Professor Jonathan Hill, UCL

The Air and Industry of London: Architecture, Landscape and Climate Change

The ‘end of nature’ has been proposed. First, because in isolating nature from culture the Enlightenment intensified its exploitation, while also encouraging fascination for the wilderness. Second, because in eulogising nature, Romanticism furthered its commodification and undermined critical engagement. Such assumptions have some validity but they ignore figures of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, such as John Evelyn and J.M.W. Turner respectively, who initiated a complex dialogue with landscape, nature, weather and the city. Erasing ‘nature’ will aid not hinder its exploitation. Instead, our nature myths need to be re-energised and re-directed, as Mike Hulme and Neil Smith have suggested. Just because we’ve named something does not mean that we’ve made it, or even understand it, whatever our influence. The places, species and phenomena that we include within nature are not solely subject to our will. Instead, the term ‘coproduction’ explains nature-culture relations. Just as the intermingling of natural and human forces creates the contemporary climate and weather, a building or landscape results from the relations between nature and culture that arise during its conception, construction and use. As architecture, landscape, climate and the weather are each a product of nature-culture relations, they inform and affect each other in a complex process that is never one way.

As the contemporary means to consider nature-culture relations, anthropogenic climate change has focused criticism on the free-market economy and the isolationist policies of countries and corporations. Unlike weather, we cannot directly experience climate because it is an idea aggregated over time. Climate always changes, whether by human or other means, but the term ‘climate change’ is used to imply that the current condition is an ideal that must be preserved. Critics of global warming tend to employ biblical metaphors in which environmental catastrophe punishes human failing, although few people envisage a retreat from modern society.

Just as John von Neumann recognised weather prediction as a stimulus to computation in the mid-twentieth century, the difficulty and significance of the problem draws funding to contemporary climate research. Many of the proposed ‘solutions’ to the contemporary climate—extensive, monolithic and expensive—reaffirm a faith in technology that is consistent with the Enlightenment project of modernisation and industrialisation, which remains the principal cause of anthropogenic climate change. Top-down global solutions are problematic because the political consensus and scientific knowledge is often lacking. Instead, the dangers posed by anthropogenic climate change are real and need to be addressed pragmatically. But it is also important to acknowledge that the climate and weather have spurred the imagination for centuries.

To consider these themes, this paper focuses on London. In Fumifugium, 1661, Evelyn was the first person to propose poetic and practical responses to the city’s polluted atmosphere, while, later, the colours of urban weather absorbed Turner. Rather than discard the Picturesque and Romantic tradition that merged with Modernism in the mid twentieth century, we may recognise it as far more thoughtful than its caricature, and conclude that it can evolve to become a newly ‘creative myth’ for contemporary landscapes and climates.

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Douglas Spencer, Architectural Association

Landscape, Agency and Artifice

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 means through 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.

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Jill Desimini, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Towards a Practice of Radical Incrementalism 

Philipp Oswalt opens the first volume of Shrinking Cities Volume I: International Research, “‘Shrinking cities’—a problematic term. It seems at first simply to point to a phenomenon: the decline of an urban population and economic activity in certain cities. But behind this term are hidden various causes, processes and effects that words themselves do not reveal.”1 I would argue that this is particularly true when considering the field of landscape architecture in relation to the shrinking city

Landscape theory and knowledge has not been directly linked to the shrinking city. As a result, the discussion of landscape in the shrinking city debate remains superficial, without a full understanding of time, process and physical material. Likewise, the discussion of the shrinking city within the landscape field is immature, lacking scholarship that deals explicitly with the urbanization of cities that have lost population and economic activity. There is work on the post‐industrial condition, on how urbanization begets waste, on the importance of landscape in a horizontally expanding urban condition, and on urban ecosystems, both from a cultural and biological perspective. However, none of this literature makes a distinction between what a planner or a policy analyst might call a weak‐market city and a strong‐market city. Yet, what fundamentally distinguishes a shrunken city from a non‐shrunken one is not the change in population but the change in value of the land. Value not just economically, but also in terms of culture and performance.

Landscape architecture has the potential to reverse this burden, to reframe the land in the shrinking city as an opportunity. The first agency of landscape is not physical manipulation but the construction of the context. The land is read as a rich interweaving of complex systems and not a figure‐ground of built and non‐built. It is unbounded, connected bio‐physically to adjacent lands. It is an ecological and cultural hot‐spot. It is unclaimed.

The commons, as a physical typology rather than a metaphor, has a place in the shrinking city. It does not manifest in a centralized open space created by oligarchy, but rather through practices of radical incrementalism. These practices harness change without erasing history. They understand all three assets of the shrinking city: land, time and people.2 They recognized the need to rethink the system of property ownership and valuation. They challenge urban anonymity and disorder by evoking collective efficacy. This paper extrapolates a framework for this practice from five projects: the Red Thread in Dessau, Germany; the Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, Michigan; the Binghamton Neighborhood Project in Binghamton, New York; Improve Your Lot! in Detroit, Michigan; and Local Code, in San Francisco, California.

