Pretexts, Subtexts, Contexts
from 1993 to 2018

Ghazal Jafari 
Hernán Bianchi-Benguria
Pierre Bélanger

“Almost alone among the key players of this century’s history, the landscape remains silent. But in truth it may be the most expert witness of all. In its broadest sense, ‘landscape’ is a stage on which struggles occur—where humans extract resources from the earth, suburbs drain people and wealth from cities, and territory is contested between warring groups. Landscape is also a kind of slate upon which the evidence of culture, habitation and labor is written and may be read.”

—Rick Prelinger, Our Secret Century, 1993–1995

The 1990s mark an era of territorial and technological transformation whose magnitudes have only recently come into focus for a range of different disciplines. The fall of South Africa’s Apartheid and the rise of the Internet’s Information Superhighway are but a few significant regime changes that signal structural shifts along lines of fallen states, emerging environments, and new media. Closer to the ground, the riots in Los Angeles sparked by the beating of Rodney King, the bombings in the Siege of Sarajevo, the sexual violence against women and girls during the Kosovo War, and the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 9/11 are but a few of the milestone moments that define a period of extreme and embodied, spatial change on the surface and in the air of these altered states.

Against this vivid foreground of political events is a background of slow, institutional transitions: the spatialization of social sciences through the revival of geography, the softening of hard sciences through open access, the pluralization of gender-based justice, and the gradual materializationof economic systems recently revealed in the housing mortgage meltdown and credit crisis of 2008.

In hindsight, the changes of the past twenty five years have been revolutionary. They represent intersectional outcomes that have contributed to a heightened sense and cross-cultural awareness of the geo-political unevenness and polarizing economies of globalization across borders and boundaries, old and new. Thanks to the proliferation of digital media and growing social activism, these spatial changes have also generated alternative forms of organization through real-time information transmission and enhanced patterns of exchange with the explosion of live communication. These emerging transparencies and new maps have put into question the walled authority of hierarchical modes of control, communication, and production; precisely coinciding with a moment when political revolutions can light up on social media platforms, spread and swell in city streets, state highways and public squares, to end in front of parliaments, embassies, or monuments.

Notwithstanding their currency, the recognition of the extensive and dynamic territoriality of these political changes has largely been overlooked, if not dismissed, by institutional establishments.  Where bureaucratic power lies, administrative control has been slow to adapt especially when hierarchical policy planning and jurisprudence reigns in closed, contained systems of decision making. In turn, the rise of neo-liberalization that has capitalized on this bureaucratic inertia has in turn seeded new territory for massive financial empires to take shape. Tendencies towards the offshoring of production and banking have subsequently produced new financial hinterlands that remain mostly unseen and unmapped. As a result, there is an increasing divide between the center and the periphery. This financial-capital complex clearly points in many cases towards deeper colonial forces rooted in more than three to five centuries of resource exploitation, extraction, and exportation. And, while certain forms of resistance to these global and planetary forces have preceded and preempted the turn of the millennium, the strong neo-liberal and neo-taylorist forces that have marked the past two to three decades largely remain at work today at far greater extents than ever before.
For the Millennial Generation and Generation X born during this period, the guise of self-actualization and liberation from labor has actually imprisoned them in the colonial metropolis. Millenials and Gen Xers remain far removed from means of production; divided more than ever across classes of wealth. Increasingly complex layers of fiscal and financial systems not only support but maintain their strict separation. This socio-economic apartheid and cultural disenfranchisement is also exacerbated and alienated by the distancing from fields of cultivation and territories of extraction; lands and landscapes that support and sustain the contemporary livelihoods of billions of people whom, more and more, are dispossessed from their lands and forcibly displaced to the edge of cities. This ‘geographic degeneration’ is further compounded by the disillusionment of the large-scale grandeur of utopian welfare states that once promised equity, democracy and social justice. This fracture between the state and the citizen, between what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out,’ is now breeding a whole new set of politicized identities and communities working from below. In reaction to the wars between bureaucratic opacity and social transparency, the displaced and the dispossessed now congregate and concentrate around new sites of ideological common ground. Here, counter-cartographies, queer identities, decolonial pedagogies, revived languages, and subversive softwares attempt to decode and deconstruct the strongholds of bureaucratic hardware, heteropatriarchy, brick-and-mortar policy, and state-controlled resources.[1]

