Public Landscapes and the Aesthetics of Toxicity

The following piece was published last fall in the Mexican arts magazine La Tempestad at the behest of the editor Oscar Bennessini and my colleague Rob Holmes.  As La Tempestad is published in Spanish, I am posting the original English version here.  The piece considers contaminated public lands and proposes that they might become cultural landscapes that offer a range of aesthetic experiences that go beyond the picturesque and the municipal park paradigm.  

While in a larval state, this set of ideas owes a tremendous debt to the work of Julie Bargmann and Elizabeth Meyer.

[Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2007, image by Andrew Nicholas of]

[Red Hook, Brooklyn, 2007, image by Andrew Nicholas of]

And what is that you smell?

Oh, that!  Well, you see, he shares impartially with his neighbors a piece of public property in the vicinity; it belongs to all of them in common, and it gives to South Brooklyn its own distinctive atmosphere.  It is the old Gowanus Canal, and that aroma you speak of is nothing but the huge symphonic stink of it, cunningly compacted of unnumbered separate putrefactions.  It is interesting sometimes to try to count them.  There is in it not only the noisome stenches of a stagnant sewer, but also the smells of melted glue, burned rubber, and smoldering rages, the odors of a boneyard horse, long dead, the incence of putrefying offal, the fragrance of deceased, decaying cats, old tomatoes, rotten cabbage, and prehistoric eggs.

And how does he stand it?
Well, one gets used to it.  One can get used to anything, just as all these people do.  They never think of the smell, they never speak of it, they’d probably miss it if they moved away.

(Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, 1940)

[Red Hook, Brooklyn, courtesy of Andrew Nicholas at]

[Red Hook, Brooklyn, courtesy of Andrew Nicholas at]

The Gowanus Canal of Thomas Wolfe’s Brooklyn is one among thousands of public spaces whose site histories are at the core of our social, economic, and environment legacies of development, toxicity, and labor.  They are disgusting, contaminated, disused, and overrun with weeds, varmints, and other wild things.  They are the relict sanitation and shipping canals, service stations, manufactured gas plants, and coal silos, abandoned bunkers and factory buildings and they are supposed to have no function in the city.  Yet these objects persist.  They resist the seemingly never-ending cycle of production-consumption-destruction because they are too expensive to tear down and rebuild, or there is some sense of danger associated with them.  They offer traces and fragments of failed intention carved in to the fabric of a place.  They are the materialization of our cultural heritage; these places offer a way in for designers, artists, and activists to engage larger conversations about ecology, technology, economics, and politics.  Given their ubiquity and their latent potential it is worth examining these places to better understand their nature and possible effects on future public architecture.

American philosopher Graham Harman told me recently that landscapes are “minimal real anchors that link various shifting worlds”.  The Gowanus Canal is a landscape in this way- it links the brownstone quarries of upstate New York and 1940’s dockworkers with school kids living up the hill in the Park Slope neighborhood and migratory egrets that still come here to feed on mollusks living on the decaying pole and palisade bulkheads.  There is a certain aesthetic pervading the place that is typically described in terms of abandonment or disuse:  it is “post-industrial site”, the “former shipping canal”, or the “old ConEdison powerhouse”.  However, the place is not abandoned.  It is used by new, unintended agents:  hookers and homeless people, local community activists and black locust trees, nighthawks and bird enthusiasts, building contractors having a smoke before buying wall insulation at the Lowe’s Home Improvement store, and Canadian goldenrod.  The power of these places to repel the actors that dominate in the normative parts of the city create a space where queer agents can take root or take part in an aesthetic experience.  And that experience is not far from what is known as the technological sublime.

The sublime was a European concept famously developed in the 18th century through the work of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, among others.  It came to mean an aesthetic experience that goes beyond beauty and creates an overwhelming effect in which attraction and horror are no longer distinguishable, but which are usually experienced with some sense of remove.  While originally applied only to geological and biological objects- a dense impenetrable jungle that gives way to a pounding waterfall, or the soaring peaks of the Andes- this concept began to apply to technological constructions in the 19th century.  Historian David Nye has noted that with the advent of skyscrapers, hydroelectric megadams, mile-long suspension bridges and locomotives, contemporary human technological constructions during the industrial age took on the ability to surpass comprehension and evoke a simultaneous effect of fear and fascination through their materials and scale, their speed and power.

