On Landscape Ontology I- Landscape Architecture as Land Assault Strategy

In recent decades the language of landscape architecture has taken a “hard turn” towards militarization, with words like terrain, operations, tactics, strategies, performance, and of course, infrastructure all on the tip of every young tongue vying for tenure or the next big municipal park project. This, while our language for describing and conceiving of landscapes as anything other than X_park or Z_scape has remained utterly impoverished. So, in our musings on landscape ontology it seems appropriate to begin with an examination of the history of landscape architecture in terms of the militarization of space, and try to draw a conclusion or two about what future implications might be. 

[photo by Paul Virilio highlighting the beautiful militarization of landscape; image source]

We have noted before that infrastructure is a modern (and limited) concept, first used to describe military installations and their supporting structures and systems, and only recently coming to signify all manner of networks and objects considered critical to society. We reckon Antoine Picon’s writings on the subject to be the most thorough around, though any cursory google search of the term or simply looking at the history page on Army Corps of Engineers’ website will get the point across. Of course, the tight coupling of landscape architecture and the militarization of space predates the concept of infrastructure and our recent fascination with it, but there is an earlier example of the relationship of militarization techniques and landscape design. This can be seen in the influence of the practice of surveying upon the practice of landscape architecture.

In the 19th century military engineer Egbert Viele produced a magnificent survey of the island of Manhattan, an effort which landed him the post as the chief engineer of Central Park, and very nearly won him the design commission for the new public landscape. Architect and landscape designer auto-didact Thomas Jefferson was even more ambitious 80 years earlier, conceiving of a great abstract grid divided into townships 6 miles square and strewn orthogonally across the American continent. This vision was codified in the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785 and replicated hundreds of times across the continent (and evident today in our nation’s political boundaries west of the Appalachian Mountains). With its capacity to generate forms based on local cultural and environmental variation within a given and abstract set of parameters, we today might be tempted to envision this as an early analogue parametric design. But a historical view would trace it back to Gunter’s Chain. 

[Egbert Viele’s survey of Manhattan Island; with a name like Egbert, he was never going to win the design commission…]
[a 6 mile by 6 mile abstract town plan in the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785; the numbers correspond to specific town uses- to make up an instance, 21 is always a school, 11 is always a church and so on]
 [Gunter’s Chain, the great conquistador of the North American continent]

The Gunter’s Chain was a surveying implement of 17th century England that could be carried by a man and his horse as he rode through the fields and forests, demarcating stuff. This dimensurator was made of 10 links of metal 7.92 inches long and fitted together by brass rings to measure 22 yards. 22 yards by 220 yards- 1 chain, by 10 chains- made 1 acre, and 1 square mile was made of 640 acres. (For a delightfully nerdy mathematical speculation on exactly how these measurements were derived, click here).  These numbers seem ridiculous when compared with the decimal system. However, in its original application, the system was a brilliant synthesis of the traditional English land system- based on the amount of cultivated English countryside a person could work in a day- and the more abstract decimal system.  It also made possible the accurate surveying of the industrializing England for legal and commercial purposes- real estate. And real estate was fundamentally a part of the first municipal park.

This general trend toward militarization of space is something that we find ourselves advocating for with the push for landscape projects as tactical interventions enabled by field manuals. Some of the first and still most highly developed field manuals have been developed by military institutions. These can be seen as nothing more than another evolution in the militarization of public space, one consistent with the dromological theories of Paul Virilio. 

[Virilio would love Ft. Tilden and its Nike Missil bunkers shoved into the dunes of a NYC park]

It seems that embedded in landscape ontology we have both the infrastructure paradigm and the concept of real estate, both made possible by employing spatial military techniques for delineating, abstracting, and constructing territory- methods of control. This notion of control, in some form, does seem to be fundamental to landscape practice.  But this alone is not a satisfactory landscape ontology.  Indeed, the practice of landscape predates the concept of modern industrial infrastructure, and Egbert Viele did not get the commission for Central Park.

In our next post on the topic, we’ll look into the idea of productive landscapes and landscapes of extraction, especially in terms of performance and what we’ll argue is the generative capacity of the landscape.  We also hope to consider the landscape architect alongside the civil engineer and the ecologist. We welcome any observations, criticisms or questions which could blow apart our position here, or help focus it over the next week. 

