Cultural Subnatures

(Loosely) continuing the discussion of David Gissen’s new book, Subnature:

Gissen implies that subnatures are culturally defined, as they are  “forms of nature deemed primitive (mud and dankness), filthy (smoke, dust, and exhaust), fearsome (gas or debris), or uncontrollable (weeds, insects, and pigeons)”.

In general, Gissen is encouraging more creative mixing of cultural programs and subnatures in architecture, yet the relationship between the two (particularly for the biotic, ‘uncontrollable’ subnatures of weeds, insects and pigeons) operates from a nature/culture dichotomy and a cultural formalism that is difficult to avoid, given that architecture usually must serve as an enclosure/sheltering function that doesn’t allow these subnatures to be fully ugly, or objectionable, thus necessitating a cultural ‘framing’ by the design.

Is the conclusion of Gissen’s work that in addition to overcoming physical and material challenges, subnatures have to be culturally ‘framed’ through various design techniques to be accepted in architecture, a conclusion quite similar to one made by Joan Nasauer’s conception of subnature in the landscape in Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames?  By programmatic definition, architecture is going to encounter more challenges in accomodating subnatures than landscape.

A similar errant thought: Gissen’s subnatures are defined as non-human matter, though not strictly ‘natural’ phenomena as several of the subnatures discussed (such as exhaust, gas, debris, and dust) are culturally produced materials. Perhaps one major (and likely intentional) omission in Gissen’s formulation of subnatures is that it doesn’t include human bodies and human agency as active forms of subnature.

What about the prevalence of cultural or behavioral subnatures in the urban environment and how we approach them in urban design, architecture and landscape?  By ‘sub’ I don’t mean less-than or inferior.  Rather I use ‘sub’ as in the definition of subcultures: those smaller, or marginalized cultures operating outside socially deemed acceptable norms, exactly like Gissen’s definition of weeds: “Weeds (subcultures) are those plants (cultural behaviors) that get in the way of the programs, agendas, or desires that we project into spatial constructs.”

Similarly, borrowing Gissen’s definition from above, substitute the word culture for nature and you get: “forms of culture deemed primitive, filthy, fearsome, or uncontrollable,” A question I had in reading the book was what if the emphasis was flipped, meaning what if we were to do the same study of cultural subnatures (or the nature of subculture) in the urban environment.  Who’s doing interesting work with these forces? Additionally, what about researching the interactions (both synergistic and competitive) of  subnatures and cultural subnatures…

As an example of the interplay of cultural/behavioral and ‘natural’ subnatures, the following is a brief description of a failed F.A.D. installation, which was an attempt to introduce a weed subnature into the fabric of the city (the design act itself a form of cultural subnature).  The failure of the design is of interest because it revealed the agency and interaction of subnatures and subcultural ephemera occurring within an urban site.

The image above is of a vacant lot that emerged at SW 4th and Burnside in Portland in the spring of 2009. The site was formerly occupied by a single level ‘adult’ video store that was intentionally demolished, but is still visible on Google street view:

The property is in a downtown location at the entrance to Chinatown: a new tabula rasa void in the urban fabric and a prime re-development target.  As an ephemeral design intervention, F.A.D. and co-collaborator wanted to signify this transition, or property shift in an obvious way, such as with an orange painted target on the gravel surface; the orange color chosen to mimic the common spray paint markings that utility and road crews use to mark surfaces for demolition or reconstruction:

But instead of using spray paint, we went with a more organic (and more legal) material that would emerge from the gravely surface, taking cues from the first patches of weeds colonizing the outer edges of the open ground.

closeup of the growing medium and existing weeds.

