Temporal Mutability: Post-Structuralism and the Indeterminate in the Discourse of Landscape Urbanism

3 05 2008


Against Determinism

Cedric Price, in his analogy of the city as an egg, describes the ancient city as a boiled egg, still encased in its shell, alluding to the organisational structure of a nucleus within a perimeter wall. The industrialised cities of the 17th to 19th centuries were analogised as a sunny-side-up — a clear centre and a more fluid periphery. And Price sees the modern city as akin to a scrambled egg, without a clear organisational structure.

To take this idea further, I would argue that it is not so much the modern city than the post-modern city that takes on this structure of interoperability between the different areas and transmuted spaces between them. Specifically, the modern city, or the post-industrial metropolis of the twentieth century, is still one planned with a clear organisational framework. While perhaps not one based on a centralised node, as efficient transportation reduces the need for physical proximity and post-industrial commerce has a reduced dependency on the transfer of physical materiel, there are still distinct centres of commerce within this model of the modern city.

Commercial districts, shopping belts, goods and sundry areas; there are still vestiges of structural nodes in the modern city, nodes servicing different segments of the city’s needs and locales, but nodes nonetheless. Given the need for a brick and mortar entity, businesses and services intuitively congregated towards several centralised locations distributed around the city. Around them, other related businesses located themselves, forming a symbiosis of commercial activity.

Traditional planning ideologies and strategies were centred around such a model of the city and the relationship of the residents and the commerce. Emphasis was given to creating efficient infrastructure that service these nodes, linking them into a network of energy and materiel flows. This Fordist ideal of creating compact, efficient and multi-centred cities permeated city planning ideologues, and planners were seized by a delusion of megalomania, all seeking to create utopias of highly efficient transportation, mile-high skyscrapers to better contain and compact the nodes, and myriad retail and recreation options to distract the city dwellers (Waldheim, 2001).

The modern city ideal was an economists’ wet dream — cores and conurbations of economic and materiel flux, each node generating its own economic field of exchange, and the myriad cores coming together to contribute collectively to the output of the city. Yet this Fordist dream became a dystopia of urban realities; flagrant corruption within the management of each node, sub-cores that, once the commercial activity within runs its course, become nearly impossible to rehabilitate because they are too tightly integrated with infrastructure to allow for much flexibility, and the degenerative effect the growth of additional cores have on existing residential fabric as they are encroached by developmental pressure as well as the expansion of the inner city.

Yet as the twentieth century wore on, the introduction of information technology created a shift from the econo-centric dialectic materialism or Vulgar Marxism of industrialised capitalist cities to a degenerated post-Fordist city of singularities. Physical proximity and concentrations of material cease to have the same importance as the earlier models. Commercial activity can take place regardless of physical localities — information can be readily exchanged between different geographic locations, products can be ordered and sent from anywhere to everywhere — centres which once were important nodes within the structure of the city degenerated as those activities that are plugged into the internet cease to be located in the land-scarce, programatically restrictive nodes, instead relocating to areas where operations can be more flexibly programmed.

In global context, each city came to take on its own speciality. From the financial centres of New York or London to the manufacturing bases in southern China, the global economy created cities which are not self-sufficient materially, but, by being plugged into the global network, can import what they need, and exporting key services that other cities or economies lack. These cities, or singularities, come together to form an intricately woven meshwork of interdependency, where a single change in a point on the mesh can have far-reaching effects. Like a non-Cartesian reality, this meshwork eschews linearity in favour of trans-dimensional connections, where the fastest way to receive information is not linearly from point A to B but by warping the space upon which points A and B exist in and superimposing them onto each other (De Landa, 2000).

This new city model needs to maintain a level of flexibility and adaptability, as the meshwork is in constant flux, dynamically changing as changes occur in any of the connections. Traditional deterministic models fail to adapt quickly enough; infrastructure is resource-intensive and time consuming to reorganise and, given the tight integration of each of the different nodes and centres of activity within traditional modern cities, impossible to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances. It is the post-modern city’s ability to reconfigure itself, the abandonment of deterministic planning and the transmutability of spaces to adept to any programme or structure that ensures the city’s survival in the global economy.

