The Ten Point Guides to Emergence

Ten key concepts of landscape emergence theory each divided into ten key points, distilled from Chapter 03 of Emergence in Landscape Architecture, Routledge 2013.

(Download PDF by clicking on list below)

01.  Open Systems

02.  The Situation

03.  Meridian

04.  Assemblage

05.  NatureCultures

06.  Field Theory

07.  Morphogenesis

08.  Difference

09.  Disturbance

10.  Formless




What does not kill me will make me stronger. It will cause me to adjust. I will improve. I will survive the catastrophe and go on. Not just endure; enhanced and ennobled by my experience I will meet the world with greater resilience, more useful tools, a wilier intelligence, an increased capacity for dealing with the slings and arrows that are thrown my way. I will emerge from my small struggle a better person. Myths and legends, local stories, family anecdotes, movies, romances and crime novels are rooted in the device of overcoming, of the hero (me, you, her) breaking a conflict situation and through this catharsis becoming something new or better. The narrative of self-improvement is based on the trope of renewal after disaster - because of disaster. The epic poem, such as the Odyssey or the Iliad, requires disaster to enable the hero to create a new condition; for the old order to be swept away and a new order ushered in. We see it in films and novels too: any Clint Eastward movie, for instance Gran Torino or The Unforgiven; Jane Austen’s novels, where the heroine and hero alike become improved through hardship and the asymptotal nearness/farness of the loved one. It is the same in real life: war cleanses and purifies, the rat eats her young and the rat community flourishes, the frightened young officer is wounded and, spurred on, leads her company to victory.

 And who is this subject for whom the figure of emergence is so apt, so peculiarly descriptive? This subject is, of course, a system, for it is systems that are emergent in this world. More specifically, the subject is a set of systems, nested hierarchically, level after level of system from macro to micro, from the lofty heights of nonphysical consciousness to the microscopic, almost nonphysical but oh so material systems of sub-molecular events in terms of which evolutionary biologists say consciousness itself can be explained. And, blending with this vertical systemic subjectivity is a horizontal field of systems overlapping, drifting through each other, passing into other systems, social, geographical and cultural. Vertical systems and horizontal systems comprise the subject in contemporary life. When we meet a friend or hold a flower to our nose one set of systems confronts and mingles with another. And all these systems are open …



It is noted in Emergence in Landscape Architecture (Barnett 2013: 20) that “system” is a metaphor, a theoretical construct that enables us to understand (perceive, describe, explain, interpret) observed behavior in a language that is formulated especially for the job. One of the most important features of the construct when applied to people is the sense it gives of human entanglement in other systems, the complete and unavoidable imbrication – embeddedness – of landscape and body. The sense, as Merleau-Ponty put it, of the human body “being caught in the fabric of the world” (Merleau-Ponty 1969: 256). The idea of system reinforces a phenomenology of landscape-human relations as indissoluble and of the human agent as a becoming that occurs always inside the intertwining landscape systems in which it is immersed. The supposition that there is a mind (or a subject) over here and a landscape (an object) over there, mute, physical, external, is no longer tenable. Any discussion of open systems will entail the decisive concepts of emergence: time, disturbance, instability, equilibrium, inclusiveness, resilience, self-organization, adaptivity. All of these concepts, developed or adapted to explicate certain kinds of phenomenal behavior, are characteristic of open systems, merging the open systems of human existence with those so often considered separate, of landscape.



The study of open systems, and the development of this language, began in earnest in the twentieth century after nineteenth century innovations in thermodynamics and related disciplines. Classical, Newtonian physics had based its account of natural phenomena on the analysis of the behavior of closed systems. In a closed system a kind of experimental purity is possible. System events and circumstances can be controlled and repeated, as they are not influenced by anything but the experimenter’s interventions. Observations of the system’s behavior are therefore reliable and determinate. However, the observation of closed systems is now considered an artificial and misleading way of finding out about nature, including human nature. Natural processes are always interacting with each other and are highly susceptible to change. A landscape, therefore, is a system that changes and evolves according to information continually being received from an environment that includes itself.  Once we have open systems, we can speak of self-organization, of which autocatalysis is a crucial characteristic. Autocatalysis, or positive feedback, occurs when the output, or result, affects the input of the system, thus altering its operation. Put another way, information generated can influence the generation of further information. An autocatalytic process is one, therefore, that catalyzes or accelerates itself. Classical physics did not have the tools for finding this out. Newton could predict the moon’s orbit from the laws of gravity, but did not have the equations to describe the nonlinear feedback produced if another moon is introduced into the system, when orbits become chaotic and linear prediction impossible. For the first time in history, the study of feedback loops enabled researchers to distinguish between the pattern of organization of a system and its physical structure.



As noted earlier, an open system is part of its environment. While this means that its future behavior is not able to be determined, it can nevertheless attain a structure and maintain it in far-from-equilibrium conditions. This undermines the traditional view that systems must be examined as if they were isolated from their environment. Instead they are seen as embedded, or nested within an interactive cascade of mobile networks. For this reason scale is critical in the consideration of landscape systems. In landscape studies space is dynamic, flexible, relative. It is not an absolute, not a container for form. Within a watershed or a city we can observe spatial changes at different scales. As a whole, a city does not seem to change much in a week, but at the level of the street the change in one week can be radical: buildings vanish, families move on, crushing accidents occur. What is most crucial is that we can see different relationships depending on the scale at which we look. At the scale of Oceania, we can observe economic flows between Pacific islands, and this causes us to understand these islands in certain ways, as part of a global system. At the scale of the bay we see different aspects of these economic flows, and understand their relationship to landscape conditions: harvest, management and husbandry; weather patterns, kinship influences and so on. In fact, scale itself is a framing device that separates and isolates systems that are in reality connected.

 The flow of energy in open systems allows them spontaneously to self-organize by developing novel structures and new modes of behavior. Self-organizing systems are therefore said to be creative, and their bifurcations the source of diversification and innovation (Prigogine 1996: 70). They are adaptive, and actually require conditions of instability and disturbance in order to evolve to new levels of order and vigor. Matter/energy, and its flows and coagulations, is the basic subject-matter of landscape architecture. The regulation of these flows and coagulations as a design strategy is developed by Zaera-Polo, a designer with Foreign Office Architects. For FOA, design is seen as a way to “permit organizationally complex landscapes to emerge through the production of topographies artificially generated by a mediated integration of rigorously modeled orders” (Zaera-Polo 2005: 23). Open systems are complex. Their parts are so numerous that there is no way a causal relationship between them can be established. Instead, their components are connected by networks of feedback loops operating at different levels, different scales and different rhythms. Landscapes work like this. This is why it is not necessarily useful to think of them in terms of types. As complex adaptive systems their higher order patterns are the result of their continual interactions within and without, of their ongoing openness and responsiveness to quite specific, changing conditions. We should think of landscapes as generated by, and therefore imminent to, the specific conditions they comprise. How we remodel landscapes is a question how we gather and direct these forces and, indeed, this is just what gardening is: the production of difference through the husbandry of natural processes.



In Chapter 02 of Emergence in Landscape Architecture cities are described as dissipative structures.  As such, they are in contact with various sources and sinks. Flows of matter/energy from sources to sinks enable ordered structures to be formed, maintaining them in time. In the end these flows are dissipated as wastes and other pollutants to external sinks. If a landscape is static, like a nineteenth century park, it becomes a sink not a source. It requires maintenance in the form of physical and economic input. One of the objectives for the landscape architect is to make sources not sinks. The project is to encourage the development of open systems, and to place human beings into these systems in such a way as to enhance the exchange that occurs between the multiplicity that is human personhood and landscape multiplicity. The operations of landscape architectural making - the poetics of landscape architecture - are entirely adequate to this project. Garden making, city making, the creation of parks great and small, have always required of landscape architects a special sensitivity to the openness of becoming. An immersion in the unique processes of human-nonhuman interaction that only landscapes can afford, and a careful rehabilitation of the operations that are specific to landscape making - a commitment to the intimate association of humans and the world that makes them human - can invigorate the discipline and re-orient its approach to the complicated terrains that confront it. This will require a revision of expectations on the part both of landscape professionals, and the constituencies with whom they work, to realize the designed open systems of the twenty-first century. An open system will evolve into something that has not been envisaged. Any design investigation must take into account the responses not only of the natural system but also of the human participants with their partly compatible and partly opposing goals. The system is not simply the terrain and its affordances. It includes sub-systems: the weather, climate cycles, municipalities, funding organizations, real estate values, stock market reports. By means of the transmission and exchange relations it enters into with these the system selects its own trajectory. While this trajectory may not suit everybody, everybody has been involved in it. The system does not just take, it gives.



Koolhaas’s Downsview Park Tree City is emblematic.  Now widely assumed to have failed, Tree City was an early example of designed landscape emergence, the winning entry in a competition to repurpose an abandoned airfield as an urban park in Toronto. Its nonlinear strategy was as open as is possible to future entailments, and evolved accordingly. This always meant that the “rapidly changing and constantly shifting urban field,” as Waldheim put it in his 2001 review of the competition, could move the system in unforeseeable directions, as a result of the downward causation that typifies emergence. After the three phases that established the green infrastructure of the park, the scheme left the remaining terrain “to be returned to its native ecological state or left fallow for an indeterminate future” (Waldheim 2001: 85). Only by 2006 would pathways and programmed activities be introduced. Therefore managing public expectations, as Smith says in an article written after a visit to the park in 2006, was a critical part of the project that was somehow overlooked, or under-realized, and the project has indeed shifted (Smith 2007:37). New commercial and residential developments are now under construction, working reassuringly towards a final state, rather than the awkward and unintelligible (because slow and informal) natural and cultural succession phases that would never reach an achieved condition. It might be, as Smith states, that the problem was a lack of clear communication strategies that might explain the basis of the proposal and what stage it was at in regular and appealing transmissions. It might be the lack of interim detailing to provide formal, legible visual, physical statements about progress. It might be, as Berger suggested in a 2001 review, that an inattentiveness to the specifics of topography and hydrology meant that the envisaged self-organizing plant ecologies were never going to flourish and the whole thing just sit there looking like an underfunded, half-hearted arboretum project (Berger 2001: 131).



But this is too simple. An urban system comprises, among other things, sets of social systems and ecosystems. The success or failure of Tree City cannot be judged in terms of one or the other. It is particularly because humans are part of the Tree City system that it could branch off into any one of a number of different organizational states. There is no “correct” or “preferred state.” Like the three moon problem that Newton could not explain with classical dynamics, the park that evolves rather than remaining static will elude description unless we attend to the frame by means of which the description is developed. This requirement is as fundamental to the establishment of the system in the first place, as it is to future analyses of it. Both the designers and the readers of any self-organizing urban landscape must necessarily identify the important components of the envisaged landscape, their interrelationships, a sense of the system as a whole, and the system’s relationship with its context. And these aspects of the landscape must be understood as undergoing continuous change. Ecologist J.J. Kay has explained how a system description is always developed from the perspective of an observer. Since a system is not “out there,” but “inside us,” he says, any situation can be described in a number of ways. No description is complete or correct, and there is always the question which description should be used. Kay emphasizes that when we look at a system we see its structure but not the processes that inform it (Kay 2008: 17). The urban processes that Tree City selected as its conditions of evolution are complex and difficult to pin down. Additionally, the state that an urban landscape occupies at any one time is as much a matter of its history as its current context. As self-organizing regimes, designed landscapes will develop according to what has happened in the past. The Downsview Park trajectory began in 1994 when the Canadian federal government announced the site as an urban park, and its future states were portended by the establishment of Parc Downsview Park Inc. as mandated to create an “urban recreational greenspace” in 1996. These initial conditions formulated the DNA that would actualize the park by defining its possibilities. Political, social, financial and cultural perturbations could push the system from one regime into a very different one. Tree City tells us a lot about the difficulties of strategizing open urban systems.



As Kay’s insistence on the appropriateness of system descriptions implies, a big picture is made up of many little pictures. Turning to ecocritical literature for insight, we find Robert Watson, in his “Ecology of Self in a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” noticing that Shakespeare’s characters are  “motivated by uncontrollable forces within and without.”  They occupy worlds that are reliant on each other, that even merge. The play’s interspecies couplings and metamorphoses remind us that there is more going on than “cool reason comprehends,” and that an environment does not necessarily refer to clouds and trees (Watson 2011: 36 passim). Setting aside cool reason, then, let it be stated that an open system is a multiplicity. As a multiplicity a landscape offers itself to composition with other multiplicities, such as ourselves, in ways that urge us to become involved. A landscape, in this sense - as multiplicity - is not defined by simple materiality, or the space it occupies, or its organic structure, and nor are we. When we become involved with a landscape it is the relations between its parts that strike us - and the actions and reactions these provoke. So it is not simply tree, but how the tree develops its distinctions through placement, orientation, distance (“external” milieu) and sunlight filtration, scent, color gradients, interaction with other plants and materials, the spatiality it creates, the ephemerality it assumes, the involvement it enables other bodies to develop with each other under its influence. A tree is a body, I am a body, and a body is more than the physical suggestion of my frame. Above everything my body has a capacity for being affected by other bodies, and when there are landscape systems that consist of magnitudes and dimensions that are in continual change - like me - I can open up to them, enter their elements and relations, their porosity, intransigence, elisions and divisions, and become affected by their powers. I bring the entire field of my lived experience to this encounter: past encounters, significant events, historical determinations, concepts, memories, capacities, habits, persuasions, predilections and powers.



As an open system the landscape simultaneously lays out its own semiotic, material and social flows. It does this, as I do, in ways that elude the separation of the situation into world, representation and subjectivity. A landscape has no outside, for its connectivity to other multiplicities is always complete. Any figuration of a multiplicity is, in the manner of a systems description, at once a subjectification, a projection and an artificial partitioning. Perhaps it is more apt to say that a landscape is only and always an ecotone, an edge, a continuous immanent spatiality, a set of borderlines that continually present themselves as elements to be dissolved, disassembled and reassembled through my contact with them. This compelling admixture of body and body, produced by congeries of landscape difference (height, color, light, moisture gradient, adjacency etc) is not, then, an interpretation or an experiential condition, even though it is phenomenal, but an individual realization of the concrete constituents of time and place. When we encounter landscape multiplicities, we are always encountering them in time and place.



