[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]


[jibaro house on eroded tobacco slope in Puerto Rico, 1938 by Edwin Rosskam; the field has its own form, its effect on the slope, the river below, the house above, viewers from the next hill over, and it takes part in a larger farming landscape; in this way it can be understood as an instrument in the farming landscape]

Within a theory of landscape instrumentalism it is necessary and possible to probe just what an instrument is.  If an instrument is any entity understood to exist at the intersection of perception and reality, and these entities make up a landscape, then how might they be conceptualized?  From Harman we learn that any instrument that is perceived is but a sliver of the object reality of that instrument, that it always maintains something in reserve and that this is always present.

I’ve stated that a working theory of landscape instrumentalism suggests a need for more specificity, for techniques that allow us to grapple with the autonomy and potency, the generative capacity, of things themselves in the landscape, and not just human users.  At first glance this might seem futile at best, dastardly at worst; an attempt to categorize and over-analyze all of the living, breathing objects that comprise the fantastic landscapes where we live our lives.  It rings of the negative connotation conjured by recent theorists who lambast any notion of objectification and deride scientific or analytical attempts to grapple with things.  However, Harman again uses Heidegger to show that this is far from the truth when he states that “the [tool] continues to sustain its [tool]-effect, no matter how obtrusively analyzed or how directly perceived it might be in any specific case.  In short, to engage in ever more explicit encounters with specific objects does not entail negating or rising beyond the cryptic tool-being of these things.”

Instead, I would suggest that as persons tasked with a conceptualizing and important role in the creation of specific types of landscapes considered to be of great value (a new neighborhood park, parking lot, or corporate garden) we must develop techniques that allow us to grapple with a range of entities in conceptual terms.  In recent decades the map has achieved a sort of hegemony in terms of landscape architectural practice, reinforced by flow diagrams and claritin drawings.  James Corner has argued persuasively that the map is not a representational technique but is generative, and the work of Bradley Cantrell and others is pointing a way toward new methods of modeling, which are more than mere representation but are actually modalities of translation.  This is what technique is and should be- a constant search for appropriate modalities that allow us to translate the forces of objects and their relations to other objects.

[a drawing from Halprin’s “motation” studies, developing notational techniques to examine the way that people move through a landscape and create space]

To achieve this it is important to understand the instrument as consisting of a conceptual triad:  form, effect, and the assemblage it takes part in.  The form of an instrument pertains to its shape, its effect can be understood as its relations to other objects.  The final leg of the stool is related to the effect and is particular to landscapes.  The assemblage something takes part in refers to the larger activity or set of actions that is tied to but related to a certain object at a particular time.  For instance at a recreational lake there may be several boating docks and many paddle boats, along with the water in the lake and human users.  All of these objects are part of the same program activity- the boating assemblageat the lake- but not all of them relate to one another at the same time.  This difference among things is important, this separation of levels, because it allows for more specificity in the design of the space.

One technique that I favor for exploring this conceptual triad is the use of multiple sections, cut through the same place but at different times.  Speculative or not, this simple maneuver allows one to examine the changes in arrangements of objects and their relations over time:  the forest is similar but the leaves have changed color, the water level in the canal is higher, there are more people in boats or on the boardwalk, birds are nesting in the high grasses or not.  The weakness to this technique of using sections is the primacy on form.  There is a need to develop techniques to be explicit about the full triad in the same way that the section allows us to be about form.

[here stacked orthographic sections indicate the shifting forms of the Riachuelo Canal landscape; these forms provide the basis to key in the instrument tables which are explicit about the effects of the individual instruments; the correlation wheel in the upper right hand corner allows for a general, color-coded indication of different program activities; in a next iteration these might be made to correspond to a color table attached to each instrument table to indicate the larger program activities for each instrument]

The key for my project, drawing from Halprin’s work, then seems to be to develop a notational system that will allow the designer to be highly specific about the conceptual triad:  the form, the effect, and the larger assemblage.  The current results of this effort can be seen above and are explained in more detail over on the tumblr site here, here and here.