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Ed Wall, Kingston University

Post-Landscape: The failed promise of landscape and the continued threat to public space

Landscape has failed to deliver. In recent decades a massive investment in urban regeneration has been achieved – and landscape has been instrumental. The urban renaissance of late 20th century England promoted sustainable cities while producing image after image of scenic urban landscapes. New landscapes, as settings for buildings and as renewed public spaces, were proclaimed with architectural renderings of and for our passive consumption. These contemporary landscapes have promised much. But what have they delivered? The public spaces of our cities have been appropriated by Business Improvement Districts, Public Private Partnerships, and privately owned, managed, and controlled ‘public’ spaces. Those responsible for these public spaces have, since the economic downturn that began in 2007, either tightened their control or abandoned them completely. Behind the broken promises did landscape also facilitate the fracturing of public space?

Public space and landscape now stand in opposition. The prevailing idea of landscape in England reflects historical scenic definitions. This ‘landscape was a ‘way of seeing’ that was bourgeois, individualist and related to the exercise of power over space’ (Cosgrove 1984). It remains in contrast to the ‘messy realities of everyday life’ still advocated for public space (Mitchell 1997). The scenographic landscape emerged as an idea and practice in the 16th century prior to the rise of merchant capitalism. By the time capitalist production was taking hold in Northern England this ‘landscape’ had become established in grand tours, tamed wilderness, and remodelled nature. This view has remained dominant and one which English landscape architecture, as it has emerged as a discipline, has also slavishly followed.

In 2011, as the global financial system continues to stumble, the world has witnessed the emergence of a new public urban English landscape. Diverse groups have pushed back against the political and economic actions of the last three decades. Young people have taken over the streets in response to the dismantling of their educational system. Workers have protested at cuts to their pensions. And in response, privately owned public spaces have been fenced off while the remaining public spaces of the city have been sought out for occupation. It may be too early to be writing an obituary for capitalism, however, can we be allowed a reconsideration of landscape?

This paper proposes to examine how a scenic idea of landscape has conflicted with public space. But rather than ruminating the death of public space this paper questions the continued scenographic dominance of landscape in England. It then sets out ideas of public space have the potential to lead new and emerging definitions of landscape.

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Professor Matthew Gandy, UCL

Entropy by Design: Gilles Clement, Parc Henri Matisse and the limits to avant-garde urbanism 

Derborence Island, an inaccessible concrete structure set in the middle of Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse, is an intriguing example of recent landscape design. The park, which was completed in 1995 as part of the vast Euralille development, is designed by the French landscape architect Gilles Clément. The idea for the park is derived from several sources including the aesthetic characteristics of uncultivated ground, the symbolic reconstruction of a fragment of primary forest and the enhancement of urban bio-diversity. It is suggested that Clément’s novel synthesis of nature and culture is significantly different from prevailing discourses of landscape design and is best interpreted as a form of site-specific art. Clément’s project reveals tensions between the aesthetic and scientific significance of so-called “waste spaces” in contemporary cities and the widening scope of utilitarian approaches to landscape design.

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Jane Wolff, University of Toronto

Agency, Advocacy, Vocabulary: Three Landscape Projects

Landscape agency rests on landscape advocacy, and landscape advocacy rests on language.Our means and modes of acting depend on what we argue for, and our arguments for possibilities in the future depend on the terms we use to describe places we know at present. This paper will present three design research projects that deal complicated landscapes under pressure for change. The methods and media of each endeavour vary, but the goal is the same: the development of a landscape vocabulary whose specificity, nuance, rigour, and accessibility offer the possibility of critical discussion and thoughtful action.

The first project, Bay Lexicon, articulates a citizen-scientist’s vocabulary for San Francisco Bay. Commissioned by a San Francisco science museum, the Exploratorium, to educate visitors about this much loved but poorly understood landscape, the project is a series of illustrated flash cards that examine tangible artefacts and phenomena and connect them to the complex and often invisible practices, processes, and relationships transforming the bay. It aims to help citizens recognize the landscape’s hybrid ecology and know that they themselves are agents in its ongoing evolution. The second project, Gutter to Gulf, organises landscape terms for New Orleans into a taxonomy that allows analysis and projection. This research and teaching initiative, a collaboration between the University of Toronto and Washington University, arose from the discovery that it was almost impossible to find clear, reliable information about landscape conditions, systems, and operations after Hurricane Katrina. That huge gap hampered the proposal of responsible design solutions, and limited public discussion about alternatives. Through its website, Gutter to Gulf makes sophisticated, legible information about the city’s ecological, infrastructural, jurisdictional, and political dilemmas available to citizens, designers, policymakers, and politicians. The third project, Delta Primer, designs language for the California Delta to allow explicit discussion about values. This intensely contested region is the largest tidal estuary on the west coast of North America and an essential source of water for farms and cities in southern California. Consensus among the Delta’s constituents has been hard to reach, and most Californians do not know what is at stake. Delta Primer, a book and deck of playing cards, was conceived to inform broad audiences about the landscape and to transcend the usual boundaries of interest groups. It uses a well-known ritual of exchange, the card game, as a tool for negotiation and debate.

