Critical Grounds

Month: May, 2012

Habitable walls: Fortress Architecture

Dunnottar (“fort on the shelving slope”) Medieval Castle, Kincardineshire, Scotland

No Room for the Weak: Form, Process and the Existential Territory of Landscape Urbanism

I was asked last year by landscape urbanism.com to write an essay for them. After an initially enthusiastic response they are no longer communicating with me. So I’m posting the essay here. Comments, as ever, would be much appreciated.

No Room for the Weak: Form, Process and the Existential Territory of Landscape Urbanism

Introduction

In his essay ‘Weak Work: Andrea Branzi’s “Weak Metropolis” and the Projective Potential of an “Ecological Urbanism”,’ Charles Waldheim laments the fact that ‘design culture has been depoliticized, distanced from the empirical and objective conditions of urban life.’[1] Of the ‘Ecological Urbanism’ proposed by Mohsen Mostafavi, and pursued through the conference and book of this title (to which Waldheim’s essay is a contribution), he hopes that it may ‘reanimate discussions of sustainability with the political, social, cultural, and critical potentials that have been drained from them,’ and that it might challenge the ‘historical opposition’ that ‘has produced a contemporary condition in which ecological function, social justice, and cultural literacy are perceived by many as mutually exclusive.’[2] In his attempt to elaborate how ‘Ecological Urbanism’ might achieve this critically integrative function Waldheim turns to the example of Andrea Branzi’s ‘Weak Metropolis’, the ‘non-figurative’ urbanism of Archizoom’s ‘No-Stop City’ and the interest in ‘field conditions’ and logistics that this project apparently inspired in figures such as Stan Allen, James Corner and Alejandro Zaera-Polo.[3] All of these figures are, of course, central to development of landscape urbanism. Rather than answering to Waldheim’s concerns, to which I am highly sympathetic, however, their models of practice are themselves, I will argue here, a significant obstacle to the development of a practice critically engaged with the integration of both ecology and social justice within its agenda. Beginning, in the first part of this essay, with a critique of Branzi’s ‘weak’ urbanism and the ‘field’ model promulgated by Allen and others within landscape urbanism, I then turn, in its second part, to argue for the architectural treatment of the ground as a means both to challenge the imperatives of neoliberal modes of urbanization, and, following the thought of Paulo Virno, of giving concrete and sensuous form to the abstract processes that traverse its terrain.

No-Stopping the city

Archizoom Associati’s ‘No-Stop City’ (1968-71) project is represented as a series of continuous urban fields programmed for efficiency, voided of ‘figurative’ architecture, and articulated in the dry code of typewritten keystrokes registered within an orthogonal grid (figure 1.) As a project, its purpose is somewhat enigmatic. On the one hand it does, as Waldheim observes, ‘illustrate an urbanism of continuous mobility, fluidity, and flux.’[4] It is not so clear, however, that the project straightforwardly ‘prefigured’, as he adds, ‘current attention to describing the relentlessly horizontal field conditions of the modern metropolis as a surface shaped by the strong forces of economic and ecological flows.’ Further, and taking cognizance of the fact the project was not under the sole authorship of Branzi, but also of other members of Archizoom who were directly connected with the autonomist Marxism of Operaism — the architects Gilberto Corretti and Massimo Morozzi[5] — it seems unlikely that it can be read as a simple affirmation of ‘horizontal field conditions’. Much of the political thought of Operaism, and later Post-Operaism, was, after all, concerned with a direct critique of the conditions of post-fordism emerging in Italy and elsewhere from the late ‘60s onwards, with the fashion, that is, in which the entire urban terrain had been instrumentalized according to the logic of a new mode of production in which, flexibility, connectivity, mobility and communication assumed ever greater importance: the so-called ‘social factory’.[6] In this respect ‘No-Stop City’ appears, rather than a simple affirmation, illustration or description of such processes as are essential to the logic of post-fordism, as a critique of this logic; one achieved by driving it to such an extreme that the absurdity of its premises are clearly revealed. ‘No-Stop City’ may thus be read as consistent with the broader tactics of Operaism and their attempts, working from within capitalism, to ‘make the brain of the system mad.’  Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, for example, read the project in precisely this way:

No-stop City was not an avant-garde project, nor it was an anti-modernist project, but a hypothesis that attempted to bring to radical terms the very premises of modernity: the project for a generic city in which living is reduced to biopolitical mechanisms of production and reproduction.

