In the Name of Being: Critical Regionalist Landscape Urbanism, a Critique

by ytheory

This is an extract from a longer essay on representational and conceptual issues in landscape urbanism to be published (I hope) in a collection later this year.

It is a truism that any map must always be partial, selective and incomplete in relation to the territory it claims to represent. Less reflected upon, though, is the question of how that territory is conceived, prior to its representation, and of how this conception itself tends to determine the fashion in which it is represented. Approaches to landscape urbanism informed by Critical Regionalism, for example, concern themselves with representational resemblance because they are driven by a concept of territory in which ‘place’ and ‘identity’ must be located and preserved. Representation, in this case, is premised upon resemblance and reproduction.

In her essay ‘From Theory to Resistance: Landscape Urbanism in Europe’, Kelly Shannon wrote, in reference to the significance of Critical Regionalism to landscape urbanism, that ‘the poignant stance of Frampton and his belief in landscape as an operative tool to resist the globalizing and homogenizing tendencies of built environments has provided a platform for the conceptual evolution of landscape urbanism.’[1]

The origins of this ‘conceptual evolution’ are located in Frampton’s essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’,[2] in which he draws upon the following passage from phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur’s History and Truth to establish the basis for his ‘arriere-garde’ position against the putatively homogenizing effects of globalization:

The phenomenon of universalization, while being an advancement of mankind, at the same time constitutes a sort of subtle destruction, not only of traditional cultures, which might not be an irreparable wrong, but also of what I shall call for the time being the creative nucleus of great cultures, that nucleus on the basis of which we interpret life, what I shall call in advance the ethical and mythical nucleus of mankind.[3]

Concurring with Ricoeur’s assessment of the destructive effects of globalization, whilst being less ambivalent about the ‘wrongness’ of this development, Frampton wrote that  ‘the ground in which the mytho-ethical nucleus of a society might take root has become eroded by the rapacity of development.’[4] Adopting this position for the practice of landscape urbanism, Shannon, writing with Bruno De Meulder, has argued that the ‘marvelous civilizations’ of the past produced an ‘indigenous landscape urbanism’:

In general terms, they inscribed themselves within landscapes where the slightest differences of topography and relation to hydrology was [sic] all-important – both pragmatically and symbolically. The built and unbuilt environments worked as an ecosystem. Man adapted to the environment, through patient, pragmatic adjustment to circumstances with sophisticated means and logics that worked with nature. Indigenous landscape urbanism created marvelous civilizations – whereby the landscape was the strategic asset for development.[5]

In praise of the ‘indigenous traditions’ whereby symbolism, myth, and religious law were, Shannon claims, inseparable parts of an ‘ecosystem’ joined to the landscape and hydrology of South Asia, she has argued that these should thus form the basis for future urban development: ‘In order for future urbanization and strategies to be in congruence with nature’s natural rhythms, serious investigation of pre-existing elements and history of specific sites will be increasingly necessary.’[6]

This concept of originary ecological balance, sustained by ancient mythic and religious practice, has also been promoted by Chinese landscape urbanist Kongjian Yu as the basis for the discipline’s future orientation. In his essay ‘Five Traditions for Landscape Urbanism Thinking’,[7] Yu argues for the continued relevance of ancient traditions of geomancy, such as feng-shui and Qi, to the demands of contemporary urban planning. Only such traditions, he argues, with their ‘cultural heritage and spiritual bearings’, and not, for example, the consideration of contemporary demographic factors, are adequate to the ‘challenges and needs of the ecological and sustainable urban form and development.’[8]

The reversion to the mythic and traditional in Critical Regionalist landscape urbanism is also sustained by the appeal to the concrete specificity of place, as opposed to the abstract generality of space, made by Frampton (drawing upon Heidegger’s ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’) in his ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’ essay: ‘Against the Latin or, rather, the antique abstract concept of space as a more or less endless continuum of evenly subdivided spatial components or integers-what he terms spatium and extensio-Heidegger opposes the German word for space (or, rather, place), which is the term Raum.[9]

Spatium and extensio represent for Heidegger abstract reason’s degradation of the ‘nature’ of space to a matter of quantitative calculation, where ‘nearness and remoteness between men and things can become mere distance’, where ‘the mere dimensions of height, breadth and depth can be abstracted from space as intervals.’[10] By Raum, in contrast, Heidegger understands space locationally, as place, and, archaically, as a ‘primal oneness’ in which ‘earth and sky, divinities and mortals belong together’. Only in space as Raum can ‘dwelling’ occur, and only in dwelling can ‘Being’, or Dasein, be: ‘Dwelling…is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist.’[11] Heidegger, further defines being and dwelling in their ‘nature’, as fixed in place, as a ‘stay among things and locations’[12] which must be clearly bounded:

