of monitoring will be needed to ensure the sediments are not contaminated beyond acceptable levels- if they can be maintained in a state clean enough to allow future interior port dredge spoils to be disposed of at sea then port operational costs could be reduced by up to 10 million dollars a year.

The Math

The Yarara site has an estimated capacity of 2,460,000 cubic meters.  It was estimated in 2008 to have only 200,000 cubic meters left and is likely now full or close to capacity, even with compaction due to dewatering.  The Camalote site will provide an estimated 10,000,000 cubic meters of capacity.  This will allow for storage of 1,000,000 cubic meters of dredge spoils from capital dredging in the Riachuelo, and provide capacity for confinement of contaminated spoils for the next twenty years.  At that point, institutional controls instigated by municipalities, agencies, and businesses through ACUMAR should be fully operational allowing for source control of pollutants.

However, given the dispersed nature, both temporally (spread over 200 years) and spatially (throughout the basin and spanning multiple jurisdictions) of the pollution sources, including residences, businesses, and industry, any future design should prove robust enough to mediate common pollutants.

geotubes may be filled, lined with local clay, and reinforced with rip rap including construction rubble to create a secure confinement dike fo the Camalote site


After the contaminated sediment is dredged and confined in the Camalote- or confined in place within the Riachuelo- and the new design depth obtained for the Riachuelo, maintenance dredging will be needed.  By confining the contaminated sediments so that they don’t contaminate groundwater or get flushed in to the city with sudestada floodwaters the health of the residents of the surrounding area will be greatly improved.  In addition, many plants and animals that currently suffer ill effects from the heavy metals and volatile organic compounds will have more space to grow and establish healthy ecological communities.

Regarding the future channel of the Riachuelo itself, the idea of “design depth” and “channel” needs to be rethought, considering that the future use primary uses of the Riachuelo will not be heavy industrial shipping but municipal transit, remediation, recreation, and light industry such as composting.  A monitoring system and catchment system must be developed to ensure that future remediation- likely to become necessary as hundreds of years of contaminated sediment make their way downstream- can be undertaken as part of a functioning industrial/recreational ecology within the city.

+ Where will the sediments be transferred from the tram dredge to the Port Authority?

+ How long will the remedial dredging take place?

+ What kind of ongoing dredging will occur after remedial dredging is finished?

+ How will the sediment monitoring system function?

+ How will the sediment catchment system function?

aerial showing context and limits of dredging program and creation of publicly accessible Camino de Sirga along the embankments of the Rio de la Plata; for scale the highlighted portion of the Riachuelo canal is almost exactly 1.5 miles long

Tierra Plastica is understood to be taking place under the purview of ACUMAR, the river basin authority of the Riachuelo.  ACUMAR (Autoridad de la CUenca MAtanza Riachuelo) is a decentralized interjurisdictional governmental agency with capital funds.  River basin authorities have developed into a relatively common device for dealing with the issues of pollution, economics, and politics in watersheds that span jurisdictional boundaries (as most do).  ACUMAR is unique in that it has capital funds to implement its decisions and recommendations thanks to a billion dollar loan from the World Bank.

One of the few precedents for this type of organization is the Tennessee Valley Authority which built dams, reforested hillsides, and constructed roads throughout the Tennessee Valley during the New Deal years of the United States (it still maintains a capital budget today, albeit a much less ambitious one).  ACUMAR differs from the TVA in that it is not a centralized planning organization accountable to an executive office and built according to the engineering/systems model as detailed by technological historians David Noble and Thomas P. Hughes.  Rather, ACUMAR is both part of and made of a network of administrative and technical experts, with its executive council consisting of local, state, and federal officials who work closely with the heads of state agencies such as Environmental Agency and Education Agency.

