American Landscapes: A problem of origins

[locks at the mouth of the Panama Canal under construction circa 1907]

A week ago, Monday November 9th, I gave a lecture at Cornell University to the landscape architecture department, where I currently work.  Lecture slides can be found here.  The lecture built on work I’ve done in the last year to make an argument for understanding the landscapes of the Americas as an autochthonous situation that merits its own methods and concepts as an object of study.  While I have been working in this veinfor quite a while now- the seeds of this work date back to my time living in Argentina- in the last year I have identified and drawn from thinkers and projects here in the Americas to help form what I see are the needed conceptual tools and methods, and to start doing some research looking at specific landscapes.

The essay “Landscape and Landscape Architecture in Peru:  Notes Towards a Critical History” by Wiley Ludena Urquizo is one of the most incredible and under-appreciated essays I have ever come across in our field.  Urquizo’s thoughts at the beginning captured well the idea I am interested in pursuing through this work:

“the absence of an authentically Peruvian landscape history is all the more notorious in light of the Eurocentric historiography of landscape, which omits any reference whatsoever to the landscape practices of the Incas or the Aztecs, in contrast to the superlative importance given to the landscapes of Sumer, Egypt, and Rome.  Of course, this is not their problem.  The primary responsibility is ours.”

For Urquizo it is not enough to point out a deficiency; he intends to take on the more difficult task of starting to create a critical history of the Peruvian landscape, and he sees it as a responsibility.  I am interested in what might happen if this insight of Urquizo’s is scaled up to consider all of the Americas.  The primary methodological move to make this jump is to draw from the field of hemispheric studies.  Hemispheric studies (also known sometimes as American Studies) considers the Americas “as a broad system of exchange, movement, and influence.”  More specifically it “examines the overlapping and dynamic geographies and cross-filliations between peoples, regions, and nations of the American hemisphere.”

[1972 satellite image of the ruins of Tiwanaku, near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia; Tiwanaku was a great imperial capital in the high Andean altiplano that maintained a strategic political peace with the Huari to the north; the capital, seen here, was considered to be one of the wonders of the world when discovered by Europeans, despite a millenium of deconstruction; archeologists speculate that the city itself was in a constant state of construction/deconstruction at an urban scale, and that this was intentional- a materialization of the idea of progress that served as an object lesson to the multitudes that would make pilgrimage to the capital from all over the realm. Basically, New York City]

I presented a new philosophical turn that that this work has taken.  While studying at the University of Virginia I spent time reading Anita Berrizbeitia, especially her work Roberto Burle Marx in Caracas, which I admire greatly.  However, my friend and classmate David Holzman helped me to see certain problems in Berrizbeitia’s concept of “hybridity” in the Latin American landscape, which she defines as “the crossing of indigenous, Spanish colonial, African, and European cultures in a process that, to this day, remains dynamic and ongoing. Indeed, the hybrid and changing nature of Latin American culture has been widely recognized as one of the foundations of its identity” [p 21].  This is a sentiment that pops up frequently when theorists in landscape and architecture attempt to characterize the Americas.  And it is a lovely, romantic notion.  However, after further investigation, it is unclear just how the hybridity of the Americas is “dynamic and ongoing” as opposed to say, Singapore or Berlin, or any place for that matter.

My hypothesis is that this is actually a contemporary manifestation of the 19th century concept of America laid down by the German Idealists, notably G.F.W. Hegel.  Hegel’s concept of world history posited Asia as the beginning of human history and Europe as the absolute end, with Africa offering a sort of natural or pre-historical control group for the development of human history (all of this is blatantly racist, the absolute worst of Romantic-era idealist philosophy).  In this schema of Hegel’s, the Americas are an unfinished land of the future awaiting historicizing by the Europeans then in the process of colonization.  All of this ties nicely into historical and contemporary memes and ideas about America as the land of opportunity, the place to create utopias, the New World.