In recent decades any notion of instrumental theory has generally been ridiculed by critics and thinkers.  Instruments and instrumentalism have been converted to mean a sort of dumb matter completely at the mercy of hegemonic power structures and the nefarious intentions of social beings, such as the omnipresent bourgeois.  While well intentioned, this tendency has rather unimaginatively demonized and diminished the role of instruments and equipment, not only impoverishing the project of Heidegger which pointed us toward a richer understanding of the role of tools in the world, but also stripping instruments of their autonomy and agency, leaving them unable to do anything except fulfill the intentions of the user.

[the geotube manifold system in a dewatering process for consolidation and containment of dredged materials]

One of the major issues that has continually come up in this project as I bore down on the relationship between landscapes and instruments is the seemingly insurmountable gap that is always present between the intention behind any given instrument and the reality.  This gap seems to always be at issue, and is something that has consistently troubled, and animated, the practice of landscape  architecture from the beginning, as we can see here in Olmsted’s 1866 report to the Brooklyn Commissioners:

But to this process of recuperation a condition is necessary, known since the days of Aesop, as the unbending of the faculties which have been tasked, and the unbending of the faculties we find is impossible, except by the occupation of the imagination with objects and reflections of a quite different character from those which are associated with their bent condition.  To secure such a diversion of the imagination, the best possible stimulus is found to be the presentation of a class of object to the perceptive organs, which shall be as agreeable as possible to the taste, and at the same time entirely different from the objects connected with those occupations by which the faculties have been tasked.  And this is what is found by townspeople in a park.

If now we ask further, what the qualities of a park are which fit it to meet this requirement? we find two circumstances, common to all parks in distinction from other places in town, namely scenery offering the most agreeable contrast to that of the rest of the town; and opportunity for people to come together for the single purpose of enjoyment, unembarrassed by the limitation with which they are surrounded at home, or in the pursuit of their daily avocations, or of such amusements as are elsewhere offered.  [1866 Report to the Commissioners of Brooklyn]

Considered both historically and theoretically it seems that the production of liminal space between intentionality and reality is ontological to landscape practice.  Traditionally we have dealt with this fact through contractor change orders, addenda to construction documents, and other conceptual and practical techniques including the generally agreed upon notion that not everything is going to turn out precisely as we had imagined, which seems to be a fairly reasonable approach.

This condition is not necessarily unacceptable, though it is the root of many lawsuits and much stress and client strife as well as contributing to the death of well-conceived projects that just don’t come off.  The problem, however, is that this space that is created in any landscape project is fertile ground being lost due to our contemporary over-reliance on architectural pedagogy and technique.  And we might grasp this territory as energetically as we have with the other aspects fundamental to landscape practice including setting a bounds or limit, the idea of generative capacity, and the importance of respecting difference.  The fact that we don’t or haven’t recognized this only further confirms my intuition that one project that is needed is the definition of a landscape ontology.

[landscape architect Horace Cleveland’s map for expanding the municipal parks system of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1883]

However, in this effort to explore an instrumental theory of landscape the work of philosopher Graham Harman is useful.  His work Tool-Being, which offers an illuminating and suprising reading of Heideggerstool-analysis, is helpful to understand the real metaphysical implications of instruments and tools:

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined.  There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool become visible as what it is… there is thus a double life of equipment- tool in action, tool in disrepair… the visibility of Heidegger’s “broken tool” has nothing to do with equipment not being in top working order.  Even the most masterfully constructed, prize-winning tools have to regarded as “broken” as soon as we consider them directly; the broken/unbroken distinction does not function as an ontic rift between two different sorts of entities.  Thus, as ought to have been expected, Heidegger teaches us not about smashed-up blades and chisels, but only about beings in general… Whether it is “out of order” or not, the visible tool is simply not the tool in its being; in this way, insofar as they are ever encountered, all beings are broken equipment

This is an apparently radical stance to take on, seeming to objectify everything in the world down to the level of a dumb hammer or chain link fencing.  But the opposite is true:

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects- not as means to an end like paper or oil, but in the sense that we want to be like the Grand Canyon or a guitar hero or a piece of silver:  distinct forces to be reckoned with.  No one really wants to be a Cartesian subject, but everyone would love to be some version of Isis, Odysseus, Aquaman, Legolas, or Cordelia. [p 140, Guerilla Metaphysics]