[Shasta Dam under construction, 1942, by Russell Lee, courtesy of the US Library of Congress]

[Shasta Dam under construction, 1942, by Russell Lee, courtesy of the US Library of Congress]

And yet what is at work in these spaces is different.  On the Gowanus Canal there are technological constructions that supported industrial processes- bridges, coal silos, and power generation plants- but nothing of the scale or power that would evoke a sublime effect in a visitor or inhabitant.  Then what is it that evokes the combination of terror and fascination that is able to drive some actors away while attracting others?  It is the toxic objects- the heavy metals, the polychlorinated biphenyls, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the benzene, the arsenic, and the organic solids from sewage overflows.  These are not visual in the same way that a bridge or a skyscraper is, they don’t rumble like a locomotive or glow and hum like a great array of hydroelectric turbines.  And they aren’t experienced from a distance.  But they create a sense of horror and delight because you are among them, amongst the swirling sewage and dirt piles containing elevated levels of chromium that are the very evidence of the work and ingenuity, of the technological inadequacy and greed, of former generations.

These landscapes of toxic substance are something more like Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject, which he describes as “real objects that are massively distributed in time and space…  so vast, so long lasting, that they defy human time and spatial scales”.  Although it seems strange to think of underground toxic plumes or sediment dumps as objects, they do make sense as hyperobjects.  They are entities that are massively distributed in space and time.  Petrochemicals and acid mine drainage is not easily degraded or broken down through biological processes.  Some toxins such as heavy metals cannot be broken down at all.

[representation of Tio in a silver mine in Cerro Rico, Potosi; here the difficult conditions and toxic environment has given rise to a new set of hybrid rituals that blend indigenous religious systems with European Christianity concepts, image by Nestor Lacle]

[representation of Tio in a silver mine in Cerro Rico, Potosi; here the difficult conditions and toxic environment has given rise to a new set of hybrid rituals that blend indigenous religious systems with European Christianity concepts; image by Nestor Lacle]


It is worth considering for a moment where these substances come from, and how they have risen up to create or shape entire landscapes in recent times.  Most of these toxins have their genesis in the industrial period, which began in the Americas in the early 19th century and continues in some form today.  In a material sense the industrial period can be defined as a massive scale jump in the ability to move bulk goods in a cheap and fast way.  So the ability to move huge amounts of coal, iron, timber, or gravel cheaply and quickly is the turning point.  In this way it is the 19th century boom in canal building that most clearly signifies the industrial period in the Americas.  Humans had used many of these materials for hundreds or even thousands of years, in the case of wood and stone, but it was the ability to rather suddenly move massive amounts of this stuff that made all of the difference.

The sudden excesses produced an incredible constellation of new processes for refining, combining, and working the materials in to a variety of new forms and products.  These in turn created new uses and patterns of behavior in societies.  In addition to wonderful advancements in metallurgy, synthetic dies, or plastics, one of the hyperobjects frequently found in toxic landscapes is a cyanide compound known colloquially as “blue billy”.  This substance was a common byproduct of the manufactured gas process whereby gas was refined from coal to light lamps and serve other public utilities in the 19th and early 20th century.  It typically contains extremely highly levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, sulphur, and phenols and draws its name from the bluish color given to it by the commercial ferrocyanide die commonly known as “Prussian blue”, the same compound that gives architectural “blueprints” their name and tint.  Nowadays it manifests as a bluish residue found in soil layers where the manufactured gas byproducts were dumped.

These new intensive chemical and industrial processes arising from an excess of raw material created another form of unprecedented excess.  This time it was in the form of byproducts that were simply disposed of according to the best-known practices of the day:  using the nearby waterway as a sewer.  Over time an excessive accumulation of toxins occurred in localized centers of industrial production and because of the nature of the substances- tiny particulates and non-aqueous phase liquids, which don’t dissolve in water- they spread through watersheds and sediment loads.  As technological advances and shifts in political economy dictated new patterns of land use in industrialized cities these toxic landscapes were left to slowly metastasize outside of the productive circuits of the contemporary city.

