A focus on instrumentality as a material practice can generate the conditions for recreation, industry and remediation. The result will be a synthetic landscape with new forms and programs that might further the ongoing conversation about how landscape practice can contribute solutions to contemporary economic, social, and environmental issues.
The concept of instrumentality as a material practice means the tools, machines, and techniques “being used for some purpose or end” (OED) that is enmeshed in a sort of duel with the clay, rubble, vegetation, microorganisms, and water that make up a given site. Instruments are not separate from humanity, but rather extensions of the person or society that employs them. Not only is the tool itself inseparable, but also the “meaning of a tool is inseparable from the stories that surround it,” (Nye, p. 8). Philosopher Graham Harman notes that technology is not a question of transformation, but of translation:
The printing press does not convert truth into stockpiled information, but brings the world of dead queens and knights into my living room in twenty-first-century Cairo. It does not reduce objects to standing reserve any more than my fingers and eyes already do.” (Harman, p. 247)
Instrumentality is a practice in which we create the landscapes we inhabit through embodied experience. As a social practice this might manifest as the bicycle and the promenade, the popup tent and a city market, or the pickup truck and the stadium tailgate party. Instrumentality as a material practice is in a slightly different vein. It is the technology- tools and techniques- that we use to engage and change the matter from which landscapes are made; the fuel torch cutting through a hvac ductwork, the dredge plying a river bottom, or the pruners we use to shape a garden hedge.
Current landscape-making embraces the social practice of instrumentality as a model for public space. Lawrence Halprin’s emphasis on movement and the bodied environment, strolling along the riverbank, or recreational sports are all accepted forms of programming for public landscapes. These are exciting and rich but they narrow the field of public landscape-making. Construction and maintenance operations are often be the most interesting aspect of a landscape- most city parks will never be more interesting than when they are being built. Lopping off this second half of instrumentalism- instrumentality as material practice- robs the user of agency and impoverishes the range of possible habitable landscapes. And with good reason.
Technical craftsmanship, complex labor and the operation of heavy machinery is often dangerous and demands a high level of expertise. Frequently this seems to necessitate strict control over a territory being manipulated. The security gates at a port entry, construction fencing, or the occasional closing of leisure parks for maintenance and repairs are some of the traditional methods for dealing with this situation. They are landscape-models: temporarily wall off and police a dangerous site, or conduct all operations within a controlled industrial zone. Any new models, especially those that would seek to wed these operations (granted, these are rather extreme material-instrumental operations) with recreational use must evolve new forms, new landscape-models, and come from a place of knowledge and respect for the technologies as well as the desires of would-be recreational users that would cohabitate a landscape.
Urban industrial canals offer an ideal test bed for the development of this new model. The range of industrial, construction, and remediation operations found on canals is exceptional- heavy construction, barge shipping, municipal solid waste disposal, and dredging to name a few. In addition, many now have large amounts of vacancy along their banks due to shifting patterns of industrial production. As such, they often become sites for urban exploration and volunteer fusion ecologies or are subject to the redevelopment pressures of the real estate cycles of the city. A focus on instrumentality as a material practice as a design process- especially that of dredging operations in canals- can generate the conditions for industry, remediation, and recreation. The result will be a synthetic landscape model offering new forms and models of public space that builds on the knowledge of current landscape practices and enriches the practice of public landscape-making in the city.