The human subject-system that is doing this is itself a moving location of affects, not a thing. The kind of individuation we find in a person is more akin to the variable differentiation of something like a day, a season, a life, a climate, a wind, a fog, a swarm, a pack.  A landscape is like this too. It is not some kind of backdrop or background that situates subjects or holds things to the ground. It is the entire assemblage incorporating the situation and its aggregates. In my capacity as an effect, an event, a component of the assemblage that is arranging around me, I am inseparable from the hour, the season, the air, the street, the “weeds” in the cracks of the paving. I am always in composition with the landscape I am connecting to. The wetland I discover at the end of the street is as much a part of the walking human-boardwalk-heron assemblage as the designer who initiated it and the collectivity whose neighborhood it skirts.




Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers advances the need to uncouple “the analytical approach” from “the scientific view of the world.” Analysis in her view is a question of asking the right questions rather than distinguishing between objective truth and arbitrary decision (Stengers 1997: 4-5). As a scientist Stengers is permitting us to tease analysis away from reductionism, and to accept the advantages of an analytical method in the light of the possibility that it may directly contradict the generalization of reductionism. For landscape architects wishing to found their analysis of a complex landscape situation on something more useful than the reductive measures of normative science or on intuition or freeform interpretation, Stengers’ work conjures up an interesting and relevant possibility.



According to Webster’s Dictionary, analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts in order to gain a better understanding of it. The word comes from the Greek analusis, “a breaking up” which brings together the root words “and” meaning “up” and “lyein” meaning “loosening.” It implies the separation of a whole into its component parts, or the “examination of a complex, its elements and their relations.” It does not imply that the behavior of the whole system can be understood by an examination of its parts. Analysis, which can be conducted conceptually, linguistically, manually, or with a device, is a crucial part of landscape design. The question what to “loosen up” may seem to come before the question how we “loosen up,” and yet these are two sides of the same coin. Of special significance are the relationships between people and the dynamic conditions that they create and inhabit. Close observation of behavior is necessary. What are the specific assemblages that comprise these human-nonhuman interactions? How do we find this out?



In landscape architecture we have to take account of the immersion of humans and nonhumans in the environments that support and maintain them, and determine how these environments are continually transformed on the basis of this immersive condition. The actors in any system, say, a neighborhood, that is far-from-equilibrium, represent what Stengers calls “fluctuations.” That is to say they are responsible for the uncontrolled variability of individual behaviors and may play a role in changing what she calls “the macroscopic regime” of the situation. These fluctuations emerge from a background noise that may or may not be important. The designer needs to know with respect to the noise what is significant and what is not. The people in a community may be particularly sensitized to a political discourse that affects the potential futures of the community. Whether this discourse will have an effect is largely decided through the collective regime of activity, which ultimately decides what is insignificant noise and what must be taken into account. We do not know a priori what a neighborhood community can do, and when it is far-from-equilibrium, which is most of the time, we cannot tell once and for all the difference between what must be taken into account and what we can ignore. Furthermore, the collective learns, and changes as a result. It is a moving target. Its emergent effects continually alter the composition of the situation. Other actors in the system, such as the community organizations that provide the funding for landscape projects, and the school system that wishes to be involved, as well as the polluted creek that runs through the community park, are all players in the game.



Kristina Hill draws attention to the variability of readings of nonhuman species existing within situations. She gives the example that mowing a meadow in spring, when juvenile mice are dispersing may, in the absence of tall grasses, make these young animals more visible to hawks. “On the other hand an insect that lays its eggs in the meadow may find its population maintained if the meadow is not mown until summer, after its eggs have hatched and the insects have developed wings to fly away” (Hill 2005:147). What we have is a complex system. It is not possible, or at least it is dangerous, to isolate these players in order to deal with them. Kay calls this suboptimization. “When one part of a system is optimized in isolation, another part will be moved farther from its optimum in order to accommodate the change. Generally when a system is optimal, its components are themselves run in a suboptimal way” (Kay 2008: 19). And Stengers warns:  “ … isolation is a dangerous game, and those who believe they can purify their objects in fact intervene actively in the significance of the object they observe” (Stengers 1997: 16).



These issues have been raised in order to demonstrate that the analysis of existing conditions within an open system, a system that is continually emergent on the basis of internal and external interactions, requires a special set of tools and procedures. The study of morphogenesis shows that discernible structural and organizational patterns underlie these interactions. When we understand these underlying blueprints we can start to seed processes with catalysts for the development of new patterns and forms.  Such understanding involves a letting go of understanding in general and an acceptance of the kind of framed description mentioned in Open Systems. The French philosopher Alain Badiou describes a condition - the situation - that enables us to refine the way we look at terrain. A situation, he says, is

…an ordinary multiple, a multiple that is obviously infinite because all situations in reality are infinite. It can be a historical, political, artistic, or mathematic situation; it can even be a subjective situation. I take situation in an exceptionally open sense, and to capture that openness I say it’s a multiplicity.

(Badiou, 2000: 64n6)

 While anything can be a situation - a dream, a farm, a divorce, a stock prediction, a death in the family, a supermarket, a street, a bad hair day, a crime scene - it is the usefulness of the concept for landscape architectural analysis that will occupy us here. Situations come in any modality; they can be necessary, contingent, actual, possible, virtual, potential (Feltham and Clemens 2004: 10). We have seen in the exploration of open systems that a landscape situation is a set of multiples, all of which are composed of further multiples, and all of which can belong to different situations. There is no unified totality that encompasses situations. Their relations are always adaptive and dynamic.



Two types of landscape situation were mentioned in the above list: farm and street. Clearly, humans are involved, but the kind of human involvement that Badiou’s notion entails differs radically from that which appears in most landscape architectural formulations of site. We can see readily how a street is a situation in Badiou’s sense. It is a multiple that participates in other systems through the obvious medium of its role in transportation networks that overlap and interact. A street participates in less obvious systems too, such as the vertical system of a high-rise building. The social meshwork of the street sometimes gives way to a stratified diagram that structures sociability in the high-rise office tower, however: more than one urbanist has commented on the reduction in ethnic and gender diversity the higher you go in a building. The situation of the street really is, as Badiou describes it, an infinity. In terms of structure the compositional elements of the street are countless: physical, ecological, vegetational, architectural, and material. Then there is its intensive character: comings and goings, speeds and slownesses, temperature gradients, proximities, affordances, not to mention its ability to create human worlds out of the bringing together of bodies and subjectivities that the street so wonderfully makes possible.



Badiou argues that a situation is a field of murky possibilities in which the human subject may encounter something special, a critical event that disrupts the situation, or transforms it, opens it up to something Badiou calls “truth.” This event is turbulent and unpredictable, and is of crucial significance to the subject, who encounters it as a difficult condition. Think of this. The situation is now more than an externality. You are implicated in it: it is yours. Every situation belongs to, is part of, a human subject’s reality. This is perhaps the most useful aspect of the notion. Human beings are always acting in response to, or in complicity with, a chance event that disrupts their situation, which makes them belong to the situation. When we understand how embedded humans are in situations, and how multiple these situations are - how infinite - we can begin to see how important are the modes of analysis we bring to bear on them. What we need to discover within the situations that we break into smaller parts are the transformational potentials of our own involvement in those situations as designers. The decisions we make as landscape architects have transformational consequences for the situation. Our interventions make a difference to the lived experience of the situation for those whose lives are entangled in it, and in whose lives the situation is itself entangled. It may well be landscape architecture’s emphasis on lived experience that makes the urban field so real and present to its inhabitants. We create the city by discovering both the subjective and the physical material of the urban field and making these the means by which the urban is recovered from its dormancy. Physicality and subjectivity are critical to our experience of experience. This is the message of the situation.



What urban landscape design can give us is the utter complicity of the situation in the construction of the subject’s lived experience. What is gathered in analysis, how it is gathered and collated, and how it is interpreted, depends on what it is being gathered for, and how it is to be used. Since, in landscape architecture, all data that is used in the design process involves a crucial set of relationships between humans and landscapes, it is important that this relational condition is taken into account in the practice of collection and interpretation. Landscape analysis is often considered to be a combination of the following analytical methods.

        Site Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance (literally: recognition) is a military term denoting exploration conducted in order to gain information. It is usually undertaken by scouts or military intelligence soldiers by means of direct observation. Reconnaissance is part of combat intelligence, and contributes to and is managed by, the government-level cycle of intelligence management. It may be compared to counter-intelligence and surveillance, which are the passive gathering of data. Sometimes reconnaissance is used by geologists to refer to “the examination or survey of the general geological characteristics of a region.” The term is also used in computer networking for the exploration or enumeration of network infrastructure.

 Site Forensics

Forensics refers to the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to a legal system. It encompasses the accepted scientific methodology and norms under which the facts regarding an event, or an artifact, or some other physical item (such as a corpse) are ascertained as being the case. In this regard the concept is related to the notion of authentication, whereby an interest outside of a legal form exists in determining whether an object is what it purports to be, or is alleged as being. Forensics comes from the Latin, where it means “of or before the forum.” In Roman times accuser and accused would put their arguments before a group of public individuals in the forum. The individual with the best argument and delivery would win. This would usually be the person with the sharpest forensic skills. Some forensic techniques (i.e. “scientific methods”) have been found to be questionable. For instance, comparative bullet lead analysis, forensic dentistry (later invalidated by DNA evidence) and fingerprinting. With respect to the latter, a New York Times article recently noted that no one has proved even the basic assumption that everyone’s fingerprint is unique.

 Site Surveying

This is the technique or science of accurately determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional position of points and the distances and angles between them, and delineating these on a two-dimensional surface. Often used to establish maps and boundaries, it deploys elements of geometry, trigonometry, engineering, physics and law. The theory and practice of surveying can be widened to include the determination of cultural details above, on or beneath the surface of the earth. Information is gathered through observation, measurements in the field, questionnaires, research of legal documents and data analysis. This information is examined as to its condition, situation, or value. In ordinary parlance the term is widened to include ideas of inspection, appraisal and scrutiny. Accuracy is one of the key components of a survey, as surveys are used to develop architectural and engineering projects on the one hand, and to settle land disputes on the other.



Landscape analysis, then, combines intelligence gathering (reconnaissance) with accurate measurement (surveying) to present a compelling argument (forensics). It is just this approach that the situation renders inconceivable. What is faithful to the situation cannot be observed, measured or argued for. How might an indivisible condition that reaches through the very boundaries that such analysis erects, become accountable to that analysis? This condition can be captured, to a certain extent, by imaginative drawing, writing, videography and photography, and it is these creative and constructive performativities that must be embraced and used to augment landscape architectural analysis. The Ten Point Guide to Assemblage, below, offers one such situational analysis technique.



In this way, unhooking the analytical approach from the scientific view of the world, using a wide range of interpretive modalities drawn from design, arts and scientific practices of discovery, we may enter into the situation and determine what may or may not become useful in our design. Its utility, it should be emphasized, is not only discovered but invented again and again through the adoption of different frames of interpretation. What is loosened up is not parts from a whole but events from a situation that is a condition of the framing process that enables it to be apprehended at all. The next Ten Point Guide, Meridian, advances this argument.




Using a scale is drawing the borderline of a multiplicity – it gives it an edge. Take an estuary and its creatures. Individual species occupy this amorphous borderline in such a way that other species are drawn to its moving edge condition. When they come in, the original population makes an adjustment. Sometimes it is only individuals that realign, moving slightly in or out of the group, even taking members with them; in which case a part of the population redefines the border randomly as it were, re-establishing the group and its place within the estuarial field. These adjustments may occur hourly, daily, seasonally, as a result of tidal fluctuations, long or short-term weather patterns and the migration of species. (A street corner in an urban core may be similarly described). Although this self-ordering assures a kind of stability, even as the multiplicity moves and changes, swells and diminishes, reacting to outside circumstances, it is impossible to define its extent. But scaling implies extent, size. And it is supposed to tell us not only how many components there are in a specific location, but what kinds of relations hold between them.



Examining a system that is always becoming something else therefore requires more than one scale. As Nowicki notes, “… the condition of being different or having differences does not provide a yardstick with which to measure diversity” (Nowicki, quoted in Lister 2008: 86). To avoid any sense of limit or line cast across a gradient of shifting qualities, different scales must be used simultaneously. When we do this, processes and relationships come in and out of focus, and it becomes clearer which of these we are interested in with respect to the frame we are developing. Scale, then, is observer-dependent, just as the identification of a specific level for analysis is observer-dependent. For biologists examining the estuary described above, the middle scale -- that of the species whose movements were observed - is the most useful. It is in middle that the individuals in which they are interested tend to be most obviously embedded.  Observing the interactions between populations, however, requires a different scale. In either case, the relationships that the specific elements enter with each other and other individuals, including habitat structures and passing biota, “there is a staggering degree of uncertainty” (Lister 1997: 126). But the middle scale will always be the most tangible and is often the most common. This is the scale of the macro-organism, of the beast, the bird and the human being - of the holological ecologist. And yet, “It’s not so easy to see things from the middle, rather than looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left: try it, you’ll see that everything changes” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 23).



Serres uses the figure of a surfer catching a wave to make the same point. The surfer waits until the right moment and then, capturing the matter/energy of the wave rides it until it dissipates in a thunderous crash on the shore and becomes undertow, pulling sand and pebbles back into the sea. The ocean is a vast movement system, but the surfer catches the wave in the middle, as it is peaking, before it has broken (Serres: 1995).



