If we recognize that through the productive activities carried out on the territory and the subsequent abandonment of such activities, we have deprived those sites of their ecological conditions and with that we have dismantled their natural systems, is it then possible to find examples in which we have deliberately exiled nature to build landscapes of horror? In this column we can see that the answer is “yes” and it is a tool of social punishment.
In the history of construction, production and land and territory usage, processes derived from technological advances, population increases and the economy of consumption have all led to a depletion of natural resources in a utopia of its endless existence. The expansion of cities − as Alan Berger explains − and of the countryside – as a typology of productive landscape that does not correspond to “nature” − together with important ecological disasters derived from harmful activities whose result is partly pollution − has been the basis for landscape architecture to transfer its central objective from the construction of aesthetically pleasing landscapes to the recovery and re-habilitation of certain sites for re-incorporation into the cities through a re-signification. Such is the case of abandoned industrial sites, which in the Chilean context because of an economy based on the extraction of raw materials, those sites mainly contain the traces of mining activities and in some cases they are spent agricultural plots. After impoverished lands are abandoned or mines closed, the contemporary discipline proposes to restore the site: reestablishing the “original” conditions prior to the cultivation or detonation of its geological layers, or alternatively the reclaiming of the site is suggested, defined as the restoration of materials and residuals for purposes that may be distinct from the original use (1).
(1) “(In recycling) Restoration of materials found in the waste stream for a beneficial use, which may be for purposes other than the original use. Provided as a public service by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” <http://www.ecologydictionary.org/reclamation>
These “residual” sites, commonly known as “barren” or “wasteland,” have been named by several theorists, according to their state of abandonment, their location with respect to the city and their pollution levels as Vague Terrain (Ignasi de Solá-Morales, 1995) Drosscape (Alan Berguer, 2007) Wasteland (Vittoria Di Palma, 2014) Manufactured sites (Niall Kirkwood, 2001) Anxious Landscapes (Antoine Picon, 2000), among others. As for the concept wasteland, according to Vittoria Di Palma (2) in Old English the precursor was weste londe or simply wasten, which is found mainly in biblical texts and had a religious connotation dating from antiquity. In the Old and New Testament, wasten is a place of danger and hardship for the body. “The wasten is not only a test for the body but also for the soul: Man’s survival depends on God and requires faith and submission to divine will” (3). Although today, the wastelands are understood as dispossessed of control − a manifestation of abandonment − and are characterized by ecological deterioration, representing an opportunity to build landscape projects by reclaiming them, their definition as developed by Di Palma has had different connotations according to the cultural context. Wasteland in the Middle Ages included what was wild, and this was understood as what was not cultivated and for this reason without control, as a space that exerted resistance to domestication (4).
(2) Vittoria Di Palma: Professor of History and Theory of Architecture at University of Southern California <https://arch.usc.edu/faculty/dipalma>
(3) Vittoria di Palma, “Wasteland” in Wasteland, A History (New Haven and London: Yale Architectural Press, 2014) p.16
(4) Vittoria di Palma, Wasteland, A History (New Haven and London: Yale Architectural Press, 2014) p.22
The definitions of wasteland, thus, help us to establish that since ancient times we have given a negative connotation to these types of sites, first by their absence of control and later by their absence of nature. On the other hand, Antoine Picon (5) in Anxious landscapes: From the Ruin to Rust describes these as “landscapes of anxiety” based on engravings from the series Carceri by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, in which spaces are configured in such a way as to blur the limits of confinement, like for example, space in a labyrinth provoking “a stifling imprisonment… It is also anxiety-producing because, in making human action secondary, without referring at all back to nature, it raises the question of death”(6). In this way, Picón announces that the contemporary city, without limits and with restricted natural systems could be associated with a prison.
(5) Antoine Picon: Professor of History, Architecture and Technology, Research Director at GSD, Harvard <http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/person/antoine-picon/>
(6) Antoine Picon and Karen Bates, Anxious Landscape: From the ruin to rust (jstor.org, 2000)
Is it possible to find, then, sites that have deliberately been deprived of nature to construct negative landscapes or, in the words of William Chambers, landscapes of horror (7)? While the contemporary city has not been intentionally constructed as a landscape of horror, many inhabitants experience the city as such: a space that agonizingly grows without apparent control, distancing its inhabitants from the beneficial gestures of nature. Then, just as Picón observes in Piranesi’s engravings, one landscape constructed under the premise of excluding nature, exiling the plant material and the symbolic and orienting features, is a prison; it is an enclosure where absences represent in themselves a punishment. Specifically, the prison yard, normed and constructed consciously as an empty space, reinforces by its opposite the definition of nature as a place of pleasure and desire, a romantic idea established by Rousseau as a reason to exalt and a source of happiness. Since the end of the 18th century, confinement according to Foucault is an act of punishment (8). Now, confinement to the outside seems to be rather a punishment of false freedom associated with the exclusion of Man from paradise, where the hard − but warm − rays of the sun remind us of the existence of another world on the other side of the wall. If being deprived of nature represents a punishment, how is it possible to establish new prison landscapes so that they function with an educational purpose and are part of the reintegration process of the inmates? We could begin to think that the way the prison landscape unfolds speaks directly to the role of the landscape in our society.
(7) In Vittoria di Palma, “Wasteland” in Wasteland, A History (New Haven and London: Yale Architectural Press, 2014) p.16
(8) Michel Foucault. Vigilar y Castigar, nacimiento de la prisión (Monitor and Punish, birth of the prison), (México: Siglo xxi editores, 2009)