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Design Under Sky discusses landscape architecture, the utilitarian but leaning towards the conceptual, thinking on modern occurrences and peripheral boundaries.  

DUS is the blog and personal design studio of Adam E. Anderson, a designer based out of the East Coast, currently a Critic at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a designer at Landworks Studio.

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December 2011
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Entries in fresh kills (2)


Constructing the Anthropocene

[Bingham Copper Pit, Utah]

Predicated upon accommodation humans have become one of the geologic forces affecting the earth. Growth required materials and energy. And to produce those forces, extraction is required from deep within the earth to reach material made from millions of years of geologic pressures. Technology has allowed us to hasten certain geologic processes at our will.

Many scientists believe we have ushered in a new epoch of the collective affect of human intervention on biological, physical and chemical processes on the Earth system, they are calling it the Anthropocene. The Royal Society in one of its papers describes the name as “a vivid expression of the degree of environmental change on planet Earth.” It means that human activity has left a “stratigraphic signal” detectable thousands of years from now in ice cores and sedimentary rocks.

[Coal slag heap pile, West Virginia]

We can imagine geologists many of years from now studying the stratification layers and wonder how our epoch will unfold? Could it mark the end of an era caused by a self-inflicted catastrophic event, digging and burying ourselves out of existence. Or might this layer reveal the change that occurred at a period where the foresight to design our own geology perhaps delayed such an outcome. The boundaries between epochs are defined by changes preserved in sedimentary rocks—the emergence of one type of commonly fossilized organism, say, or the disappearance of another. The speed at which vast amounts of non-organic material can be produced might define a shorter geologic time frame. One that is conceivable to occur within our own, or our children’s time, even containing multiple layers.

The Bingham Copper Mine in Utah is one of the biggest man-made depressions in the world, it can be seen from space. Operating for more then a century now the mine represents one of the largest zones of human existence. Faced with the thought of what happens to the mine when profitable extraction ends, the operators looked to Robert Smithson to engage the mine. Rather then hiding the scars, Smithson proposed highlighting the violence of the creation of the negative hollow form, the realisation is made into the revelatory through physical manifestation. Bingham is of course only one of a long list of Anthropogenic zones of extraction. By 2250 most of the natural resources will be mined out of the Western US, leaving 100,000 square miles of reclaimed landscapes.

[Landfill Mountain]

Cities are possibly the biggest human geologic intervention. New York City, as stated by Friends of the Pleistocene, is its own geologic force. Buildings constructed from local sandstones and schist from the triassic and jurassic period form skyscraper canyons of transformed rock, at times aligning celestially with the sun displaying the phenomena of time in the same way stone monuments have done for millennia. Before the Pangaea split, the tallest mountains in the world stood where the skyscrapers currently sit, mimicking there scale, constructed from their remains.

The dredging of the harbor and digging of tunnels continues to altar the shape of the coast. Governor Island’s current form was created with the 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill excavated form the Lexington Avenue Subway tunnel in 1901. Battery Park extended Manhattan southward into the harbor using debris from the 9/11 attacks. The major shipping routes in New York Harbor need constant dredging. The Army Corps of Engineers plans to extract  roughly 2 million cubic yards of dredge material from the Harbor each year, that material most often getting shipped out of state to landfill or abandoned mines to be disposed. The dredgers artificially repeat the process that created the harbor, scraping the bottom sediment as the Wisconsin glacier did 12,000 years ago. The city is in constant flux due to it’s own geo-dynamics that will continuously transform it for thousands of years to come.

[Anthropocene Construction Sketch. Image by Adam E. Anderson]

We are focusing on the “Anthropogenic” layer of waste. The effort and energy of extraction, production, and disposal of fossil fuels, geologic commodities, and construction is awesome in scale, as well as the waste material created as a result.. The now closed Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island New York is monumental, reaching over 150 ft. in some areas and containing some of the most noxious chemicals known to man. It is a human geologic event, an archeology of excess caused by rapid city growth and abundance. The landfill upon becoming full, and closed, becomes a mountain. In the case of Fresh Kills it was treated as a massive wound, covered with little acknowledgement to the toxic human generated strata below.

We seek to understand the fear associated with waste that results in its displacement to marginal landscapes, often to the detriment of low-income inhabitants. Part of this fear we believe stems from how many view nature as idyllic memory of it without us. Landscape paintings from the romantic period depict pristine wilderness’s and disregard the reality of human development, which inevitably leaves behind the ugly, waste. The images of Field Operation’s Master Plan propose a similar notion of nature rescued, with renderings of flowered covered meadows, and as critic John May refers to as “wholly fantastical Photoshop collages of upper-middle class recreational enjoyment.”

[Anthropocene Geologic Construction Timeline. Image by Adam E. Anderson]

The critique of the Fresh Kills proposal stems from its contribution to the perpetuation of the fallacy of pristine nature, especially in urban conditions, and when, and only when we are able to think beyond these ubiquitous idyllic notions can innovation in how waste is treated in the urban system occur.

This is a proposal of constructing this layer of the anthropocene in a way that challenges how we view waste, not by romanticising it, but by giving it authenticity, by accepting the ugly and transforming it into a perpetual functional organism of the city.