The world is still transiting from a modern city to that of the post-modern. Even though information technology has become prevalent and indispensable in modern day life and economic exchanges, and has generally defined the reality within the financial sectors, manufacturing and industrial development within a city has yet to catch up to this paradigm shift. The transport and exchange of raw material is still not instantaneous, and is unlikely to ever be. This contradiction results in a hybridisation of city structures: in certain portions of the city, the city fabric ceases to be a coherent one as dependability on infrastructure and physical location diminishes, yet on the other hand vestiges of the modern infrastructure dependent city remain. This is the urban reality.

The Post-Structuralist Reality

Ebenezer Howard’s socialist Garden City concept attempted to introduce a form and structure upon which urban development in the industrialised 19th century can take place. His concentric plans demonstrate a model of living within an industrialised city. The Garden City concept marked one of the earliest attempts in dealing with the industrialised city condition. In the same manner, Hausmann’s plan for Paris reflected the new republic’s vision for the urban condition of Paris, and the vision of grand avenues emanating from key landmarks within the city.

Form had very much been a key aspect of urban planning during the industrial revolution. From the concentric circles of the Garden City to the vistas of the City Beautiful movement, the formalistic, diagrammatic approach to the urban plan resulted in distinctive cities of defined planning and organisational structures. The gridiron of American cities and the graphical avian motif of Brasilia serve to give notice to us that while in the early days of the twentieth century such planning approaches emphasise infrastructure as a key design and planning paradigm, global and social context has moved away from the realities and situations in which such cities were planned.

Urban planning has always been underpinned by nationalistic or sociological concerns. The well documented decay of Detroit from a city of Fordist automaton to a derelict shell not unlike the nightmarish urbanscapes of popular cultures sparked efforts at revival driven by the deteriorating social conditions of the inner city. The empty shells of industries and municipalities becoming crack dens and the rampant crime ravaging the city galvanised the city government and remaining stake-holders into action. Yet, the deterministic structure and planning strategies of this pre-globalised city yielded little solutions to the problem. This modern city could not adapt itself to the post-modern condition of not just decentralisation but also of dissolution.

Unlike Paris or London, Detroit was a city that lacked the multiplicities so vital in the post-modern world. Detroit was a mono-dimensional development; its infrastructure and services were intricately tied in with the production of motor vehicles. As the global conditions changed and the automotive industry decamped, Detroit was ill-equipped to deal with that change. The eventual decay was inevitable, and was not unlike the fate of the countless mining towns that dot the American landscape, except in terms of scale and produce. Detroit did not have the organic complexity of developed metropolises like London or Paris, where the multitude of activities and services scattered within the fine-grained city ensured that the city remained flexible in the face of change.

Today’s planning required provision for a multitude of needs and changes, some of which is not foreseeable. There is a need for a flexibility and adaptability in the urban plan to allow for organic growth and redevelopment, as exemplified by the follies of Detroit. It is apparent that either the programming of infrastructure needs to be adaptable, or it should cease to be the primary focus of the urban plan. The deterministic nature of infrastructure and the traditional planning strategies failure to address the indeterminate future leaves the post-modern city in limbo.

Planning paradigms that exist today rarely address this nature of post-structuralism, where the relationship between cities and the internal growth and development of the metropolis is not linear. The Deleuzian notion of mulplicities in the post-modern world (Deleuze, 1980), where within a city there is a multitude of not necessarily complimentary programs is inadequately addressed in planning texts.

Strategies like New Urbanism sought to relieve the lack of communal identity within suburban housing and side-steps the condition of the city. Others like Urbanism and ReUrbanism only sought to redefine the city through logical and ‘adaptive’ planning of infrastructure. How that is achieved in this post-structuralist, indeterministic urban reality through the use of highly deterministic structures of infrastructure or zonality remains unseen.

Perhaps the one of the closest solution that emerged within this discourse in recent years is the planning strategy of Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas like his contemporary and schoolmate Bernard Tschumi, looked to what was seen as a successful model of the metropolis, New York. In the seminal Delirious New York, Koolhaas examined the Manhattan condition as a grid, or mat, of rigidly defined perimeters within which planning approaches are determined by dynamic market forces. This grid reins in the activities that take place within each city block, preventing its spread beyond adjacent developments. In this manner, infrastructure ceases to be subservient to the city; rather, it plays a role of an arbitrator, allowing for lazier faire development within the city block but preventing the spread of this development. As a result, while not explicitly rationalised, the notion of Deleuze’s multiplicities is adequately exemplified in this Koolhaasian study of the city.