 For this reason No-Stop City should be read as the continuation (and critical exaggeration) of the urban research tradition undertaken by planners such as Ildefonso Cerdà in the 19th century and Ludwig Hilberseimer in the first half of the 20th century.[7]

 

Understood from this perspective ‘No-Stop City’ indicates a critique of the urban as a horizontal articulation of economic and managerial stratagems, as opposed to the pseudo-naturalistic discourse in which this articulation has, more recently, been affirmatively glossed as a ‘field’ of ecological processes. Aureli and Tattara’s comments, in linking ‘No-Stop City’ with the projects of Hilberseimer and Cerda, also suggest that this ‘field condition’, in which process is everything and form, particularly architectural form, is nothing, is not a discovery attributable to landscape urbanism, nor a phenomenon which appears for the first time in the late-twentieth century.

Flat Out to the Neoliberal City

That the urban has only in recent years been transformed, from a form composed of static architectural objects, into a ‘field’ of processes, networks, mobility and infrastructural connectivity, constitutes something like a founding myth for landscape urbanism. In his essay ‘Field Conditions’,[8] Stan Allen — a figure significant not only to the development of landscape urbanism but notable for his contributions to the ‘post-critical‘ discourse in architecture — locates the emergence of what he identifies as a generalized shift from ‘object to field’ amidst the science, technology and culture of the postwar period of the twentieth century. Citing as examples of this shift scientific theories of complexity, the turn from analog to digital technologies and post-minimalist sculpture, Allen defines this ‘field condition’ as one of ‘loosely bound aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity…bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.’[9] The use of these concepts in design, which Allen then recommends, places it, he argues, ‘in contact with the real’.[10]

Alex Wall, in an essay equally significant to the theoretical development of landscape urbanism, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’, writes that with contemporary urbanization, ‘infrastructures and flows of material have become more significant than static political and spatial boundaries…The emphasis shifts here from forms of urban space to processes of urbanization’.[11] Consequently, he continues, we are now experiencing ‘a fundamental paradigm shift from viewing cities in formal terms to looking at them in dynamic ways. Hence, familiar urban typologies of square, park, district, and so on are of less use or significance than are the infrastructures, network flows, ambiguous spaces, and other polymorphous conditions that constitute the contemporary metropolis.[12]

The paradigms of fluidity, interconnectivity and process promoted by figures such as Allen and Wall echo the conception of ‘weak urbanism’ formulated by Andrea Branzi who introduces the concept in his essay ‘A Strong Century’ as follows:

Gianni Vattimo was the first to talk about a weak thought, that is, a type of hermeneutics that develops without looking to the great syntheses of the twentieth century, or to the unifying systems of politics and projects that were typical of classic modernism. Instead this hermeneutics proceeds following more incomplete, imperfect, disarticulated types of cognizance and transformation, which are more ductile and therefore able to absorb the new and confront the surprises and complexities that this produces.[13]

 

Further describing his model of ‘weakness’, he writes that ‘it does not imply…any negative value of inefficiency or inability; this indicates rather a particular process of modification and cognition that follows natural logic, not geometrical logic — diffuse, diluted processes, reversible and self-stabilizing strategies.’[14] The ductile, reversible and fluid qualities of Branzi’s model of urbanism are further elaborated through his adoption of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of a ‘Liquid Modernity’ of which writes:

For Bauman, the term “liquid” positively indicates the idea of a state of material that does not possess its own form (rather, that of its container) and tends to follow a temporal flow of transformations, These conditions converge to describe “the nature of the current, and in many respects new phase of the history of modernism.”[15]

Whereas ‘No-Stop City’, the collective work of Archizoom, can be read as critique, through hyperbolic exaggeration, of urbanism as a (re)programmable surface subject to continuous transformation in the interests of changing modes of production and reproduction, the later work and thought of Branzi, independent of the Associati, appears, then, to affirm their operation as the paradigm to which urban design must accommodate itself.