The organization itself is ultimately responsible to a federal court in nearby Quilmes, province of Buenos Aires, Argentina and works in concert with various local and municipal groups, non-governmental organizations, and municipal governments.  The nation of Argentina is responsible to the World Bank for showing progress according to the approved environmental remediation plan that was used to secure the loan.

inside the norris dam, built by the tennessee valley authority; at the norris dam the river basin authority created a landscape that is a massive piece of energy infrastructure and a publicly accessible recreation area; people come to walk through the forest and swim in the lakes, as well as to enjoy the technological sublime aspects of the landscape

a TVA shovel at work on a roadway at the Norris Dam site; note the "TVA" inscription on the shovel; as a river basin authority with capital funds ACUMAR like the TVA has the ability not only to pay contractors to build infrastructure, but also has the ability to buy its own instruments and undertake long-term projects and implement maintenance regimes

ACUMAR is responsible for executing the Integrated Plan for Environmental Remediation (PISA, by its Spanish Acronym), which it does by operating along four lines of action:  institutional, remedation, industry, planning and infrastructure.  There are certain aspects of both the plan and the institutional structure that are instructive and will ultimately be internalized as assumed parameters for the project.

1.  Efforts are being made to control the pollution point-sources upstream, including the construction of new sewage treatment plants, fining businesses disposing of chemicals and objects in the river, and controlling stormwater runoff.  Nonetheless, a robust and local system is needed for containing and cleaning the detritus and refuse carried downstream in the water column

2.  The system of levees and bulkheads that protect the urbanized area from floodwaters needs to be enlarged and reinforced, especially to withstand the sudestada storm events that occur several times per year and when combined with rain upstream and high tide lead to widespread flooding in the basin.

3.  As of April 2011 57 sunken or inoperable boats have been extracted from the river between the Pueyrredon Bridge and the Avellaneda Bridge.  In addition over 70 vehicles have been excavated from the canal bottom and there are no more in this zone.

4.  The Camino de Sirga (35 meter wide towpath) has been cleared of obstruction and structures in a first phase up to Dean Funes Street, with a second phase underway to clear up to Pueyrredon Bridge.  It is being cleared and designated as public space.  Sections further upstream are also being cleared with the final intent to unify a 35 meter wide swath on either side of the canal for public access.

5.  Dredging is being considered by ACUMAR in coordination with Port Authority at Dock Sud.  There are still some working port operations near the mouth of the canal and the section from the Vuelta de Rocha to the Canal Sur is still maintained and dredged by the Port Authority.  Any material that is dredged from the RIachuelo would have to be treated as contaminated and a treatment and disposal site would be needed.

6.  Two non-governmental organizations are currently advocating for the dredging of the canal; one in the interest of cleaning the watercourse, the other in the interest of making it navigable for a system of municipal transit boats.

2011, ACUMAR removes one of the 57 boats sunken and abandoned in the Riachuelo

Conclusions for the design of the Camino de Sirga

+ The physical limits of the site are defined as the outer edge of the Camino de Sirga on either side of the canal and all the space between, beginning at the new Avellaneda Bridge and going to the Pueyrredon Bridge, as this is the section where ACUMAR has worked to clear the Camino de Sirga of obstructions.  From there to the Victorino de la Plaza Bridge the project scope will be limited solely to the watercourse of the canal, as this area is desired for navigation but it is unknown when the Camino de Sirga may be cleared here.

+ Any design must include a strategy for dealing with the floodwaters of the Rio de la Plata, especially those occurring due to sudestada weather events.

+ The design should include a system that allows for constant monitoring of water level, sediment elevations, and enable the intermittent sampling of water and sediment chemistry.

+ Retention and filtration of stormwater along the banks of the canal in the urbanized area is necessary to reduce flooding in the basin.

+ Any design needs to provide a system for the filtration of contaminants and objects.  Major infrastructural and institutional investments by ACUMAR will help alleviate the situation.  However, given the heavily urbanized context the design of the canal should not suppose that all objects and contaminants will be removed.