Peter Eisenman vehemently attacks this notion of the city as nihilistic, where the abandonment of all structure and socialist concerns implies a chaos city where anything goes (Strickland, 2005). Yet as we will see, Koolhaas, and indeed Tschumi as well, who in numerous text dealt with the post-modern condition of the global city and the flows of resources and consciousness, has moved beyond a provocative notion to provide a logical planning solution to he problem at hand.

Landscape Urbanism: A Solution?

The Parc de la Villette competition served to redefine the Koolhaas approach. Like Manhattan, the programmatic strips of the competition scheme defined pockets, or in this case strips, of specific programs. That a certain incompatibility exist within the program does not seem to matter; the rigid structure of the programmatic strips served as demarcation between each section and it allowed for flexible juxtaposition of different functions.

Rem Koolhaas translated his theoretical musings of Delirious New York (Koolhaas, 1977) into an urban plan for a city park where the binders and perimeters of the scheme was, instead of the gridiron streets of Manhattan, the strips of green landscape that pervade the site. These green strips were not necessarily the crux of the design; the meld of multiple disparate programs within the space of the park, mostly undefined and open to change and reprogram, was the key defining feature of the project. Not unlike his final project at the Architectural Association, a programmatic linearity that spanned the length of the city, in this case the program was split into distinct strips interspaced with the green that allowed for the indeterminism and flexibility required.

More importantly, the catalyst of influence that this project had was the use of landscape as the medium to organise other programmatic concerns, as opposed to an architectural or infrastructural approach. This herald a new approach where ecology served to be the organisational framework upon which the urban plan was designed, and thus without programmatic determination areas can be planned and designed without the commitment of infrastructure or large built environments. This created land which had temporal mutability — the lack of permanence attributed to the landscape allowed for the mutation of possible use as required at the particular point in time.

James Corner, in Terra Fluxus, retroactively defined Landscape Urbanism as a process in time, where dynamic simulation, non-linearity, spontaneous feedback and fluidity became the hallmark of the approach. Eschewing a formalistic approach, surface territories and potentials defined the ground for intervention, side-stepping the need for programmatic determination.

In Detroit, the dereliction of the city resulted in open blocks where buildings once stood being over-run by vegetation. These pockets of green suggested a certain surface potential of the plot, concurrently projecting hope as well as solving the issue of crime and abandonment within parts of the city. Stalking Detroit, one of the seminal books in defining the Landscape Urbanism approach, while not satisfactorily providing a clear definition or solution as to the approach of Landscape Urbanism, puts forth, as Charles Waldheim writes, an approach of ‘Dislocation’ (severing relationships with infrastructural services), ‘Erasure ‘(demolition and forcibly reintroducing the native ecology), ‘Absorption’ (reconstitution of the native ecology) and ‘Infiltration’ (a re-colonisation of the landscape).

This approach is much akin to James Corner’s proposal for the Freshkills Landfill competition in Staten Island, New York. In the forcibly reconstitution of the existing ‘drosscape’ back into nature, and the severance from the infrastructure, the land gains an autonomy that would not have been possible in a traditional plan. Taking this back to the nature of the post-modern city, this allows for flexible anticipation of a new programmatic use of the site.

Essentially this approach is a way of reinterpreting planning by not solving the problems as a component, but instead is a way of returning a brownfield into a greenfield, offering future planners a clean slate in which to redevelop the city. Yet, foreseeably, while this approach is very much relevant for the post-industrial landscape of America, within the conditions of other cities in the world the developmental pressures of other economies may not allow for the required time in the rehabilitation process.

Mohsen Mostafavi (Mostafavi, 2003) suggests that the solution is to deal with planning as an operative process, taking the different inputs required of a site and generating an organisational framework upon which the city can be planned. Taking the philosophical semantics of the post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze, Mostafavi reinterpretes Deleuze’s Machinic Phyllum.

“… what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden or covered, rendered unrecognizable, dissociated by the hylomorphic model. Metallurgy is the consciousness or thought of the matter-flow, and metal the correlate of this consciousness. As expressed in panmetallism, metal is coextensive to the whole of matter, and the whole of matter to metallurgy. Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements. Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere … The machinic phylum is metallurgical, or at least has a metallic head, as its itinerant probe-head or guidance device.”

