(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.
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:
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).
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.