+ For the purposes of this thesis project it will be assumed that ACUMAR has decided in favor of some type of dredging for the Riachuelo Canal.  A treatment and containment site is needed and should be coordinated with the Dock Sud Port at the mouth of the canal.  Creating a canal that is navigable for both recreation and municipal-scale transportation is desired by community groups and being considered by ACUMAR.  For Tierra Plastica it will be considered a necessary and ongoing process.

The Reserva Ecologica exists in the littoral zone between Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata; the greenish brown rectangular bar above the ecological reserve is a lagoon that was formally the municipal bathing area designed by JCN Forestier in 1918; the brown rectangular zone above that is the old port zone, Puerto Madero, which has recently been redeveloped as a high end residential neighborhood; downtown Buenos Aires is above that, with the Plaza de Mayo visible in the upper right portion of the image

The Reserva Ecologica is a testament to the potentiality of the Rio de la Plata biome and infrastructural projects gone awry.  Perched between Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata, with Puerto Nuevo on one side and the Petrochemical Port on the other, it is the liminal space between intentionality and potentiality.  And it is just to the north from the mouth of the Riachuelo canal.  Given its proximity and unique characteristics, it will serve as both a precedent and contextual situation to be dealt with for this thesis project.

The Reserva Ecological is a result of an incomplete poldering system begun in the 1970’s under the military dictatorship with the intention to reclaim land from the Rio de la Plata and create a new government administrative center.  The perimeter embankments were constructed using a poldering system- an embankment was created and infilled while excess water was pumped out.  The embankment material was demolition debris from projects underway in the city at that time as new highways were being cut through the existing fabric.  Sediment from the river was deposited by natural currents, combining with the landfilling process through the mid-80’s, with the intent that the excess water would then be pumped out, a process which was never finished. Upriver seeds from the ecosystems of the Parana and Uruguay Rivers were deposited here by currents, floodwaters and birds.  In 1984 the project to reclaim the land was abandoned and two years later it was declared a “Natural Park and Ecological Reserve” (municipal law 41,247/86).  The rich sediment, tidal fluctuations and floodwaters, and introduced plants from gardens and parks in the city make for a diverse ecosystem of hyacinth lagoons, mudflats, and hillocks which is now recognized by Bird Life International as important avian habitat.

The depositional currents of the Rio de la Plata have the effect of growing the Argentina side of the Rio de la Plata; Since 1888 the city has added nearly 20% of it's landmass; this zone holds a high concentration of the industrial and ecological infrastructure of the city, including the Reserva Ecologica

However, before the city edge was defined by the Reserva Ecologica, it contained a popular and prosperous bathing promenade, as were popular in many cosmopolitan cities in the early 20th century.  In 1918 Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier, pupil of Alphand, was contracted to come to Buenos Aires and produce an urban plan for modernizing the industrial capital city.  Like many places throughout the Americas this was a time of great growth and optimism and also over European fetishism and capital investment.

The sunbathing promenade was the only project that was realized from this plan, but it was wildly popular.  Given its location near downtown in close proximity to working class and bourgeois neighborhoods, it succeeded for a time in giving space for rich and poor to stroll and be seen but also to bath in the river, have a meal, or fish.  The quality of the water slowly deteriorated and by 1950 the river was closed off to recreational use, though the “balneario” promenade remained.

It was under this context that the project to reclaim land from the river for a seclude governmental center for the military dictatorship was undertaken 28 years later.  Considering this, it seems as if the water channel in front of the promenade was purposefully maintained in order to create separation between the people and the government, acting almost as a moat and providing a high degree of access control at the southern edge.  This area has since become filled in with water hyacinth, a florescent chimera ecosystem and an aching historical reminder.

