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The following news articles are geared toward students and other professionals.
Landscape Architecture
Sowwah Island Central Park and Spanish Steps | Abu Dhabi UAE | MESA Print E-mail
Sunday, 24 July 2011 22:00
The design concept for the Central Park is based on a contemporary expression of classic urban design principles and archetypes. The park design will be a celebration of the Sowwah Island vision, seamlessly combing the infrastructure and cultural context of the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan, with a contemporary aesthetic complementing the variety of modern buildings [...] → Continue Reading Sowwah Island Central Park and Spanish Steps | Abu Dhabi UAE | MESA Add a comment
Finalists announced for Aberdeen’s City Garden international design competition Print E-mail
Friday, 22 July 2011 09:29
The announcement of the finalists of the International Design Competition for Aberdeen’s City Garden Project was revealed today. The six finalists have been selected to go on to the second stage of the competition after a unanimous vote by the jury panel. Over 55 submissions were received from across the world with many opting to partner [...] → Continue Reading Finalists announced for Aberdeen’s City Garden international design competition Add a comment
Green Lake City | Jakarta Indonesia | Forrec Print E-mail
Friday, 22 July 2011 08:43
Green Lake City is a destination mixed-use development in the rapidly growing western district of Jakarta. The master plan makes use of the existing water management constraints to create a central lagoon that connects to the surrounding community and provides a unique waterfront entertainment zone for the retail and commercial components, as well as the [...] → Continue Reading Green Lake City | Jakarta Indonesia | Forrec Add a comment
Source: Terrain Vague - de Sola Morales Print E-mail
Friday, 22 July 2011 00:17
A formative source in thinking about indeterminant spaces is Terrain Vague, a 1995 essay by Spanish Architect Ignasi de Sola-Morales.  The essay starts with a discussion of the idea of photography, which is mentioned by the author as vital to our understanding, particularly through photomontage and their inventive juxtaposition of forms, aiding our ability to explain the urban realm. Conversely, with its ability to frame and 'edit' the urban conditions - resulting in a disconnect of image from reality.  As mentioend by de Sola-Morales, "When we look at photographs, we do not see cities - still less with photomontages.  We see only images, static framed prints." (109)  From this jumping-off point of photography comes the 'non-space' of terrain vague, as defined by the author:
"Empty, abandoned space in which a series of occurrences have taken place seems to subjugate the eye of the urban photographer.  Such urban space, which I will denote by the French expression terrain vague, assumes the status of fascination, the most solvent sign with which to indicate what cities are and what our experience of them is." (109)

The etymology of the definition is explored, due to the lack of a clear translation into English.  First, the concept of terrain (as opposed to the concept of land) is more expansive, including more spatial connotations and the idea of a plot of land fit for construction, meaning that it has more direct ties to the urban.  Vague, on the other hand - has ties to a range of ideas.  From German 'woge' which is tied to the movement of seas - we get "movement, oscillation, instability, and fluctuation."  From French, the roots lie in 'vacuus', which yields connotations of vacancy, emptiness, and availability.  Another meaning is derived from the Latin 'vagus' which is most closely related to the origins in landscape urbanism thinking giving "the sense of 'indeterminate, imprecise, blurred, and uncertain.'"  (110)

Thus the dual concept of a plot of land defined by indeterminacy is the key to understanding of terrain vague, which has both a spatial as well as a social connection - defined by what it is, but that being specifically defined by how the space is used.  As de Sola Morales mentions, these become "spaces as internal to the city yet external to its everyday use.  In apparently forgotten places, the memory of the past seems to predominate over the present." (110)

These spaces have an innate duality - due to their marginalization, they have the sense of externality ot the order and security of the city making them alluring as a way of out the typically homogenized urban realm, meaning they become "both a physical expression of our fear and insecurity and our expectation of the other, the alternative, the utopian, the future." (111)  Identified as a certain 'strangeness' which has been cataloged throughout urban history as tied to the social dislocation of our shift to urban dwellers - most notably captured in Georg Simmel's 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' and our evolution to the blase cosmopolitan. 

This is captured by de Sola-Morales as 'estrangement' which becomes the formative construction of the terrain vague: "The photographic images of terrain vague are territorial indications of strangeness itself, and the aesthetic and ethical problems that they pose embrace the problematics of contemporary social life. What is to be done with these enormous voids, with their imprecise limits and vague definition?"   Thus these become fertile ground for artists whom "seek refuge in the margins of the city precisely when the city offers them an abusive identity, a crushing homogeneity, a freedom under control.  The enthusiasm for these vacant spaces - expectant, imprecise, fluctuating - transposed to the urban key, reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of our city, before ourselves." (112)

Terrain Vague is a difficult concept - being essentially 'non-design'- but is also powerful in its ability to theorize on the margins of the ordered world in which we reside.  On the difficult side, the actions of a designer is somewhat in opposition to the unstructured configuration of these spaces.  As de Sola Morales mentions:  "the role of the architect is inevitably problematic.  Architecture's destiny has always been colonization, the imposing of limits, order, and form, the introduction into strange space of the elements of identity necessary to make it recognizable, identical, universal."  (112)  This innate desire to transform disorder into order leads to a catch-22 in the employment of design 'agency' within these structures, as mentioned in the text:
"When architecture and urban design project their desire onto a vacant space, a terrain vague, they seem incapable of doing anything other than introducing violent transformations, changing estrangement into citizenship, and striving at all costs to dissolve the uncontaminated magin of the obsolete into the realism of efficacy." (112)