A situation, whether it be primarily ecological or primarily social, will always have components of both, and in each case the potential for using middle scale indicators of situation extent is fraught with difficulties. One way that biologists have in the past attempted to define the extent of a particular ecosystem is by identifying the keystone species for that ecosystem. For instance there is the designation of the oak-hickory-pine forest of the Fall Line area of the eastern United States, where the upland Piedmont meets the Atlantic coastal plain. These species have been used to identify the characteristics of the ecosystem in which they appear since they have been thought to determine coeval understory plant community probabilities, as well as ecosystem extent. However, it is now recognized that “ecosystems follow cyclic rather than linear paths of development, regularly punctuated by sudden, unpredictable and rapid episodes of change to a variety of other states” (Lister: 141). This requires species to move between multiple operating states, suggesting that a species understood as a keystone species in one state may quite well be redundant in another. Plants, animals - and humans - are likely to perform different functions under differing circumstances, and therefore in different situations (Lister: 141). The relative importance of different actors in a situation will be best discerned by using multiple scales to study the same phenomena. The particular role of individual components may only become apparent under particular conditions that trigger their individual structuring function. These conditions are often discernible only at different scales, which, for instance, demonstrate causal conditions that are beyond the capacity of one scale to apprehend.



As a meshwork, an ecosystem’s connectors and hubs (its keystone species and the species they connect to) may change depending on food supply, the presence of predators, disturbance by humans, drought and other perturbations. This means that it is not possible to get a permanent reading of the ecosystem at any scale. The ecosystem itself is scale-free. There is no characteristic node, no permanent keystone species; instead there is a continuous shifting of primacy with no single species that can be identified and claimed to be characteristic of all the species in the system. While a scale-free network is one that has several large hubs that define the network’s topology, just which species serve as these hubs is a matter of the continual co-evolution of the species in the system and their ongoing responses to disturbance (Barabasi 2002: 70-71; Buchanan 2002: 138-155).



As in a Fall Line forest, so in a Fall Line city, such as Baltimore, Richmond, Columbus or Montgomery. When viewed from different scales different urban relationships emerge. It is therefore not sufficient to reduce information to that gleaned from a single scale. It is necessary to think about the situation from a variety of scales, to identify the relationships that those scales reveal, as well as other considerations that might aid in understanding the situation. But moving from scale to scale really only moves the problem of recording nonlinearity from scale to scale. We can notate probabilities at any one scale and regard these as “good enough,” but then we have to recombine them with the probabilities we have recorded at other scales. The conclusions we draw with respect to the existing conditions with any situation are therefore going to be a simplification of complex phenomena, and in some cases the very phenomena we seek to understand will be lost. The realization that the data-sets that comprise situations, be they a ball park, a river walk, a farm or a polluted wetland, are ultimately and inherently unrecoverable, shows that whatever method we use for discovering the dynamic components, processes, gradients and structures of open systems, the data we retrieve can only give us options.



How we deal with the fact that our knowledge of the world we wish to change is inchoate and contingent is a matter of the value systems we incorporate into our planning and design procedures, and just how we do that. Part of the project of Emergence in Landscape Architecture (2013) is to use emergence theory to suggest ways of renegotiating values on an ongoing basis. People are aggregates of different types of multiplicities that coexist, interpenetrate and change places – machines, cogs, motors, and elements that are set in motion at a given moment, forming an assemblage productive of statements: “I love you….” Let us invoke Merleau-Ponty once more. He places before us an intimacy with the world that is not primarily visual, but corporeal. The self is not simply in the world but of it. The human body is the medium of this intermingling, rather than the mind, Merleau-Ponty argues. Since we make the world by living it, we cannot map the world by means of visual codes. We are animals, and animals are in the world, as Bataille says, “like water in water.” This is why Shanti Fjord Levy rebukes Corner for his suggestion that aerial mapping processes may discover a site’s essential qualities, as these qualities will always elude the “application of an external order” (Levy 2008). Levy suggests a mode of exploration that can engage with what consists within the structures and operations of the system in all its materiality (counting memories and histories as concrete things). The notion of the situation acknowledges the site as a moving target, distributed, entangled de-centered, connected to other situations. Drenched with potential, it incorporates the plural assemblages of cultural and social histories that are not tangential but constitutive. If all open systems are sensitive to initial conditions and their ongoing historical circumstances they can be explained only in terms of these.



Understanding the situation means understanding one’s own complicity in its construction, one’s own stories, histories, predilections, dramas and fantasies. Mapping has the potential to engage with the interactive nature of multiplicities but needs, as Levy says, to be supplemented by or at least include “forms of notation” that register the situatedness of the mapper and the shifting registers of the mapped. Levy argues for walking as a way the designer might enter into an “embedded understanding” of a place. “The complex understanding of a place made possible through walking argues for the necessity of situated relational methods to accompany aerial mapping techniques” (Levy 2008). W.G Sebald, whose landscape writing has been an inspiration for cultural geographers, demonstrates this important source of understanding. In the late 1990s Sebald conducted a walking tour of East Anglia and wrote about it in The Rings of Saturn. This and his other books conjure what Wylie calls “a strange metaphysics of landscape.” Sebald gets inside the landscapes he visits, is always in the middle, linking themes of exile and displacement, history, memory and forgetting, destruction and fragmentation. He moves seamlessly between concrete landscape elements such as estuaries, clouds, tree clumps, sandbanks and swiftly moving streams and the vast but personal themes of loss and deprivation that motivate his endless inquiries into the connections between landscape and individual becoming (Sebald 1998; Wylie 2007: 207). The maps artists make also offer a way to invigorate normative landscape mapping a là Corner, often insisting on an intense personalization of the material being mapped, such as a street corner or a garbage dump. Levy, like Connolly, argues for a “middle scale of interaction” as this is the scale at which “social collisions” occur and at which community is expressed. She argues that the middle scale of experience “is actually the scale at which we develop and communicate both meaning and identity in the landscape” and that “large scale aerial views privilege those landscape relationships that lie outside of human perception, neglecting those that are experienced” (Levy 2008).



Landscape architectural designers should be interested in what is actually functioning in an open system, and what the mechanisms of this functioning are. Once these have been identified the designer may effectively select the material with the greatest capacity to generate affective encounters with the world. As Connolly says, the self-organizational material regulates the act of discovery. The designer enters into his or her own affective relationship with the existing conditions and through this engagement discovers the specific generative mechanisms that comprise and envelop the situation.  An ecosystem, as much as a city street or a coastal reserve, is always in the middle, even, or particularly, when it is far-from-equilibrium. From microbiology we know that the genetic algorithms driving mutation are also always, being open-ended, in the middle. From the art of gardening we know that a garden is, as the gardener wearily complains, “never finished.” The middle is not only important, in open systems it is inescapable. The question is how to use the representational notations available to landscape architects adequately to present the open systems of the urban realm, so that the work that is based on these representations can both participate in existing multiplicities and imaginatively achieve new ones.

 Connolly exhorts landscape designers to identify “the interacting sets of conditions (forces and relations) that produce functionings.” In fact, “(f)unctionings, conditions, mechanisms, connectabilities and trajectories all require discerning, identification and abstraction in a manner useful for a designer.” Once identified in this way – and this is the only material suggestion Connolly makes – “(r)esponding to openness involves plugging what can only be discovered on the ground into what can only be discovered in representations – plugging the affectivity of the world into the affectivity of representation … and the ground into the map – to produce a single affectual landscape urbanist material” (Connolly: 210). This is a way of saying that designers should understand the processes described above very well for every landscape situation they are asked to “stir.” Indeed, knowing in great detail the physical elements and processes to which Connolly’s list directs us (functionings, conditions, etc) as well as the thresholds, constraints, singularities and phase transitions to which the landscape is susceptible, would seem to be absolutely necessary in order to ensure that one’s data and visualization (the ground and the map) are well-founded in reality.



Social processes are as difficult and complex as natural processes to discern, interpret, evaluate and reorganize. The best hope is to work from within, using conceptual frames whose artifice and contingency are acknowledged. What we isolate and frame, for instance, as erosion, is only part of a larger, moving assemblage that includes natural, social, cultural and many other “functionings, conditions, mechanisms, connectabilities and trajectories.” This is the message of Shepherd’s Birdscapes (Barnett 2013: 86) in which social and professional decision-making processes contributed for many years to the problem, and slowly, latterly, to the solution.




The notion of assemblage has been used in a number of disciplines to describe a collection of different types of objects and relations that act on, and with, each other to form a dynamic arrangement or organization of material conditions. In archeology, for instance, assemblage identifies a collection of diverse things unearthed by a dig, that “hang together” not only through their having been discovered on the same strata, but through their expression of some aspect of a life (or lives) that has brought the specific things together in the first place. Bowls, cups, bones and figurines express a certain condition of everyday life-ness in pre-Columbian Mexico. In geology, assemblage refers to “a group of fossils that, appearing together, characterize a particular stratum” (Wise 2005: 77).  There is a contingency to the arrangement of fossils that might be discovered on a stratum, but it is not random, as only certain animals existed in that form in that location at that time. The fossils constitute a group and express a certain character (ibid.). In art of the 20th century the word assemblage is a term associated with collage, Dada and other avant-garde or pop art styles, designating works assembled out of diverse objects (like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and Jean Arp’s Trousse d’un Da, an assemblage of driftwood, paint and found board). The later work of Frank Stella also has qualities of assemblage, using painted materials such as magnesium, fiberglass and aluminum on one canvas. Tinguely’s drawing machines (“meta-matics”) introduce the elements of time and productivity, as they actually make drawings (Hulten 1975: 80). They are mechanical ecosystems.



Landscape architects are most likely to have come across the word assemblage with reference to ecology, where it refers to a biological community of organisms living in a localized area of habitat. All animals and plants associate themselves with particular combinations of environmental conditions. In so doing they form part of a biological community that includes plant, animal, bird, reptile and insect species as well as themselves. A biotic community is an assemblage of organisms living together and interacting. A lizard assemblage (say) is a sub-unit of such a community. Biotic communities and their component assemblages are without rank and scale. A reptilian assemblage, for instance, could be as small as a dead log, or it could be the entire forest floor. It could even be the rainforest itself. (Heatwole and Taylor 1987: 185). Important aspects of ecological assemblages are the numbers and kinds of species they contain, and how these structural characteristics change in space and time in relation to environmental conditions. Different lizard species can comprise an assemblage: at any one location it is possible to identify an assemblage that contains half a dozen species of lizard. The nature of the habitat is an important determinant of assemblage structure. The more diverse the vegetation, and the more complex the geometry of the habitat, the greater the number of spatial niches available, and the greater the species richness that is possible.



The idea of assemblage has been extended and enriched through the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Their work has particular appeal to landscape architects as it adds a temporal dimension to the physical, spatial and territorial aspects of the term. The French word they use is agencement, which does not refer to a static condition, but rather to a “putting together” or “laying out,” or “fitting.” An agencement is not so much an arrangement or organization as a process of arranging, organizing, fitting together. This is very much like the process of organizing landscape encounters.  Moreover, for Deleuze and Guattari, assemblages create territories. They actually make the milieux in which they thrive. These milieux are much more than spaces, involving a sense of belonging to, and causing change within; they do something – stake a claim, express a relation or set of relations. 



Assemblages are as much about intensive qualities as they are about extensive qualities. That is to say, how something occurs is as important as what occurs. Not just: the lizard ate the insect, but a lizard-insect event occurred when the sun was at its highest and the wind was in the west. Or, in order to maximize heat gain the lizard perches on three legs on a twig in the morning and lies flat on a rock in the afternoon. A garden is a composition of non-metrical spaces and properties defined by the speed of plant growth, the seasonal temperature gradient, the filtration rate of water through the soil and daily variations in light and shade, that produces metrical spaces and properties such as the area of lawn where the water pools, the distance between perennials in the understory, the massing of hedges and shrubs.



As well as being material, however, assemblages are discursive. They are systems of signs. “Archeological assemblages are not just the things that are dug up and their qualities and relations, but the discursive assemblages through which the things, qualities and relations are expressed through nomenclature, jargon and the semiotics of the dig: the semiotic system that transforms a cup into a particular type of cup” (Wise: 80). The discursive element refers to the way in which the assemblage enters into discourse: how it is described, framed, and allocated meaning. The evolution of an assemblage includes the discursive component in the ongoing rearrangement of connections. For instance, a landscape condition such as a small urban park, which assembles a wide range of species and their interactions (birds and bread; squirrels and spilled grain; residents in summer shade feeding birds and watching squirrels) may feature in a community discussion about housing development. Future states of the assemblage and its components could hinge on the outcome of this discussion, which may have to do with the evaluation of the terrain with respect to different criteria: tidiness, economic inputs and outputs (maintenance, use as a concession site), inhabitation by homeless people, and so on. Humans, in fact, just as nonhumans, may participate in many assemblages at the same time. They may make new ones, and transform existing ones, bending and twisting them into new conditions. Humans enter into an assemblage through a process of taking on the conditions that make it up. It’s like going to stay with some relations for a few weeks. You take on their patterns of inhabitation, their speeds, their directions and connections, their patterns of everyday life.



Assemblages are always emergent. Their dynamic components can be characterized according to their material content, their expressive content, and the processes in which they become involved. A landscape assemblage might be composed in the following way (adapted from De Landa 2006):

Material components

soil, sunlight, trees, animals, humans, water, walls, paths ... 

Expressive components

forms, textures, colors, habits, trajectories of the material components, such as plant growth and shadow gradients

 Process components

food chains, adaptive traits, microclimatic requirements that maintain the components and their relationships, and thus the viability of the assemblage …



Each of these components is subject to disturbance. For instance, a specific terrain’s soil profile can be disturbed by flooding and the resultant sedimentation or erosion; climate change can affect the range of species that are involved in an assemblage; an exotic species can enter an assemblage of native species and redistribute its structural characteristics. A new regulation can require the removal of trees, or force a new road through an urban park.  Disturbance gives rise to the recombination or reformulation of an assemblage by eliminating, replacing, or relocating relationships. Components can be unplugged from one assemblage and plugged into another without losing their identity, as when birds migrate, or seeds drift into the chinks between the bricks of a building, take root and grow. The relationship between an assemblage and its components is nonlinear. Assemblages are formed and affected by the populations and elements of lower-level assemblages, but may also act back upon these components, causing adaptive strategies to occur.