The sunbathing promenade- balneario municipal- in 1925 looking from the city out towards the Rio de la Plata where the Reserva Ecological will eventually be formed; the formal gardens and park along its edge mediated the comingling of recreations and work; the depositional tendency of the Rio de la Plata on the shoreline can be seen to the right side of the image

the balneario is seen at the city's edge with the bustling new port "Puerto Madero" between it and downtown Buenos Aires; to the far right in the center of the image you can just make out the Plaza de Mayo, the ceremonial heart of the city; the biplane wing is conveniently in the frame

The sunbathing promenade is seen swarming with people; the number of people wading makes clear the shallow depths of the water here, and the popularity and social vitality of a social place to bath, be seen, and eat; at this moment in time most of the population was fundamentally connected to the Rio de la Plata in a quotidian way

For our purposes this study is particularly interesting for three reasons:

1) the fecundity of the Rio de la Plata biome and the appropriateness of the water hyacinth as a catalyst in these chimera ecosystems is a major force that must be respected and utilized.  The question of how is not one of intentionality however, as the biome will assert itself regardless of the presence or form of human intentions.

2) the sediment load of the Rio de la Plata makes a strong case for land reclamation strategies along the coast.  History has shown that these can be wildly effective with relatively small efforts. However, they make dredging a constant, arduous, and monumental task.  The Rio de la Plata is a geologic force.

3) the presence of the river in the quotidian life of the inhabitants of the city was fundamental to the making of modern Buenos Aires and the mixing of social types and classes (as well as the mixing of other types of ecosystems).  The loss of this characteristic in the second half of the 20th century paralleled many of the economic and social problems experienced by the city during that time.  This suggests that any environment remediation in this hydrological system- in our case the Riachuelo portion- is fundamentally a political economic question concerned with issues of environmental and social justice.

With the close proximity of the Reserva Ecologica to my site, the historical and thematic issues of the place will play an important role in the concept and execution of the thesis project.  The instrumental landscape of the Reserva Ecologica consists of the dump trucks, conveyor belts, and wrecking balls used in the demolition projects, but also the historical bathing promenade and resultant hyacinth lagoon, the estuarine currents and floodwaters, the sediment load of the Rio de la Plata, the gardens dispersed throughout the city whose seeds make their way here, the autonomous and individual birds flying through this zone bringing seeds and eating insects, and the construction debris itself.

the Reserva Ecologica is a ruderal landscape- refuse and overflow from the Rio de la Plata and the city coalesce here into one spectacular landscape; its situation- large polluted port complexes on either side, perched between downtown Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata, make the Reserva Ecological a chimera of all the fecundity and failed intentions of cities and continents

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier- a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.  The most significant thing about the American frontier is that it lies at the hither edge of free land.

– Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893.

an approximation of the American frontier in 1775 as characterized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner; this schematic has fundamentally shaped the popular mythology of the United States- from creeds and federal policy (westward expansion and manifest destiny) to popular culture and landscape design (Toby Keith anthems and Olmsted's design for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair); and rightfully so- the frontier is different in the Americas, and it is fundamental to understanding the American people, American institutions, and American landscape

Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was fundamental to understanding its importance in shaping American societies.  His frontier thesis stated that the continual presence and progression of the frontier westward across the continent was critical to shaping the American people and institutions, and that its disappearance in the late 19th century signaled a cultural crisis for the United States of America.

The thesis was brilliant- for the first time someone recognized that the rules of the European frontier did not apply here in the Americas.  Of course, being the one to take the first major pass, there were some areas that needed more work.  Historian Walter Prescott Webb more clearly described the frontier, noting that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.”  It gets particularly interesting when you combine this representation with the frontier concept of another historian of the American West- Herbert Eugene Bolton.  He argued that the American frontier can’t be understood in terms of an inexorable, Anglo-centric march west.  For Bolton, the American frontier was a hemispheric condition of contested terrains; while the Anglo-Americans marched west, the French moved south, the Spanish moved north, the Russians moved east, the British controlled Canada, and the Portuguese expanded in all directions.

