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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).