Landscape architects develop, transform and create assemblages. They do this by gathering, composing, redistributing, emphasizing and enhancing existing material, expressive and processual components. Included in this orchestration are human and nonhuman elements. Landscape architects may develop assemblages without prejudicing or privileging different components, with the objective of developing collectives of human and nonhuman objects and relations – with the objective, that is, of creating interactive, democratic ecologies of becoming. What is critical is that landscape architects assemble elements in such a way as to create a world in which it is possible for all components of the assemblage, human and nonhuman, to engender their own possibilities of existence – to become what they may become. Rocks, trees, insects, birds, animals and humans are regarded as having in common a fit relation to an assemblage that continually evolves through its encounters with disturbance.



While landscape assemblages may include ecological assemblages, they are not limited to them. Some of the most articulate and expressive landscape assemblages use social objects, events, signs and utterances to contain or extend the physical ones.  Parc Andre Citröen in the 15th Arrondisement of Paris swings simultaneously between closure and movement. Designed by Gilles Clement and Alain Provost in the early 1990s, Parc Andre Citröen collects a wide range of heterogeneous components to create an integrated composition of landscape architecture structures and processes that weave back and forth between old-fashioned and new-fangled constructions of nature and society. Like many late modern landscapes (Parc de la Villette, Paris; Yorkville Park, Toronto; Mahuhu ki te Rangi Reserve, Auckland), it lays out combinatorial, collagist techniques of disjunctive juxtaposition and geometrical layering and ordering in plan, and a sculptural massing of cubes, cylinders, cones and extruded lines in elevation. The result is a self-consciously art-inflected arrangement of mineral and vegetal rooms, edges, planes and walls that can readily be modeled in three dimensions. Surrounded on three sides by the city and bounded on the fourth by the River Seine, the park has a large rectangular central lawn contained by a long canal to the west and a series of six small gardens to the east. Each of five of these "Jardins sériels" is associated with a metal, a planet, a day of the week, some aspect of hydrology, and one of the five mechanisms of human sensory perception. The sixth is devoted to the sixth sense. Adjacent to this last garden is  "Le Jardin en Mouvement" – The Garden in Movement – a wild garden where the rigid geometry of the main areas of the park gives way to rose bushes, cornflowers, poppies, bamboos, balsams, digitalis, thorns, and weeds growing freely.

 The sharp, figured delineation of static baroque landscape elements of Parc Citröen, such as the canal, the vast lawn, lines of trees clipped into platonic forms, and the six dynamic garden ecologies at once restates the binary nature / culture divide that has haunted landscape architecture and western society at large, and comments on this division. Visitors weave in and out of the enclosed gardens, at times totally immersed in intimate sensorial realms of touch, smell, hearing, vision and taste, and at others acutely aware that these sensations are framed within a composition that presents them as so many carefully disordered boxes of light and shade, bird and bee (one even has hives in it).



These emergent systems are set within a larger assemblage that produces a much wider range of affects. It draws on art history, botany, architecture, landscape design traditions; it pushes corridors and allées into its urban context of high rise apartments and offices, visually and spatially pulling these into its orbit: the city, the RER (the rapid rail system that services Paris and its suburbs), the River Seine, water moving in canals, splashing in fountains and pouring down sculptured walls. The six ecology gardens are simultaneously abundant and controlled. Cataloging, classifying, putting on display: a museology of open landscape systems. Parc Andre Citröen uses the material, expressive and processual components of a landscape assemblage spatially, formally and discursively. While at first the visitor sees division, between nature and culture, order and disorder, slowly this stratification breaks down and it becomes clear that nature is culture and culture is nature; order rises from disorder and chaos generates order. Emergence can be understood epistemologically, it reminds us, as well as ontologically.




We start from the premise that landscape architects are interested in nature because they are concerned with the relations between humans and nonhumans. For many centuries this interest was guided by habits of thought and practices of making derived from garden discourse. Regulated and assisted by advancements in horticulture, husbandry, botany and many other practices which we now know as scientific, landscape architecture was also deeply influenced by aesthetic, religious and symbolic interpretations of the world (Debus 1978; Prest 1981). When natural philosophy developed into the natural sciences, landscape architectural discourse became even more influenced by what was going on in science, and its relationship with the natural sciences became both more pronounced and more intimate (Baridon 1998). A turn towards the sciences, however, was not a turn away from myth, symbol and aesthetics.  In recent years a revolution in the philosophy of science has shown that the triumphal histories of science which based its endeavors on a formulation of truth that was to be progressively revealed only by advances in science, has been superseded by a more nuanced reading of scientific practices (Jardine 2011).



In The Politics of Nature (2004) Bruno Latour develops a comprehensive attack on the division of the social, traditionally regarded as concerned with matters of value, from the realm of science, which has always concerned itself exclusively with facts. In the world of science there were objects (nonhumans like rocks and micro-organisms); in the world of society there were subjects (social beings). Planet Earth was neatly divided into two types of being, two types of knowledge, and two kinds of reality. The problem of science was how to explain natural objects in such a way that social beings (of which humans were the only class) could make sense of them. Landscape architecture joined in the game: its problem was how to construct a world for humans from the realm of objects (nonhumans were not regarded as part of the collective for which landscape architects worked; they were regarded as a separate constituency).



Part of the problem, well-known amongst landscape designers, was how to develop a visual language adequate to their complicated subject matter. Latour argues that things have changed. We realize that it is dangerous and misleading to think in terms of two assemblies, science (fact) and society (value). We must, says Latour, get rid of the notion that there will always be two blocs, nature as it is and the representations we make of it. He suggests that the distinction between nature and society should be blurred, and that we should think of the inhabitants of the Earth as a collective of humans and nonhumans that are not considered epistemologically or ontologically distinct (Latour 2004: 41). This means abandoning the notion of nature and replacing it with the idea of naturecultures, an assemblage of humans and nonhumans. In doing this we still leave intact the two elements that matter most to us: “the multiplicity of nonhumans and the enigma of their association” (Latour: 41). Accepting this idea as a working proposition, landscape architects can concern themselves with where this collective comes together, and how the collective becomes gathered into a whole. It implies a search for what makes up the common world. Instead of oppositional approaches to the gathering of humans and nonhumans, we can foreground the webs of cohabitation and encounter that landscapes comprise, permit and sustain. We can work on an account of human-environment relations that emphasizes the affective nature of human relations with the nonhuman and with other humans, in the context of constructed landscapes. We can consider, further, that landscapes encourage a subtle but passionate confrontation with what it is to be human in a constructed world. They do this by enabling specific kinds of encounter with other beings that share this world – such as bag ladies, weeds, and urban coyotes.



While there is more than a single site for the collective encounter of humans and nonhumans in the constructed world, we will consider one that has concerned landscape architects in recent years: public space. The public realm may well, in fact, be the primary site of this encounter, if we extend the notion of the public to include nonhumans. An important consideration in the theoretical construction of public space as the primary site of human-nonhuman interaction is its operation as an assemblage, an open system, a multiplicity. Public open space is peculiarly sensitive to changing conditions, and changes along with these as it is continually constructed by its users. When we say that people construct space we can see by that very possibility that space is an active component of the social assemblage.  Through the construction of space this assemblage can itself be constructed, or maintained, or challenged.  And when we refer to open space we refer not only to the spaces of the city but all the spaces of our lives.



In the contemporary urban realm the realization of new public space is not a matter simply of the establishment of a central plaza or core site. Public space now, as often as not, is distributed along multiple broken continua consisting of streets, parks and reserves, blurred terrains and riparian edges. Of course, this has always been the case, but these supplementary ribbons and patches were usually supported by a singular magnetic condition that encouraged a concentration of social and cultural capital at the intersection of significant urban flows. Now we find - in the towns, suburban precincts and urban fringes most people inhabit - that the spatial condition of civic freedom is a tangle of landscape structures whose role as public space exceeds their primary function as transit lines and water management systems. Public space is not only distributed and disconnected, but its potential as a collectively formulated civic terrain is obscured and ignored. The idea of an open civic realm was never high on the agendas of postwar suburban developers anyway. “To understand why public space is missing, Americans must remember that after 1945, most of the built environment was never planned or designed…” (Hayden 2006). Federal policies devised to stimulate the real estate and construction sectors of the economy granted private developers lavish subsidies without concomitant incentives to create well-designed residential neighborhoods, transit, and public space (Hayden 2006). With the current redevelopment of low-density residential tracts on the outskirts of cities -- and in the inner fringes as well -- we have the opportunity finally to build public space in the residential landscapes in which most Americans live -- the suburbs, the “outtowns,” the edge cities and the outer fringes.



The old cores and inner precincts of many industrial cities are now semi-deserted or occupied by the urban poor, low paid and blue collar workers (perhaps filled daily with white collar commuters and then bled of diversity every evening and weekend). The low-rise business districts, apartments, and inner rings of genteel housing stock are continuing to empty out. In the once-great steel city of Birmingham, AL, for instance, a mapping study by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham shows an almost continuous braided river of delinquent lots following the old incised valley in which the city was sited and along which the steel mills and worker housing subdivisions were laid out. Again, the opportunity to provide a new kind of public space is clear. The question is, for whom? What, or who, is “the collective” anyway? The very notion of community has long been problematized and now exists only as fabrication, or myth -- an essentialist vestige of 19th century social idealism. The concept of community is challenged, ambiguated. The identity or definition of (any) community remains open, like the idea of the site, as a scene of political struggle.



The common notion of the community as a coherent and unified social formation has been put in question by the work, for instance, of feminist social theorist Iris Marion Young and the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (Young 1990; Nancy 1991). Nancy, in particular, proposes that the idea of community is necessarily unstable and “inoperative,” enabling us to think beyond formulaic prescriptions of community and to open on to an altogether different model of collectivity and belonging. The ideas of shared purpose and shared meaning are no more than Orwellian thought-rules blasted out of loudspeakers atop cruising party political motorcars. The last twenty years of global interaction have shown clearly enough that the “we” who inhabits and manages the earth is no we at all. It seems pretty obvious now that the nonhuman portion of the earth is much more important on a global scale than the humans that have purported to manage it. Now, nonhumans have the greater part to play in the destiny of human life. Should we not agree with Latour that the collective, now, is an assemblage of humans and nonhumans, and that the idea of the public extends to animals, insects and plants?



The public realm offers an extraordinary venue for the unmediated assembly of beings or, as we should say, becomings. As urban terrain, public space is no longer a single and privileged stage for political activity, but a location of multiple intersections, an assemblage of naturecultures. This condition is not coded according to rankings of fact (science) and value (society), nor is it coded aesthetically in the sense of a realm in which civic images are indistinguishable from general image-making (the hallmark of our consumer society). It is not a mix of social programming and private consumption. Instead, and this is the challenge for landscape architecture, public space becomes a designed realm in which the assemblage of humans and nonhumans is made visible and vocal. New conditions for the organization of public space are required, conditions far-from-equilibrium characterized by a kind of collective imaginary, a collocation of humans and nonhumans searching for whatever it is that makes up their common world. The public landscape becomes a terrain of encounter, a place where a collective of humans and nonhumans is articulated (to use Latour’s word). To articulate the collective -- to work inside the notion of naturecultures --  the landscape architect must be tuned to the habitus of each party that composes the collective. An individual’s primary habitus is the durable, transposable system of affiliations and correspondences acquired by that individual as a result of the conscious and unconscious practices of families. Subsequently this is transformed in to a secondary or tertiary habitus by the individual’s passage through different social institutions. (Bourdieu 1972: 56). The habitus is both structured and structuring, and it develops their possibilities of endeavor, and of freedom of endeavor. The designer of collective terrains successfully articulates the assembly of species that inhabit them when he or she mixes these parties while retaining and enhancing their freedoms. The degree to which the landscape is truly public is the degree to which potential trajectories and empowerments may be realized as a result -- the degree to which the individual party’s habitus is acknowledged and brought into sensitive, practical and mutually beneficial encounter with that of others. A landscape that abandons the division between nature and society includes all conditions necessary and sufficient for the ongoing self-organization of the assemblage. To do this it is necessary to explore the common worlds of the collective, not in the sense of a unified march into the future along a line of time, but by means of enabling the formation of intricate attachments and affordances between and among species and elements through affective contact and inter-affirmation. The landscape architect who works for and with the republic of human and nonhuman naturecultures envisages life as a contingent process of growth and change. He or she participates in this movement of perpetual differentiation through the invention of forms that bring tree, child, rock, sky, bee, cat, schoolteacher and butterfly into equivalence and association.



Public space, then, is the location of encounter and negotiation between constituencies that not only speak different languages but for whom life is a variable that often means nonliving. Whom, amongst humans, speaks the language of rocks? Who, now, is brave enough to declare that rocks do not speak? That rocks cannot enter the discussion; that minerality is a mute condition? Public space is no longer simply spatial. Nor is it simply terrain. It is, as well as being a physical, material place, a non-physical site of assembly and interaction. These conditions merge when physical and virtual intensities intersect, as in the occupation of Wall Street, a gathering whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere, across a landscape of transmissions and receptions that are material and spectral, intensive and metric, coagulant and dispersive.