Emerging from an overlooked body of work lying in the dust of the turn of the millennium,[2] the powerful voices of a shadow group of spatial thinkers are brought together in a radical collection of voices, drowned out by the noise of Y2K, whose work cuts across the hard core of the sciences, industrial division of labor and gender, as well as the cadre of professional disciplines. In response to this period of turbulent transformation and wide sweeping social stratification, this voices of group of fin-de-siècle urbanists delineates the contours of a resurgence in geopolitical thought. They have been responding to socioeconomic struggles over the past two decades with actionable research while remaining critically aware of the violence, oppression and hegemony of global capital flow. Bringing together a range of new age urbanists from botanists to arborists, historians and anthropologists, this project reformulates a politicized conception of urbanization that for the most part emerged prior to the turn of the 21st century as resistance and subversion to the educational institution and political establishment.
By grounding social, scientific and economic knowledge, these voices provide a counter-position for re-assessing the critical relevance and pressing significance of environmental challenges through different senses, alternatives scales, and new lenses. Considered together, they represent a groundswell in political, ecological thinking. As an unintended collective, they underlie the deep dimensions and dispositions of landas the underlying platform upon which the liberalization of global markets, the colonization of nation states, the racialization of infrastructures, and the imperialism of transnational corporations are playing out.
Free from disciplinary strongholds, Urbanism after 1993 thus presents and represents the corresponding notions and of land, and landscape, as emergent and avant-garde theory.[3] Debasing colonial narratives steeped in the suppression or muffling of land by lame surrogates such as ‘site,’ ‘area,’ ‘lot,’ ‘property,’ ‘real estate,’ ‘district’, ‘jurisdiction,’ the project rethinks professional languages and spatial discourses guarded by the paternalistic practices of architecture, planning, and development. Their wide sweeping reliance on euro-centric narratives of western theory, city-centric generalizations of the Anthropocene, religiously apocalyptic projections of sea level rise, and chronic IPCC-led climate change catastrophism, so narrowly confine the complex understanding of built environments, territorial regimes, their dynamic processes, and the potential of ensuing practices. Cloaked by technological positivism, scientific imperialism, environmental racism, and settler colonialism, these over-engineered and mechanized means serve only privileged populations of well-developed nation states at the expense of others that are often left outside the neoliberal vacuum of consumption and corporate bubble of accumulation.

Expanding upon two former volumes of similar genres, this project thus draws from the ongoing revolutionary era of urbanism after 1993, to the present year 2018. The format of this 25-year outlook specifically builds upon the legacy of two previous and equally compelling anthologies. The first includes Joan Ockman’s Architecture Culture, a documentary anthology published in 1993 in collaboration with Edward Eigen that profiles readings from practicing architects in the postwar, reconstructive period of 1943 to 1968. Published a few years later in 1998, the second is Michael Hays’ Architecture Theory since 1968 with readings spanning the turbulent period from 1968 to 1993. Both prompted by Bernard Tschumi, then Dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation between 1988 and 2003, Hays and Ockman employ the quintessential year of 1968 as contextual benchmark and mile marker for the respective beginning and end of their collected writings on urbanism, expressed through the discipline of architecture. Now well recognized, the end of the 1960s witnessed a period of time that retrospectively saw the dawn of civil rights and rise of labor movements through clashes with the state.[4] Simultaneously, it also coincided with a period of major territorial change when the economist John Kenneth Galbraith proclaimed in The New Industrial State (1967) that “in the 20th century, capital [and power] became more important than land,” a few years prior to Henri Lefebvre’s contested manifesto “The Urban Revolution” declared “the urban (urban space, urban landscape) remains unseen.”[5]   