Raum means a place cleared or freed for settlement and lodging. A space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary, Greek peras.  A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.[13]

Whilst acknowledging that ‘we may well remain skeptical as to the merit of grounding critical practice in a concept so hermetically metaphysical as Being’, Frampton nonetheless proposes the adoption of Heidegger’s conception of Raum as the only basis on which the putatively abstract and homogenizing forces of globalization can be resisted:

…we are, when confronted with the ubiquitous placelessness of our modern environment, nonetheless brought to posit, after Heidegger, the absolute precondition of a bounded domain in order to create an architecture of resistance. Only such a defined boundary will permit the built form to stand against—and hence literally to withstand in an institutional sense—the endless processal flux of the Megalopolis.[14]

It is this Heideggerian formulation of space, refracted through Frampton’s Critical Regionalism, that is posited by Shannon and others as the basis for landscape urbanism’s ‘conceptual evolution’. With its conception of the archaic nature of ‘place‘ and the ‘primal oneness’ of dwelling, however, it serves only to obscure the real conditions and possibilities immanent to large-scale and contemporary territorial transformations within a mythic, ahistorical and abstract concept of spatial essence.

The critique produced of Heidegger’s Dasein by Theodor Adorno remains pertinent to the concept’s adoption within landscape urbanism. In its essentialization of Being, Heidegger’s philosophy substitutes for an historical account of its determinant material conditions an ahistorical concept of its givenness within the ‘timeless’ time of the mythic and archaic: ‘There is no other way to break out of history than through regression. Its goal, the oldest of all, is not what is true but the absolute appearance [Schein], the obtuse entanglement in a nature, whose impenetrable opacity merely parodies the supernatural.’[15] As Heidegger ‘plunges with a Wellesian time-machine into the abyss of archaicism’, towards a mythos of Being, his thought itself operates mythologically: ‘It presumes to a mythological condition, as if this were even possible, without itself being the same thing.’[16] Not only is history subsumed within Dasein, but nature too is mythologized as an archaic and ahistorical essence: ‘By it [nature] is meant what has always been, what as fatefully arranged predetermined being.’[17] ‘Nature’, as mythic essence, predetermines ‘dwelling’ as a matter of staying ‘among things and locations’ within a bounded space.

The consequence of this mythic essentialization of history and nature, of the ‘obtuse entanglement’ of both within Being, is that this unchanging, unconditioned essence is valorized over any historically and materially conditioned change or alternative. Dasein, Raum and ‘dwelling’ become Platonic absolutes that imply ‘that what is imperishable must be the good; which says nothing more than, whoever is currently mightier in a permanent state of war is right.’  They attest to the ‘naked affirmation of what it is anyway: the affirmation of power.’[18]

It is precisely this mythic affirmation of an archaic essence of being and dwelling, ‘in balance with nature’, that is reproduced in Shannon’s account of the ‘marvelous civilizations’ of the past and Yu’s advocacy of the ‘spiritual bearings’ of geomancy. The historical emergence of globalization, mobility,  ‘universal technology’ and its ‘homogenizing’ consequences can only appear, from this perspective, as aberrant disruptions to the timeless essence of dwelling and thus must be resisted absolutely. Concealed within these accounts of a mythic essence, however, are the concrete historical determinations of ancient civilizations and religions, and the conflicts and tensions always immanent to their existence.

As Walter Benjamin famously observed, in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’[19] It would not be difficult to illustrate Benjamin’s thesis with respect to examples drawn from Shannon’s canon of ‘marvelous civilizations’ that include the Khmer Empire of Cambodia, and the Teotihuacan and Inca Empires of Mesoamerica. Of the last, for example, it is well established that it was an imperial power which came to regional dominance through its seizure by military force of the lands of other tribes, dispossessed and displaced their populations, was structured around a rigidly hierarchical caste system, and practiced ritual human sacrifice in accordance with its mythic beliefs.

The larger point to be made here is that where Critical Regionalist landscape urbanism seeks to validate Heidegger’s ahistorical and essentialized relation of Dasein to Raum, of being to place, through specific historical examples, it exposes itself, through critique, to the unravelling of the strict opposition it seeks to maintain between a mythically harmonious past and an aberrant modernity. In their historical specificity supposed exemplars of ‘working with nature’ tend to reveal the action of despots and colonizers no less concerned with mobility, expansion, cultural homogenization or technological uniformity than those of their counterparts within contemporary globalization.