Instead of  spray paint, we seeded the parcel with California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), an orange flowered weed-like native of California meadows that is fast and easy to grow on  less than desirable soils.  Weed as grafitti:

Mock up of poppy target.  (the installation cost less than five dollars and 20 minutes to install)

We seeded the site in concentric circles, but nothing ever grew.  The problem could have been the soil but I doubt it.  The reason the weed subnature didn’t take was because the cultural subnatures occupying the site out-competed the imported weeds.  The derelict (subculture) porn shop had been replaced by varieties of other subcultures that were actively working the surface.  Over the next couple of months we watched and saw  people  illegally parking and driving their trucks and vans all over the lot.  Homeless people camped out. Law enforcement chased people out.  An impromptu fundraiser complete with food and music occurred.  An artist installed a Smithson-esque site/non-site piece in which they gathered various native plants from nearby Forest Park, or some other off-site location, put them in an 8′ x 4′ shallow wooden box, and placed them in the center of the site without any explanation (see below–notice all plants are fully desiccated at this point).

non-site installation and other uses…

Along with us, various other people and subcultures were appropriating the urban void in a variety of subversive and uncontrolled ways, reworking the field so that our formal, and relatively polite (and somewhat naive) landscape intervention didn’t have a chance.  The open lot was far from vacant.

As designers we tend to bring about ‘order‘ via the agendas we receive from those who employ us.  Rarely are we asked to bring chaos to a project and by and large we are the eliminators of terrain vague in the quest for creating useful, productive, and efficient cities.  Our works tend to make cultural subnatures nomadic, forcing them from one location only to emerge  somewhere else.  Sometimes the elimination is intentional and sometimes not.  I’m not advocating a particular stance, but just like Gissen, I think  both creative design and exploration of all subnatures and their interactions in the urban environment — sentient and not,  seems worthy of more attention.


  1. If you don’t mind me mis-quoting you, I think this is a fantastic question:

    “What do we lose when we eliminate terrain vague in our quest for useful, productive, and efficient cities?”

    And in a completely different vein, it’s a bit surprising to me that you’ve struck out so completely twice. I’ve been experimenting with seeding (in my own yards, which are rather small rowhouse yards), and while I’ve had trouble with both seed predation and soil, I’ve almost always gotten something. I’m planning on making the jump from small experiments to a full scale alteration of the ecology of one of the yards this spring… we’ll see how that goes.

  2. striking out twice, completely….

    I was really surprised as well, particularly for the sunflower installation on Belmont because we applied so much seed, and sunflowers are typically quite robust. My hunch is that it was mostly predation, meaning we basically fed a large bird population that congregates on the site in spring and summer. The seeding was also totally minimal as part of the experiment (and we had to work quickly) with no soil prep or tillage of the seeds into the ground.

  3. Yeah, not one bloom is pretty surprising, given the lush productivity in the PNW and the ability to get things to grow despite our best intentions. I do envision as Brett mentioned plenty of happy birds in both cases.

    I think these sites, as opposed to say a dirt lot, were really tough in two opposite and distinct ways – one barren and devoid of even the rudimentary base for growth with gravelly soils and no organic matter, the other completely resistant due to the well-established mat of vegetation that didn’t allow any competition. Either way, it’s an interesting dilemma for the budding guerrilla gardener.

  4. I’m reminded of two quotes, whose authors I can’t remember offhand so I’ll paraphrase-

    In a recent Harpers article, someone was writing about the web 2.0 revolution and how data gathering is essentially a reductive process, and how he feared that our fascination with smart systems and data was reducing everything to a commodity to be weighed, bought and sold, or really, to sell advertising.

    Then, I’ve read a quote by an architect that impacted me, though I forget the authorship for the moment. He said “every design decision is a narrowing of possibilities. For that reason it carries responsibility.” I love that, even though it vaguely reminds me of a Spiderman platitude.

    I partially agree with these ideas, that in order to make decisions or deal with a context/situation, we are making assumptions and simplifying reality. It suggests to me that perhaps a design could result in the generation of terrain vague, in an opening up of possibilities. We could design platforms and staging grounds instead of prescriptive programs (not to demonize the latter- they are useful and likely necessary). Maybe. It becomes a lot harder to justify our professional existence in that case. Because, of course, it’s hard to sell something if you don’t define it.

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