In order to build this realm we need an account of generative or operational strategies that enable landscape architects to work in such a way that the communities they serve may be engaged and empowered in the process. But first we need a manifesto. Something like this ten point guide? A truly sustainable public realm will be one in which difference is not only tolerated but is productive of difference; where the pressures of control and appropriation, consumption and politics are negotiated, enabled and carried out in a democratic manner by those who constitute the democracy; where safe, transgressive practices are not repressed or discouraged; where flexible and non-exclusionary cultural and social life is enabled. In conditions of natureculture, the human and nonhuman publics who construct the assemblage will be trusted and trustworthy. Species will be enabled to coexist and all species will have access to the resources that sustain them, just as earth-created nonhuman objects and processes will not be destroyed and natural systems not be compromised by development. The urban realm is not solely a human realm – it is a collective realm where the collective is an assemblage of interacting species, objects and processes that support biodiversity and the difference it implies. This space will always be vague, and ambivalent, and open to the sky under whose impenetrable and indiscernible operations the drama of life on earth can be both enacted and witnessed by all. 




Ultimately urban field theory derives from Einstein’s revolution in physics, documented in his papers devoted to the special and general theories of relativity, published in 1905 and 1916 respectively. Einstein freed space and time from the metaphysical and absolute character that classical Newtonian physics had formulated. In his equations, which deal with transformations between stationary and moving systems, he reduced time to a dependent, or variable, coordinate.  He made a number of theoretical innovations that are interesting and fruitful for landscape architecture. For instance, in Einsteinian physics, space and time are no longer absolute entities but rather a continuum - “space-time,” - a field or set of fields with their own frames of reference and, as in Deleuze’s notion of difference, no external or material substratum.  Reality, according to Einstein, is a four-dimensional manifold, not a three-dimensional system evolving according to a separate and external one dimensional time. Each inertial system now expresses its own particular time, determined as a mutual relation of events to the frame in which they are registered.  Time flows at different rates depending on when and where it is measured.  It is relative and contingent. Space-time becomes understood as a field that cannot be reduced to component dimensions or conditions. 



Why this is important in landscape studies is that any unification that might be observed within the field, any organizational coherence that appears in the manifold (and let’s call it an urban manifold) may well occur in the absence of a supplementary or higher dimension or power. That is to say, urban systems, understood as fields, can achieve coherence within the terms of the system through the ability of the system to self-organize. We have already noted that natural systems do this by means of the matter-energy that moves through them. Movement and the time of movement – what Bergson calls duration, not clock time - these are the parameters of the field.



The notion of “programming the urban field,” the title of Wall’s influential chapter in Recovering Landscape, edited by James Corner (1999: 233), presupposes a condition that awaits the hand of the maker in order to actualize its potential, and not just to actualize it but also to order, or unify it. But the concept of a space-time manifold or field bears no relation to an urban condition organized by a horizontal spatiality. What Einstein’s field prepares us for is the idea of multiplicity, an organization that has no need of unity in order to form a system. The major break here for landscape architecture is the emancipation by Einstein of the field concept from any association with a substratum as a bearer of forces and events.  Forces and events are imminent in the field, they are part of it. Field theory made possible the scientific expression of the principles of immanence, dynamism and continuity, qualities of emergent systems with which landscape architects engage. Einstein’s unified formulae not only linked space and time but also showed that energy and matter were one, or at least that energy could be created from matter and vice versa.  This was a new concept: matter/energy. Landscape architects are orchestrators of matter/energy.



The philosopher Henri Bergson, whose Creative Evolution was published between the dates of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, shared with the science of his day a sense of the undividedness of the object-field.  For him, as for Einstein, with whom he debated the nature of existence, the world is at once an aggregate of separate fragments and a materially indivisible whole.  The substance of the world is not resolvable into pure or independent material forms.  Rather, these latter shift and fluctuate in and out of formal arrangements (Bergson 1998: 11-15).  Bergson re-introduced the importance of the notion of becoming, the ancient philosophical conception of the world that had fallen out of favor after Newton published his Principia Mathematica in1687. In Creative Evolution (1911) Bergson repudiates the mechanistic view of time. Understanding becoming, he argues, requires living in it, and therefore in time. The mechanistic philosophy only holds “outside time”: Bergson overturns this conception.  Experience tells us that we are immersed in becoming, flux, field. We find that movement is not constituted of successive immobile states, as Newtonian science would have it, but that “the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement.  What is real is the continual change of form…” (Bergson 1998: 302). For Bergson, the world is a moving field of vectors of differing qualities and intensities and that form is “a mere cut made by thought in the universal becoming” (Bergson: 318).



Wall describes the contemporary city in terms of this moving field. In the latter half of the twentieth century the idea of the core-periphery city was replaced by a polycentric and web-like sprawl. Here multiple centers are served by overlapping networks of transportation, electronic communication, production and consumption. The daily urban system is dynamic and temporal. There is a shift of emphasis from form to processes, and a corresponding move to a rhizomatic model of urban growth rather than a hierarchical tree-like growth. However, this description does not take into account the qualities of “field” that are of most use to landscape architects. The kind of field that Einstein and Bergson are talking about is not Wall’s “dynamic agricultural field” (Wall 1999: 233), though the thickened urban-agrarian condition is full of different becomings. Nor is it the famous thin “vegetal plane” of Rem Koolhaas’ Atlanta for it is neither planar nor vegetal. The field of becomings is not a surface at all. If we look a little more closely at Bergson we find that the field is a configuration of qualitative, evolutionary and extensive forces occurring in time.



These forces are to do with more than mobility, access, transit; more than postindustrial and interstitial sites; more than networks and infrastructures, plazas, squares, streets, railroad and stream corridors, and the polymorphous conditions that constitute the contemporary metropolis. These sites, which landscape architects wish to provision with multifunctional, flexible services, cannot become multiple unless and until landscape architects develop a love affair with non-metric time and non-metric space - the space-time field of Einstein and Bergson. The production of difference in this field can be accelerated, expanded, slowed, bent, deformed, twisted, layered, in short it can be subject to all the operations, instrumental and otherwise, that landscape architects wish to deploy as long as they realize that movement and duration are the primary components of their operational ontology. This is the message of the field. If, as is argued in the Ten Point Guide to Difference, landscape architecture is an art of encounter, and that encounter in and with landscapes and all their affordances is our subject matter, then how time and duration operate within the field is very important. Bergson’s non-chronological duration is the time of trees and animals, of wheat fields and ruderal urban landscapes together, not reduced to a single representation of becoming.



It was in the spirit of this remarkable vision of life and world that in the 1990s a number of writers and designers began to explore the potential of understanding urban conditions in terms of a field structure. Stan Allen and James Corner even named their design firm Field Operations. Allen wrote an influential article called “From Object to Field” in which he argued that a field condition is “any formal or spatial matrix capable of unifying diverse elements while respecting the identity of each” (Allen 1997). Note that Allen confined field conditions to a spatial matrix. Field configurations, he said, are “loosely bounded aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity.”  The internal regulations of the parts are decisive; overall shape and extent are highly fluid. Field conditions, then, like open systems, are bottom-up phenomena: defined not by overarching geometrical schema but by intricate local connections. One of the outcomes of the new thinking was to redefine the relationship between figure and field. Figures (buildings, bridges, trees, seats on the one hand, and patterns, pulses, intersecting forces on the other) are not understood as demarcated objects but as effects emerging from the field itself - as moments of intensity, as peaks or valleys within a continuous field - as figure-and-field. What is intended here is a close attention to conditions at the local scale, even while maintaining a relative indifference to the form of the whole.  If we take the example of an urban forest, we see how this approach can focus attention on particulars. There are trees, of varying species, heights, density, canopy shape and extent; there are the full range of ecologies that interhabitate with them, including all the microorganisms, the insects, birds and sub-canopy plant species that have developed the structure of the field. There are the territorial human components: roads, curbs, drains, lawns, driveways, houses, flower beds, power lines and subterranean services including water and cables - all these contribute to the field. Then there are the intensive elements: predilections, and habits of walking, driving, gardening, burning, playing: kinds of movement that occur more in the spring and the fall than in the summer and the winter; flows, of groundwater, and those species whose privilege it is, as Levi Strauss once said, to live in the aerial medium, whose ecologies are aerial as much as they are terrestrial. There are the macrofaunal visitors, nomads and migrants: cats, dogs, coyotes and other wild animals. Vectors of pollination and gradients of temperature, pulses of breeze and moving shafts of sun. Children on bicycles, with air rifles, looking for balls, untangling kites, climbing small trees. With this list we have barely begun to describe the field that we call the urban forest. Any coherence we may attribute to this open system rises within the system. And its figures are fields too. Let’s come back to Einstein: forces and events are constitutive of the field. Bergson: what is real is the continual change, not the things that are changing. The unique spatial condition of the urban forest is a product of its field condition and this is a product of movement, of becoming, of duration and time. How we start to consider working with this forest field is by thinking of these things, not of a horizontal surface, much less a program. It has its own program.



Landscape architecture texts, such as Landscape Urbanism, Recovering Landscape, Changes in Scenery and The Landscape Urbanism Reader[i] are full of nomenclature and terminology related to field conditions, moving form, non-Euclidean geometry, temporality, self-organization, differential change and spatial organizations with active parts. Unlike texts on music, biology or mathematics, however, there are few terms to discuss the role of humans as active participants in the dynamic processes these landscape texts investigate, either transmitting or receiving, or simply engaging on different levels with these processes, and in different ways. For instance, the systems that are analyzed by Easterling in Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America (1999) are placed “outside” the skins of those who live and work in them. Within the author’s fascinating account of “network interplay” and “relationships among multiple distributed sites” there is no corresponding account of how human bodies are aligned and realigned with respect to these networks, no sense of imbrication of body and site. This is not necessarily a failing of Easterling’s; her attention is elsewhere. There is a need, however, for a theorization of the specifically human dimension of these multiple systems, for there is a lingering sense in Easterling, and in the books mentioned above, that if we are to frame sites in terms of fields, this could be done without reference to the fact that these fields are lived.  When Easterling does incorporate the role of human subjectivity it is in terms of what she calls “housekeeping,” the “comprehensive control” of architects, planners and managers over the distributed spatial systems under their care, rather than an active engagement with their possibilities for the imaginative construction of what might be called affective participation. What is needed is a new formulation of practices of human intervention in organizational protocols and systems, in order to spark critical realignments of subject and object in the felt experience of life in the landscapes of the city. Note however that, as an exception to the rule, Mostafavi’s introduction to Ecological Urbanism seeks to found that project within a philosophy (derived from Guattari’s Ecosophy) that includes human subjectivity as one of its three registers, along with social action and environmental practices (Mostafavi and Doherty 2010).



Part of the point of Deleuze and Guattari’s field-like formulation of the rhizome is that with this notion they want to get away from analyses based on distinctions between individuals and their environments, whether these environments are physical or sociological (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). The arrangements in space and time to which Deleuze and Guattari point are not subordinated to taxonomic separations of bodies, places, and times. Instead, the problem of making multiples is the problem of how a life is constituted, for as subjects we are never fully constituted but always passing in and out of the systems through which we compose our sense of ourselves. Rhizomatic fields are likewise never given to us but constructed through us, linked to us, and though they may always seem to precede us, nevertheless it is just their possibility that we express to one another through design. Bearing in mind that a field, if nothing else, is a network of relations, there is little to gainsay the proposition that landscape architecture is a relational art. If this is the case then it would perforce take as its theoretical horizon the realm of human-non human interactions and their social, environmental and political contexts, rather than the assertion of an independent, symbolic or semantic space from which different groups were excluded, or included as collectives without a voice. In this case we would expect find, amongst landscape urbanist projects for instance, the creation of free areas and time spans whose rhythms contrast with those structuring everyday life, encouraging interhuman and human-nonhuman commerce that differ from the habitats and zones that are imposed upon us.



The work of landscape architect David Hill provides an example of how the temporal dimension cannot be separated from the spatial field. His phenological research studies periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in climate. In particular Hill is interested in how the structural, spatial, active and performative dimensions of landscapes can be formed through a special attention to their phenological conditions. This requires careful observation of plant and animal communities, their relations, habits and operations. Hill considers that landscape designers too often imagine and present plants at one fixed moment in time. Instead he looks for design opportunities embedded in time and uses the ephemeral qualities of plants to register the changing patterns and structures of complex landscape systems. Hill’s own research investigates the spatial and textural qualities of a specific plant palette through a series of photographs taken from the same vantage point at the same time each week through an entire year. In this way he can chronicle the exact changes that plants go through and the myriad ways these changes transform the landscapes in which they are growing through their relationships with light and shade, wind and water, and each other in terms of scale and spatiality.


[i] Respectively: Mostafavi, M. and C. Nalje, Eds. (2003). Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape. London, Architecture Association.; {C}Corner, J. (1999). Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture. New York, Princeton University Press.; {C}Schroder, T. (2001). Changes in Scenery: Landscape Architecture in Europe. Basel, Birkhauser.; Waldheim, C., Ed. (2006). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York, Princeton Architectural Press.




Deleuze and Guattari introduced the notion that there are two fundamental structure-generating processes responsible for the development both of material form and social process (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). These are hierarchical structures and self-consistent aggregates. The former operate like tree diagrams and are therefore called arborescent; they include, amongst many other things, hierarchical structures such as social classes and castes and geological strata or layers of rock. The development of hierarchies occurs by way of sorting mechanisms and the consolidation of relations into more or less permanent architectectonic structures (De Landa 1997: 60). Self-consistent aggregates, which De Landa calls meshworks, are completely different. They are dynamic networks, or “acentered systems,” that Deleuze and Guattari illustrate with the metaphor of the rhizome, which spreads by producing stems and filaments in all directions (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 15). Meshworks develop through the operation of feedback mechanisms where “the product that accumulates due to the acceleration of one reaction serves as the catalyst for yet another reaction, which in turn generates a product that catalyzes the first one” (De Landa: 63). An autocatalytic system can be self-sustaining for as long as its environment contains enough material for the reactions to proceed. Any system that evolves in this way by, as it were, drifting, can grow in directions that are unplanned. Like a rhizome, it adds new nodes when it encounters certain conditions, developing and complexifying, multiplying from point to point without beginning or end but always metabolizing from and in the middle, operating “by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots … becomings” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 21.



