Today at NYU I had the pleasure of responding to a fantastic paper by Emily Eliza Scott (about whom I wrote in my “Infrastructural Tourism” article a few years ago). Emily’s paper will soon appear in a book on urban ecology, edited by landscape architect Kate Orff.

I’m not working on any projects related to climate change — nor am I an expert on landscape urbanism or resilient urbanism. But I, like Emily, am interested in artistic practices and other aesthetic means of making complex systems, like urban ecologies and infrastructures, intelligible or sense-able. Such infrastructurally-minded art projects were a central theme in Emily’s paper — but I decided to focus my response on another aesthetic dimension of these larger discourses of urban ecologies and resiliency: the visual rhetoric of the designers’ renderings.

Below are my slides — and below that, my text:

[This first part speaks most directly to the central arguments in Emily’s paper; I turn to the “resilient renderings” around Slide 17.]

[1] If we think of “infrastructure” as roads and gas lines and dams and walls dividing nations – an infrastructure that’s “emerging” at a tremendous pace in this age of mass migration – then, yes, it’s easy to conceive of infrastructure as a monumental barrier. [2] But those barriers – bridges and check-points, firewalls and switching stations – also connect; they link nodes into networks, facilitate flows, and instantiate interfaces. [3] Particularly when we think about communication and knowledge infrastructures, like telecommunication systems and research repositories, infrastructure’s “networked-ness” – as well as its porosity and its “adaptive” or “resilient” flexibility – are significantly easier to grasp.

[4] Emily helpfully reminds us that humans constitute a critical component of infrastructural systems – that we rely on repair technicians and cataloguers and those folks willing to carry the water bucket that “last mile” from the well. But infrastructures are also, as Emily describes them, “more-than-human assemblages”; [5] they implicate and impact other forms of life – along with various other material apparatae [6] and seemingly immaterial components, like protocols and legal codes and social conventions. [7] Our cities, too, constitute assemblages that are more-than-architectural. Architecture isn’t just about built objects, and urban design isn’t simply the sum of architecture and civil engineering.[1] [8] Our cities are assemblages of dynamic systems spanning the traditional urban/rural divide; they’re built-and-natural ecologies that demand “responsive strategies.”[2] [9] These are the realizations that supposedly marked the rise of landscape urbanism – and engendered its evolution and rebranding into “landscape infrastructure” and “resilient urbanism” and other variations on the theme. According to Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister, today’s ecologically-minded landscape architects and planners have moved “toward a more organic model of open-endedness, flexibility, resilience and adaptation and away from a mechanistic model of stability and control.”[3]

Yet there’s a history for this “systemic,” ecological way of thinking about cities. [10] For centuries, proto-planners and engineers and philosophers have imagined the city as a body, an organism, drawing parallels between the blood in our veins, the air in our lungs, and our urban circulation systems.[4] Our 19th-century cities were bodies that could get sick, and needed to be healed with efficient engineering, with proper conduits to flush out the waste and clear the air. [11] At the turn of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard proposed an infrastructure for his Garden Cities. [12] Shortly thereafter, Patrick Geddes imagined regionalist ways of thinking about urbanization as “landscape-making,” [13] and the Chicago school scholars conceived of their city as a collection of functional parts united into a cohesive organism.[5] [14] Then in the 50s, partly in response to the decades’-long influence of CIAM, the International Congress of Modern Architecture, the Metabolists proposed new megastructures as models of biological urban development. [15] As Ross Exo Adams notes,

ecological urbanism is nothing more than the product of the centuries-old program of liberal urbanism, whose novelty now includes infrastructural strategies for the distribution of nature. [16] This novelty attempts to render the opposition between nature and city obsolete, since the city now appears as a kind of provider of nature’s salvation.[6]

[17] These renderings and appearances are a key dimension of landscape urbanism. As Emily reminds us, such representations of the city function as critical pedagogical tools for artists and designers who seek to “make visible” all the invisible infrastructures that constitute our urban ecologies. Artists use maps, soundwalks, models, and “critical tours” to render all those seemingly too-big-to-be-intelligible systems intelligible, often by encouraging their users and audiences to “think across scales.” [18] In my own writing about this infrastructural pedagogy and “tourism,” I featured Emily’s own work as part of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers.

[19] Yet for the remainder of my time, I’d like to look at the renderings and appearances generated by SCAPE and the landscape urbanists themselves. As we’ll see, the visual culture of landscape urbanism and its sibling or offspring practices is a vital part of its discourse – and a vital tool for transforming that discourse into material landscape. [20] Massively influential landscape architect James Corner – whose Field Operations designed the High Line, the Cornell Tech campus, and Fresh Kills Park on a landfill in Staten Island – acknowledges that “the paper surfaces and computer screens of design imaging are highly efficacious operational fields on which the theories and practices of landscape are produced.”[7] [21] Those traditional “fields” of representation – plans, perspectives, and renderings – have tremendous “force and efficacy in shaping things.”[8] [22] New representational and discursive tools, he argues, have the potential to engender more engaging and responsive inhabitable fields. [23] Ideograms, imagetexts, datascapes, scorings, pictographs, composite montages, layerings and separations, indices, samples, game boards, cognitive tracing, scalings: all are among the techniques Corner proposes, and each of which he recognizes as a distinctive rhetorical device.

