Nature as ideology

But what do we mean by “nature” or “the natural”? The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) addressed the problem long ago, pointing out that many of the connotations attached to the two terms led to terminological confusion because they were based on a commingling of moral concepts legitimization, and normative aspects? This article, however, is not primarily concerned with the Millsian definition of nature, which characterized it as, among other things, “a name for the mode, partly known to us and partly unknown, in which all things take place.” This article deals much more with the concept of “nature as ideology,” which the German landscape designer joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn described as, “Nature, understood in this way, is a (more-or-less) systematic scheme of ideas, held by particular social, political, cultural, and other groups.” In that assessment, nature represents an intellectual construct. And according to Wolschke-Bulmahn, it is only human reflection on nature that produces an emotional bond and the assignment of values to nature.

The terms nature and naruralness are associated with positive or negative values depending on the cultural context. In the European context, “natural” is assigned a predominantly positive value and often functions as a kind of seal of approval, with which products, but also landscapes, are stamped. Urban dwellers in particular often express a yearning for “the natural.” But the German philosopher Thomas Schramme argues that when people think of “the natural” they mean only a specific part of “nature”–to wit, exclusively the beneficial part of nature. Everything else, such as the dangers or unpleasantness associated with nature, is ignored. The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle characterized nature as “that which is elementary, self-contained, spontaneous, sprouted, unavailable, unproduced, while on the other side is that which is artificial, technical, regulated by arrangements and agreements, made and compelled, designed and cultivated.” And even things that have the positive connotations of “natural” are subject to differing levels of meaning: “the natural as biological, as self-evident, as non-artihcial, as non-cultural, and as non-technical.” When we talk about the “naturalness” of a landscape in a landscape architecture project, the emphasis is often on the “non-artificial” aspect. However, landscape architecture has in fact a long, historical-cultural tradition of dealing with artificial representations of nature, with the imitation of putatively untouched landscapes. Landscape architects have always been busy creating images that suggest “nature” and “natural,” but are thought through down to the tiniest technical detail and “artificially” effectuated by humans.

Representing landscape as a facsimile of nature is a gardening tradition that has its roots in the Chinese gardens, in which the emphasis was not on the construction of a paradise, but rather on a devotion to honoring nature, by creating as perfect a copy of real landscapes as possible. Chinese garden designers adhered to geomantic principles and focused on designing an efngy of an ideal microcosm that was closely allied to traditional, allegorical Chinese landscape painting. No trouble was spared, and they constructed artificial seas as well as artful replicas of entire mountainous massifs. In Asia, the “natural landscape garden,” which had spread out over ]apan, was replaced over time by sublimely excessive citations of landscapes. Landscapes were reproduced on a smaller scale, or individual aspects, such as water, were symbolized by materials like gravel, turning them into artifacts. An artificial refinement of “raw nature,” in place of purely replicating it, became the expression of the gardening art.

Susann Ahn & Regine Keller, False Nature? (2017)

 

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Nature as ideology

Connection

The practical measures of sustainable design make the landscape function more efficiently and reduce the amount of wasted materials and energy; they are conceived to contribute to the overall health of the planet rather than detract. But without an artistic or cultural component to the landscape, we are creating natural places that function like machines. A truly sustainable place works on a more visceral level. We are transforming places so people will love them, will take better care of them, will want them to flourish for their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren. If we just look at what are called “best practices,” meaning the technologies that are accepted as most environmentally healthful, we still would not necessarily know how to make a landscape that people will internalize, make their own. Sustainability is about people taking ownership, learning how to sustain, rather than abuse or just consume, the landscape. It is about making clear the connection between human practices and our environment.

The field of landscape architecture can make these connections between humans and our environment.

Margie Ruddick, Wild by Design (2016)

 

Joao Ferreira Nunes + Proap, Alcantara Wastewater Treatment Plant (2011)

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Connection

Interconnectedness

Since the 1990s, the landscape field has reinvented itself in different guises including, but not limited to: landscape-as-art, landscape urbanism and landscape infrastructure. Each of these frameworks combines new ways of thinking about the city as an environmental system with varying emphases on form, performance, and program. Further, technological advances in digital terrain modeling, Google Earth, diagramming, and the use of computer programs to generate photorealistic perspectives have all changed the content of landscape architectural design processes and content.

Beyond technology, the field has been expanded and enriched by an expanded understanding of process derived from evolving ecological theory, including the systems-based emphasis of landscape ecologists such as Eugene Odum, who developed the modern notion of ecology as an integrated discipline. Odum’s work has provided a ground for further evolution in the topic by Richard T.T. Forman, Steward Pickett, Steven Handel, and Nina-Marie Lister, among many others. This emphasis provides a crucial corrective to the traditional, interventionist mode of landscape architecture and the emphasis on ecological systems in this vein can to be further enriched with an equal attention to sociology and political science. Moving forward, we need to think analytically about the interconnectedness of social and physical systems, knit these strands together, and derive new territories for action.