Morphogenesis is a term derived from developmental biology to describe the ability of organisms and natural systems to generate form from within. That is to say, the resources involved in the genesis of form are immanent to the organism or the system itself, and do not come from outside the system. De Landa gives as an example the way that the spherical form of a soap bubble emerges out of the interactions among its constituent molecules as they seek the point at which surface tension is minimized (De Landa 1999:120). However, the term has been adopted in architecture with rather a different emphasis.  The Emergence and Design Group, who have established a masters program at the Architectural Association in London, have investigated morphogenesis through several issues of AD journal (for instance, Hensel, Menges and Weinstock 2004 and 2006). “It is process,” Weinstock writes, “that produces, elaborates and maintains the form or structure of biological organisms (and nonbiological things), and that process consists of a complex series of exchanges between the organism and its environment” Weinstock 2004: 13. My italics). This definition separates the organism (or system) from the environment to which it connects. As noted in Field Theory, landscape architects are less likely to accept this distinction just because it distinguishes between figure and field. Of interest for landscape architects are the connectivities that enable form and behavior to emerge from process. Because in landscape architecture it is the system rather than the organism (for architecture read: the building) with which the designer works, the sense of a separate, or individuated, condition is much less strong.



All environmental processes work across parameters, or boundary constraints, that act as local principles for self-organization during morphogenesis. These conditions may be as simple as a legal boundary – a garden fence or park wall, for instance – or more complicated: a local authority by-law limiting public use of urban terrain in some way, as when skateboarding is prohibited in a downtown plaza. The parameters define the space of possible states that a landscape system may inhabit, the territory it incorporates, the resources it may call on.



These prior formations are critical to the development of a new system, as it is these, in combination with a specific enactment on the part of the landscape architect, that create the initial conditions for a project. Because emergent properties and processes are sensitive to initial conditions, a small change to the original platform of a project can make a large difference further down the track. Landscape architectural interest in the notion of designing by setting up initial conditions, and then “managing” the process of realization, has increased in recent years. This development has gone hand in hand with the rise of open systems thinking in landscape architecture and with meeting the challenges of autocatalytic design (see Open Systems). As Waldheim notes, these projects are often described as “open works or infrastructural systems that are meant to distance questions of authorship in favor of an explicit open-endedness and indeterminacy in the face of future cultural contingencies or larger urban forces” (Waldheim 2007: 16). Waldheim implicitly harnesses morphogenetic - sometimes wrongly called performative - design techniques to the objectives of landscape urbanism, neatly described as “a modest, socially responsible and economically efficient urbanism,” (Waldheim: 16).



But not all landscape design that uses nonlinear techniques of production is to be considered landscape urbanism. Designers who have investigated morphogenetic processes try to facilitate bottom-up form-finding processes that generate structure and organization. The difference, as Neil Leach puts it, lies in the emphasis on form-finding rather than form-making (Leach 2009: 34). This means that the outcome of the design process cannot be known prior to it coming into being. At first glance it might seem that “problematized authorship” is an abdication of intentionality, and that the final artifact is not a product of the landscape architect’s imagination or careful analysis, so much as an outcome of a generative process that is blind, an issue Corner canvassed ten years prior to Leach in his essay on eidetic operations (Corner 1999). It might even seem that the use of such an operating system is irresponsible, or at the least will make actualizing local virtualities a matter of chance. That this is not necessarily the case can be found in the work of many landscape architecture firms whose practices incorporate morphogenetic techniques. Vista is an interdisciplinary Dutch design and planning practice whose work on the remediation of the Volgermeer Polder has been cited favorably by landscape architecture commentators, for instance Poole (2004), who calls it a “creative schematization” rather than an explicit design, and Raxworthy (2004). For this project Vista developed a strategy that guided the regeneration of a bog landscape by means of the creation of artificial ponds and the separation of toxic groundwater. Essentially a grading project, the landscape architects developed ponds of different depth that were lined to prevent contamination, and permitted water to enter the ponds over time in an uncontrolled fashion. Different plant species colonize the different aquatic environments that were established as initial conditions. Cattle and sheep interact with the developing water bodies. If a pond was isolated from fauna it could develop into a forest; if grazed by cattle it would turn into grassland.  Vegetation would regenerate rather than being planted, its final configuration and composition being a matter of what seeds were already in the soil, and what seeds were carried there by wind and birds. The repetitive interaction of these agents over time will guide the life of the project.[i]



The proposition that initial conditions can be designed to direct the future movement of those conditions is illustrated by Vista designer Roel van Gerwen’s figure of a stick in the sand. “To make a sand pile on the beach,” he writes, “you can form a mound of sand with a bucket and shovel, then the mound will disappear with the wind over time. The alternative is to place a large stick in the ground where the wind will constantly form a pile, reshaping the pile every time the wind changes direction” (van Gerwen 2006). In van Gerwen’s analogy placing the stick is less exhausting, gives a less predictable result, and is more dynamic. It is also autocatalytic. In process design, as Vista calls their morphogenetic work, the important thing is to use the right “sticks” in order to “unravel and manipulate” the landscape-forming processes that are already at work in both urban and rural situations. Van Gerwen makes the point that “(p)aradoxically, the more unpredictable the landscape proposal the more well-founded one’s data and visualization has to be” (van Gerwen 2006: 233).The figure of the stick in the sand is particularly apposite because it demonstrates that a carefully chosen element is key to the actualization of local potentials through the engagement of specific forces. This is clear in Delwyn Shepherd’s  Birdscapes proposal (described in Barnett 2013: 86), which uses a combination of carefully selected local tree species, local community intervention and indigenous bird-foraging and flight-line behaviors to develop an adaptive approach to coastal erosion on New Zealand’s west coast. In a project that plays out over time, she restores coastal forest and creates designs for human inhabitation by working with sand dune formation processes and the prevailing wind, literally by placing sticks in the sand (Shepherd 2009).



These projects explore the productivity of chance as a form-finding device. But not just any form. Processes are set in motion and then, through autocatalysis, or feedback, landscape conditions change and adapt as a result of the ongoing interaction of the processes with contextual (or sometimes internal) states. Because these states themselves are changing they cause further reactive events within the evolving system and between it and its contextual systems. Nothing commands the system to move in a particular direction and, owing to its sensitivity to environmental factors, it can move in many different ways, given the parameters of its possible forms. The interaction of each part with its immediate surroundings causes a complex chain of processes leading to a new state. A river system is intimately interconnected with the webs of topography, vegetation and surface conditions that comprise its watershed. This goes for urban as well as rural environments. In the urban realm, buildings, transport networks and pedestrian precincts (for instance) are understood not as singular and fixed, but as energetic and material systems that share their environment with many other processes. Within these processes, principles and dynamics of organization and interaction are at work, guiding and regulating emergent urban patterns. In order to work within these structuring processes, landscape architects need to analyze the micro- and macro-environmental conditions that moderate the systems of inhabitation and encounter that they find on the streets, in the parking lots, along the urban streams and through the fluctuating urban-suburban edge conditions that make up the urban field.



This requires the development of particular analytical tools, methods and skills so that found conditions can be deployed in design approaches that integrate and regulate rather than relocate or substitute. Analysis is of central importance to morphogenetic design process. Self-organizing tendencies and interactive affordances need to be discovered, and the relationships between these processes and spatial orders revealed. Of special significance are the relationships between people and the dynamic conditions that they create and inhabit. Close observation of behavior is necessary. What are the specific assemblages that comprise these human-nonhuman interactions? How do we find this out? How do low-key social processes, for instance, cause major territorial disturbances? In landscape architecture we have to take account of the immersion of humans and nonhumans in the environments that support and maintain them, and find out how these environments are continually transformed on the basis of this immersive condition. The study of morphogenesis shows that discernible structural and organizational patterns underlie these interactions. When we understand these underlying blueprints we can start to seed urban processes with catalysts for the development of new patterns and forms.



Here is an example of how morphogenetic processes have been used to interpret urban form. In “The Nonlinear Development of Cities” (1999), De Landa proposes that cities are mixes of “hierarchies of command and control” (strata) and self-organizing systems (meshworks). One of these structural elements typically predominates. Capital cities, such as Washington D.C., that are “state” cities of bureaucracy and governmental regulation, are hierarchically-ordered, while metropolises like New York - that are commercial networks - are self-organizing. “A self-organizing structure [e.g. a beaver dam] typically emerges without central planning, as a consequence of a de-centralized process,” whereas a command center is gathered around a state or royal seat of power. “It is not a matter of opposition of one to the other; nature is filled with these two types of structure. What does matter is to determine which structure predominates” (De Landa 1999: 25). Cities, as mixtures of stratified and meshwork patterns of organization, tend to represent some combination of market (self-organizing) and state bureaucracy (command hierarchy). According to De Landa the state or royal towns of Cairo, Peking, Paris and Madrid may be contrasted with the commercial towns of London, Venice and Amsterdam (De Landa 1999: 27). Commercial towns, often maritime, connected to the self-organizing seas and oceans, always exist in networks, which may lack a distinct center. State towns are centers that conquer other towns to enable their wealth to flow in. Like Peking, Canberra and Madrid, they are often land-locked and protected. While this example may seem a little stretched, it is useful as an indicator of how the notion of morphogenesis enables us to understand production and development without requiring a supplementary mover. All of the energetic resources for the evolution of particular urban typologies are found within the operating system itself. The identity of an urban square – its qualities and characteristics – and therefore what is appropriate and desirable in terms of proposed design interventions, will be a matter of its contingent historical process of individuation, rather than on a form-giver. While we have known this to be the case with respect to the organic development of medieval cities, the idea of morphogenesis fleshes out the word “organic” and describes the specific material principles of growth to which it refers.



For a long time the genesis of form and structure was based on the Aristotelian conception of matter as an inert receptacle for forms that are imposed from the outside. While ecosystems ecologists now see the ecologist as inside the system that is being observed, and landscape architects are similarly rethinking their ontological geographies, ecologies obviously do not await the designer in order to evolve structure, responsiveness and conditions for life. Designers do not create ecologies, though they do manipulate the processes, elements and conditions that enable ecologies to develop and evolve. As Corner has put it, landscape architects “stir” ecologies into different conditions (note, however, that stirring is a metaphor that requires the agency of a human hand). In ecological situations, design intervention, again, is often a matter of the reconfiguration of pre-existing conditions, as when water-borne toxins that pollute a degraded wetland are diverted or filtered. Can this also be the case for urban design? The best way to create any landscapes that are dynamic, flourishing, productive, suitably-scaled and self-sustaining, according to van Gerwen, is by utlilizing the processes that form landscape. “This counts for rural or natural circumstances but just as well for the urban environment, although the steering processes become more anthropological or democratic as the project becomes more urban” (van Gerwen 2006: 250). If cities are open systems it must be the case that urban processes, too, can be set in motion by means of a careful intervention and permitted to evolve in response to contextual change. It is a matter, then, of those “anthropological or democratic” steering processes. A matter of the landscape architect’s ongoing regulatory activity, of his or her own performativity. Of the degree to which the hand stirs the process. Koolhaas and Mau’s Tree City discussed in Open Systems, illustrates the sensitivity of an urban project, rife with political challenges, to the stirring hand – or lack of it.  If one of the advantages of an initial conditions approach to urban landscape architecture is that it sidesteps some of the difficult aspects of ongoing community participation in decision-making, while at the same time enabling participation in form-generation, it is clear that participation is critical. When, as Mitchell and Van Deusen argue in their overview of the role of public space in the Downsview Park entries, the “communities who will use - and continue to create - public space” are to be “drawn into the decision-making process at every step,” then the designer must occupy a role that permits a “multiple, shared and combinatory” process. “It is not in design per se that publicness can be encouraged …, but in how that design is administered and implemented.” (Mitchell and Van Deusen 2001: 112). The designer’s ongoing performance is as an orchestrator of the conditions for democracy.

[i] See Vista’s website




The objects and processes with which landscape architects design, change through time. A key concept when considering this is that of difference, developed by Deleuze in his Difference and Repetition of 1968. Difference relates the notion of emergence to the idea that everything that exists always becomes and never is. The changing dynamics of the natural, the social and the urban worlds can all be conceived as things differing continually from and in themselves.  The human beings who encounter this unfolding difference in the world are also continually differing from themselves. We have, therefore, a becoming different of many diverse conditions, so that each encounter between these conditions is a novel encounter – unscripted, unpredicted and always open to further novelty. Deleuze does not mean by difference that some things are dynamic and ever-changing and some other thing – a substratum, underneath it all – persists, or remains identical to itself. The concept of difference does not entail a version of the one and the many, a multiplicity that bodies forth from an unchanging unity (be that God, self, nation or nature).  Instead there is only difference. Everything is transforming itself – recreating itself – all the time. All things are engaged in an ongoing genesis of themselves. It is important to understand that morphogenetic processes produce the conditions of the here and now, and that it is these local processes that landscape architects deal with when designing open systems such as urban precincts, waterfronts, parks and other constructed landscapes.



The great beauty of this theorizing of change is that designers no longer have to ask what something is. Instead, and this is echoed by both Latour and Serres, the questions become “Where ...?” or “How …?” or “When …?” or “How many …?” or “In which case …?” or “Under what conditions …?”, or (mobilizing our own human enframement) “From what viewpoint …?” In other words it extends the exhortations of Allen, Corner and others who draw on Deleuze, to find out what things do rather than how they look. “How does this urban stream silt the flood plane? When?”  “How many species of fauna inhabit this edge condition? Under what conditions does the species count change?” “From what viewpoint do these residents consider this tract of open undeveloped terrain to be waste land?” People, birds, soils, trees are not understood as having identities or essences. “Things are constituted by virtue of the differential relations they enter into, both internally and in relation to other things” (Patton 1994: 152). Change and difference, then, are not simply happening out there. Nature is in constant flux and humans are part of this flux. Human activity contributes as much to the development - the self-differentiation - of nature as nature does to human development. Thus, human beings are in a constant state of productive practice: the production of the concrete, physical open-ended world understood as a composition of forces in which other forces (including us) are always intervening, contributing and participating.