There is in Critical Regionalist landscape urbanism also a failure to reflect historically upon the limitations of its own discourse. As Fredric Jameson, in his essay ‘The Constraints of Postmodernism’, already observed in 1994:

…the very concept and programme of Critical Regionalism reflects its moment in history, and in particular expresses the pathos of a situation in which the possibility of a radical alternative to late capitalist technologies (in both architecture and urbanism alike) has decisively receded. Here not the emergent but the residual is emphasized (out of historical necessity), and the theoretical problem is at one with a political one, namely, how to fashion a progressive strategy out of what are necessarily the materials of tradition and nostalgia?[20]

This theoretical problem is compounded too by the fact that rather than straightforwardly producing an homogenized ‘placeless’ condition across the globe, contemporary processes of urbanization have been driven for some time by a logic of ‘place-making’ in which difference and ‘identity’ are commercially valorized. As David Harvey has argued in his analysis of the ‘new urban entrepreneurialism’, its strategies of accumulation rest on the ‘speculative construction of place rather than amelioration of conditions within a particular territory as its immediate…political and economic goal.’[21] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have also identified the  ‘place-specific’ as a ‘locational asset’ to processes of neoliberal urban restructuring.[22] Hence the representation and reproduction of regionally specific built forms, tectonic methods or infrastructural techniques central to Critical Regionalism may now serve, rather than as a mode of resistance to globalization, as an instrument of its realization.

Jameson also observes, in his ‘The Constraints of Postmodernism’, that Critical Regionalism’s concept of the spatial as abstract is itself an abstraction. Frampton, he notes, ‘does not engage with the idea of the spatial, save to observe everything that is abstract about it (when contrasted to place): an abstraction in the concept that itself replicates abstraction in the instrumental relationship to the world.’[23] In ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’ Frampton contends that contemporary civilization, in the process of its development, operates through ‘instrumental reason’ where everything, including space, is treated as a ‘means to an end’.[24] Here Jameson’s challenge to Frampton, in suggesting the instrumentality of his own concept of space, echoes Adorno’s critique of all conceptual thought as such.

The concept, for Adorno, operates as a mode of instrumental thought since it subsumes its specific object within a generic category. The particularities of the object, those that differ from and disagree with conceptual categorization must be repressed so as to maintain the identity between concept and object that is the basis of its instrumental reason. Conceptual thought, as a mode of abstraction, cannot admit what does not agree with it into thought: ‘the movement of abstraction allows us to get rid of that from which we abstract. It is eliminated from our thought, banished from the realm where thought is at home’.[25] The thought of Critical Regionalism, in its identification of ‘place’ with ‘being’, and in its concept of space as an abstract homogeneity determines a Manichean concept of territories where only the mythic, the traditional and the fixity of relations between people and land are valorized. What does not fall within this concept of space is not to be addressed in its specificity, but simply resisted. It is, as Shannon remarks, simply ‘junk’ which is, in her account of landscape urbanism’s proper practice, to be distinguished from the ‘intelligence of the place’.


[1] Kelly Shannon, ‘From Theory to Resistance: Landscape Urbanism in Europe’ in Charles Waldheim, editor, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 144.

[2] Kenneth Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, in The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture,  (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 17-34.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Bruno De Meulder and Kelly Shannon, ‘Traditions of Landscape Urbanism’, in Topos, 71, (2010), 70.

[6] Kelly Shannon, ‘South Asian Hydraulic Civilizations’ in Kelly Shannon, Bruno Fe Meulder, Viviana d’Auria, Janina Gosseye, editors, Water Urbanisms, (Amsterdam: Martien de Vletter, SUN, 2008), 57.

[7] Kongjian Yu, ‘Five Traditions for Landscape Urbanism Thinking’, in Topos, 71, (2010), 58-63.

[8] Ibid., 62.

[9] Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’, 27.

[10] Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, dwelling, thinking’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 153.

[11] Ibid., 158.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid., 152.

[14] Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’, 26.

[15] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, translated by E.B. Ashton, (New York and London: Continuum, 1973), 106.

[16] Ibid., 118.

[17] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Idea of Natural History’ in Robert Hullot-Kentor, editor, Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) 111.

[18] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 131.

[19] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 256.

[20] Fredric Jameson, ‘The Constraints of Postmodernism’, in Neil Leach, editor, Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) 253.

[21] David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism” in  Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 71, No.1, The Roots of Geographical Change: 1973 to the Present. (1989), 8.

[22] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “From the “New Localism” to the Spaces of Neoliberalism” in Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), v.

[23] Jameson, ‘Constraints of Postmodernism’, 250.

[24] Frampton, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’, 19.

[25] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 135.

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