Wider Horizons of the American Landscape

an approximation of the actual American frontier in 1775; French territory is green, Spanish is dark blue, Portuguese is yellow, Dutch is orange, British is red, Russian is pink, areas contested between the British and French is light blue, indigenous tribes and nations are mapped with white labels; the approximation is meant to communicate the ambiguity and heterogeneity of the American landscape; borders are fuzzy and overlapping and even within national territories there is variegation and conflict

A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary.  A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its presencing.” [paraphrased]

– William T. Vollman, Imperial

Combining the work of these frontier historians with the work of geographers and landscape architects such as Richard Campanella, Elizabeth Meyer, and Peter Jacobson, makes it possible to understand the American frontier as a landscape condition:  a constructed environment consisting of autonomous objects in relation to one another within a larger context.  The American landscape is a hemispheric condition with overlapping and contingent jurisdictions over expansive territories characterized by bigness and smashing.  The rivers were bigger, the mountains were higher, the deserts drier, the forests taller, and the horizons wider.

The frontier is non-directional.  It is not a thick band of open, receding land at the edge of society but rather a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and divergent interests are smashing into one another over and over.  The frontier in the American landscape is not Turner’s blank space or Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge having both depth and length.  It is defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions- it is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities- control is ambiguous, there are real and perceived dangers, and there is latent potential.  This contingency and potentiality generates the frontier conditions which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  As a landscape condition, the frontier is endemic to the American landscape; marked by difficult terrain, massive federal investments, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster, and overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions.  And now the frontier is in our cities.

American Frontiers and Urban Landscapes

looking at downtown Los Angeles; the vague terrains created by the lacing of infrastructures, the collision of cultural groups, and the vast and rugged topography generate the conditions of a frontier landscape in a modern American city

Sao Paulo, Brazil; the scale, infrastructures, ethnic heterogeneity and cultural and environmental violence suggest this American landscape can be best understood as a frontier condition

coal silos along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; these structures are often too expensive too tear down and are left dangerously standing once a company moves on; they embody a specific history, one that is often lost or only suggested; their forms and materials create opportunities for hiding, for climbing, for microclimates; perceived dangers keep certain populations away, while opening the door to those actors usually excluded from the public spaces of the city

Today, the frontier landscape condition is encountered at post-industrial sites, in city zones marred by interstate highways and 1960’s era urban renewal, in the forgotten edges near old shipping canals or the back lots of big box retail centers.  These landscapes are not empty space and they are not thick slices of real estate awaiting settlement and exploitation at the edges of the city.  They are contested zones, they have a history, they are inhabited, they are dangerous, and they are marked by potentiality.  The issue of jurisdiction is often murky in these zones with the responsible companies having moved on or gone out of business, faceless bureaucracies remaining unflappable, and the political hot potatoe being tossed back and forth between municipal, state, and federal agencies.  There is always a perception of danger or undesirability, and often there are real issues of contamination or physical violence. Often times there are vast, obsolete technological structures from the past which must be dealt with:  the factory that is too expensive to tear down and so is left standing, the massive terraform created by the landfill, the old gantries and piers dangerously decaying, or a seductive tangle of linear transportation infrastructures.

These places have other qualities:  the vastness and openness, the fecundity of a place left alone, the history embedded in the objects, the perception of danger that creates an operating space for the weeds, hobos, kids, and birds typically excluded from the productive circuits of the modern city.  In his essay Terrain Vague, Spanish architect Ignasi Sola Morales identified the significance of these places in our cities and then posed the question, “how can architecture act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reason?”  In the context of the American landscape, the answer is two-fold:  a landscape approach is essential, and that landscape must be understood as a frontier condition.

Some Implications

barbed wire was a technology invented for use in an American frontier; its development and deployment across the North American Midwest allowed for a radical reimagining of patterns of settlement and production, effecting a shift from open lands grazed by cattle under the watchful eye of vaqueros, charros, and cowboys to fenced agricultural plots worked by farmers

Pulling from historical as well as speculative observation, we can reach some conclusions about ways in which understanding these urban sites as a frontier might enable a synthesis of new programs and forms, creating urban landscapes that are instrumental and appropriate.  A frontier landscape condition demands the development of new technologies and the deployment of existing ones in novel ways.  The development of barbed wire, the Colt .45, and new methods of surveying using the old Gunters Chain are specific testaments to the potentiality of this landscape type.  The frontier landscape not only demands new technologies but it shapes institutions.  The creation of the Texas Ranger, the Argentine gaucho, and the adaptation of the English practice of primogeniture are examples of this.  The development of new institutions pairing local knowledge with new technologies and the power of a centralized bureaucracy is essential for acting in a frontier landscape.