The world, that is, what is given to us in experience, is a difference-driven process. Many phenomena, in geology, biology, economics and social theory - whatever - emerge from the interplay of differences. Matter itself processes its own imminent resources for the generation of form.  Material systems are continually traversed by strong flows of matter and energy, and it is these flows that enable systems to self-organize. The field of our endeavors as landscape architects, then, is a spatio-temporal aggregation of people and things that are continually being brought into relation with each other. In his discussion of affect in the Ethics the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza suggests that humans are always seeking to combine their relations with others in order to empower and enrich their capacity to become themselves. We get better at this by developing our capacity to relate our feelings, conduct and intentions to different modes of being. The tasks of the landscape architect are both to develop milieux that enable this to occur in multiple ways, and to present different modes of becoming to all members of the republic of organic and mineral life. The landscape architect is engaged in a continuous experimental process of composing or constructing qualitatively different modes of existence and relating them to each other.



An especially critical aspect of the concept of difference, and the ongoing self-differentiation of things, is its overturning of the representational order of being. Plato initiated this order with his Theory of Forms that sought to understand the world as a copy of an ideal “heaven” in which the true forms of things dwelled. The worldly idea of beauty, for instance, could only be understood with reference to the ideal form of beauty. Courage in a human being was a copy of the ideal model of courage, and so on. This model-copy theory has characterized most thinking about how we know and value things since Plato’s time. The notion that things self-differentiate does not require the model-copy order. Instead all things simply become different from themselves on the basis of the matter-energy flows that course through them. A particularly interesting aspect of Plato’s theory was what he called the simulacrum. This was the case of the bad copy, or the copy of the copy of the model. The person who pretends to be courageous, for instance, to serve their own ends, rather than to serve the ideals of courage – rather than copying courage. 



Deleuze argues that the simulacrum destabilizes the reign of representation. The simulacrum exists in and of itself, without grounding in or reference to a model: its existence is “unmediated” (Deleuze 1994: 29). Each simulacrum is its own model. This analysis helps us reframe or reinterpret “artificial” landscape conditions such as a culverted or canalized river. The Los Angeles River, for instance, can be thought of as not a “not-river.” That is to say, a natural river system is not a model that the LA River imperfectly copies; the LA River is not a river that is “in error” or “inferior” to a natural river system. Understood as a simulacrum the LA River exists in and of itself as a condition to which a range of attributes and functions can be ascribed in terms only of the performative parameters of the canalized river itself. (Do not ask what it is, but how it works …) Once we depart from the model-copy dialectic, we can begin not only to reinterpret, reanalyze and revalue the Los Angeles River as a functioning system in its own right, but we can also focus more clearly on its capacities. In this way, considering it as a prosthesis or artificial device, we can address inadequacies with respect to its own productivity as an organizational and distributive regime. We should attend more precisely to the becoming-different of the prosthesis itself. We should affirm, rather than negate, its individual condition.



The model-copy dialectic occasions a profound delimiting of the power of the prosthesis to inhabit and reorganize the forces with which it deals. If the LA River is regarded as a unity, as an entity that achieves and embodies a static condition it is very difficult to understand it as a process that continuously differs from itself in multiple ways. The denial of difference implies an a priori conceptualization, a telos, a meaning, and through these a logic of landscape architectural practice that crushes open practice under an image of the same, or similar, and betrays what it means to practice openly. Any kind of modeling of nature enters the orbit of the simulacrum. This is the problem, as yet seemingly not addressed, with biomimicry, which seeks to use nature as a model for design solutions. Biomimicry asks for any design problem, “What would nature do?” and then seeks a solution based on an animal or plant. This apartment building models a termite mound; this one is like a wasp’s nest. In nature, however (wherever that is), a kingfisher is not like a mussel. The termite is not like the dolphin. Faced with a piece of unpalatable urban territory the model/copy landscape architect says “revegetate.” Make it like nature.



Part of the point of emergence theory is to get away from the “re-,” from the model/copy enslavement. The notion that things self-differentiate does not require the model/copy order. Biomimicry asks us to accept a representation of nature projected through the models and codes of science. Should planet Earth be neatly divided by science into two types of being, two types of knowledge, and two kinds of reality? As suggested in Naturecultures, the problem of science has been how to represent nature to social beings. Landscape architecture joined in the game: its problem was how to construct a world for humans from the realm of objects. Nonhumans were not regarded as part of the collective for which landscape architects worked. Are we not trying to find an alternative to this, the two-world problem that biomimicry supports? Considering the world as a natureculture assemblage enables us to communicate in terms of a single republic of humans and nonhumans, instead of a continual transmission back and forth across a dividing line. Andrea Brennan writes:


Biomimicry re-enforces an overly-simplistic distinction between "nature" over there and us [humans, designers, architects, etc.] over here. If you read between the lines, the over-arching assumption is that "nature" is pure and logical and balanced and good and we are, well, somewhere in between not and less so, depending on your personal environmental politics. The implication is that as humans, we are flawed; therefore, we ought to look to "nature," the ultimate teacher, in an effort to understand and replicate the "right" [i.e. "natural"] way of doing things…you know, all of the things we have ignored and overlooked over the past few hundred years of our mis-guided modernity.

(Brennan 2010)



Perhaps the most interesting parallel between biomimicry and emergence theory is to be found in the application of its principles to the development of new urban systems. It is important not to see the city as like an ecosystem.  A city is an ecosystem, or a set of them (if we wish to see a city as anything other than a city). This way we can start to work with what cities already offer. We can respect them for what they are, and find in their perverse and ambivalent processes the conditions that, through careful and informed intervention, can become different from what they are. Even from this perspective, however, it is difficult to use biomimicry as a model, a measure or a mentor. The Biomimicry Institute says that the key to using the biomimicry taxonomy is forming a question. Instead of using high pressure and temperatures to manufacture tough, lightweight building materials, an engineer can “ask” a toucan how it manages impact with its strong, light beak.



The problem is readily provoked when turned into a landscape architectural challenge. How would nature formulate some unproductive, ambiguous terrain (regarded as “wasteland”) under an elevated freeway into a habitable urban landscape that connects two disparate parts of the city? How would nature remodel this homeless people’s campsite into a terrain that does not patronize or marginalize them, much less remove them, at the same time as enabling opposing social forces to negotiate and collectivize it? How would nature marshal and activate new orders of communication here? How would nature deal with this territory, which is so denatured, so ambivalent, so institutionalized, that it cannot be discovered “in nature?”



Thinking of design as already ethical, already inhabited by a moral purpose highlights a concern we should have that this conception of design – as a force for good – is in the service of political and moral forces that themselves require examination. These forces lead us away from design as a practice that responds to its unmediated encounter with the world, a practice that must create openly in order to cope with the violence and force of these encounters, their randomness and disorder. Design should be seen not as a bearer of moral purpose but as a self-engendering act of creation. This is design without image, without purpose. How should such design operate in the world?




Drawing on nonlinear mathematics and the work of complexity theorists, ecologists have advanced our understanding of how ecosystems develop their adaptive and responsive structures by being open to disturbance. But disturbance can be thought of as much more than a way that ecosystems evolve. Michel Serres devoted an entire book to this subject. In Le Parasite, translated in 1982, he uses the figure of the parasite to show how disorder alters ordered systems in the direction of greater complexity, ensuring their continued existence.{C}[i]{C} In another work Serres invokes the first century Roman poet Lucretius (c.99 BCE-55 BCE), who wrote a long poem, The Nature of Things, describing the orderly system of the world as a laminar flow of atoms raining in the void. The rain of atoms is disrupted by the introduction of the clinamen, of chaos or declination: the swerve by means of which nature is introduced into the universe, and by which being becomes becoming.



Lucretius first describes the homeostatic interpretation of the universe that the clinamen disrupts. It is a world where

… no visible object utterly passes away, since nature makes up again one thing from another, and does not permit anything to be born unless aided by another’s death.

(Rouse 1928: lines 265-6)

 Having described the “order of fate” as a consistent rain of atoms, Lucretius introduces the clinamen:

As the atoms are falling straight down through the void owing to their weight, at undetermined times and places they swerve a little with just the smallest change of direction.

(ibid: l 216)

 Lucretius then asserts the cosmological rationale for the swerve:

If it were not so, all would go on falling like raindrops through the infinite void, there would be no collisions and no blows, and nature would have created nothing.

(ibid: l 221)

 This gives us free will:

…but what keeps the mind itself from having necessity within it in all actions, and from being as it were mastered and forced to endure and to suffer, is the minute swerving of the first-beginnings, at no fixed place and at no fixed time.

(ibid: l 284)

Again if every motion is the outcome of the last in an endless chain, and the atoms do not by swerving initiate a motion to break the law of destiny, and prevent an infinite causal sequence, how can living things have free will?

(ibid: l 251)

 Lucretius makes it clear that the swerve is diagonal:

Wherefore again and again I say the bodies must incline a little; and not more than the least possible or we shall seem to assume oblique movement, and thus be refuted by the facts.

(ibid l 244-247)              



The clinamen describes a nature that can renew itself precisely because it is rich in disorder and surprise. A powerful surge occurs in the nature of things, and now vitality, movement and systemic transformation are a dance of order and chaos. Unaccounted for in Newtonian physics, the world of the clinamen is where trajectories are unstable, the irreversible unfolds – it is the open world in which, through fluctuations and bifurcations, things are born, grow and die. The world of landscape architecture we might say, where, as Lucretius puts it,


…stars and meteors fall to earth

And the sun also from the height of heaven

Throws its heat out and sows the field with light.

(Melville 1999 Bk II, lines 210-213)

 Lucretius was an Epicurean, and his poem is a narrative re-telling of the philosophy of his master Epicurus, who founded a school of philosophy in Athens teaching from a garden until his death in 270 BCE. Lucretius uses his beautiful and compelling poem to explain the philosophical system that Epicurus had developed and to spread it around the known world. Serres brought Lucretius to the attention of modern thinkers, linking his work specifically with the rise of complexity theory and the development of emergence.



The clinamen, reformulated by Serres as the parasite, is to be found in all landscape systems, rural and urban. Typically, it first presents itself in a negative guise, viewed perhaps as a malfunction, an error, or noise within a given system. For example, the presence of artifice within the pictorial system of a natural landscape, or a weed in a cultivated garden. Its appearance elicits a strategy of exclusion. Epistemologically, the system appears as primary, and the parasite as an unhappy addition that it would be best to expel. Such an approach, however, misses the fact that the parasite is an integral part of the system. By experiencing a perturbation and subsequently integrating it, the system passes from a less to a more complex condition. Thus the parasite ultimately constitutes the condition of possibility of the natural system. Serres’ formulation of the parasite offers a way of theorizing the transaction between nature and city without privileging the latter as fallen, pictorial or architectonic, and without treating the former as a moral force. Both Lucretius’ clinamen and Serres’ parasite advise us to consider nature, not in terms of its laws and regularities, but rather in terms of perturbations and turbulences, in order to bring out its multiple forms, uneven structures and fluctuating organizations. As Prigogine once said, we use to think of nature as ordered and regular but now we see instabilities and fluctuations everywhere.



Serres emphasises the occurrence of unexpected novelty, the calling card of emergence. “The parasite,” he asserts, “invents something new …It expresses a logic that was considered irrational until now, it expresses a new epistemology, another theory of equilibrium” (Serres quoted in Harari and Bell 1983: xxvii). Through the operations of the parasite, then, new things are made. This making is physical, real, but always different, new. The clinamen directs us back to the material world and its composition, putting relations between things at the heart of doing, acting and becoming. It shows how landscape systems can be driven to reveal new orders of agency. Serres’ work enables us to see the city as a system of complex spaces linked by passages from realm to realm, from one local singularity to another. It makes possible a regionalism – a construction of place – that is not built on the notion of identity but on difference, for the “regional epistemologies” that the travelling subject navigates, while specific and local, are themselves travelling. Local processes, formations and operations undergo “regional evolutions, partial accelerations, temporary regressions, alterances, equilibriums, finite transformations” (Serres quoted in ibid). The continuing transformation of regions is itself plural. Serres attributes these transformations to interference. He argues that the declinations opened up by interference make new passages through systems, following a language of paths, routes, movements, and planes. This is the language of landscape architecture. Does not landscape design open up paths, cut routes, enable transitions, develop planes of interaction aross which beings engage each other in intensive, novel becomings. Is this not achieved by means of a magisterial interference in the order of things?



Extending the idea of disturbance to the modern city, urban theorist Henri Lefebvre argues that the complexification of space and the objects that occupy space cannot occur without a collateral complexification of time and the activities that occur over time (Lefebvre 2003: 167). “This space,” says Lefebvre of the urban realm in general, “is occupied by interrelated networks,” and is characterized by a tendency towards homogeneity (of logics, intentions, codes, values and systems) that is simultaneously disturbed by differences; “subsystems, partial codes, messages and signifiers that do not become part of the unitary procedure that the space stipulates, prescribes and inscribes in various ways” (Lefebvre: 167-8). It is a space whose relationships, according to Lefebvre, are “defined by interference.” For Lefebvre, the city is entirely relational - and parasitism is, as Serres says, “the heart of relation,” joining order and disorder in a never-ending dance. The parasite, the noise in the system, through its presence and absence, produces the system (Serres 1982: 52). The contemporary city, then, is a space of transformation. Its metabolic processes move at varying rates, and the parasite is the cause of this fluctuation, it is the catalyst of metamorphosis. The vast “interrelated network” of the city incorporates the processes of the social, economic, cultural, physical, mineral, organic. It includes all forms of matter, image, movement, light.