[Gasometer in Detroit, USA, 1905, image courtesy of Library of Congress]

[Gasometer in Detroit, USA, 1905, image courtesy of Library of Congress]

A typological landscape architectural response

The contemporary approach to these sites has been one of covering over, as opposed to one of recovery  or discovery.   Typically the cheapest remediation strategy that satisfied mandated regulations is implemented and then the landscape is reconstructed according to that great 19th century landscape typology- the park.  This can be seen throughout America from the Parque de la Mujer and Parque Micaela Bastidas in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires to the Hudson River Park on the west side of Manhattan.

Regarding aesthetics the idea of a park is a historical typology that conjures a set of fairly specific compositional techniques, images, and experiences based on the concept of the picturesque.  Municipal park-making as an urban practice rose to prominence during this same industrial period, as population centers were transitioning from cities to metropolitan systems through an excess of industrial production, as shown in the work of folks such as William Cronon and Henri Lefebvre.  Designers such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and Horace Cleveland imagined parks as a way to contrast and combat the miasmatic effects of these industrializing urban centers.  As a result a specific set of techniques and methods of both construction and composition were developed to achieve effects that would contrast the industrial city that was always under construction, racked with social unrest, and plagued by disease.

In addition, drawing from French urban theory that was so powerfully put in to practice under Haussman, park-making was seen as a way to organize the development of the city in ways that was beneficial to political elites and those rich enough to take part in the real estate market.  The degree to which this is present in the intentions of the designer is usually highly debatable, but as Rosenzweig and Blackmar show in their book The Park and The People, it is a historical fact dating back to the first municipal parks that the political-economic aspect of park-making is always intertwined with real estate development.  This can be seen in everything from Olmsted’s own Report to the Commission of Boston to the overheated exclamations about the High Line’s impact on real estate values in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

[1896 Plan of Buffalo showing the major public landscapes projected by Olmsted in Green; only one was a park, and each was intended to provide unique aesthetic experiences]

[1896 Plan of Buffalo showing the major public landscapes projected by Olmsted in Green; only one was a park, and each was intended to provide unique aesthetic experiences; image courtesy of the University of Texas map library]

In Olmsted’s work, these competing and difficult facts were often resolved with a certain grace through a mastery and manipulation of the picturesque aesthetic.  Places identified as ideal parklands because of certain geological or hydrological features were often unsuitable or the most difficult places to build housing and offered the greatest potential for the aesthetic experience created by “pleasing scenery”.  The power of his ideas and the clarity with which he presented them has given him a legacy as the father of American landscape architecture and the greatest champion of park-making.  And yet, a closer reading of Olmsted reveals a much more rigorous and developed landscape typology at work.  His plan for the Buffalo Parks System called for three large public spaces:  the park, the parade, and the front, his biggest and best known work in Boston was known as The Fensand his work at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina laid the conceptual groundwork for the creation of forest landscapes.  He was far more than a park designer.

A new aesthetic for public landscapes of excess

If it is excesses that give rise to new landscape types we might develop a new public architecture that can grapple with our toxic legacy, engaging the material realities of our history of labor, resource exploitation, ecological degradation, and scientific production.  Writing about the cultural role of large parks, landscape theorist Elizabeth Meyer has written:

“I am convinced that these large park can be so much more.  They can contribute to and challenge civic life, toxic discourse, and our consumer republic.  The can assist in reframing environmental problems as social, economic and political issues that implicate industrial process… The experience of beauty that is found and created there will echo with the pervasive unease and insecurity citizens have about the shadow kingdom that we share, our contaminated American landscape.”

[Acid pool #1 at the AMD-Art Project in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, USA, a collaboration between landscape architect Julie Bargmann, hydrogeologist Rober Deason, sculptor Stacy Levy, and historian Allan Comp; image from Stacy Levy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

[Acid pool #1 at the AMD-Art Project in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, USA, a collaboration between landscape architect Julie Bargmann, hydrogeologist Rober Deason, sculptor Stacy Levy, and historian Allan Comp; image from Stacy Levy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

I am suggesting that to become so much more these landscapes might not be made in to parks at all, but become new landscapes that contend with this sublime aesthetic of the toxic hyperobject.  These landscapes will give rise to new forms of recreation, ways of living, and patterns of use as people work to protect themselves from toxic effects while discovering and inhabiting the landscapes of our cultural history.  The capacity of the sublime experience to shatter the division between repulsion and attraction also overcomes the convenient separation between aesthetics and ethics and might spur us on to new methods of making our cultural landscapes- one that is more participatory, ethical, and daring.

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