[landscape architects/border patrol guards in the Indian Paramilitary regime]

(Of course, it should be more than a footnote, but the idea of the militarization of space cannot be discussed without suggesting that interested readers head over to the excellent, and now dormant, subtopia blog for years’ worth of work on the subject).

4 thoughts on “On Landscape Ontology I- Landscape Architecture as Land Assault Strategy

  1. I always enjoy reading your blog. Great writing.I suppose humans aren't the only ones who could be described as approaching their landscape in a military fashion. Ants appear to have military qualities about them when I look at the way they've taken over our yard, kitchen and the cat's food bowl. They're kind of unstoppable.I guess by comparing land management & development to military operations you're pointing out the danger of combining efficiency with a certain lack of understanding & respect for the object (subject?) – the landscape. A lot of institutions and accepted approaches by professionals could better be described in military terms, for instance the educational system (excluding Waldorf, democratic schools, ?).I'm curious to see your next post on this and what you have to say about the civil engineer, landscape architect and ecologist. I used to be a professional civil engineer and prepare site plans; and we had a highly educated and underutilized landscape architect who used add stuff to all our designs to meet the local landscaping and lighting regulations. Anyways, I always feel a bit cheated when I hear comments about engineers having tunnel vision, etc. I think it's pretty obvious that the problems come from the top, i.e. the way the land development regulations are written and enforced. Engineers have to follow those regulations no matter how bad they are, and there's usually very little wiggle room to be able to come up with a significantly better design. Stormwater detention and quality regulations are a good example of an ugly military assault on the landscape. It's hard for me to imagine that the every little office building and fast food restaurant should dedicate 1/4 of it's property to an ugly stormwater basin. There must be a better way of managing stormwater for a region than the current piecemeal, individual property approach. I think the CNU recently submitted something to the EPA in this regard. I'm sure there are lots of other standard approaches to land development and landscape architecture that are similarly dumb & destructive, such as the way natural habitat is mindlessly chewed up and fragmented.I guess if I have a point here, it's that it's the predominant national (or international) approaches to land development regulation that need to be tackled if there's going to be any significant improvement from the way we currently screw up our landscape.

  2. carter, thanks for taking the time to leave such a thorough and thoughtful comment. that is always so gratifying. first, great point about militarization of space not necessarily being confined to humans. In fact, your comment makes me realize that at some point I need to figure out exactly what I mean by militarization (because it's a bit easy to get very broad with that term). For this post, i used a linguistic phenomenon (the proliferation of militaristic terms in landscape practice and modern urbanization) as a jumping off point to try and get at an ontology of landscape practice. I think its a worthy debate, partially because it has been so closely coupled to architectural practice over the last century, which I'm not convinced is appropriate, and because folks like Timothy Morton are taking a strong critical stance against the concept of landscape as they understand it.you're right that a lot of modern industrial phenomena can be understood in terms of militaristic actions, which is one reason that i think virilio is rather interesting. i do lack some faith in the power of policy however, as planning and policy cannot offer certain solutions (perhaps the same with other practices, including landscape). im actually very interested in the militarization of space through small, local, tactical "maneuvers" as a counter-initiative. I am not convinced that the militarization of space is necessarily bad… but it is about control and power, and so other groups need ways to skirt, counter, crush, or evade that power (just like you and the ants, perhaps…)i'd love to hear any further thoughts, and please stay tuned as a try to work up another post or two on the topic, though it is spring time, so it may be a bit slow in coming out.

  3. "the gay porn industry"? hahaha.Regarding this im actually very interested in the militarization of space through small, local, tactical "maneuvers" as a counter-initiative wouldn't it be the de-militarization of such space, via counter initiatives?For me the post in terms of militarization of language, brings to mind the idea of the violence/immediacy. Maybe in terms of scale or agency.. From the pre-militarized and pastoral to the landscape of action/control.

  4. nam… great point that these tactical maneuvers may actually be working to de-militarize space. for me, militarization of space is fundamentally about control. for this reason it goes back to gunter's chain (or earlier, but not in this blog post) because it made possible exercise of control over land- making terrain into territory. in this way, real estate, corporate landscapes, municipal parks developed as real estate drivers are all militarized landscapes as much as a protest zone (of course, this calls for a survey of studies of places such as the korean dmz). but by introducing a tension, a counter, here, one might destabilize methods of control enough to enable other possibilities… i'll be working this in for the upcoming post, hopefully clarifying my thoughts…

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