Sometimes urban designers and administrators try to expel the parasite, and it is through just this attempt at exclusion that an infinite number of possibilities appears as the irruption of a disorganization into the system. The modern city is therefore impossible of organization – despite insistent attempts on the part of planners, designers and political authorities to do just this. Serres and Lefebvre demonstrate how resonant an “ecological urbanism” could be if it could adopt the transgressive concept of disturbance as the condition of possibility of the city, as its space of transformation.  If we could design passages, routes and pathways to permit the turbulent stream of natural process to enter the city and disorder and disrupt its operations of control, and the “logics of surplus value” that Lefebvre says deny natural process (Lefebvre 2003: 35). 



For Lefebvre, the urban square, the plaza of modernism, is the zero degree of multiplicity, where everything is part of an order that hunts down disorder with overwhelming repressive force. According to geographer Edward Relph, who documents the decline of mainstreet as an organizing spatial program, and the subsequent rise of the plaza in the 1930s, the plaza, or urban square, which is situated at the heart of the modernist city, is the inverse of nature (Relph 1987: 85). Neutralized by democratization, reduced to Lefebvre “blind field” where the urban simply becomes the industrial and a re-presentation of fictive nature dominates, modernist urban public open space rejects particularity and ravages anything associated with natural systems. 



If the new polycentric and contradictory urban field has become truly multiple, we can only intuit its movement and its demands on human life. The organizational figure most suited to the contemporary city is not the plaza but the dynamic meshwork, a truly differential space-time web whose constituent elements can only be perceived from place to place and moment to moment, never in totality. This urban realm is not mappable, it has no fixed coordinates or causes that can be easily traced. In its movement from modern to postmodern the city created a milieu in which the public realm is uncertain and dynamic, a realm for which transgression, understood as disturbance and interruption, is a way of life. It is a force field of social and political, aesthetic and cultural, individual and collective intensities that construct spatial orders and code, distribute and organize the flows of human desire throughout these orders. The meshwork symbolizes the decentered, multiple, indeterminate, open-ended and capricious 21st century city. The movement of bodies in space, and of relations between them, a movement that occurs in different time frames in different sets, which jumps spontaneously from level to level at intensities, this is the habitus of the contemporary subject. This subject is in the grip of larger forces, the laws of fate, which are always disturbed by chance, by the clinamen.



It is the tipping point that provokes transgression, bifurcation, the phase transition, the swerve from order that introduces unexpected consequences. This is the basis of adaptability, of resilience. What does not kill me will make me stronger. Georges Bataille understood transgression as a gift. The notion of the gift emblematizes a transgressive, sometimes violent act, a transgression that is necessary in order to introduce into the reified world of things the illuminations of sacrality. This is why Lefebvre and Serres separate the city from nature. So it can come back as a gift. They are explicit about this. Serres says the city is founded on the exclusion of nature. Thus when the garden has appeared in the city it is as a sign of an absence. Likewise, for nature to appear in the city it must become artifice. Olmsted underlines the artificial character of the park when he justifies Central Park as art. But nature is always already in the city. Natural process is the “infrastructure” of the city. Human beings are natural beings and if, as Lefebvre says, “there is a production of the city … it is a production of human beings by human beings” (Lefebvre 1996: 101). The city depends on that which it excludes. This dependence takes the form of a continual renegotiation of its relationship with nature. Nature therefore is the parasite of the city. It is the noise in the system. But because the city itself is naturalized, this nature cannot be seen. The city appears denatured even though it is permeated by representations of nature. Therefore it must be revealed. Urban landscape architecture is thus a matter of revelation. Landscape architecture, however, has given away the key to the revelation of nature under the guise of human accommodation. Is this not the same reason that, despite the existence of the parasite being the condition of existence of the city, we try to expel the parasite? Lefebvre describes what happens when we do this. “The city,” he says, “has a hole which is sacred and damned, inhabited by the forces of death and life, times dark with effort and ordeals, the world” (Lefebvre: 88).

{C}[i]{C} Hayles advises by way of counter-argument that the introduction of disorder into a system does not necessarily imply a movement to greater complexity. See Hayles, N. K. (1990). Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. New York, Cornell University Press. p.196-216.




In literature, fine art, poetry and music, content can be understood as what is communicated, while form has usually referred to the ‘container’ - how something is communicated. Poetry, for instance has many forms: epic, sonnet, haiku, lyric and so on, by means of which the poet explores a range of cognitive and emotional considerations. However, the separation of the work into content and form has often been regarded as spurious, since these elements are interwoven, or interdependent. The interrelatedness of form and content is readily appreciated when we think of the decisions and techniques involved in the organization of constructed landscapes, the nature of the terrain that is being organized, and the situation that prevails with respect to that terrain.

 Nevertheless, in landscape design there has been a privileging of form over content that has tended to lead to a typological framing of program. To consider the future organization of a terrain as potentially park, riverside walk, ecological corridor or urban square can limit the way we think about, and then organize, the conditions at our disposal. Further, it can even blind us to the latent functionalities, strange beauties and ambivalent intersections that may already exist within the heterogeneous continuum of a particular landscape. We are all alert to the dangers of smoothing out challenging complexities in order to create another homogeneous urban park.



Georges Bataille wanted to get beyond the form/content duality which seems to come ready-made, and which organizes all things into container and contained. He argued that there is a condition that is not simply unformed, like the clay waiting for the potter’s hand, but which is prior to any consideration of form and content. This he called the informe or formless. Bataille’s formless is an attempt to deconstruct the form /content duality. It asserts a revaluation of things that have been repressed or forgotten or discarded, left out, left over; waste, the excessive. “The things that homogeneity obscures” (Coombes 2007). In some ways the formless actually highlights the interdependence of the homogeneous and the heterogeneous.



The idea of the formless entered fine art theory and practice and was codified in the 1997 book Formless: a user's guide by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss. Bois and Krauss also discuss a related discourse in critical theory that is relevant to the formless in landscape architecture, known as the abject. Best understood in relation to the body, abject art assaults such “totalizing notions” as identity and order. It investigates these categories through works that relate to bodies and representations of the body, exploring particularly the ideas of object and subject and the relations between these in traditional discourses of the body and its functions. For instance when substances move from inside the body to outside of it (are expelled or excreted) they become abject, or enter a state of abjection. The abject can therefore be seen as an operation of making something excessive, unnecessary. The relation between the formless and the abject is of interest because they both participate in an outsider status and all the implications of exclusion. The abject can be thought of as a state of being cast off: “it exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject; something alive yet not”(Taylor 1993).



A number of land artists in the 1960s worked, consciously or unconsciously, with the formless. Robert Smithson developed a number of early pieces in which he attempted to permit unmediated conditions to appear. For instance Asphalt Rundown (1969) where a load of asphalt was dumped from a truck into a quarry near Rome, Italy, and Glue Pour (1969), in which glue was permitted to pour over a terrain. Michael Heizer, a land artist who has worked consistently with large remote landscapes in the American west, states “When you are making a sculpture by digging out dirt, you’re negating all these materialist concepts. You change the definition of material and material usage, and you redefine what an object is.” Discussing his standards for sculpture, Heizer continues: “The criterion was earth-moved sculpture, period. All domestic material. Nothing imported. No gravel, no wood, no concrete, no metal. Just dirt (quoted in McGill 1990).



In 1996 Spanish architect and urbanist Ignasi Sola-Morales published “Terrain Vague” in the architecture and design journal Anyplace. He described terrain vague as an urban landscape condition that enjoys an ambiguous and uncertain status. Areas abandoned by industry, railways, ports, by the suspension of residential or commercial activity are “spaces of freedom and memory.” They are residual spaces, often found on the banks of rivers, and even include garbage dumps and quarries. Sometimes access to them is restricted for what he calls “theoretical reasons of safety and security” (Sola-Morales 1996). Just as the nineteenth century city required large parks these vacant, unproductive terrains that are without clear limits and which have no “future horizon” are demanded by our culture as a critical weapon against the ordinary and the productive. They should not be reintegrated back into the city. This void, this lack, says Sola Morales, should be saved at all cost. The concept of terrain vague has sometimes been explored through the lens of the formless.


The problem for all those who seek to show, bring or let be the formless, is transposition. For something to stay outside the world of form requires that an object remain a process, disabling the imposition of form at all stages. Arguably this is impossible, and that is its interest: the attempt can only ever fail, and this failing is formless / informe (the same could be said of attempts to theorize or demonstrate the formless. (Hegarty 1999).



The main issue for all who work with the formless, then, is avoiding form. This is the paradox of transposition. Transposition is an act of mediation. Bataille gave up working with art as a medium to investigate the formless precisely because he felt that art is, by definition, a transposition. Attempts in art practice to show, uncover, or let be the formless could not escape being brought into form. Bois and Krauss attempt to avoid transposition, using the operation of alteration, which they define as having “no essentialized or fixed terms” (Bois and Krauss 1997: 245). Hegarty, above, states that in order to “stay outside the world of form requires that an object remains a process.” Coombes works with process and with the operation of alteration in his landscape architectural investigations of the formless, with mixed results.  He finds it difficult to dissolve all connections between his work and the designed city, suggesting that even a landscape that succumbs to uncertain and unmotivated process cannot avoid being reconstituted as an object. In design, he concludes, mediation is impossible to escape. The very fact of design presupposes mediation.



Sola-Morales’ notion of terrain vague evokes many aspects of the formless. This kind of “empty space” is apparently a physically unmediated environment within a mediated one (the city). As Sola-Morales describes it, it is a waste product of the city and therefore, in a sense, not transposed. He says that we should treat such residual spaces with “a contradictory complicity” that will not “shatter the elements that maintain its continuity in time and space” (Sola-Morales 1996). It requires of landscape architects that they think of design in an unmediated way with, as Coombes puts it, “an intent to undo both physical and conceptual form” (Coombes 2007).  (However, Coombes goes on to say that even terrain vague is a type of form. While it is conceptually unmediated within the discourse of landscape architecture it does not, and cannot, reflect Bataille’s notion of the formless. Even the vacant lot, after all, is formed matter (not to mention the so-called vacant lot’s ecological complexity).



A few landscape architects have attempted to work with terrain vague. For instance Montreal landscape architect Luc Levesque wants to find a middle path between seeing terrain vague as requiring reincorporation into the urban field, and romanticizing it as a disconnected territory of emancipation. He wants to move beyond the order / disorder, form / formless designations that it conjures. In an attempt to address the first question above – the involvement of terrain vague in design discourse - Levesque reformulates it as interstitial space and foregrounds its materiality:


How can we move beyond these sterile arguments, which appear to limit the issues raised by the ‘terrain vague’ to an all-out struggle between order and disorder? To establish a hypothesis – ‘the ‘terrain vague as material’ – is to try to approach the issue by another path. It is to place in parentheses the qualities usually connoted by the ‘terrain vague’– whether debasement or emancipation – in an attempt to capture the conceptual and experiential dimensions, like so many substrates that might feed the eye and the intervention.


In this way, shifting from factual observation of the vacant lot to the more abstract concept of interstitial space expands our perspective to include a range of notions apt to stimulate discussion, whether linked directly to the ‘terrain vague’ or not. Etymologically, interstitial denotes something found ‘in between’ things. Referring to the notion of interval, it also means  ‘a space of time’. Thus the interstitial embraces not only such notions as openness, porosity, breach and relationship, but also those of process, transformation and location (Levesque 2001: 6-7). {C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}[i]{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}



In this redefinition Levesque departs from the troubling, and perhaps disabling, formulation of TV as formless but at the same time loses something of its uncanny quality, its disturbing otherness that Sola Morales identifies as an “anonymous reality.” We would wish, I think, to retain this disquieting condition - the abject - and at the same time engage with the possibilities that these ambiguous and unpredictable urban spatialities lay before us. Coombes suggests that Bois’ and Krauss’ operation of alteration provides an entry into this project. Still, seeing terrain vague as formless he says that alteration is a way “to think about design as something that leaves the realm of mediation through becoming excessive.” Instead of connecting terrain vague back to the city through a domestication of its alterity, he argues that alteration “reconnects terrain vague back to the operation of being an excessive landscape” (Coombes 2007). His examples allude to the works of Smithson cited earlier. One of Coombes’ experiments involves taking material out of context. Sand, for example, is dumped into a terrain and casual visitors to this terrain then track the sand through adjacent formed landscapes. In another, storm-water is permitted to gush across a waste landscape. Coombes sees these as disruptive activities where materials “do not reconcile with the terrain,” and it is this consideration that brings us, finally, to the inclusion of the formless in this series of Ten Point Guides devoted to exploring emergence in landscape architecture.



Coombes’ concept of alteration is actually disturbance with an added – and interesting – reference to alterity. Alterity refers to a condition of otherness, of something that exists outside the protocols of normative collectivity. To alter is to disturb a normal order. These ideas are particularly useful in the consideration of terrain vague as a condition that exists outside of normative urbanism (even though it is a product of it), and which has no norms itself. An urban condition that moves far-from-equilibrium, self-disrupted by ruderal species, differentiating always from its earlier state, terrain vague embodies disruption.

 Design considered as disruption – alteration – provides a way into the involvement of landscape architecture with terrain vague. Preserving the complex, fragmentary, imprecise transformations that terrain vague undergoes as it were on its own, the designer may, through a disruption of its internal flows, engage with it in a way that does not inform or domesticate it. Thus we cycle back to the notions of the clinamen, the parasite and turbulence in general.


Ten Point Guide References

Allen, Stan. “From Object to Field.” AD  Architecture After Geometry 76, no. 5/6 (1997).

Barnett, Rod. Emergence in Landscape Architecture. London and New York: Routledge.

Bataille Georges, ‘Informe’ Documents 7. December 1929.

Bataille, Georges Visions of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Badiou, Alain. Deleuze: The Clamour of Being. Edited by Sandra Buckley, Michael Hardt, and Brian Massumi. Theory Out of Bounds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2002.

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