Spatial figures in the contemporary landscape
Juan Ramírez Guedes*
1. Contemporary landscape
This text attempts to lay out in general terms which are the principal characteristics that define contemporary landscape as the seat of human dwelling or their characterizing conditions, landscape meant not only as the visual impression of a particular morphology, but rather as a concept or an open and unstable notion, more complex or, if you wish, fuzzy, that encompasses, as well as pure optical data of concrete images of contemporary space, the construction of a body of interpretation of this visual reality and its material meaning, a landscape that, rather than being made up exclusively of images, takes us to an imaginary of wider substance. (1)
In the end, the landscape, as we wish to interpret it transcending a particular visual configuration or perception, would represent the organization of a domain of dwelling, an organization that while determining a figuration would also have wider implications, morphological and also material and cultural. And so, these conditions of the landscape in the contemporary city, on top of referring, as it could seem, to different scenarios that contemporary space offers as pure visual reality, would also refer to the implications of certain cultural and material conditions that space in practice, dwelling space, presents as hallmarks of the contemporary city in these scenarios, in other words, the metropolitan phenomena.
The term landscape used in this way has an advantage that resides in the same uncertainty relative to its full meaning. Faced with the term morphology or even the term structure, when we talk about landscape, we evoke, even within a certain lack of systematicity, a series of allusions, implications and resonances, even some certainly unnamed and conventionally invisible, that overspill a traditional and canonical approach to space. Along with the, ever present, risk of slipping into non contrasted subjectivity, nevertheless, the fuzziness of the concept lets us expand the depth and extension of the field, incorporating relations and dimensions that undoubtedly and beyond the state of theoretical development, are present and operational in contemporary space.
In that vision, the complexity of the contemporary city linking to the co presence and collision of its functions also derives from the coincidence in the perception of its multiple scales, from the superposition of its different times. Paying attention to this spatial-temporal multiplicity, we could say that the fundamental categories of contemporary space are those that display the conditions of the landscape that define it; figures that draw together, also in themselves, a multiplicity of referential spatial-temporal dimensions. Each of these components or elements present in the urban landscape grant a vibration, a different texture, a time, a diversity of times, from the instantaneous, Walter Benjamin’s jetztzeit, to the slow, almost motionless overlap, of a palimpsest.
Therefore when we speak about landscape, we are referring to a complex category and at the same time synthetic of a set of aspects that can hardly be considered on their own beyond their interactions and contradictions. Landscape too, may define as much a factual reality as a strategy to interpret that reality, which contains and covers both aspects related to materiality and its aesthetic reception. So finally the category landscape can best be envisioned as an insight that pays attention to complexity as a consubstantial condition of reality, as a dynamic representation of images that in their mutating unreality nevertheless help us discover new dimensions in the reality of lived space.
In that complexity, the depth and the extension of contemporary landscape represent two ideas, two phenomena and two simultaneous characters, a movement and a countermovement. Those two conditions of the new landscape, these figures of dwelling, are defined respectively as interstice and net, two forms or conditions of contemporary urban landscape, two ways of organising spaces, two coexisting, simultaneous, asymmetric, opposite configurations of the domain of dwelling. The two constructive figures, complex figures, on the other hand, at the same time made of a constellation of, let’s say, quantum, internal and external relations and determinations, in one way or another are linked to the local-global dialogic, in permanent tension, in a permanent dynamic imbalance; two configurations that while coexisting cannot be redirected to some coupling organicism, as if the partiality of the interstice were only a local state of the global net. Let’s say no, both conditions, interstice and net, reflect two situations, not only diverse and asymmetric: as we have already said, they are opposite, opposite as, rather than fixed positions, dynamic tendencies: one of which enrols in the depth, the intensity and the intensification of space and the other deploys itself extensively over the potentially immeasurable surface of the metropolis.
2. Living the interstice
The error of considering local and global as two organic situations of space, such as the spot and the field, conceiving the local, the place, as something homogenous with the global or universal separated only by a difference of scale ("The universal is the local without walls") (2), would deprive the interstice of its true condition of unrepeatable, specificity, of characterisation. The interstice is not simply a node in the net; it may or may not be, but the asymmetries, interference and breaking of the net’s space continuity assert its deepest essence.
Interstice means, space for intermediation, interposition, exchange, collision, osmosis, rearrangement, between old and new, for insight on meaning; as well as a space for interference, where partial and total, local and global or universal, where different scales adjoin... Interstices as hybrid spaces that confront artificial and natural, where private and collective coexist, in the way space is practised, in its use, as in its sense and significance; interstices are discontinuities, intermediate or residual spaces, that while often gone unnoticed are a substantial part of urban identity, where in a same space and place different memories, languages and processes become superimposed in a complexity where the maximum characterisation of the city is incarnated in this place of collision, conflict and tension; in the words of David Harvey “The ideal public space is a space of continuous conflict with continuous ways of dealing with it, so that it can be reopened later”... The space that gives rise to what is most specifically urban, including in this conception, in a very fundamental way the vacuum, the gaps and material lack of definition that occupy the in between, the space intermediating architectures; a space where different superimposed orders can adopt a global appearance of disorder, of chaos, like a palimpsest, as the overlap of different orders that configure the complex contemporary urban landscape, complex and open to indetermination, mutation and metamorphosis, spaces of uncertainty where the clarity of the canonical city becomes blurred into the contemporary fuzziness (3) a landscape of complexity, a map constructed from fragments, of interference, of dynamic or temporal geometries, through which sometimes openings, echoes, evocation, resonance and sparks filter to introduce a vision of world in place, a metonymic and metaphoric vision.