Kate Orff, Toward an Urban Ecology: SCAPE / Landscape Architecture (2016)

Kate Orff, Oyster-tecture (2009)

Interconnectedness

Impervious

If the disciplines of urban planning and civil engineering respectively form the impervious architecture and fixed framework of cities of Western industrial society today, then planners and engineers are thefoot soldiers in the maintenance and management of the myth of instrumental reason. Perpetuated by State-driven policy, the over-emphasis on “legibility” in strategies of abstraction (land use keys) and data aggregation (demographics) have simplified complex information, and where “predictions have often been wildly wrong.” The risk of reason is personified in the positivist role of technocratic engineer “the best exemplar of the power of expertise… reinforcing directly and indirectly the rule of instrumentalism and unending economic growth. Over time, the implementation of legal limits, and categories of accountability-institutionalized through standardization and systematization, have gradually contributed to the rigid and segregated space of cities today. “The modern engineering enterprise is primarily a colonizing project, ” both self-aggrandizing and totalizing. Removed more and more from regional resources and dynamic biophysical processes, the neutralization and normalization of process is heightened by the security found in quantitative logic and numerical precision. Anthropocentric economies of expediency and exactitude simply externalized ecologies of race, class, and gender. The assumed neutrality of infrastructure is perhaps its most dangerous weapon.

Pierre Bélanger, Is Landscape Infrastructure? (2016)

 

 

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OPSYS / Pierre Bélanger, Waste Flows, Backflows, and Reflows, Maas-Rhine River Delta, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2009

 

Impervious

Exchange with the Audience

In other words, the form of the artwork is in the exchange with the audience. In these terms, the artist becomes more a mediator, a person who fosters and provides situations of exchange, than a creator of objects. For Bourriaud, these art practices establish particular social relations for particular people; the artist tries to keep a personal contact with the public that participates in the exchange, fostering what he calls a “friendship culture”, in contraposition to the impersonal, mass production of the culture industries. (…)

It looks like the “friendship culture” of these artworks is not necessarily based on a premise of absolute equality between artist and public, and even less the cancellation of the distinction of one and the other, art and everyday life, but rather a play between them. Still, as we will see, this does not necessarily question the utility of notions of the gift and the distributed person to describe these practices; anthropological theories of the gift are not a celebration of egalitarianism and community-building, but they also underscore the aspects of hierarchy and the relations of power that these practices may entail.

Roger Sansi, Art, Anthropology and the Gift (2015)

 

ASPECT Studios, Metcalfe Park (2015)

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Exchange with the Audience

Tripled War

Floods. Droughts. Cyclones (hurricanes and typhoons). Tornados. Tsunamis. Wildfires. Volcanic eruptions. Landslides. Earthquakes. World news brings the calamities of natural disasters from all corners of the planet close to home via newspapers, television, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Meanwhile, the travesties of outright man-made disasters through armed conflict continue to flare across continents and threaten global security. Both are devastating, bring death and wreak havoc on the built and natural environment. The Norwegian Refugee Council Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (NRC-IDMC) reported that in 2013, 22 million people were driven from their homes through a combination of mega and small natural disasters_three times more than through war and conflict in the same period. The risk of such disasters is also rising, outpacing population growth and even rapid urbanization. Global population has doubled since the 1970s and urban concentrations have tripled since that time, particularly in vulnerable countries. IDMC director, Alfredo Zamudio, claimed that ‘most disasters are as much man-made as they are natural. Better urban planning, flood defenses, and building standards could mitigate much of their impact’. (…)

Clearly, the profession has an increasingly important role to play. Preparedness for impending disasters and the reduction of environmental risk is well within the purview of design. Landscape architects can work across scales to build resilience into landscapes and territories before disasters can happen, and develop various projects that mitigate risks and adapt to vulnerability and exposure.

Kelly Shannon, Preemptive design opportunities to mitigate disasters (2015)

 

OKRA, Katwijt Coastal Defence (2008- )

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Tripled War

Resilience

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Long-term sustainability necessitates an inherent and essential capacity for resilience – the ability to recover from disturbance, to accommodate change, and to function in a state of health. In this sense, sustainability typically means the dynamic balance between social-cultural, economic and ecological domains of human behavior necessary for humankind’s long-term surviving and thriving. As such, long-term sustainability sits squarely in the domain of human intention and activity – and thus – design; it should not be confused with the ultimately impossible realm of managing “the environment” as an object separate from human action. Instead, the challenge of sustainability is very much one for design, and specifically, design for resilience.

A growing response to the increasing prevalence of major storm events has been the development of political rhetoric around the need for long-term sustainability, and in particular, its prerequisite of resilience in the face of vulnerability. As an emerging policy concept, resilience refers generally to the ability of an ecosystem to with- stand and absorb change to prevailing environmental conditions; in an empirical sense, resilience is the amount of change or disruption an ecosystem can absorb and, following these change events, return to a recognizable steady state in which the system retains most of its structures, functions and feedbacks. In both contexts, resilience is a well-established concept in complex ecological systems research, with a history in resource management, governance and strategic planning. Yet despite more than two decades of this research, the development of policy strategies and design applications related to resilience is relatively recent. While there was a significant political call for (implied) resilience planning following New York’s Superstorm Sandy in 2011 and the ice storm of 2013 in Toronto and the North- Eastern US, there is still a widespread lack of coordinated governance, established benchmarks, implemented policy applications, tangible design strategies, and few (if any) empirical measures of success related to climate change adaptation. There has been too little critical analysis and reflection on the need to understand, unpack and cultivate resilience beyond the rhetoric and to develop specific tactics for design. Design for resilience would benefit from an evidence-based approach that contributes to adaptive and ecologically responsive design in the face of complexity, uncertainty and vulnerability. Put simply: What does a resilient world look like, how does it behave and how do we design for resilience?

Nina-Marie Lister,  Resilience. Designing the new sustainability (2015)

 

Resilience