Manuel de Landa (De Landa, 1992) writes that the machinic is “…the existence of processes that act on an initial set of merely coexisting, heterogeneous elements, and cause them to come together and consolidate into a novel entity. As [Deleuze and felix Guattari] say, ‘what we term machinic is precisely this synthesis of heterogeneities as such.’ As Ciro Najle writes in what can come to be considered as their manifesto, ‘The landscape recognise the demand for a qualitative change in their modes of production… It offered the thematic and scalar opportunity to redefine urban problems and the practice on general, incorporating in its operativity a direct engagement with multiple systems of forces that constantly reconfigure the city.'”

In approaching the drosscape (Berger, 2006), Mostafavi champions the use of dynamic system simulations to create a system that is responsive to the existing conditions. This system, often in the form of a mat architectural system, or as Stan Allen calls it, a thick 2D, is the result of a parametric process of systemic calculations put through a computer. The result is a superstructure, often architectural in form and function, that integrates flexible programming and the existing landscape.

With little built works to show for, the Mostafavi, or Architectural Association’s school of thought is often only understandable through the works of the students or their competition proposals. In comparison to James Corner’s Field Operations, the AA approach seems to short circuit the rehabilitation process so evident and crucial in Corner’s methodology. Indeed, it is less of healing the land in anticipation of future development than generating new urban forms that redefine the current multiplicities.

This may be more of a reflection of their disciplines as landscape architect versus architect, but the AA approach seemed ineffectual in dealing with the condition that they strove to solve. For after all, the eventual form that the solution takes on is just as deterministic and inflexible as the drosscape that it replaced. The infrastructural and economic resources that go into the creations of these designs is no less than the resources that go into the motorways and viaducts of the modern city.

Conversely, does the approach that Corner takes have any degree of application in a rapidly developing city? Cities in China, with their compressed scales of development, have very little time for a reversion to ecology in anticipation for future development. With developmental pressures all round, the situation is far removed from the post-Fordist realities of American cities. The Chinese situation is one of a Fordist/Marxist machinery and a capitalist engine all rolled into one, and while the Fordist segment of the city may benefit from the rehabilitation of Corner’s approach, the capitalist sentiments of the remainder of the city will stand to no such wastage of developable land.

Is Landscape Urbanism only applicable to cities going through decline? Looking at the current examples, it would seem so. Yet the ideologies seem to suggest otherwise. Perhaps Koolhaas’ methodology may serve as a possible paradigm to reconcile the different approaches.

In the competition of Ville Nouvelle Melun-Sénart, (Koolhaas, 1995) an expense of agricultural land in the south of France, Koolhaas employed broad strokes of green and ecology across vast tracts of land, carving out islands of developments surrounded by these green strokes. Within the islands, intensive, densely packed developments are contained by the organisational boundaries of those greens, preventing extensive urbanisation in an area where there is ecological beauty to be preserved, yet at the same time providing for sufficient developmental leeway.

Could it be possible that as pockets of these developments become irrelevant they could be subsumed by the greenscape, a la James Corner? And within these developments constructions that take into account the parametric dynamism of the current situation? The approach does not contradict the ideological and theoretical underpinnings of the 2 approaches, and may seem appropriate and adaptable for future situations.

1. Allen S, 2001, Mat Urbanism: The Thick 2D, Prestel.

2. Almy D ed., 2007, CENTER, Volume 14: On Landscape Urbanism, The Center for American Architecture and Design.

3. Berger A, 2006, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America, Princeton Architectural Press.

4. Corner J ed., 1999, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory, Princeton Architectural Press.

5. Czerniak J, 2001, CASE — Downsview Park Toronto, Graduate School of Design.

6. Corner J, Czerniak J, et al. eds., 2007, Large Parks, Princeton Architectural Press.

7. Daskalakis G, Waldheim C, et al. eds., 2002, Stalking Detroit, Actar.

8. De Landa M, 1992, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Zone Books.

9. De Landa M, 2000, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Zone Books.

10. Deleuze G, Guattari F, 1980, A Thusand Plateaus, Zone Books.

11. Fishman R ed., 2005, New Urbanism (Michigan Debates on Urbanism), Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

12. Koolhaas R, 1977, Delirious New York, The Monacelli Press.

13. Koolhaas R, Mau B, 1995, S, M, L, XL, The Monacelli Press.

14. Mehrotra R ed., 2005, Everyday Urbanism (Michigan Debates on Urbanism), Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

15. Moneo R, 2004, Theoretical Anxieties and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects, Actar.

16. Mostafavi M, Najle C eds., 2003, Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape, Architectural Association.

17. Reiser J & Umemoto N, 2005, Atlas of Novel Tectonics, Princeton Architectural Press.

18. Shane G, 2003, On Landscape: The Emergence of “Landscape Urbanism”, Harvard Design Magazine Fall 2003/Winter 2004, Graduate School of Design.

