December 2, 2008

on that dump

Unfortunately, much of what passes for commentary on landscape/architecture on the internet is essentially a mixture of hagiography and the uncritical re-presentation of images (though there are of course exceptions, whether primarily critical, like Lebbeus Woods and Kazy Varnelis, or primarily speculative, like BLDGBLOG and Pruned). Which is not to say that hagiography or the re-presentation of images are always bad things, but they are not sufficient to create a healthy (inter-)disciplinary discourse (like, for instance, the one that is developing in the better corners of the political blogosphere).

It is refreshing to find critical voices, then, even when I don't agree entirely with the critique, as in the case of this recent post on Where by Mario Ballestros, which deals with Corner/Field Operations' Fresh Kills project, through the lense of John May's contribution to the new book Verb Crisis. Part of that contribution was quoted on Archidose this past May:

"...the more you unpack a place like Fresh Kills, the more difficult it becomes to later repackage it in glossy optimism. No matter how sexy and natural it may appear in the various digital renderings, or how compelling its supposed rebirth may sound in the official statements, it is an absolutely horrible place, and it reveals horrible realities about our Modern American Lifestyles -- realities that are only growing more pronounced.

The fact of the matter is that these realities are not easily overlooked. It takes effort to ignore them. Unfortunately, all too often architects play a central role in this effort. Why do you think architectural competitions are held? Glance beneath nearly every major architectural competition and you will find a desire to recast the image of a particular place in the collective memory of a population. This is not to suggest that there is some sort of larger conspiracy at work, but rather that events such as the Fresh Kills competition are ultimately instruments for the extension of dominant moralities. Winning entries are always in total compliance with that morality. They ensure that the most powerful interests have the final say on the history of a particular location, and what lessons we may learn from those places."

Ballestros expands:

"May's controversial take on Fresh Kills describes the trash heap as a materialization of a collective morality, a set of basic, unquestioned beliefs that sustain and make operative our everyday reality without us even noticing. May sees in Fresh Kills a frightful memento of an era based on the assumption that "freedom and accumulation are complimentary goals; the recognition that images are commodities; and an unquestioned embrace of a set of hopeful and reactive technological responses, designed to prevent massive accidents that have already happened." He recognizes that Fresh Kills is tied to a particular development scheme, both in economic and cultural terms.

What counts for the dump, counts for the remediation and redesign of the site. May goes straight to the throat of the Fields Operation proposal for reclamation, despite all its good intentions and wishful 4-step "livingscape" program. All the capping and veiling and the sealing tight are carried out not only to elude dealing with material run-off of the waste, but also to distract from what that waste means and implies and reflects (the architects and the city want to avoid any leaks, physical or moral).

In the urbanism of Fresh Kills, before and after closure, a series of enormous corrective measures and technological "fixes" (along with minor changes in the official rhetoric) are supposed to heal and cleanse and erase the ugly from the site, leaving a landscape that can be consumed without guilt as the "wholly fantastical Photoshop collages of upper-middle clash recreational enjoyment" of the proposal demonstrate. One has a nagging sense of this whole idea of a place set back on the right track, and healing itself back to normal is something of a hoax, "a remarkably compelling lie, beautifully rendered, but a lie nonetheless." Like people who promise to cure cancer with meditation or massages.

What is to be done then? How can we respond to these overwhelming objects we've spun into being and then lost grip on? Do we need to make things better, or do we need to learn from them, even if the learning process is ugly and painful? Is there any way we can do both? The same questions apply to all the vast environmental challenges we're currently faced with, our cities included."

As an official fan of radical critiques of technology (particularly those that eviscerate the particular kind of self-replicating un-thinking they label technique), I am sympathetic to this line of criticism. I certainly think there is truth to the idea that landscape/architecture practice is complicit in the reproduction and enforcement of modes of thought that it might claim to abhor (i.e. it seems quite plausible to me that a program of reclamation might serve not to heal a landscape but to hide a wounded landscape); but I'm not sure that's what's happening in the case of Fresh Kills.

At the very least, I would hope we could agree that the Field Operations proposal was less complicit in enabling and camoflauging the processes that created Fresh Kills than, say, the Hargreaves proposal, which cloaked the landfill in Olmstedian language and pasture. The Field Operations proposal retained the topography created by the accumulation of garbage; yes, it sought to cover that garbage, to cap and grow soil atop it. But surely that doesn't mean every trace of the history of the site was to be erased. Though Corner's Fresh Kills is not a perfect proposal, I do think he and F.O. have allowed for a more substantial critique of 'waste' and 'garbage' than May or Ballestros are allowing. The proposal presences some of the awfulness of Fresh Kills and hides or remediates others; but isn't that necessary if the place is to have a future other than as a rotting stack of garbage?

I'm not entirely clear on what the alternative is, either (though it would be unfair and unwise to ignore a valid criticism because the critic has yet to formulate a positive alternative). Should the site be left alone, as a festering monument to the thoughtless waste of resources? I don't think that's what Ballestros is suggesting -- but you could read "or do we need to learn from them, even if the learning process is ugly and painful" as hinting at that, particularly given that "learning" is presented as an alternative to "mak[ing] things better".

Count me in the "make things better" camp (even if I am extremely skeptical of the possibility of 'fixing' anything completely).

Posted by eatingbark at December 2, 2008 7:13 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?