While design is about form, there is still plenty of potential in exploring the concept of terrain vague, as it offers the opportunity to give shape (both spatial and social) to an existing urban phenomenon of indeterminancy, tapping into the city inhabitants continual seeking of "forces instead of forms, for the incorporated instead of the distant, for the haptic instead of the optic, the rhizomatic instead of the figurative." (112)  It is still unclear how we use this, but further investigation should yield the possibilities of learning from this existing urban condition - not trying to recreate it, which is inevitably an exercise in futility, but looking at the ability to allow disorder, not fall into the trap of modernism in trying to rationalize and organize all of the spaces within a narrowly defined set of uses.  Can it work?  de Sola Morales posits that:
"Today, intervention in the existing city, in its residual spaces, in its folded interstices can no longer be either comfortable or efficacious in the manner postulated by the modern movement's efficient model of the enlightened tradition.  How can architecture act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reason?  Undoubtedly, through attention to continuity: not the continuity of the planned, efficient, and legitimized city, but of the flows, the energies, the rhythms established by the passing of time and the loss of limits... we should treat the residual city with a contradictory complicity that will not shatter the elements that maintain its continuity in time and space." (113)
More on this as we tie together threads of the 'terrain vague' with the ideas of 'heterotopias' and other models of indeterminate 'otherspace' in the urban context.  In classic urbanistic inquiry, the field of study has been identified, theorized, and classified - the translation of this into actions of architecture, urban design, planning, and landscape architecture - is another, more difficult jump.  But then again, that's the fun, no?

Originally published in 'Anyplace' - edited by Cynthia C. Davidson (1995) - citations here are from 'Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism' (Almy, ed. 2007)
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Source: Whatever Happened to Urbanism? - Koolhaas Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 July 2011 23:08
In 1995, Rem Koolhaas & Bruce Mau published 'S,M,L,XL', one in a line of oversized volumes so fondly disseminated by the Dutch.  Amazon mentions the work as "extraordinary, massive, and mind-boggling 1,300-page book combines essays, manifestos, diaries, fairy tales, travelogues, a cycle of meditations on the contemporary city--and complex illustrations..." giving shape to a mixed bag of visuals and texts on the work of OMA/Koolhaas and their speculations on the city.  One short essay, 'Whatever Happened to Urbanism?' by Koolhaas is fixed into the literature of landscape urbanism, quoted by many - specifically a key, oft- mentioned fragment:
"If there is to be a 'new urbanism' it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries, not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infra-structure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions - the reinvention of psychological space." (123)

The term 'irrigation of territories with potential' always struck me as akin to pissing in the wind - perhaps just in its alliteration, but as a phrase it does resonate with many of the formative elements of LU theory - particularly the idea of uncertainty, hybridization, infrastructure, and process above form.  The other important idea that fascinates me is the concept of 'urbanism' when realized in Euro-centric terms as 'study', whereas Koolhaas definitely considers urbanism as a more active endeavor, stating in the context of rapid urbanization, that "urbanism, as a profession, has disappeared at the moment when urbanization everywhere - after decades of constant acceleration - is on its way to establishing a definitive, global 'triumph' of the urban condition?" (122)

This demise of the urban is rooted in the reactions and rejections in the professional and educational realms to the mid-century pinnacle of high-modernism - which has caused a retreat into nostalgia.  Koolhaas considers the irony of this as the current form and idea of a city has totally shifted - becoming "beyond recognition," summed up as "'The city no longer exists."  Thus the clinging to nostalgia comes at the exact time when the classic idea of the city, the context urbanism, was snuffed out by rampant urbanization that erased our understanding and approaches to the fuzzy realm of urban/suburban/hinterland that currently exists.  Koolhaas claims then:

"For urbanists, the belated rediscovery of the virtues of the classical city at the moment of their definitive impossibility many have been the point of no return, [the] fatal moment of disconnection, disqualification." (122)
The result is that urbanism is gone, replaced with architecture... creating a gap in the overall understanding of the city beyond that of the architectural object.  This focus on architecture "exploits and exhausts  the potential that can be generated finally only by urbanism, and that only the specific imagination of urbanism can invent and renew.  The death of urbanism - our refuge in the parasitic security of architecture - creates an immanent disaster: more and more substance is grafted on starving roots." (123) 

While I would say there has been a re-emergence of urbanism since the mid-nineties (albeit an urbanism confused with urban design and planning), the overall idea of an urbanism project is still valid - and the resultant current dialogue/discussion is vital and gets to the root of non-design urbanism.  As mentioned by Koolhaas, "Redefined, urbanism will not only, or mostly, be a profession, but a way of thinking, an ideology: to accept what exists." (123)  Thus,
"To survive, urbanism will have to imagine a new newness... We have to imagine 1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right."  (123)  

This is what we lost in the disaster of the modern project, the ability to think big, and perhaps fail, while trying to deal with this unprecedented urban condition.  This has left us with small ideas tiptoeing around the crisis under the rubric of safe interventions or tepid theorizations.  The final words then ring true:  "What if we simply declare that there is no crisis - redefine our relationship with the city not as its makers but as its mere subjects, as its supporters?  More than ever, the city is all we have." (123)

Originally published in 'S,M,L,XL' (OMA/Koolhass/Mau - 1995) - citations taken from Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (edited by Almy - 2007).
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Copyright © 2014. Robert Hewitt | Clemson University professor of Landscape Architecture.
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