The landscape architect becomes not only a designer of landscapes but of geologic processes. The landscape architect is contracted to a project for life, continuously sculpting the site at his will. The landscape becomes a long performance, and the architect its conductor.



Neo-Nature | Neo-Wilderness

[Image: "Howl" (2007) by Amy Stein; from The Altered Landscape edited by Ann M. Wolfe]

Nature / wilderness are human inventions. We put them on the fringes of our inhabitation because we've defined them as separate entities. We like the idea of both because through them we believe we understand where we come from and they serve as a datum of where we need to be, how we need to live.

Nature makes us feel good.

Nature is a connection.

Nature is green.

Green equals healthy.

It's hard to argue with these statements because my intuition assigns similar value. But if we were to remove the notion of nature and wilderness from our vocabulary what are we left with? What arguments of sustainability and ecological design can we have? If climate change cannot be defined as a human or natural condition does this alter perception and mode of response? Contemporary understanding of the terms "nature" and "wilderness" might be stated as:

Wilderness is mostly experienced through media.

True wilderness is frightening.

Wilderness provides wildlife habitat.

Wilderness and nature can only be visited by people.

Computers are as natural as a wetland, technology as natural as ecology. Geographer David Harvey writes:

There is nothing inherently unnatural about a built environment such as Manhattan, neither is there anything inherently natural about any landscaped environments. Both the landscape and the urban operate as systems organised around the exchange, processing and distribution of life and matter within contexts which are immanently social, political, and economic, and do so interdependently  to form larger ecologies which are not only environmental, but also social, subjective and historically contingent.

[Image: Gold nanoparticles, courtesy of Georgia Tech]

In nature we identify a healthy organism with growth, but growth cannot exist without waste. But the "non-human" nature has evolved to metabolize all waste, and all byproducts of growth are reintroduced into the system. Cities in this way act very similarly to organisms in relation to growth. If we were to look at a time lapse video of NYC starting 100 yrs. ago this would be very evident, yet we view our waste as a dirty little secret of consumption and production, and not a natural byproduct of a well-functioning healthy city.

Without getting too deep into the origins of man's earthly dominion I ask these questions to challenge the idea of pristine nature in regard to landscape architecture, urbanism, and design responses to reclaimed land, in particularly, landscapes of waste. If we equate waste as growth we can look for a moment at landfill, in particular the well documented developing project of Fresh Kills Park, imagined through Field Operations.

A critique of Fresh Kills by John May in an essay [and another by Mario Ballestros] parallels some of our thinking, in that attempts by landscape architects to return to an idyllic vision of the "bird's in a meadow" depiction has put a stranglehold on what marginal landscapes, or urban parks should/could be. Or even if the use of the term "park" is a appropriate connotation for every public open space condition. Ballestros quoting May writes:

In the urbanism of Fresh Kills, before and after closure, a series of enormous corrective measures and technological “fixes” (along with minor changes in the official rhetoric) are supposed to heal and cleanse and erase the ugly from the site, leaving a landscape that can be consumed without guilt as the “wholly fantastical Photoshop collages of upper-middle class recreational enjoyment” of the proposal demonstrate. One has a nagging sense of this whole idea of a place set back on the right track, and healing itself back to normal is something of a hoax, “a remarkably compelling lie, beautifully rendered, but a lie nonetheless.”

And May again:

There was no acknowledgement of the terrible environmental legacy the landfill had left. Only blind faith in a picture of rescued nature that had been draped both across its unholy terrain and over our collective consciousness.

What interests me about May's writing is a need to challenge the nurturing motherly qualities of so much of contemporary park design. They are safe and green, comforting, depicted through renderings for all walks of life, revitalizing even.

[Hylozoic Ground by Phillip Beesley]

Could we not achieve other positive responses of the human condition through landscapes of fear, danger, and the sublime of the vast? In the same manner that wilderness once evoked these senses, the dark emptiness of the forest, or the scale of the mountain could be designed on Fresh Kills. Imagine massive canyons of bacteria solidified landfill, glowing at dusk through bio-luminescence which responds to toxicity levels within the layers of ground. Heat produced from the breakdown of organic material provides opportunities for microclimates, exotic plantings resilient even in winter disperse the landscape. Cooler moist temperatures mix with warmer pockets creating mist and fog, obscuring the occupants sense of space and time. Upon the massive artificial mountain, the view of the not so distant city becomes clear, but to be able to return is still unsure. Like true wilderness, predatory animals have been re-introduced and all senses must be active to negotiate their presence. There are no soccer fields, and you have never felt more alive.

The metabolizing of waste happens within the landform through bio-tech soil injection [bacteria] and protocell deploying geotextiles which alternate through seen and unseen as they move through the site. Methane capturing architecture is integrated both physically and visually so that the occupant understands the relationship of the living but artificial tectonic transforming under one's feet.

This is an idea of a Neo-Wilderness, taking what we understand of idyllic nature and assimilating that into the margins of urbanisation.  These are the zones where growth ends and waste begins to form a spatial condition to experience all that is sublime of the technological capabilities of man and the resiliency of all living organisms.