 

Rather than novel, concerns over networked connectivity, mobility and infrastructural relations over those of urban form are, in fact, constitutive of modern urbanism at its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. ‘For urbanization, form is nothing’ wrote Ildefons Cerdà, in his General Theory of Urbanization of 1869, ‘adequate and perfect satisfaction of human needs is everything.’[16] The purpose of urbanization, he asserted, was to ‘fulfill the aim of establishing relations and communications among the shelters.’[17]  The movement and coordination of pedestrians and traffic flows was one of the chief concerns for Cerdà in his planning of the expansion of Barcelona as an urban circulatory system, and his then controversial refusal to accommodate within his grid such conventional city forms such as large public plazas — which he viewed as outdated relics of older, pre-democratic, modes of city governance — already transcended the ‘familiar urban typologies of square, park, district’ which Allen argues need now to be left behind.

The tendency to misrepresent contemporary processes of urbanization as entirely novel and uniquely concerned with connectivity, mobility and process follows from landscape urbanism’s general failure adequately to engage with questions of urban political economy, governance and the historical resonance of these matters. The privileging of circulation over form, as epitomized in the work of Cerdà, emerged in response to historically specific economic and governmental imperatives, which demanded the rapid and large-scale transformation of territories from the largely self-contained cities of the older monarchical, and autocratic regimes to the connective urban systems of bourgeois capitalism. What we are witnessing now is the re-emergence of imperatives towards circulation, mobility and connectivity, under determinate historical circumstances through which they are intensified in scope and extent, rather than their first appearance as an absolutely ‘new condition’ or ‘paradigm shift’.

Rather than focusing upon the ‘newness’ of the paradigm of process over form, of mobility over stasis, with which landscape urbanism has been concerned, or with the concomitant argument that design accommodate itself to this revelation, what is surely vital, as a basis for achieving any critical agency, is to question why, how, and in what interests this paradigm has re-emerged. In this respect the Operaist and Post-Operaist currents of radical Italian thought, with which Branzi’s colleagues were at one time associated, offer a sustained analysis of the conditions of post-fordism through which these questions can be approached. .

Whereas the appearance of the term ‘post-fordism’ most likely implies, to those familiar with the discourse of landscape urbanism, the post-industrial conditions of the North America industrial city, as documented in Stalking Detroit,[18] to thinkers such as Maurizio Lazzarato, Paulo Virno, Franco Beradi, and Antonio Negri, it suggests neither the end of labor nor a depopulation of the city that would render it ripe for a non-figurative ‘landscaping’. Rather, post-fordism implies, within this current of thought, new modes of labor, and the reorganization of the movements of the urban population. In these conditions communication assumes ever-greater significance as a source of value to capital, as the means to research, organize, develop and deliver the products of the service, leisure and creative industries, as well as the means to integrate the intellectual and affective competences of the worker within the new managerial practices of more traditional industries.[19] What this development has suggested to the thinkers of Post-Operaism (as well, of course, as to figures such as Gilles Deleuze in his conceptualization of a ‘control society’,[20] and to Michel Foucault in his work on neo-liberal modes of governmentality[21]), is that rather than seeking to discipline and confine subjects within specific roles and places, capital, as a power of social and spatial organization, now seeks to mobilize and connect them. Within this new organizational paradigm — the ‘social factory’ described above — the subject must acquire competences in communicational and affective performance, networking abilities, and a disposition toward flexibility and adaptability.  These traits constitute the requisite survival skills with which the subject of contemporary urban life must be equipped, and are to be exercised at any and every opportunity throughout the social ‘field’. Hence, it is under these specific conditions that imperatives towards circulation, mobility and interconnectivity, which are in any case inherent to urbanism as a system of management, re-emerge, though now with intensified in scope and significance. Whereas the urbanism of Cerdà was focused upon the organization of a territory as a connective system in which all of its social, technological, infrastructural and economic processes communicated in an integrated fashion, contemporary urbanism proposes as well the more direct management of the subject, whose mobilization, both inside and outside of the factory or the office, is a source of value to capital. The production of subjectivity constitutes a further process to be incorporated within its systemic organization. Moreover this power to produce subjects with the requisite skills and dispositions to function for the conditions established within post-fordism appears not to originate from any hierarchical power, but rather to emerge from the environment itself, as a series of locally embedded operations, often taking the form of smoothly managed and porous transitions between the different spaces, structures and programs of the urban. The privileging of horizontal connectivity, in other words, establishes the ‘field conditions’ through which the mobility, networking and flexibility prescribed within post-fordist and neoliberal modes of governmentality might function.