19. Strickland R ed., 2005, Post-Urbanism & ReUrbanism (Michigan Debates on Urbanism), Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

20. Waldheim C ed., 2001, Stalking Detroit, Actar.

21. Waldheim C ed., 2006, The Landscape Urbanism Reader, Princeton Architectural Press.




7 responses

29 05 2008

Nice one. Dealing with the same material right now in my research, hope you don’t mind if I leave some musings too, a partial answer to …”could landscape urbanism be only applicable to cities going through decline”. No, I don’t think so. I think it is applicable to sustaining the growth and vibrancy of a city. But why this view? The landscape architect having been in a sense marginalised in comparison to architecture/architects looked for opportunities that existed in the ‘in between’, having experience in using the leftover spaces on site in a project this gradually lead to an understanding by the landscape architect of using the remnants of space that relates to the urban surrounds and achieving linkages with its surroundings. In the decline of cities, there came to exist tracts of land that had been abandoned that lay between parts of the functional city. Therefore there existed an opportunity for the experience of the landscape architect to come in to play. To ‘recover’ the landscape. I think there are 2 dominant schools of thought on landscape urbanism. To categorize broadly, the study of the dynamic operations involved as you mentioned by AA and to ‘freeze’ the resulting ‘machinic landscape’ as an abstraction of these complex relations. The other approach a la James Corner, is considering the complex relations, the ‘ecology’ and constructing a framework to support this as a field or matrix. Which is better? I don’t know yet but I think it will be interesting to engage this in a discussion.

Ok…I better stop.


29 05 2008

You’re right. The operative nature of James Corner’s Field Operations seek to rehabilitate the brownfields, while the Machinic landscape take a formalistic approach towards redressing the issue of urban regeneration. Corner in many cases fail to address current urban conditions; the projects deal mainly with brownfields and the process of healing the landscape for future development. the AA approach is very typical of the school’s obsession with post-structuralist philosophy. On one hand, like the Seattle Olympic Sculpture park or the High Line, landscape urbanism can be both visually arresting as well as successfully connecting urban spaces cut up by infrastructure. Yet on the other hand, it can also end up simply as another theoretical front for a form-making exercise.

30 05 2008

Yes it could end up as another form making exercise and in today’s world of multiplicities, uncertainties and ambiguities, I guess as a student fathoming the depths of architectural discourse and ideologies, I reach for an ideal that is constantly shifting and mutating. But I think that is the reason why I feel architecture and urbanism can “re-claim” its status in the field of academic thought, for its ability to deal with, and mediate the multiplicities that exist in human society and culture. Great article you’ve written, stumbled upon it whlist doing my own online research. Thanks for the reply.


30 11 2008

you all sound the same
your teachers have taught you most well- to be mini copycats of themselves.
enough with the archibabble- you sound foolish, pretentious and have offered little except a showing of your architectural theoretical dictionary.
ever have an original thought (not your teachers or some bloated archiego star) of your own?

30 11 2008

Thanks for trolling.

Maybe when you have practised as an architect you will mature. Cheerios.

22 02 2011

Всем Привет! Заходите на Супер дискографии и качайте море дискографий!

24 07 2014
eismaschine mit kompressor testsieger

I writge a comment each timje I appreciate a
aricle on a website oor if I have something to contribute
to the conversation. It is caused by thhe passion displayed in thhe post I read.
And after ths article Temporal Mutability: Post-Structuralism and the Indeterminate iin the Discourse of Landscape Urbanism | Random Rants.
I was actually exxcited ennough to drop a comment 🙂 I actually do have a few questions for
you iff you usually do not mind. Is it onpy me or do some of
the comments lokk as if they are written by brain dead people?
😛 And, if you are posting on additional online
sites, I wouod like to keep up with anything new you have to post.

Woukd yoou make a list all oof all your community
pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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