Mad Scientists

On the eve of the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal, ground staff at the gigantic Stade de France in Paris had left the stadium’s lights on, for security reasons. Attracted by the blinding floodlights, thousands upon thousands of migrating Silver Y moths descended into the empty arena. Those not killed by the heat of the lamps eventually ended up among the grass of the playing surface, where, after the lights were turned off, they hid throughout the day of the big match. As evening fell, 80,000 spectators took their seats and the lights were turned back on. The sleeping moths stirred, and soon thousands were zigzagging among the players. Photographs taken that night show annoyed football officials picking moths off each other’s suits, while the swarm blocked the lenses of TV cameras and hung from the goalposts. Perhaps the highlight came when Cristiano Ronaldo sat injured and weeping on the pitch, while a lone Silver Y sipped his teardrops away.As the Portuguese superstar had discovered, the mingling of urban development with the natural world can throw up some weird and wonderful occurrences. Cities are like mad scientists, creating their own crazy ecological concoctions by throwing all kinds of native and foreign elements into the urban melting pot, then spicing it up with artificial light, pollution, impervious surfaces and a host of other challenges. Researchers around the globe are documenting how globalisation and urbanisation are changing the behaviour and evolution of animals.Indeed, evolutionary biologists no longer need to travel to remote places like the Galápagos todiscover their holy grail: speciation, the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. The process is going on right in the very cities where they live and work. In tune with their human population, cities have been assembled from immigrants from around the globe.

The Guardian , Darwin comes to town: how cities are creating new species (2018)

Moebius, Arzach, 1976


There has been no lack of architectural responses to the threat of rising tides, especially in the metropolitan cities of the Global North; in fact, what might be called ‘climate megastructures’ have become something of an entire genre of architectural proposal, both real and fictional. Going beyond more prosaic calls for the sustainability of individual buildings, climate megastructures operate at the scale of neighborhoods, cities or regions. Some are imminently buildable, based on contemporary technologies and knowledges up to the task of mitigating sea level rise and the increasing frequency of storms associated with it. Others are far more speculative and cleave to a faith similar to that found in climate geoengineering — the belief that humanity can, someday, figure out a technological magic bullet that can stop or even reverse the worst of climate change. Large, infrastructural-scale thinking is a first step in the right direction towards coping with a problem as daunting and inevitable as sea level rise. But too often, both of these categories of climate megastructure share a common, deeply flawed assumption: that architecture can, and should, be deployed to rescue the urban status quo in the face of existential threat. “Green” megastructures that dutifully fulfill their role as an economic investment first — or just ignore their own place in a global real estate industry that ensures the consequences of climate change will be unevenly felt — might be “thinking big,” but fail to think systemically. When architecture proposes to save the flooding cities of the world, who or what exactly is it trying to save?

Joshua McWhirter, Stop Seeing Climate Change as an “Opportunity” for Architecture (2018)

Bjarke Ingels, + BIG et alt, The Big U (2014)



I have argued that in bringing together landscape design, infrastructure, and the concept of the cyborg, a framework emerges that enables land- scape designers to shape future landscapes based on the integration and synthesis of human and non-human actors as well as biotic and abiotic processes. The three examples in this article illustrate how the profession is already (knowingly or unknowingly) working within this framework. Purposefully designed as co-dependent socioecological networks, these projects transform and choreograph landscape processes across multiple spatial and temporal scales. This results in new spatial and material conditions, exchanges, and temporalities that enrich the experience of everyday life; promoting an aesthetic that is predicated on relationships between dynamic things and systems, not static, single objects alone. (…)

Taken together, the design approach outlined in this article offers tremendous opportunities for the discipline of landscape architecture. The cyborg challenges us to reconsider our relationship with the environment and technology, thereby prompting designers to reimagine the physical nature of these metabolic interactions. An overemphasis on control and efficiency gives way to dynamic and open-ended linkages between people’s intentions for the landscape and the non-anthropogenic forces at work. By structuring non-hierarchical relationships and co-evolutionary processes, it is possible to create more sustainable and resilient interactions among all elements, actors, and systems that make up complex socio-ecological systems. In doing so, cyborg landscapes aspire to create multifunctional landscapes that do not simply operate in the present, but learn from experiences in order to adapt and grow smarter over time.

Kees Lokman, Cyborg landscapes: Choreographing resilient interactions between infrastructure, ecology, and society (2017)

Kate Orff + SCAPE, Oyster-tecture Gowanus (2010)


Prepositions [sic]

Preposition 1
The emergence of ecology and the resurgence of geography in late twentieth century North America is advancing the social and political agency of landscape architecture.
Preposition 2
The fundamental problem with urbanization is that we consider it a problem.
Preposition 3
Global, taylorist forms of engineering and euclidean planning practices cannot exclusively address pressing urban challenges of changing climates, resource economies, and population mobility.
Preposition 4
Decentralization is one of the greatest structural forces reshaping patterns of urbanization.
Preposition 5
Reversibility of ecological externalities and the recirculation of wastes can reform industrial economies, diversify markets, and extend material cycles.
Preposition 6
Landscape infrastructure is a live index and indeterminate interface of hard technological systems and soft biophysical processes by design.
Preposition 7
Time is an unseen territory of design and vital zone of intervention where different processes and projections converge, coincide, and collide.
Preposition 8
Urbanization is a synthetic ecology of different flows, materials, and processes, extensive and intensive, combining waste and water, fuel and food, mobility and power.
Preposition 9
The physical, material, fluid, and energetic extents of urbanization lie far beyond the footprint of cities.
Preposition 10
Ecologies of scale are the new postindustrial economies for the weak world of future.

