Foundational Forests

[Desvigne and Dalnoky’s forested urbanism proposed for the redevelopment of Bordeaux’s Right Bank]

(This post is tied into the ongoing Infrastructural City Blogiscussion.  Clicking here for mammoth’s introduction will provide additional background to text and ideas we are referencing)

After describing the demise of Los Angeles’s Palm Trees, Warren Techentin’s Tree Huggers Chapter of Varnelis’ Infrastructural City concludes with a loose discussion on the potential future of urban forestry as ‘foundational infrastructure’.   What is most striking about constructed and spontaneous urban forests is the inseparable and dominating factor of time in relation to space and performance.  Any forest requires duration to develop into a productive state.  Conversely, vegetation can persist longer than desired, or as often occurs in the torturous conditions of street trees, does not last long enough.

In related comments from an earlier post on accelerated landscapes, urban projects by French and Dutch designers were mentioned that exemplify urban forestry as foundational infrastructure, which we would like to connect to this discussion.

[The existing (2000) post-industrial, post-port condition of Bordeaux’s right bank.  The aerial corresponds to the design overlay in the image at top]

Desvigne and Dalnoky’s design for Bordeaux’s Right Bank (pictured above and below) takes the concept of the ruderal, or opportunistic territorialization, to the scale of urban intervention.  Rather than siting a stadium, museum, entertainment complex or other architectural monument as hopeful magnet in disused port infrastructure, the design assumes a broader time of transition to pragmatically ‘replant’ the urban.  It reads like an orthogonal revisiting of Bos Park forestry, only inserted in the atrophying center of the city. In Desvigne’s description:

“The project involves a set of actions based on, and playing upon, the existing parcels, the industrial areas, the abandoned parking lots, and the roads…the landscape, both public and private, determines the shape of small, buildable islands, without setting down the contours in an absurdly strict manner.  The very large park takes its materials and its shape from the land – its reliefs and its river.”

[Image sequence shows three successive states.  Disused land is strategically acquired by the city and planted with increasing varieties of vegetation.  The emergent forest is a living marker of transition and urban reprogramming.  Rather than insta-city, transformations are visibly inscribed in the urban surface.   An example of design as urban process rather than product.]

In his recent publication, Intermediate Natures, Desvigne speaks of the need “to design tools and methods that make it possible to integrate the idea of duration in the way that sites are transformed…What authorizes the play with these successive states is the project material itself…In Bordeaux, the proposed forest entity led us to work around the landed propriety restriction, hence the texture of the plantings and their specific density.  The physical result that was obtained will give the sense of time that is necessary for this design”

[The beginnings of Bordeaux’s foundational forest]

As Bordeaux’s post industrial waterfront slowly shifts to forested greenspace, it engenders urban development that will build on its foundation, which in turn was dictated by the distribution of derelect terrain that preceded it.  Development will build adjacent to the gridded park, or slice into and reprogram it as needed.

There’s a unique practicality and drifting urban continuity to the scheme. Rather than being abrupt, its gradual emergence out of a terrain vague condition via a process closely resembling commercial forestry is remarkable.  It’s interesting to look at this work as a more developed take on the winning proposal for Downsview Park, which was also an example of re-urbanization led by simple process of growing trees.   However, as much as Tree City was conceptually seductive, it was, in my opinion, a bit of a graphic design coup that lacked any site or design specificity for it would occur.

Desvigne (and Dalnoky for some) have tested this strategy on other large-scale urban waterfronts, such as the Lyon Confluence (image above), Greenwich Village, and most recently in Desvigne and Rex Architects’ “Living Matrix” proposal for the Governors Island Competition (below).

Similarly, Dutch designers at Vista also use vegetation as foundational infrastructure, yet their method is a bit different. In process, Vista’s designs are more fundamentally constructed and engineered.  They create varied environments via an unshy manipulation of natural processes by articulation of the groundplane and site hydrology, such as their design for the Haarlemmermeer Polder

[“The basic concept starts with the agricultural use of the polder. Various natural developments can begin once specific soil conditions, seepage pressure, and micro relief have been taken into account.” All images and quote are courtesy of ASLA]

Similar to Desvigne and Dalnoky’s design for Bordeaux, the design opportunistically recolonizes an existing constructed landscape, yet alters it dramatically from agricultural to diverse residential through a careful recalibration of the landscape’s existing engineering.  As Julian Raxworthy has described Vista’s work, it’s a design method that approaches landscape as “interpretive machine”; in interesting comparative analogy to Warren Techentin’s hopeful description in Tree Huggers of urban forests as “productive machines”:

“Vista’s work involves discovering and using steering processes – ‘manipulable processes that can be used to form a  landscape, which are the actual things that make a landscape changeable’ “(quoting Vista).

Both of these projects are nearly a decade old.  Part of my motivation in bringing them up is I’m most curious about how they have actually performed and how expectations have correlated or diverged with what has become.  By proposing very different, yet practical transitory schemes, they question methods of urban process and formation.  I have heard that the Bordeaux scheme was only partially realized, which itself is informative…why?

No doubt there are many other examples of this kind of ‘foundational infrastructure’.  I’m just particularly fond of these designs.  It might be worthwhile to create a list of the some of the most pivotal or interesting that are currently out there, in process or historical.  Fresh Kills would likely be in there as an interesting testing of limits in state-of-the-art urban terraforming.

Updates, links or information on these projects and mention of other favorites are welcomed.

(all of Desvigne and Dalnoky’s images are from Desvigne’s book ‘Intermediate Natures’).

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