Additionally, urbanized territories are now themselves also subjected to the imperatives of flexibility, in which their systems may be dismantled, reassembled or ‘made over’, so as to serve the interests of what David Harvey has defined as ‘urban entrepreneurialism’. Following a period of relative stability around the mid-twentieth century, when the purely economic valorization of the city was to some extent held in check by Keynesian and social democratic modes of governance, neoliberal imperatives have sought to transform the urban into a pure space of capital accumulation and corporate managerialism. As urban theorists Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have argued:

In a geoeconomic context defined by massive upheavals of entrenched scalar relations, local (and regional) spaces are now being viewed as key institutional arenas for a wide range of policy experiments and political strategies. These include new entrepreneurial approaches to local economic development as well as diverse programs of institutional restructuring intended to enhance labor market flexibility, territorial competitiveness, and place-specific locational assets.[22]

The mechanisms of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism demand for their purposes the erasure not only of the built environment produced to sustain earlier modes of production, but also the older regulatory mechanisms of the management of the city invested in civic authorities. Through such processes of ‘creative destruction’ urban space can be made fully accessible to speculative development with its ‘creation of privatized, customized, and networked urban infrastructures intended to (re)position cities within supranational capital flows’, and its projects of ‘place-making’, urban regeneration, mega-events, etc. through which urban space is rendered ‘competitive’ and ‘marketable’.[23]

Natural’s Not in it[24]

This, then, is the ‘real’ which the adoption of processual, mobile and locally interconnected paradigms recommended by Allen, Branzi and others puts us ‘in contact’ with. Rather than bluntly stated, or even recognized, as an accommodation to prevailing modes of production, governmentality and managerialism, though, the discourse of landscape urbanism, alongside that of its cognate practices, has more typically sought to present its ‘new paradigms’ as a progression towards an ecologically framed model of ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’. This is evident, for example, within Allen’s ‘Field Conditions’ essay where he proposes to understand ‘flocks, schools, swarms and crowds’ as ‘field phenomena’ whose behavior may be collectively accounted for within the science of ‘chaos theory’.[25] Branzi, in an essay titled ‘Fuzzy Thinking’, has argued that the complexity of nature revealed by recent developments in mathematics, ‘pushed by the influence of Eastern Cultures’, presents an ‘evolved model to imitate in the process of building the new’, one which constitutes a ‘new naturalism’.[26]

This ‘naturalism’ is, in fact, an act of naturalization through which the interests and agency of various entrepreneurial, corporate, political, governmental, and managerial actors are rendered obscure by the ambience of ‘self-organization’ and ‘complexity’ in which they are diffused. In this sense the ‘new naturalism’ is not ‘natural’ at all but itself a form of political agency. Pursuing this point, Timothy Morton, in his Ecology Without Nature, provides a brilliantly astute reading of how the discourse of ‘emergence’, in which paradigm the behaviors of weather systems, ant colonies, stock markets and public crowds, for example, can be conveniently collapsed, constitutes the ‘ultimate aestheticization of politics’ where ‘we can sit back, relax, and let the automated process of self-organizing labor do it for us.’[27] ‘Far from appearing in their uniqueness, difference and strangeness’ he continues, ‘animals and the weather stand in for an all-too-human politics.’[28] Developing his argument further, Morton goes on to suggest that the laissez faire disposition resulting from the rhetoric of ‘self-organization’ places the environmental artist in the position of a ‘facilitator’ of his or her project who relinquishes the determination of a fixed outcome to the ‘genius’ of ‘emergence’.[29] It might well be argued that this problematic extends as well to the practice of design, where the apparent humility of leaving the future development of a project to unforeseen, spontaneous and emergent conditions may, in actuality, merely gesture to the surrender of any control over its future to urban entrepreneurial investment strategies. Not only is the critical agency of the designer surrendered in this scenario, but the subject as an urban actant, as a political animal, disappears into a barely conscious ‘swarm’. The urban subject is, as described by Branzi, so much ‘plankton’.[30]