This concept of the Americas is absolutely real and important.  But rather than being a fundamental truth of the American landscape, it offers only one slice of a single perspective of this landscape, that of creole Americans (people of direct European descent born in the Americas).  As shown by the work of philosopher Enrique Dusserl, among others, this perspective is particular, limited, and one of a multitude of similar perspectives including indigenous (a huge, varied group in its own right), mestizo (the child of European man and indigenous woman, often conceived through rape), and African American (also a huge and varied group).  What is more, this perspective completely whitewashes the form that the mixing and hybridity often took, and still take.  While this form is different in every place at every time (the story isn’t the same in 1874 Canada and 1972 Brazil and 2009 Ecuador), a truly historical understanding of the roots of mestizo culture, criollo culture, Appalachia, Spanish silver mines, or any other of the hundreds of specific places reveals a landscape more appropriately characterized by violence at a massive scale occurring again and again.  Berrizbeitia’s follows Hegel in that her concept of hybridity in the landscapes is a case of historicizing, not history.

In the search to move away from Eurocentric philosophical concepts I proposed to look towards the classical American Pragmatists as a foundation for constructing a theory of the American landscape.  The Pragmatists are an interesting case because of certain specific tools they developed, which I am finding productive in other research.  Scott Pratt’s work Native Pragmatism attempts to show that the seeds of the four philosophical commitments of the pragmatists- plurality, social interaction, community, and growth- are to be found in certain values and ideas held by people indigenous to northeastern North America.  Pratt’s starting point for his work is the observation that the central commitments of the pragmatists were missing from the European philosophy that Charles Pierce, John Dewey, and William James were familiar with, especially 19th century German idealists who were so influential to US philosophy of the time.  This observation is not a revelation and is commonly accepted.  The interesting turn is that rather than attributing the development of the central commitments to the “imperious demands of the American continent” or simply the original genius of these three men, Pratt searches for a historical lineage in the history of ideas that they would have been exposed to.  He traces this history back from people such as the Narraganset and Haudenosaunee up to the work of Pierce, Dewey, and James.  I will be writing up some of the implications of this discovery for landscape studies in the future, but they include an emphasis on undoing the spectator theory of knowledge by reconstructing instrumentalism, a new importance for an epistemology of place, and a tighter link between epistemology and ontology.

Lastly, I presented the results of my ongoing research of a specific landscape- the Parque General San Martin in Mendoza, Argentina- and sketched out my next research project (which is already underway, of course).  This summer I had the opportunity to visit this Mendoza, speak with the director of the park, and to speak with historian and architect Ricardo Ponte, who recently received a Guggenheim fellowship for his work excavating the history of Mendoza.  I am looking at the park as part of the historical development of a regional system of irrigation canals that enabled urbanization of a frontier city with a massive agricultural export business in near-desert conditions.  I think this project, and a study of various urbanisms throughout the American Cordillera in general (Mendoza, Santiago, Lima, Ecuador, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Vancouver) is important for understanding the range of possible futures for this extreme and particular set of environments.  Lastly, I posited the town of Barranquilla, Colombia, as the new corollary for studies of urbanism on the Mississippi Delta.  For geo-physical, political-economic, and historical reasons New Orleans and Barranquilla have much to learn from one another and we need to construct methods and concepts to bridge the Caribbean and increase knowledge and understanding between these two places.

This work is ongoing and I am currently teaching a class on the subject with some excellent students at Cornell.  In the future I hope to speak more about this work and involve more people, so if you are interested please get in touch.

One thought on “American Landscapes: A problem of origins

  1. Thanks for sharing.. You may already be aware but with the mention towards the end of forensics, do you know about the Forensic Architecture project (2011-2014) hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London?

    Might be some interesting connections with regards to use of instrumentation ie: ” Demands that range from the development of new modes of scientific testing and analysis, the evolution of new visualisation systems and thus new interpretative techniques, the emergence of new categories of evidence, to a distributed ecology of forums linked globally”…

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