Critical Grounds

Month: January, 2012

The High Line

Some photos I took of, and from, the High Line in Manhattan January 21, 2012.

Landscape and Critical Agency Symposium

I am co-organising, with Murray Fraser, Tim Waterman and Ed Wall, and speaking at, a one-day symposium on ‘Landscape and Critical Agency’ at UCL on 17th February. Details of registration (attendance is free) and the blog for the symposium below.

REGISTRATION:  Attendance is free but spaces must be reserved in

advance at  (INCLUDES



My contribution is titled ‘Landscape, Agency, and Artifice’. Here’s the abstract for it:

The potential for critical agency within the design and transformation of large-scale territories is compromised by the very models it tends currently to employ within its own discourse and practice. From Ian McHarg’s ‘Ecological Determinism’, through Stan Allen’s ‘Field Conditions’ to Andrea Branzi’s ‘Weak Urbanism’, design theory has been extensively concerned with identifying models of natural, complex or ecological process to which design must accommodate itself. Concepts of emergence and self-organisation, ‘flat’ ontologies (Manuel DeLanda), and actor-network theories (Bruno Latour), for example, figure prominently in design as models to be affirmed and imitated.

Whilst the employment of these models has, at least apparently, been driven by the desire to render design adequate to the complexity and urgency of the contemporary conditions it faces, the effect, at times deliberate, has been to obscure questions of power, control and capital, and, as well, the conscious agency and responsibility of the designer. Through the discursive and aesthetic gloss of self-organisation and emergence, for example, ‘nature’, is pressed into service to naturalise new modes of governmentality, control, and management that are based on the interactions of swarm-modelled subjects. DeLanda and Latour, furthermore, have both situated their theories in explicit opposition to the need for, or even the possibility of, critique.

Rather than affirmation, in this case of a nature or ‘reality’ posited as already given and ideal, critical agency demands reflective thought and its capacity for refusal. As Adorno wrote in his Negative Dialectics, ‘Thought as such, before all particular contents, is an act of negation, of resistance to that which is forced upon it…’ One of the immediate concerns of a critically agentic approach to landscape would, then, be the critique of the models of nature, ecology and ontology that currently circumscribe its potentials. This is the concern with which this paper is principally engaged.

In the process of its elaboration, this critique will be inflected through a reading, against the grain, of McHarg’s essay ‘Ecological Determinism’ (1966), and its arguments that ‘ecology become the basis for modern interventions’ within environmental transformations, and that figures such as Capability Brown represented the first move in such a direction. Where, for McHarg, the ‘artifice’ practiced by Brown, and other eighteenth century English landscape architects, is only the meansthrough which an ideal of nature and ecology is, ‘realized’, artifice will be reread here as the very essence of landscape through which its mediation of the social, the natural and the ‘real’ can be critically conceived and, within contemporary conditions, practiced.