Cartographer and design visualizer Nadia Amoroso proposes that landscape urbanism’s ecological and interdisciplinary purview makes it an ideal test-bed for new methodologies and visualization techniques: [24] “mapping, cataloguing, triangulating, surface modeling,… phasing, layering – …can also be combined with urban design techniques such as planning, diagramming, assembling, allotting, zoning, etc. …to broaden the visual palette of the mapping field.”[9] [25] Reed and Lister add to the list: “flow modeling, scripting, and processing software,” they say, “provide time-based platforms for representing and programming change and evolution.”[10]

[26] Modeling flows is obviously critical in SCAPE’s renderings for Living Breakwater project, which was one of six winning proposals for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design Initiative, and which has secured $60 million in funding for its implementation on the South Shore of Staten Island. These renderings necessary played a critical role in convincing a jury that SCAPE’S “necklace of breakwaters” and oysters was worth such a sum.[27] Here, we’re dealing not only with tidal flows, but also the flows between [28] ecology, which, this graphic implies, lives off-shore; culture, which resides on-shore; and risk-reduction, which happens somewhere in-between. The wide, encompassing circle of resiliency hovers over a rectilinear slice of land and sea – an oddly abstracted, flattened, seemingly homogenous “field of operation.” [29] This uniform field is then differentiated into various landscape “typologies” via another form of visualization – what designer Kate Orff, in a Rebuild by Design video, calls a “thick section between land and water, from stepped, living shorelines and dunes, to tidal flats and off-shore breakwaters.” [30] The perspective then becomes even “thicker” in this sectional rendering. Here, our oblique vertical slice offers both an above-water and below-water view, which shows paddling humans co-existing with sea mammals and fluorescent amphibious and piscine creatures. Small, circular inserts permit a close-up view of four critical actants in this assemblage.

[31] This “trained view” is then repeated in the on-shore learning spaces at various “water hubs” along the shoreline. The arms of the structure point toward various habitat typologies – and inside, wet labs and classrooms allow for students to scale up or scale down their investigation, by examining water samples through microscopes, studying oysters, or mapping larger ecological concerns.

[32] Hydrodynamic modeling also allows the designers to quantify the efficacy of their risk-reduction efforts. What’s particularly interesting about this image is that the surrounding areas – the city encompassing “nature” – is abstracted and flattened. [33] We see this often: while landscape urbanism ostensibly champions the integration of nature and city, renderings commonly “disappear” or abstract the concrete, glass, and steel environment. [34] As architect Tim Love suggests, however, this “fading-out” of architecture – its manifestation as “luminescent-white ghost-like apparitions” – functions not as a rejection of the built environment, but rather as a “critique of the viability of architecture in the discourse of contemporary urbanism.”[11]

[35] We see a similar visual rhetoric of risk abatement in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s Rebuild by Design proposal for Hoboken. We have localizable points or zones of weakness, and specific actants – from pumps to levees to zoning codes, all activated by different design practices and resistance strategies – to enhance resiliency.[12] [36] We even have a superimposed “performance dashboard” for this proposed project by SWA.

While these renderings use the landscape primarily as a colorful substrate for the presentation of data, [37] the “thick” map that Orff spoke of – the “deep” rendering – offers up a particularly ontologically and epistemologically rich understanding of the urban landscape. The “deep section,” according to landscape designers Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner, is the ideal tool for “deep urbanism,” which they describe as an understanding of the “city as a complex system composed of interconnected layers of social and biogeochemical processes,” both above and below ground – or water-level.[13] Landscape urbanists can’t afford not to recognize that “the composition of the urban ground” – and the shoreline – “requires that structures inevitably extend deep into a complex mix of disturbed soil horizons, construction rubble, pipes, subways, utilities,” and seabeds.

Deep sections – like the geological forces they seek to capture – aren’t new. [38] The 19th-century designers and engineers of our early urban infrastructural systems, our sewers and subways, had to deal with the subterranean – and with variables that were later sectioned off into the domain of distinct disciplines: architecture, engineering, urban planning, landscape. “As disciplines such as civil engineering became codified and the below-grade infrastructure moved out of architects’ purview,” Carlisle and Pevzner explain, “architectural interests shifted upwards.” Modernization brought professional specialization and delimited architecture’s focus to the built object, and all that below-grade and under-water information disappeared from designers’ plans.