1898 round up on the Cimarron in Colorado; before the development of dry farming, the arid areas of Western America were often used for cattle grazing, be it on the haciendas of Mexico or the ranches of Oklahoma; cattle were allowed to roam free most of the year and were then rounded up using cowboys and vaqueros, distinctive brands distinguished them and they would be driven to slaughterhouses on the Mississippi

Instrumentality as a material practice is interested in the ways that operating tools engaged with the landscape medium can generate the conditions for recreation and industry.  For field research this project is undertaking two studies of wildly different scales- the operation of earthmovers and backhoes for constructing a strip mall next to  the suburban office headquarters at the Northrop Grunman facility on highway 29 near Charlottesville, Virginia, and pruning a hedge with a pair of Felco pruning shears. The method here is one of collage; aligning and overlaying a photo series, with some transparency, and color focus on the major operable parts that seems to be forming spaces, altering the material, changing the behavior of adjacent humans- in short, making landscape. These images are then overlaid with a layer of data- dimensions and lists- which are more typically reserved for the spatial orthographic drawings such as plan and section.  The intent is to lend some specificity and immediacy to the operation of the tools visibly at work. Backhoe excavation at the Northrop Grunman facility:

the operating backhoe adjacent to the city sidewalk and the cars of highway 29 creates a moment of interest, and pehaps perceived danger on the road. Here the backhoe is being used to excavate a trench for a sewer pipe. It is then used to lower segments of the precast pipe into place with a cable attached to the articulated arm, while workers shuffle around its bucket shovel to guide the pipe segment. Cars and people pass only a few feet away; admittedly many more cars than people while an ailanthus tree sprouts in the forground, protected from trampling by the guardrail. The powerful, graceful movements of the triple-articulated arm of the backhoe works steadily to excavate the land it rests on; the views it frames, the raidii it creates, and the interaction moments with people, machines, and material work to generate landscape while excavating for building footers or utility pipes. The process of the backhoe excavating and dropping its payload into an earthmover not only changes the actual ground in the fore, it frames and activates the background and the atmosphere, releases dust and earth into the air and heaping piles of dirt around the exchange point; the specific arcs and lines created by the operating tools are the objects that work to create this provisional landscape.

Felco pruners on carpinus carolinia:

Michael pruning a carpinus caroliniana- ironwood. the pruners are the most extreme tip of the entire tool- the human body that ducks in and out of the vegetation choosing the right limbs to prune, pushing the others aside

most of the radii and power are provided by the human body; the pruners add a cutting edge, leverage, and one additional radius

the pruner, the tree, and the person are all in total motion when pruning is taking place; though the scale is much small, the involvement is total

These instances of instrumentality as a material practice are representative examples meant to examine activities operating at different economic, expertise, and spatial scales:  the operation of backhoes and construction of commercial research facilities are typically considered industrial operations, whereas the use of felco pruners are usually a maintenance or recreational activity.  The working of these tools lends an immediacy and agency to the inhabitants of the landscape- it is a form of actualized potential.  The confrontation between material and tool creates views, establishes safety zones, demarcates areas for working and walking, and generates new habitats and materials.

conclusion:  Two facts germane to a working theory of landscape instrumentalism immediately spring to the fore through this study- 1) the engagement of machines, tools, and implements can create and generate landscape; framing views, making micro-topographies, habitats, new forms, and 2) the disparate scales must immediately be grappled with.  Our representational technique seemed interesting when dealing with a large landscape in general stasis, but when the landscape was a single tree canopy and small scale tool moving all over the place the effect is nauseating.