As Harman shows it is the traditional philosophical stance that denies any agency or potency to the hammer or the fence, the nighthawk or the kentucky coffee tree to extend beyond the intentions of the designer or the user- the human- and this has been largely true since the adoption of the work of Kant and the resultant linguistic turn. This includes most of the philosophies that have been influential in contemporary landscape design including the phenomenology of Husserl and the writings of Deleuze, though more recently the work of Bruno Latour does point towards a new materialist understanding.  Harman’s philosophy, and that of others working in the contemporary philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, shows that it is actually all entities that possess this intention, and all have the capacity to supersede, wiggle out of, or come up short of another object’s intention for it.

[here the hills are instruments for growing grass, for shedding water, for framing views; the river is an instrument of conveyance, of material sustenance, an excavator; the road is an instrument to collect heat, to mark an edge, to propel automobiles]

Considering this we can see that in a landscape the objects and things themselves have their own desires, and intentions.  At times this might be similar to what we’ve attributed to humans- imagining how users might react, gather, or what they might gaze upon- and at other times not.  Harman’s philosophy shows that any perceived object is already the broken tool- any tree, any change in slope, and carousel- that seems to jump out of the background and figure itself in relation to another object (be that a cyclist, a chimney swift, or inanimate objects such as a stormwater drainage).  Much of the most exciting and powerful work in the field in recent years has set out to draw on the agency of things.  This can be seen in the increased interest in material reuse in Brooklyn Bridge Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and carpenter Hector Ducci or the mappings of Anu Marthur and DIlip DaCunha that work to highlight the generative agency of specific species or material practices, and in the writings by the Research Dredge Collaborative which look to understand dredging operations and the acceleration of sedimentation processes as a sort of duel between US Army Corps, maritime commercial interests, river hydrology, and clastic sedimentation from the pleistocene.

As landscape architects continue to evolve an authentic landscape practice and to break away from the hegemonic influence of architectural technique, it seems incumbent on us to grapple with the agency of materials and humans, of all classes of objects.  To do this it seems we will need specificity and technique, and ability to realize that just as concrete and steel and compacted earth and platanus occidentalis saplings are not dumb inert matter waiting to be given meaning by the intentions of people, they are also not the same as people, or each other, and cannot be treated as such.  As designers we need methods of representation, modeling, and experimentation that can deal with specificity, an understanding of the topological aspect of any landscape.

The development of new drawing techniques, building on the work of those mentioned above as well as people such as Bradley Cantrell, seems necessary for the next step in developing an instrumental theory of landscape.  It seems possible to understand that indeed everything in the landscape is an instrument, a tool/broken-tool as Graham Harman puts it.  If a space is a landscape, and not some other type of space, then all of its objects and their changing relations are instruments; but not dumb inanimate drills, retaining walls, and land use policies, but rather objects receiving the intentions and being acted upon by other objects while simultaneously asserting their own autonomy and agency, even if only for a moment.

The name of this proposal is Tierra Plastica as it is concerned with the plastic properties of the land.  The name is indicative of a conceptual and methodological approach, as well as the geo-physical space.  The words are in Spanish because the location is Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Tierra:  The term “tierra” means land in a broad, Nerudian sense– homeland, motherland- and the closest translation is probably “earth” with a small “e”.  It includes the clay, the silt, the garbage, the rivers, the seeds, microbes, buildings, vehicles and fossils in this great swirl around us.  It is something which must be defined as it is contingent and contested (what is the mother or fatherland after all, and what is the differenc?).  Despite this ambiguity, you know it when you see it.  This fact places emphasis on the importance of defining the problem.