If then, the revolution in land entailed a revolution in forms and relations of power, any study of the history of the built environment today must open insights onto claims, constructions, capitalizations, cessions, and surrenders inscribed in the ground, and associated with the flow and concentration of capital. The revival of the study of land as a cultural subject and the emergence of landscape as a political system across the urban arts therefore precludes the study of urbanization and thus provides grounds for the construction and deconstruction—past, present, and future—of emerging power structures and new empires in the making.[6] Corresponding with the marginalization of architectural theory and planning policy in economic or political spheres during the last two decades, Urbanism after 1993 thus marks another distinct yet poorly documented period of intellectual innovation that in fact, catalyzed an inter-generational shift and swiftly enacted actual spatial transformations that have simply proliferated in the past two decades. Through an original compilation of texts, images and excerpts, the project therefore presents the agency of landscape as a pretext for current and future practices rooted in the deeply engrained grounds of urbanization (including counter-urbanization and dis-urbanization); grounds entangled in the complexities of land, law, language, life, belief, being, terrain, and territory.

By mapping land through landscape, this body of thought builds a platform for present-day intervention and establishes alternative precedents that stack up the potential for change in current investments, ongoing methodologies, and future scenarios. The ambition of this project is thus to rebase and displace mainstream urban discourse (focused exclusively on cities through the lens of divisive disciplines) by empowering voices of the marginalized, the suppressed, and the impoverished, by reifying the proliferation of living species and pluralistic identities throughout the living world, as well as unearthing indigenous and immigrant narratives that lie outside the center of dominant institutional thought and disciplinary factions.      

 Seen through eyes of these millennial ghost writers, this collection of work therefore critically positions the vital urgency of ecologic change and prescience of landscape representation with a wide spectrum of peoples and publics whose struggles for spatial justice, infrastructural equity, economic empowerment, and ecologic freedom are premised in the future of existing lands, buried below the surface of states, to be found across new scales of emerging territories yet to come.

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About the Authors

Ghazal Jafari is a designer of Persian and Azeri descent and Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Virginia, traditional lands of the Monacan People.

Hernán Bianchi-Benguria is a planner, architect, and PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Toronto, traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River, covered by Treaty 13.

Pierre Bélanger is a settler designer, originally from Montréal and Ottawa, now in Boston, traditional lands of the Massachusett Peoples, territory of the Wampanoag and Nipmuc Nations.