Any critical potential that might be sought within landscape urbanism, or its allied disciplines and practices, would need then to recognize, in the first instance, that much of the discourse with which it has thus far been invested presents an obstacle to this objective.  The re-politicization of design would require that designers adopt an approach whereby their projects are oriented not toward the pursuit of ‘new paradigms’, such as those that stress process over form, or mobility over stasis, to which they should accommodate themselves, but instead to the analysis of the conditions in to which they are to intervene, and through the critical self-questioning of their own agendas, agencies and capacities in regard to these. This would further require, in respect of the very pertinent issue of the relation between ecological thought and the ‘objective conditions of urban life’ raised by Waldheim, that their current configuration is radically rethought. Whereas, as Morton argues, the radical difference of ‘nature’ is at present reductively pressed into service as a mirror through which capital’s own mechanisms are reflected as aesthetic phenomena, any critical understanding of the relationship between ecology and the ‘objective conditions of urban life’ would need to denaturalize both in order to understand their relations as dialectically produced and as always involving the investments of interested parties.

New ways of thinking about practice, however critically motivated or conceptually informed, are, of course, insufficient by themselves to realize the potential for a critical engagement with the issues addressed here in the practice of design. In respect of this, the second part of this essay will explore the question of how landscape urbanism might realize, or at least fruitfully explore, this potential through its engagement with a concern which has been generally neglected within its own discipline, namely that of form.


[1] Charles Waldheim, ‘Weak Work: Andrea Branzi’s “Weak Metropolis” and the Projective Potential of an “Ecological Urbanism”’, in Ecological Urbanism, Mohsen Mostafavi with Gareth Doherty, eds. Baden: Lars Muller, 2010, p. 115

[2] Ibid., p. 115

[3] Ibid., p. 117

[4] Ibid., p. 117

[5] Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism, New York: Buell Center/FORuM Project and Princeton Architectural Press, 2008, p. 85

[6] See, in addition to Aureli’s The Project of Autonomy, Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2002, and Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e),  2007

[7] Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, ‘Stop City’, accessedat <http://www.gizmoweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/stop-city_dogma.pdf> September 13, 2011

[8] Stan Allen, ‘Field Conditions’ in Points + Lines, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

[9] Ibid., 92.

[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Alex Wall, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’ in James Corner, editor, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999,

[12] Ibid., p. 234

[13] Andrea Branzi, ‘A Strong Century’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity: The World of Projects at the Beginning of the 21st Century, trans. Alta Price, Milan: Skira, 2006, pp. 14-15

[14] Ibid., p. 14

[15] Ibid., p. 20

[16] Ildefonso Cerdà, The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, ed. Arturo Soria y

Puig, trans. Bernard Miller and Mary Fons i Fleming, Madrid: Electa España, 1999, 50.

[17] Ibid., p. 44

[18] Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim, and Jason Young, editors Stalking Detroit, Barcelona: Actar, 2001

[19] See, for a more detailed analysis of the relations between new managerial practices and the spatial production of a ‘community’ of workers, Spencer, Douglas Spencer, ‘Replicant urbanism: the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building at BMW, Leipzig’, The Journal of Architecture, 15: 2, 2010, pp. 181 — 207

[20] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, in Negotiations, 1972-1990, New York ; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1995

[21] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France,1978-79, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell,  Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

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

[23] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore ‘Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”, in Brenner and Theodore, Ibid., 23.

[24] The title of a song by the British punk/funk band ‘Gang of Four’ from their album Entertainment! of 1979. It features the lyrics:

Natural is not in it

Your relations are of power

We all have good intentions

But all with strings attached

[25] Allen, ‘Field Conditions’ in Points + Lines, op. cit., p. 99. On the evidence of a lecture widely toured by Allen titled ‘Before and After Landscape Urbanism’ during 2009 and 2010, he appears more uncertain as to the validity of this concepts, though without offering any explicit or critical challenge to them.

[26] Andrea Branzi, ‘Fuzzy Thinking’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity, op. cit.,  p. 29

[27] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, p 189

[28] Ibid., p. 189

[29] Ibid., p. 190

[30] Andrea Branzi, ‘The Man Without Quantities’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity, op. cit.,  p. 29