Concluding with American Landscapes

Mexican-ness is not an essence but a history.  (Octavio Paz)

["Ramirez Codex"; made in the 16th century, this representation narrates the pilgrimage of the Aztecs from Aztlan to the founding of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City); Tenochtitlan is toward the bottom in the center left and is signified by a cactus on a blue crossroads, which probably alludes to the four sections and orthogonal geometry it had at the beginning]

[“Ramirez Codex”; made in the 16th century, this representation narrates the pilgrimage of the Aztecs from Aztlan to the founding of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City); Tenochtitlan is toward the bottom in the center left and is signified by a cactus on a blue crossroads, which probably alludes to the four sections and orthogonal geometry it had at the beginning; this image from the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City was brought to my attention by the thesis research of Rosaura Trejo]

This is the final post in a series I’ve been running this summer exploring the possibility of a hemispheric project of the American Landscape.  The work leans heavily on a bevy of scholars and researchers across a range of fields concerned with landscapes throughout the Americas in addition to my own writings, research and experiences with Latin American landscapes. In part this is out of necessity, as so very little concerning Latin America currently exists within the field of landscape architecture.  However, this predicament has lead me to exciting new discoveries including the work of philosopher Scott Pratt, anthropologist Setha Low, Peruvian architectural historian Wiley Ludena Urquizo, and sociologist of scientific knowledge (SSK, related to the exciting field of Science and Technology Studies) David Turnbull which I have attempted to synthesize with stalwarts, standbys, hustlers and tricksters from landscape architecture.

One of the primary realizations is that this project is about developing a trans-American method, rather than a Pan-American idea and to that end I have offered up certain approximations that seem useful in this project: bigness, mobility, and violence.  However, I wanted to take a moment and formalize a few conclusions that may serve as touchstones for future work.

Frontier Studies

In the post “All Theory is Geographical” one of the insights that arose was that frontier studies should become a central pillar in any project on the larger American landscape.  The argument is historical and philosophical.  A century of frontier historians, including Frederick Jackson Turner, alongside philosophers, economists and sociologists have worked to show that the frontier provided specific aesthetic experiences and values and political-economic possibilities that have and continue to inscribe themselves on American societies from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego.

Over time the frontier schematic offered by various thinkers in different fields has changed, tending to become more complex, uneven, and heterogeneous as historians developed original work by Turner and others from multiple perspectives (including indigenous, or at least non-United States perspectives).  At the moment this brings up more questions than it answers.  For landscape studies this process of inquiry must start with the simple question “what can landscape architecture bring to frontier studies”?  What does it mean for a frontier to be understood as a landscape?

Nonetheless, there is great potential not only for revisionist histories but also to interpret contemporary conditions and create new landscapes that are authentically American.  To take an example from my own recent work- what new conceptual avenues and technical possibilities might be discovered if the derelict zones of de-industrialized cities are understood to be the American frontier in a new form, as opposed to being seen through the European lens of a shrinking city? The shrinking city schematic certainly has insights to offer, as the Americas and Europe are culturally and historically related.  However, it is now clear that the American landscape has been marked by highly mobile and heterogeneous populations living in extreme and dynamic environments for millenia.  Given this it is not at all clear that a city concept developed within a completely different geophysical and cultural context is apt, or even all that useful.  Landscape studies as frontier studies points towards possible alternatives.

[1840, Anonymous, "Statistical Map of the Federal District."  This 19th century map of Mexico City shows the core of the city, surrounding roads, rivers, and mountains.  The dark dot toward the bottom right is the Bosque de Chapultepece and shows two aqueducts proceeding from the Bosque to the city; in the upper left you can see the receding lake that the city was originally built in; the abstract circular border represents the administrative boundary created by a 2 league radius from the main square; image from the Mapoteca Orozco y Berra de la Direccion General de Informacion Agropecuaria; found by Rosaura Trejo as part of her research effort for her masters thesis on the Bosque de Chapultepec]

[1840, Anonymous, “Statistical Map of the Federal District.” This 19th century map of Mexico City shows the core of the city, surrounding roads, rivers, and mountains. The dark dot toward the bottom right is the Bosque de Chapultepece and shows two aqueducts proceeding from the Bosque to the city; in the upper left you can see the receding lake that the city was originally built in; the abstract circular border represents the administrative boundary created by a 2 league radius from the main square; image from the Mapoteca Orozco y Berra de la Direccion General de Informacion Agropecuaria; found by Rosaura Trejo as part of her research effort for her masters thesis on the Bosque de Chapultepec]