[39] Now, reviving an ecological sensibility, taking the long view, and planning for dynamism and resilience necessitate new techniques and tools of representation, or what Corner calls new “operational fields” for design. Landscape is more than a formal or pictorial object. “The future of landscape as a culturally significant practice” – one charged with cultivating dynamic socio-political terrains – “is dependent on the capacity of its inventors to imagine the world in new ways and to body forth those images in richly phenomenal and efficacious terms.”[14]

[40] The deep section is one means of acknowledging the complexity of the site, and when juxtaposed with other methods and representational strategies, we can then place that site within its larger, complex, dynamic ecological context. Renderings like this one, by OMA, for a wind turbine and reef complex in the North Sea, demonstrate the wide variety of conditions and concerns and disciplinary knowledges that must converge in responsible design. In one scene, we can survey deep and wide, across industries and landscape topologies, across flora and fauna, across various agents in the ecological assemblage. Yet the ambition for exhaustive inclusion we sometimes see in such renderings can also hint at hubris – at a form of design imperialism.

Here’s OMA’s vision:

[41] The urgency of sustainable and secure energy calls for a collective mobilization of intelligence and ambition that exceeds standard piecemeal solutions to climate change. Zeekracht, a masterplan for the North Sea, maps out a massive renewable energy infrastructure engaging all its surrounding countries – and potentially those beyond – in a supra-national effort that will be both immediately exploitable and conducive to decades of coordinated development.

Primary components of the Zeekracht masterplan include an Energy Super-Ring of offshore wind farms – the main infrastructure for energy supply, efficient distribution, and strategic growth; the Production Belt – the on-land industrial and institutional infrastructure supporting manufacturing and research; the Reefs – integrating ecology and industry by stimulating existing marine life alongside wind turbines and other installations; and an International Research Centre – promoting cooperation, innovation and shared scientific development….

[42] A masterplan for the North Sea cannot be a fixed prescription. The project is conceived as a reciprocal system, fed and reinforced from the top down in terms of technology, industrial development, and Europe-wide policy; and from the bottom up in terms of local decision-making, popular involvement and support. For such a multi-layered undertaking on a scale as large as the North Sea, the present is an inappropriate limit. Echoing the ethos of renewable energy, potential must drive development.

Unlike the usual planning methods based on least-conflict zoning, the masterplan suggests a multi-dimensional approach based on optimizing potential. The productivity and profitability of offshore wind farms can be enhanced if they synthesize with existing North Sea activities such as shipping and oil and gas extraction – and new programs such as eco stimulation and tourism.

All the requisite buzzwords of synthesis and sensitivity and resiliency – but with a measure of alarming bluster.

[43] Perhaps this is where the artists and critical designers – those folks like the Center for Urban Pedagogy and the LA Urban Rangers – come in: not only to employ their own strategies for rendering landscapes intelligible and making the invisible visible, but also to question the politics of resiliency, to wonder what it means to “optimize” resources, and perhaps even to question the ethical limits of our designs on “nature,” the boundaries of ecological engagement.

[1] Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner, “Introduction: Rethinking Infrastructure” Scenario 3 (Spring 2013): http://scenariojournal.com/article/introduction_rethinking_infrastructure/ ; “Landscape Infrastructure”: http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/#/events/landscape-infrastructure.html; SWA Group, “Design Briefing: Landscape Infrastructure: A Tool for Making Our Cities Better”: http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/#/events/landscape-infrastructure.html

[2] Brett Milligan, “Landscape Migration” Places (June 2015): https://placesjournal.org/article/landscape-migration/

[3] Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister,” Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies” Places (April 2014): https://placesjournal.org/article/ecology-and-design-parallel-genealogies/

[4] Giovanna Borasi & Mirko Zardini, “Demedicalize Architecture” Places (March 2012): https://placesjournal.org/article/demedicalize-architecture/; Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994).

[5] Shanti Fjord Levy, “Grounding Landscape Urbanism” Scenario Journal 1 (Fall 2011): http://scenariojournal.com/article/shanti-levy/

[6] Ross Exo Adams, “The Fear Sustaining Sustainable Urbanism” ArchDaily (February 24, 2014): http://www.archdaily.com/477888/the-fear-sustaining-sustainable-urbanism

[7] James Corner, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” In James Corner, Ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999): 153.

[8] Corner 162.

[9] Nadia Amoroso, The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles (New York: Routledge, 2010): 106-7.

[10] Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister,” Ecology and Design: Parallel Genealogies” Places (April 2014): https://placesjournal.org/article/ecology-and-design-parallel-genealogies/

[11] Tim Love, “Paper Architecture, Emerging Urbanism” Places (April 2010): https://placesjournal.org/article/paper-architecture-emerging-urbanism/

[12] “On Resiliency, Part 1” The Expanded Environment (December 8, 2014): http://www.expandedenvironment.org/resiliency-part/

[13] Stephanie Carlisle and Nicholas Pevzner, “The Performative Ground: Rediscovering the Deep Section” Scenario Journal 2 (Spring 2012): http://scenariojournal.com/article/the-performative-ground/

[14] James Corner, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” In James Corner, Ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999): 167.

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