[1] In the wake of two anthologies respectively edited in the 1990s by Michael Hays (Architecture Theory since 1968) and Joan Ockman (Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology), writings involved in the edification of the architect as heroic figure and over-theorization of architecture as central building discipline continue to be sustained even in the wake of a crisis in theory and identity during the 1980s and 90s. For example, A. Krista Sykes’ edited anthology Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) and Kate Nesbitt’s Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture: An Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995 (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996) in the United States, as well as Arie Graafland and Jasper de Haam’s The Critical Landscape (Rotterdam, UK 010 Publishers, 1996) in the Netherlands, are but a few of the many attempts to recover some form of significance to the architectural discipline and the role of architect during a period of dwindling cultural relevance, design authorship, or spatial influence. This narrow disciplinary focus not only excluded significant changes in the body of work on the complexity of the urban environment but also overlooked the pluralization of spatial practices it entailed. Already by the early 1990s, practicing landscape architects and urbanists alike were engaging in active recovery and reconstruction of the landscape subject, beyond that of the singular of the architectural designer. For example, in 1981, L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui published an extensive folio of contemporary urban projects and territorial design by landscape architects from France (with architecte-paysagistes such as Alexandre Chemetoff, Michel Corajoud, and Jacques Simon to name a few), while Zone in New York published its first, groundbreaking (albeit hotly contested), 484-page, double-volume edition, with then emerging designer Bruce Mau. According to editors Sanford Kwinter and Michel Feher, its focus was on the subject of the “contemporary metropolis” and its “politicalregime”, beyond the classical diagram of urbanism seen through the limiting focus of the social sciences defined by the objectification of the city. That same year, The Princeton Journal(Thematic Studies in Architecture) published in tow, its Volume 2: Landscape, only a year following the journal’s inauguration, a volume now recognized as a defining moment in design criticism thanks to the incisive words of architectural historian and French urban theorist Françoise Choay. In a short and terse critique condemning the flawed jury process of the Parc de la Villette Competition whose 1983 verdict (for Bernard Tschumi winning entry) “was inspired by fear”, Choay argued instead for the recognition of the “casual, humorous, complex, realistic, and actually innovative” (213) entry by then Office for Metropolitan Architecture led by Rem Koolhaas. As Choay deftly pointed out, “innovative because in the present crisis of architecture—a crisis of status, form, and meaning—instead of once more proposing a new model and a new image, it proposes a method, thus exposing the gigantic blank of a gigantic program.” (213) Choay concludes her critique by pointing out that OMA’s second-place entry emphasized the contradictory nature of the “over-inflated” program, if not “over-constraining” requirements for the park’s design, unexpectedly resolving the proposal by “[breaking] off with the totalitarianism of form” and “[making] place for the unpredictable,” cleverly locating the proposal between different urban traditions of the French garden, that is between “both the classical and the Haussmannian.” (214) See Françoise Choay, “Critique” in The Princeton Journal - Thematic Studies in Architecture “Landscape” Vol. 2 (1985): 211-220.

[2] In 1991, comparative linguist Mary Louise Pratt formulated an important argument for the decolonization of institutional knowledge through the construction of the pedagogical arts in what she characterized as “the contact zone” required between disciplinary forms of knowledge. See “Arts of the Contact Zone” Profession (1991): 33-40.

[3] In 1992, landscape practitioner James Corner expressed lucid and articulate views in the correlation between the meaning of landscape production and the semiotics of design effects preceding an explosive period of post-modernist landscape projects. See James Corner, “Representation and Landscape: Drawing and Making in the Landscape Medium” Word & ImageVol.8, No.3 (1992): 243-275.

[4] This project is informed by two respective observations made in key footnotes, respectively by Michael Hays and Joan Ockman. In Architecture Theory since 1968 (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA: The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998), Hays observed in the introduction that “ a different, younger audience, whose relation to consumption is altogether altered, whose memories may not include any notions of resistance or negation, may have to produce another kind of theory premised on neither the concept of reification nor the apparatus of the sign, both of which have their ultimate referent in the vexatious territory of reproducibility and commodity consumption. Indeed, since 1993, there have been important developments in architecture theory not covered by this anthology.” In the accompanying footnote to this explanation, Hays further adds that “feminism and identity politics are only the most obvious of themes that have produced massive numbers of studies since 1993 not primarily concerned with reification.” (xiv, xvn8) Conversely, in her documentary anthology Architecture Culture 1943-1968 (New York, NY: The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York and Rizzoli International Publications, 1993), Ockman remarked that “[n]aturally, despite the attempt to be as discriminating as possible in such choices, the ultimate compilation represents a subjective and occasionally pragmatic judgment and makes no claim to be exhaustive or ‘correct.’ On the contrary, the reader is invited to argue with both its inclusions and omissions.” To this explanation, Ockman further notes that “[i]t might be stated in anticipation that a few of the latter were owed to the difficulty of obtaining a text efficient enough to accommodate the present format.” (23)

[5] See John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967): 494, and Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution translated by Robert Bononno (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010/1970): 25.

[6] In 1991, Dell Upton provides an important characterization and comparison of the distinctive and autonomous histories of the field of landscape in his “Architectural History or Landscape History? Journal of Architectural Education Vol. 44, No. 4 (August 1991): 195-199.