Comparative Studies

Another avenue that beckons for attention and should become a pillar in any future project of the American landscape is robust literature of comparative case studies of landscapes- ideas, projects, and places- throughout the Americas.  In the posts “The Scale of Things” and “A Brief Sketch of Political Economy” I outlined many of the similarities that exist culturally, politically, economically, geologically, geographically, hydrologically, historically, and biologically.  Of course, my argument there was largely limited to making a case for something.  Any future study of real American landscapes will have the opportunity to examine similarities but also important differences, and to develop methods for deciding what might be important or not in a particular place and time.

A quick survey of the Americas shows rather strange and interesting parallels between Chicago and Buenos Aires, Central Park in New York and the Bosque de Chapultepec in Mexico, or the Rio Rimac river project in Lima and the Los Angeles River revitalization.  Who has written the criticism and analysis of port expansion and urbanism in Barranquilla, Colombia and New Orleans?  Who is looking at the ACUMAR agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and what might be learned from this comparison to shape how landscapes are managed at the scale of the watershed in the future to address issues of scarcity, toxicity, and ecological health, and industrial production?

There are two immediate issues that are hindering this effort; one is a broader cultural effect, the other is specific to our discipline.  First, the need to learn Spanish in order to navigate much of the existing information is a difficulty that is endemic to much of contemporary North American society.  However, it is one that is relatively easily overcome by serious students.  In other fields scholars frequently learn multiple languages in order to conduct their research and is something that might be easily addressed if dealt with directly.  Second, compared to the number of study abroad programs, funded research projects, and invited speakers that come from Europe and China, Latin America (and the Southern Hemisphere in general) is inadequately supported.  And it is not close.  This is an issue that could be changed almost immediately if leaders in our field decided to support and encourage new, broader, stranger, and more adventurous projects, alliances, and lines of inquiry.  After all, we only need so many investigations into the fountains and plazas of Rome or the avenues and parks of Paris.

Pragmatism, Not Idealism

Lastly, my work on this question has lead to a conclusion that the discipline of landscape architecture should build more on a philosophical foundation of pragmatism, and a little less on idealism (Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Hegel, Spinoza, Zizek, the list goes on, and includes most of the folks that landscape architects draw from).  This is a broad discussion that will have to be addressed in more detail later.  However, it is important to note three things for the moment.  First, pragmatism is generally recognized as the most important philosophical contribution of the Americas.  Despite this fact, most folks in our field think that pragmatism is a form of utilitarian problem solving, not a rich philosophical tradition.  Second, the work of philosophers Scott Pratt and Bruce Wilshire among others has shown that American pragmatism was historically produced- as opposed to springing from the minds of great men, or simple coming about a European response to the imperious demands of the mythical American wilderness- and draws directly from indigenous thought.  Lastly, there is much to suggest that Pragmatic philosophy has both drawn from and given to inherent and vital Latin American traditions, such as Enrique Dussel’s liberation philosophy, and that a productive symbiosis already exists between the two.

My own recent work builds on Pragmatism, in particular Dewey’s instrumental theory of knowledge, and I am convinced we still have much to learn from Dewey with regard to public space as Curt Gambetta’s presentation “Geographies of Interest: Waste and Public Life” showed at this past year’s ACSA Conference.  Moreover, with the recent turn toward productive landscapes, and with a focus on landscape change in our time of relative environmental upheaval, pragmatism’s focus on method and on work, as opposed to a quarrelsome search for the right idea (If only we could find the right ones this time!) offers a great deal of hope to a profession engaged directly with a medium as temperamental, expansive, and dynamic as landscape.

At the end of it all- which is of course but the start- it seems that all this can be adapted from the simple line of Octavio Paz:  The American-ness of an American landscape is not an essence, but a history.  If American landscapes are historically produced, then our future landscapes must be actively constructed.  And for that we will need ideas and concepts; but most importantly we will need a method.

One thought on “Concluding with American Landscapes

  1. Pingback: Bigness, violence and mobility | Thoughts on Everything under the Sun or I am a guilty Secularist

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