Snøhetta, MAX IV Laboratory Landscape (2016)



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-artificial, 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)

Z+T Landcape Architects, Vanke Eco-Campus (2011) 



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)



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 + SCAPE and Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America (2009)


Distanced Authorship

Landscape architecture has seen a paradigm shift in the last two decades, requiring designers to respond to the dynamic and temporal qualities of landscape. This response examines the long-held view that landscape embraces an ephemeral medium constructed and maintained through generations. Landscape—a dynamic and temporal medium—is expressed through careful manipulation of vegetated, hydrological, and stratigraphic systems. Combining this shift with the increased accessibility of responsive technologies presents a new approach for challenging static design solutions. The ability to sense and respond to environmental phenomena invites new ways to understand, interpret, experience, and interact with the landscape.

This shift can be traced to several parallel events inherent to the discipline of Landscape Architecture and seeded by new paradigms in scientific thought particularly within ecology. A generational trend has emerged within landscape architecture that promotes a form of “distanced authorship,” emphasizing natural processes such as succession, accretion, or passive remediation as agents for landscape design. In the essay, “Strategies of Indeterminacy in Recent Landscape Practice,” Charles Waldheim uses the term “distanced authorship” to describe how the “privileging of landscape strategy and ecological process distances authorial control over urban form, while allowing for specificity and responsiveness to market conditions as well as the moral high-ground and rhetorical clarity of environmental determinism.” Autonomy within these systems has the potential to create scaffolds for designed landscapes, urbanism, or territorialization. This approach privileges the actions of biology and geology over manufactured static conditions and instead seeds these dynamic processes through an overarching ecological regime to shape designed conditions over time.

 Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman, Responsive Landscapes (2016)


Devon Boutte, Josh Brooks, Kim Nguyen, Martin Moser, Hunter Lero, and Danielle Martin, Ecolibrium (2012)


This is where landscape as an idea, an operative agenda, and a set of material dynamics offers potent ways forward. Landscape has the capacity to mark time, initiate transformation, adapt to ongoing inputs (whether physical, environmental, political, or bureaucratic), and engage multiplicity and indeterminacy in productive ways. In so doing, landscape as a mode of thinking and operating shares characteristics with systems ecology, which describes the environment as always in a state of change, constantly adapting to evolving circumstances and inputs. Ecological health is now defined more in terms of an organism’s or ecosystem’s ability to change and adapt rather than to embody a particular idealized state or form. By extension, we might apply landscape and ecological thinking to Lerup’s metropolis-in-motion and discover new starting points for instigation and intervention that help to reimagine and reframe the 21st-century metropolis moving forward.
Retooling, then, is as much conceptual as it’s physical and operative. It invokes an imaginative rethinking of what constitutes the meitropolis 20-some years after Lerup. It entails speculation about design intervention that can physically reshape territory at both the site and urban scale. And it embraces time and indeterminacy in creative and productive ways, allowing for catalytic actions that play off and redirect, the dynamics of an extended metropolitan landscape and its formational systems-in-action.
Chris Reed, Rethinking a Reformulated Metropolis (2017)


Chris Reed + STOSS, Reimagining the A2 Freeway (2016)



That’s the theory

The substantive project this century will not be just the perpetuation of vibrant public space – in fact the public and the so called placemakers – whoever they really are – have pretty much now worked out they can just “pop it all up” for themselves.

The future of substantial and interesting work for landscape architects lies in redesigning cities in terms of social justice and ecological performance. This means going deeper into socio political processes and harnessing and actively redirecting their internal forces to more just and more ecological ends.

It means understanding the city metabolically and systemically which in turn means not just working “in the old idea of the city as a place of many buildings and filling designated sites with design composition – it means tracking supply chains to the ends of the earth – identifying the relationality between where you and your project are in both space and time in relation to the sources and sinks that can be traced to it.

It means identifying points along those continuums to apply design intelligence with particular accuracy so that change might reverberate through the system. It means working with time more than space.

This ultimately means a correlation of planetary urbanism with the complexity and holistic nature of the earth system across all scales.

At least that’s the theory.

And before you think I’m just swinging the old pendulum back from art to instrumentality, working with the ecological mechanics of the city doesn’t mean we just apply the cold hand of reason – the evolution of planetary urbanism is not just a technical matter of performance metrics, nor is it a moralizing, punitive project – it is an artistic, critical and beautiful project.

The possibility of society becoming a constructive rather than destructive force of nature is as profound and poetic as it is practical.

Richard Weller, OMG, There is an Anthropocene in my Backyard! (2016)

Kongjiang Yu + TURENSCAPE, Houtan Park (2010)