Futurize: Panorama And Matter

Camila Medina N. For Lofscapes

(1) First View Photo of Earth (1972) © National Geographic / (2) Staten Island (c.1969) © Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (1969)

Today due to the multiple territorial events that take place in our country, social networks and other media have changed the focus of interest from natural disasters to ecological disasters, swaying discussions towards how we are making use of and intervening in our territory. This column introduces a description of the moment at which landscape establishes a relationship with ecology, suggesting ideas about how Chile has related with its history of landscape architecture in this context.

It could be said that the landscape is a manifestation of the encounter between nature and the inhabitant: it is through this relationship that the interpretation, use and enjoyment of the territory arises. This relationship varies according to the cultural context in which it is developed, strongly influencing the existing technology, urbanization processes and multiple prevailing historical events. Then, it is in the man-nature interaction where landscape originates, as landscape architect James Corner explains: “As a radical ‘other’, the wild is unpresentable, unnamable; and although it can never be captured as a presence, it is at the same time not exactly nothing” (1).

(1) James Corner, “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity” [1997] in Corner and Alison Bick Hirsch (eds.), The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner 1990–2010 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), p. 271.

Today due to the multiple territorial events that occur in our country, social networks and other media have moved the focus of interest from natural disasters, such as earthquakes and landslides, to ecological disasters associated with some productive activity, as for example what has affected the marine fauna in the South of the country (2). Thus, we have swung discussions around to the manifestations of natural forces that remind us of our inability to control them and, in turn, our responsibility to try to build a balanced relationship with those uncontrollable forces.

(2) Frederick Law Olmsted, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns” [1870] in Robert Twombly (ed.), Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), p. 221.

It would seem that when we talk about landscape, it is not enough simply to talk about squares, gardens, orchards, urban parks or national parks, but we must also discuss natural processes and systems associated with topography, geology, oceans, flora and fauna, among other active subjects of the habitable environment. But is this issue a concern that arises today? When did emotionality, the geometrical axes, and the constructed scenes cease to be a main objective in the design of landscape projects? When was ecology added to the contemplation and enjoyment of aesthetic beauty? The answer is definitely complex, even though it is possible to identify two moments at which the fundamentals of the compositions went beyond the forms to incorporate ideas associated with natural systems and their use for the benefit of human habitation.

The first moment is associated with the revaluing of nature and its incorporation into the city for the promotion of hygiene and life in the crowded cities of the nineteenth century. In this period, the growing development of industries and the consequent overcrowding of workers generated important social and sanitary problems in the vertiginous and ever expanding cities. It was in this context, the American landscape architect of the time, Frederick Law Olmsted, bet on bringing the natural elements to the workers and the inhabitants of central cities through the construction of parks. He stated in a speech given before the American Social Science Association in Boston in 1870 in relation to New York’s Central Park, probably his most well known work:

“Air is disinfected by sunlight and foliage. Foliage also acts mechanically to purify the air by screening it. Opportunity and inducement to escape at frequent intervals from the confined and vitiated air of the commercial quarter, and to supply the lungs with air screened and purified by trees, and recently acted upon by sunlight, together with the opportunity and inducement to escape from conditions requiring vigilance, wariness, and activity toward other men –if these could be supplied economically, our problem would be solved” (3).

Giving sanitizing value to green spaces was something that also occurred in Chile at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the most important voices on this topic was the nephew of Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, Alberto Mackenna Subercaseaux, Mayor of Santiago 1921-1927 and principal promoter of the transformation of San Cristóbal Hill from an arid space used as a quarry to a forested park for contemplation, recreation, and public health.

The second moment is associated with the historical period in which man understands that his actions are capable of affecting natural systems and causing disasters that affect the environment and, with it, people. This occurred around the 1960s when some looked at the cosmos as an opportunity to invent new habitats, while others sought a change of lifestyle in an attempt to be part of the already lost nature.

Then, although the term ecology was introduced for the first time in 1869 by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, its applications in relation to the city had its moment of boom in the middle of the XXI century, when the density of the cities and man’s interventions on the land became ever more evident. It was at this time that the Scottish urban planner based in the US Ian McHargh developed a territorial interpretation system for reading “layers” (3), which allowed the appropriate uses for land sites to be distinguished according to their level of intervention, for example, according to their productive potentials or intrinsic values as a natural reserve.

(3) See image 2.

While developing these ideas, in Chile the ecological ideals were related rather to the local hippie culture − usually associated with the political left − that more than understanding natural systems from a productive- potential perspective, approached these from their imaginary as nature, or as a territorial “given” and often associated with aboriginal culture. In turn, after the coup d’état of 1973, concerns focused on political and social conflicts, and the country’s relationship with the territory was reduced to the search for progress and economic development based on consumption, driven by the imported American model. Perhaps (and generalizing) the idea that consumption in itself would generate progress along with a lack of awareness in relation to the management of natural resources brought us to this point − though rather late − at which issues related to ecology now intensely call our attention.

At a global level, landscape architecture has fully assumed the idea of ecology as an opportunity to recover or renew highly intervened sites, using the idea of a process: understanding that actions are followed by consequences, whether they be positive or negative, and that they affect the environment in one way or another. However, it is understood that this is not the only variable to develop a landscape project, the culture, the economy and the history of a place are also incorporated as project factors. According to theorist on the contemporary landscape Anita Berrizbeitia, “[…] large parks remain fundamental to cities, not only because they take on infrastructural and ecological functions displaced from densely built centers but because they are distinct, memorable places” (4).

(4) Anita Berrizbeitia, “Re-Placing Process” in Julia Czerniak and George Hargreaves (eds.), Large Parks (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007), p. 175.

The local invitation, then, will be to advance towards the nineteenth-century paradigm that places the landscape as that which is opposed to the city, as well as towards the ecological paradigm of the 60s that established man as an invasive agent within natural systems. Taking these paradigms together, we can try to reconcile inhabiting the landscape in a balanced way as a synthesis that does not deny the culture and the technological advances, but understands that our actions are part of a system in constant change and depend on natural forces of unapproachable complexity.

(3) Map of Central Park (1869) © Frederick Law Olmsted y Calvert Vaux
(4) San Cristóbal Hill (c.1930) © Santiago Nostálgico
(5) Emergence through Adaptive Management. Downsview Park (1999) © James Corner Field Operations and Nina Marie Lister
(6) Ecology Principles in Landscape Architecture and Land-Use Planning (1996) © Richard T.T. Forman

“Dust” de Parquet Courts (2016) in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRG3R2FmGlY