Landscape Infrastructures Symposium

“Responding to the growing inertia of urban planning and the unchallenged predominance of civil engineering at the close of the 20th century, landscape infrastructure emerges to redefine the conventional role of infrastructure in the future of urbanized regions. Foregrounding the dynamics of living, biophysical systems historically marginalized by the divide between the economy and ecology of big cities, this dual agency repositions landscape as a complex, instrumental system of essential services, resources and processes that underpin contemporary urban economies.”  (Image, text and purchase info found here)

I recently finished making my way through all 439 minutes of recordings from the Landscape Infrastructures conference at the University of Toronto Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, held in the fall of 2008.  The symposium was organized by Pierre Bélanger and the University’s Center for Landscape Research and the 4 DVDs include lecture presentations by Stan Allen, George Baird, Pierre Bélanger, Julia Czerniak, Herbert Dreiseitl, Kristina Hill, Michael Jakob, Nina-Marie Lister, Kate Orff and Jane Wolff.

Summary from CD sleeve:

“Signaling a departure from centralized forms of urban development and the predominance of civil engineering in the design of cities, more flexible forms of infrastructure and design practices have begun to emerge during the past decade as a response to the increasing demand for renewable and integrative forms of urban development.  Strategies that combine landscape ecological principles with urban infrastructure are now rapidly becoming the dominant logic in the renewal of infrastructure systems for new industries as well as contemporary cities.

Foregrounding the reciprocity between landscape and infrastructure, this one-day symposium gathers a series of influential thinkers and practitioners from around the world to discuss emerging practices, paradigms and technologies that are reshaping the contemporary urban landscape. Re-examining the historically divisive, technocratic nature of engineered infrastructure, the symposium aims at formulating a more synthetic vision of urban infrastructure as a landscape that combines ecological and economic imperatives of big cities and urban regions. The penultimate objective of the symposium is to reposition the agency of landscape architects, urban designers and architects vis-à-vis the design of urban infrastructures for the new economy of the 21st century.”

Pierre Bélanger’s opening remarks set the stage for the symposium, subdividing infrastructure into 5 general categories: waste, water, transportation, energy, and food.  All subsequent speakers addressed one or more of these categories through a discussion of their research and/or practice that attempt to revive/recover the design of bio-physical, decentralized infrastructures.

Generally speaking, the symposium seemed like a maturation or progression in the landscape urbanism agenda and approach; advancing from the early explorations in large scale systems and process diagrams to a more developed sense of how such designs may be engineered on the ground in a more detailed and deliberate manner.

In her New Natures presentation Kate Orff makes the suggestion that in terms of methodology and representation, landscape urbanism was about the exploded axon and the successional diagram (a la the Downsview Park and Fresh Kills competitions) and landscape infrastructure is about the cut-away section (revealing the engineering and design of underground systems, such as Piano and Dreiseitl’s section for Potsdamer Platz) and the excel spread sheet (i.e. adapting the functional and pragmatic language of engineering).

The cut away Potsdamer Platz section (Piano and Dreiseitl) referenced in Kate Orff’s “New Natures” lecture

The excel spreadsheet comment became a repeated theme in the conference, speaking to the broader issue of where we are as designers in relationship (or lack of relationship) with engineers.  The stated penultimate objective of the symposium to “reposition the agency of landscape architects, urban designers and architects vis-à-vis the design of urban infrastructures for the new economy of the 21st century” seemed both a strength and possible limitation of the symposium.  A strength of the symposium in the sense of urban designers pushing back at the overwhelming predominance and power of engineering firms in dictating the form of infrastructure (indeed, way overdue).  But a possible limitation in that there were planners and cross-discipline ecologists (Hill and Lister), but no progressive engineers to provide a productive counterpoint to the discussion.  It seems a bit of a mistake to not have included them in the re-imagining of the future of infrastructure, particularly since they must have played a role in many of the projects presented, and well…we still need them.

In the individual presentations, approaches to this relationship ran the gamut, from the apparent wholesale replacement of engineers, to looking at new productive forms of collaboration.  My personal impression was that Kristina Hill (Dynamic Infrastructures) stole the show, both in the quality and accessibility of her presentation and its content.  She’s an great speaker and her research synergy of teaching and practice in hydro-related infrastructures is remarkable, as well as her own definition of embodied infrastructure, consisting of the interplay of flows, mosaics and boundaries.  She also eloquently sidestepped the tired landscape urbanism semantic debates (what is it?  is it over? (really…who cares?)) by stating that her design interest is in developing adaptive, time based infrastructures.  What better way to put it?  Similarly I also enjoyed listening to Herbert Dreiseitl, (also focused on the transformative potential of hydro-infrastructures) and seeing Jane Wolff present her Delta Primer: A Field Guide to the California Delta; a personal favorite in terms of creative representation techniques.

Drawing from Delta Primer

All of the presentations are well worth watching, given the assembly of speakers that are all doing interesting, innovative work.  Some presentations definitely felt like they were directly culled from marketing presentations, and given that this material was presented at a design research institution (rather than a professional conference like an ASLA convention), I would have appreciated more rigorous, honest critical reflection of the projects and related challenges, rather than the sort of ‘fluffing up’ that the theme of the conference seemed to inadvertantly provoke.  I suspect that this might have pulled away from some of the intent Pierre Bélanger had in curating the symposium (economic determinism, relationship/determinancy of planning and infrastructure: “Zoning is the most important structural element in the shape and configuration of the North American urban landscape”, and the separation/lack of connection of natural systems and historical planning regimes).  Interesting questions.

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