Plastica:  This definition of the term draws from the Spanish-language category “artes plasticas”- the “plastic arts”, which exist alongside the literary arts, musical arts, or performing arts.  Landscape design can be fit into or span any number of these categories.  Within this category you typically find practices such as painting, sculpture, photography, and drawing, as well as graphic arts and industrial arts (ceramics, for instance).  This understanding of landscape practice as a plastic art does away with the distinction that many try to place between historical landscape practice and the current emphasis on process.  Some principles of the artes plasticas include figure/background, image, perception, proportion, point, line, plane, movement, sketching, tone, and hierarchy.  The active and provisional nature of this artistic practice- sculpting, sketching, erasing, framing- belies the processes which go in to the making of the objects.  The spanish-language emphasis on the plastic rather than the visual characteristics of this creative practice is more appropriate to this project and the landscape instrumentalism approach in general.

The artes plasticas of the Tiwanaku on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca around the 5th century bce; these people created a capital city that was purposefully always under construction or destruction so as to impress surrounding polities and peoples with their industriousness and the forms and signs of progress. A lot like New York City of our age!

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.

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

Landscape instrumentalism understands technology as inseparable from human environments and behavior.  There is no dividing line between of the organism and its technologies through which it mediates and metabolizes its surroundings.  As a material practice, instrumentality- the intentional operation of these technologies- has long been cast aside and little understood by designers.  The scaffolds, sump pumps, and dragnets are typically the concern of contractors, fishermen, and hobbyists.  As a social practice, however, instrumentalism has a rich history in modern design practice.

As a social practice, however, a focus on instrumentality has a long and storied history in the design process.  The use of tools and implements to move through space and mediate social exchanges has long been considered as a method for generating landscapes.  Example range from the vernacular- the pop up tents at a local farmers market or the pickup truck and grill at a tailgate party- to the absolute pinnacle of professional landscape design the sinuous paths of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park designed for horse carts, and Lawrence Halmprin’s interest in the movement of bodies through space.  In each of these case, the instrumental aspects of the technology and body of the organism actualizes the potentiality of a given environment.  This actualized potential is the creation of landscape.

"the drive in Central Park" here in 1860, when the rest of the landscape was under construction (instrumentality as a material practice) the drive and the presence of carriages had already created Central Park; image from the Smithsonian

the paintings by Maurice Pendergast at the turn of the 20th century show the layered activities and the landscapes that are generated by the carriages passing by

the may pole in the foreground organizes the landscape and creates the spring landscape of central park; painting by Maurice Prendergast

grills, tailgates, tables, flags, and coolers are all transported and deployed before a New York Giants game in New Jersey; the implements are used to territorialize a space, demarcating and organizing social interactions- sharing a sausage and cheap beer and talking about whether Eli Manning has "it" today.

crates and tents are set up at Union Square in New York City, creating a farmers market and invigorating the plaza; the tools hold wares, mediate commercial and social transactions (where do you grow your food? Oh! that's an adorable baby! That'll be $42) and orchestrating commuters' movements as they try to press through and get to the subway entrance

"Experiment in the Environment", 1962, Anna Halprin; the wife of Lawrence Halprin, Anna's experiments with the methods and experience of moving through space and it's capacity to generate environments were fundamental to the precise and profound interest in choreography and movement found later in Lawrence Halprin's landscape designs.

an example of the "motation" system (movement + notation) developed by Lawrence Halprin in the 1960's; his theories on the experience of the bodied environment- what we would call the instrumentality of embodiment- elucidated the capacity for movement of bodies, not merely static space or forms, to create landscapes; this was is fundamental to any understanding today of the interest in process and change in the designed environment.

The development of sophisticated social-instrumental means have enabled the creation of enduring and appropriate modern landscape types, in particular those dedicated to leisure [recreation and commercial].  But continued development in this vein since Halprin has yielded proliferation of increasingly banal leisure-parks, with riverfronts and former industrial sites everywhere being papered over and populated with claritinmen- smiling yuppies flying kites and pushing bikes.  It is the full realization of the commoditization of public space.

Meanwhile, one sub-current in the practice of landscape design seeks to grapple with infrastructural landscapes, while another intends to expand the agency of the inhabitant, enabling everyone to make their own place, if only for  a moment.  This will not be achieved with a continued fixation solely on the social-instrumental aspect of day to day interaction.  A focus on instrumentality as a material practice might be the method that adds some steel to these well-intentioned impulses and enables the construction of new forms, programs, and landscape types.