3. Net space
The change of scale and condition that, within the city, the 20th housing fabric undergoes, altering the old forms of proportionality of urban space, represents, taken the extreme in the contemporary city, not just a transgression of the canonical composition of the historic city, but the explosion of that residential fabric that doesn’t even meet the condition of a true fabric (considered as organisation that joins, constructs space and morphological coherence) along with the almost total disappearance of public space as understood by an urban culture.
The contemporary urban fringe, the scattered territory of the net, is a space where the presence of segments of pre-existing open areas (areas of old agricultural land or others) usual coexists with new tissues, and even gives rise to new urban form; nevertheless the presence of elements of true public space in the full qualitative dimension implied by the adjective, as we shall see later, is every day rarer. Public space cannot be reduced to mere functional elements of the contemporary metropolis, mainly space for mobility (the enormous development of urban transport to a scale never seen in the earlier history of the city) that, in a nearly hegemonic way, rules the configuration of contemporary urban space that has mutated from a space to be in to a space to go through, a space of fleeting experience, a space for disappropriation rather than appropriation and its recognition as support and substance of the city’s being and of citizenship as a collective project. This line of argument has been followed by Marc Augè, to even the decoding of the concept of place, proposing a notion of non-place, to account for these new forms of organisation of contemporary public space, also referring, nearly always, to spaces linked to flows and mobility, such as airports, railway stations, etc., and also shopping centres as privileged places of growth of urban life in the world today.
In that diffuse territory of the net, the confusion between what we call public space and what we comprehend as collective space, even considering that the contemporary city is functionally extremely complex territory, full of interstitial situations where the spatial composition and temporal regime of activity generate ample combinations and overlaps, importantly require a clear differentiation of what is understood by one or the other, because, even though, collective space is a medium for development of urban life it is only partially, the public space, the seat of its self affirmation as an urban entity and as a civic project. In collective space there are a series of ambits of public use but far from intending to give rise to that project, and more often linked to the substantiation of a commercial purpose, where, therefore, the use of space is subject to a corresponding economical counter value and that the counter value enacts via the optimization of the time consumed in that space, a not free time, but rather regulated and quantified.
This condition (along with their wish of petty simulation off the true urban scenario) is what discredits shopping centres or malls as an incarnation of new public space, as some times has been stated. Because real public space has its corresponding public time, a time that is not subject to the laws of economic efficiency, another time, literally the opposite time to time for business, therefore, in the chronological organising scheme of the metropolis, a non-time.
The erosion of urban entity has led to diffuse growth, the sprawl-malls model (4), the generic city o with no specific attributes, its extension into areas of low density, as well as the importance of its impact on territory and landscape, has led to the loss of certain specific weight of many historically physically consolidated urban sectors, favouring, through the loss of a considerable amount of residential fabric in favour of suburban development, the emptying of continuous temporal activity in those sectors of the city.
Pierre Bourdieu classifies these spaces as spaces of absence because they are easier to identify by the lack of certain conditions rather than the manifestation of positive characteristics. For Pierre Bourdieu, Rem Koolhaas’ generic city, built according to the logic of expansion and accumulation, is the place that represents the negation of things social, construed on forced absence due to the distance from the point of departure.
The sprawl model, of a net of horizontal expansion, consecrates as well as unqualified extension, lacking identity and character, a real imbalance in terms of density, distribution of services and infrastructures, virtual public space (as we have seen) a territorial landscape.
(1) Some of the ideas have been further developed in: Ramírez Guedes, J.: “Paisaje[s] intermedio[s]: utopía y ubicuidad” in Formas de Arquitectura y Arte, 18, 2008. In regard to the binomial landscape and public space, see also by the same author: “Espacio público y paisaje. (Public space and landscape) Notas para una lectura del espacio contemporáneo” in Paisaje cultural; Proceedings of EURAU08.Madrid, UPM, 2008
(2) See: Sloterdijk, P.: In the inner world of the capital. For a philosophical theory of globalization. Chapter 40: "The incompressible or the rediscovery of the extent." Spanish version: En el mundo interior del capital. Para una teoría filosófica de la globalización. p. 302. Madrid, Siruela, 2007.
(3) An approximation to the concept of fuzziness can be found in: Ramírez Guedes, Juan.: “Nitido e sfocato / The clear and the blurred” in Bogoni, B. and Lucchini, M. (Eds.) :Dialoghi Sull’architettura., Firenze, Alinea Editrice , 2011.
(4) How the USA model of Sprawl has been imported and its impact in the European Union, in: Urban sprawl in Europe. The ignoted challenge. European Environment Agency Report. European Commission. 2006.
Thanks to Peter Hodgson
*PhD. Arch. PTU Architectural Projects. ULPGC