These projects emerge from the discipline of landscape architecture but expand that discipline’s specific tasks. They define agency not through the design of particular sites but through the framing and engaging of conversation among cultural landscape scholars, technicians, policy makers, and members of the broad public. Their means are representational, and their ends are political: to lay claim to a larger territory for design practice.

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Tim Waterman, Writtle School of Design

Toposophy: The Power of the Landscape Idea

Two landmark books in our understanding of space and place were published in the same year, 1974: Henri Lefebvre’s Production de l’Espace and Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia. Lefebvre opened with the line: “Not so many years ago, the word ‘space’ had a strictly geometrical meaning: the idea it evoked was simply that of an empty area.”[1] The idea of space as not merely geometric, but anthropological, was beginning to reemerge in western thought, as exemplified by Tuan’s topophilia: “Topophilia is the affective bond between people and place or setting.”[2] Simple binaries (true/false, black/white) and linear, causal constructions of knowledge were coming into question as lived space could simply not be defined in absolutes. These two books have had monumental influence in the architectures, but are merely markers of larger shifts that were beginning to occur across the disciplines.

The forty years between then and now have seen two movements that are redefining the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with landscape; in fact they will redefine the way we think, period. The corporeal turn proposes that meaning is embodied. The way we make sense of the world, and the way we construct concepts is based in our bodily experience, and our minds are not pure abstractions, but rather are constructed of the physical, social, and cultural interactions we have in space and with space.

The spatial turn is a rebalancing “… between social, historical, and spatial perspectives, with no one of the three ways of looking at and interpreting the world inherently privileged over the others.”[3]  It encompasses a critical spatial perspective that Edward Soja calls the sociospatial dialectic. It is a conversation between people and lived space that enriches our human understanding.

This paper shows how the transformational power of the corporeal and spatial turns is held within the idea of landscape: that a new concept of landscape can embody a whole new way of knowing. The growing awareness that landscape is not simply scenery, a neutral backdrop, but that it represents an interaction between humans and nature, has led to an overall rethinking of the place of humans on the planet and our responsibilities. If there are no longer boundaries between body and mind, between mind and society, and between nature and the built environment, and if all thought, all meaning, is social, cultural, and physical – then this has major repercussions for disciplines from ethics to geology and everywhere in between. Toposophy combines the ideas held within the corporeal and spatial turns with the idea of landscape as it is powerfully emerging. Toposophy is a conversation between people and place; an embodied wisdom of anthropological space that can shape a more fulfilling way of dwelling for not just a sustainable, but a delightful future.


[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1974/1991), 1.

[2] Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, (New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1974/1990), 4.

[3] Edward Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 3.

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Jane Hutton, Harvard Graduate School of Design

Material Externalities: Sourcing Landscapes

Landscapes are shaped by continuous flows of materials and energy driven by both socio-technical and biophysical forces. Material stocks bound for varying periods of time as highways, buildings, parks, and farms are eventually redistributed through the economic processes of land valuation, redevelopment, or abandonment, and the physical processes of renovation, demolition, and erosion. The composition and concentration of material accumulations, whether soil, concrete, hardwoods, or high-tech alloys, shift with contemporaneous technological, economic, and social imperatives. Materials are, therefore, entangled with the politics, social relations, and ecological implications of their own extraction, production, maintenance, and disposal.

Material sourcing in design practice is akin to shopping; construction materials are commodities, inherently separated from the labour of their production through the market. This separation is naturalized through the market and myriad constraints of the construction process, but points to a critical opportunity for rejecting commodity fetishism and instead inquiring about the potential agency of linking issues and sites of production with consumption. It is precisely the examination of, as David Harvey challenges us, the spatial and temporal effects of material production[1] and observation of how “the rules of capital circulation and accumulation…get tangibly expressed and actively re-shaped through socio-ecological processes[2],” where material consideration in design praxis has the most to gain.

