Irene Curulli is an assistant professor in Architectural Design at the Department of the Built Environment at the Eindhoven University of Technology, in The Netherlands, where her design practice Terrafirma is based in Amsterdam. This is a synopsis of her talk presented at Cornell University on March 4th as part of the Changing Industrial Landscapes series.A quick, informal survey shows twelve thousand miles of navigable waterways in the United States. As a means of transportation canals have historically been important in societies as diverse as the ancient Egyptians and the 15th century Xingu Culture of Brazil. In our own time the Industrial Revolution is often talked about in terms of technological advancements, new strategies for processes of production, or the reorganization of social relations. However, more than the advent of the steam engine or cotton gin, the spreading of the railroad network, the organization of the mill town, or Taylorism, the Industrial Revolution might best understood as widespread access to navigable waterways and the concomitant rise in cheap and fast transportation of bulk materials. Seen through this historical lens, the industrial canal landscape is of paramount importance to contemporary questions of labor, production, politics, toxicity, and ecology.
Professor Curulli’s work is focused on the Brabant region in The Netherlands, specifically looking at five towns that grew up around the industrial canal network that links them together. This work seizes on the unique spatial and formal qualities of the canals to explore the latent ecological and social potential of these landscapes for urban regeneration in canal towns. Beyond the merely morphological, the work emphasizes formal qualities to leverage a fundamental cultural tension of these sites – they are young and so not protected despite being key historical sites – to engage local programmatic demands and cultural identity. The approach is reminiscent of an argument I heard from Julie Bargmann of the University of Virginia, who noted that these landscapes are our cultural heritage, much more so than the houses, gardens and bric-a-brac of generals or industrialists.The notion that industrial shipping canals are culturally important is not new. Here in the United States we have examples such as the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal or the Erie Canal that have been the subject of preservation movements and now offer recreational resources at a regional scale. However, Professor Curulli’s work offers several new concepts and a methodology that goes beyond preservation and points a way toward reuse of these landscapes arising through a mix of local necessity and national recognition of cultural resources specific to place.
There seems to be three conceptual tools that are active in this work that can be characterized as borders, heterogeneity, and wildness. In the contemporary discourse in landscape design there is an emphasis on concepts such as connection and flows, a tendency that deemphasizes important obstacles and opportunities for landscape design. One need only consider the history of the garden wall, the barbed wire fence, or defense structures to understand the very real importance of borders in the landscape. Curulli presented work done with graduate students that emphasized this simple but insightful fact: industrial canals create borders when running through towns, and they tend to matter a great deal. Whether the borders are a physical obstruction, a scalar shift, or a sudden topographic change, they are objects to be explored and considered for their potential in creating unique and powerful socio-ecological experiences.
This idea ties in to a second important concept, that of heterogeneity. Professor Curulli noted that industrial shipping canals were constructed and operated according to a very specific spatial logic demanded by the necessity of shipping great quantities of material cheaply. Certain dimensions, structural systems, and operational protocols were constructed to ensure even zones of slackwater and enable efficient landing and loading. As these canals run through different landscapes- urban cores, residential zones, manufacturing centers, or countryside farmland- they create a series of unique waterfronts. The resultant landscape is something new- a third landscape- and this is studied on its own terms, not merely as a derivative of the first two. I’ll get in to the methods for this a bit more below, but they emphasize pairing embodied knowledge with local expertise, in addition to the conceptual tools.A third concept seems to result historically from conditions endemic to the canal landscape. The idea is that of wildness, similar to the idea of terrain vague first put forth by by JB Jackson and Ignasi de Sola Morales. This concept builds from tendency of post-industrial sites to offer a strange and sublime aesthetic experience where ruined teleological structures are smashed together with weedy plants gone haywire, material debris and refuse from the rest of the city, and open spaces where unapproved activities ranging from spray tagging to gardening to drug use can occur. Interestingly, this seems to be not merely a result of a lack of care or oversight that takes hold once the bureaucracies and corporations have moved on (though that certainly matters) but also because canal landscapes are fundamentally unsettled zones due to a constant influx of things. While this may have tended to be new technology, manufacturing strategies, or infusions of capital during the industrially productive period, this historical tendency remains even as new actors take the stage. In the work of Curulli and her students, these become elements of design inquiry and action; not necessarily something to preserve but always something to reckon with.
Two methodological aspects stood out in the projects. The first was simply an emphasis on working across scales. These canal landscapes were understood both as sites and as part of a larger network. However, these two scales combined to create a third scale that was critical in this work- the canal town. The population center was understood in terms of a causal relationship relative to the material demands of industrial canals and the geographic logic of the shipping network. That is, they took the form they did because of the waterfront. Its centers, its neighborhoods, other transportation infrastructures were all influenced by the logic of the industrial canal.
A second important methodological move was an emphasis on embodied knowledge. In the Brabant projects this took two forms- the students spent time on the site exploring the landscape by foot, canoe, and car, and a series of workshops were created where local communities, including residents and experts, worked with designers to create and shape a vision for what the canal landscape might become. While neither of these is novel in its own right, the pairing of both together became a powerful tool in the design process. Post-industrial landscapes often suffer from over-mediation: our perceptions of them are colored by an emphasis on learning historical or technological facts, and we experience them primarily through photographs or video. By emphasizing embodied knowledge along with analytical tools such as mapping, the design work of the students seems to achieve a texture that is both subtle and substantive.The results of the project were characterized by Curulli as acts of recovery, recomposition and regeneration. Rather than remaining post-landscapes – places defined by a past historical period – the work suggests that industrial canals might morph into new places that are situated within a historical trajectory while opening new possible futures that are more than mere referents. And while interested primarily in formerly industrial sites, it is possible to envision that some of the conceptual tools and methods developed in this collaboration between the University, regional governments, and local communities might be applied to a range of landscape types shaped by reciprocal relations between landscape and industry.