Attention to materials in contemporary design tends to focus, instead, on performance characteristics and construction detailing in situ, and when interested in production, focuses on sustainability metrics – privileging environmental parameters. In contrast, this paper argues for an examination of the externalities of material practice in landscape architecture by tracing certain forces that drive and mediate material lifecycles in design. This tracking is an attempt to complicate an understanding of landscape production, address the vacancy of labour and social factors in current discussions on material selection, challenge an inert/consumption reading of materials, and in total to link the spatial and social forms of sources (production) and designed landscapes (consumption). Case studies will characterize relationships between biophysical traits, political economy, and design that engender material use. The paper concludes with speculations for an aesthetic role for the consideration of these factors as a material practice in itself, drawing from contemporary interests in landscape dynamics and the rejection of static temporal and spatial definitions of landscape.


[1] See, Harvey, David, Between space and time: reflections on the geographical imagination.Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 80(3), 1990, pp. 418-434.

[2] Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism: A theory of uneven Geographical Development. (Verso, 2006). P.78.

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Dr Jon Goodbun, University of Westminster/RCA

Landscapes, Complexity and re-imagining the Project of Planning

In this paper I will argue that the proto-ecological thinking that can be found in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, when reconsidered in the light of more recent theorisations of systemic complexity, demands a critical and political re-imagining of the very possibility of the project of planning cities, landscapes and economies today.

A number of contemporary theorists – including David Harvey, Neil Smith, John Bellamy Foster and Erik Swyngedouw – have turned to consider the conceptions of ‘nature’ in the texts of Marx and Engels, with regard to pressing questions concerning our environments. Typically, their work elaborates upon the dialectical conception of metabolism that was developed by Marx out of the work of the agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig. For Marx, as for these more contemporary re-readings of his work, metabolism becomes a critical term for understanding the interaction of human and non-human labours and processes in ‘the production of nature’. Indeed it provides the basis for comprehending as a specific historical form of ‘metabolic rift,’ the ecological crisis that capitalism has instantiated.

In this paper I will develop further these insights through a reading of a fascinating passage from Engels, in which we find a rather sophisticated account of the effects of human activity upon the development of landscapes. Drawing upon a range of historical geographies from around the planet, Engels described the necessarily unpredictable nature of complex landscapes. For Engels the implications were clear, and using terms that anticipated the cybernetic language of systemic feedback that would be developed a century later, he suggested that we should not ‘flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature’.

What are we to make of this problematisation of human intentionality by Engels? Socialist thinking has so often argued that rational planning is both a possible and necessary response to the ‘irrational’ forces of both markets and untamed environments. Equally of course, technocratic tendencies within capitalism have made similar presumptions. But we know today, whether considering our own ecological and economic plight, or indeed the insights of recent systems theories, that Engels was basically right.

Landscapes are examples of what neocybernetician Stafford Beer described as ‘exceedingly complex systems,’ and as Engels observed, understanding and managing such systems can present problems for more conventional conceptions of planning. However, I argue that this very complexity of landscapes, and the multi-scalar agencies that they contain, also means that they provide an important new model for re-imagining the project of planning in general. This involves accepting the impossibility of old conceptions of mastery and control, and instead asks how we might democratise and mediate a new and open relation to the future, valuing the work of both humans and the many other agents with whom we labour. Ultimately any such critical-complex conception of agency and planning can only be a practiced as a new political landscape.

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 Lisa Tilder, Ohio State University

Architecture’s Second Nature
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In contemporary architectural discourse, the notion of sustainability carries an assumption that we can situate nature within measurable limits– of resources, of efficiency, of performance. Here, the design act is one of regulation– mediating the boundary between architecture and nature. The term sustainability reduces architectural imagination to problem solving rooted in empirical limits, promoting a condition of terminal stasis. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has proposed that the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point, a combinatory effect of the convergence of ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, global imbalances, and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions. Far from an argument for sustainability, Žižek instead considers the zero-point as anopportunity to embrace our uncertain existence by positioning catastrophes and broken equilibriums as part of natural history. He argues compellingly for the acceptance of nature as an ongoing and transmuting phenomenon, by insisting that our conception of nature is an idealization which in fact does not exist. If we extend Žižek’s position that nature is an artificial construct to include that of the beautiful, we might reconsider the agency of the sublime. According to French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, the sublime, a condition of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting nature’s wildness, was the founding principal of the Modernist period. Lyotard argued that the modern art movement attempted to replace visual concepts of beauty with intellectual constructs, challenging conceptual limits as a means to reveal the ambiguity and unpredictability of the postmodern world. As we move now from an anthropocentric to an ecological world-view, we move from a place of anxious distance from nature to a state of absorption within it – our pleasurable anxiety is now replaced by the simultaneous joy and horror that “we” are finally “it.” Instead of sustaining, we might consider Žižek’s zero-point as an opportunity to move from the anthropological to a more intelligent ecological, one that repositions design as a dynamic and projective practice.

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