Tim Waterman

Landscape, Urban, and Food Studies

Publicity and Propriety: Democracy and Manners in Britain’s Public Landscape

by Tim-Waterman on July 30, 2017, no comments

Landscape and Agency: Critical Essays is forthcoming from Routledge in October 2017

Landscape and Agency: Critical Essays is forthcoming from Routledge in October 2017

This is an excerpt from my chapter in Landscape and Agency: Critical Essays, due out this October, which I co-edited with Ed Wall. My writing is in superb company in our book: Ross Exo Adams, Camillo Boano, Paul Cureton, Jill Desimini, Murray Fraser, Maria Guidici, William Hunter, Jane Hutton, Katya Larina, Don Mitchell, Peg Rawes, Douglas Spencer, Amy Strecker, and Jane Wolff. More information about the book is available here.

Manners and civil society

The misunderstanding or misapplication of public manners – the set of customs that eases people’s negotiation of public spaces – creates problems for the design of public landscapes such as streets and squares. In Britain in particular, much pressure has been brought to bear on design for the public landscape to provide visual cues for behaviour, usually with very mixed results and a preponderance of signage. Despite the British reputation for politeness, the relative absence of customs for appropriate public behaviour creates problems not just for design but for the comfort and safety of individuals, and also for civility, recognition, and democracy in society as a whole.  I don’t wish to imply that public manners have necessarily been eroded over time – in many places the public landscape is a more civil place than ever before in history – however it is important to address what should or could be in order to provide most fully for democracy and human flourishing.

The first value of the public landscape is that it should be equally accessible to all, regardless of any individual’s membership in any minority group and regardless of any person’s class. Equality does not automatically confer justice, but in this case the link is fairly clear, as I shall discuss below. This particular equality is primarily guaranteed by manners rather than legal enforcement. Manners, the expression of virtues, are the first and most basic expression of morals as applied in everyday life – and indeed form the ground from which many moral judgements are constructed. Peter Johnson concurs, noting that “without civility as a minimal condition of human contact … principles of justice and welfare would have little permanence and reliability” (1999, xi), and John F. Kasson in his study of American manners writes that manners “are inextricably tied to larger political, social, and cultural contexts and … their ramifications extend deep into human relations and the individual personality” (1990, 3). The construction of public manners is also highly relational, contingent upon place, time, and what actors are engaged in a situation. The word ‘situation’, in and of itself, is telling, and points to the fact that our moral lives are always situated. Here it is important to stress that this is not a position of moral relativism; in fact it is quite the opposite, as what is sought is a condition of public interaction that assumes certain universal moral goods, such as the avoidance of harm and/or pain, and the aspiration to human flourishing.

Democratic public life depends upon a customary compact between citizens; an agreement as to what is proper in a public context. The notion of propriety has long been associated with sanctimoniousness, of ‘polite society’. When manners are constructed of hierarchical relationships, they inevitably involve deference and condescension as well as inflexible and possibly harmful codes of honour. When manners are seen as the foundation of just relations in civil society, then ‘polite society’ might be seen as simply the mutual regard necessary to ensure the movements necessary to society, a structure in which we are all inevitably embroiled. Put simply, propriety is a form of ownership; individual ownership of the self and its relation to the public world at large. Propriety is defined by custom, and custom, at its best, is not a dogmatic and inflexible framework, but rather it informs and is formed by everyday life and everyday practices. Further, what is proper to society is the mutual recognition in the public realm that is the first gesture of reciprocity – a sort of gift from one person to the next, however small. The anthropologist Stephen Gudeman is one of our finest commentators on this. He writes, “Strictly a secondary and composite phenomenon, reciprocity is not the core of society but its expression. Anthropological theories have it backwards: reciprocity is neither a primitive isolate nor the atom of society but its badge” (2001, 92). Reciprocity also takes us outside of our communities, into realms of exchange outside of the exclusive bounds of community. Gudeman, to some extent, indicts the construction of communities: “A commons is regulated through moral obligations that have the backing of powerful sanctions. But communities are hardly homes of equality and altruism, and they provide ample space for the assertion of power and exploitation from patriarchy to feudal servitude” (2001, 27). Much political rhetoric has stressed the importance of community, but civil society is a broader realm than mere community and requires broader consideration. What happens on a sidewalk reflects our understandings of public engagement beyond the bounds of community.

References

Gudeman, Stephen (2001) The Anthropology of Economy: Community, Market, and Culture. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Johnson, Peter (1999) The Philosophy of Manners: A Study of the ‘Little Virtues’. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.

Kasson, John F. (1990) Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang.

It’s About Time: The Genius Temporum of Martí Franch’s Girona Landscapes

by Tim-Waterman on June 9, 2017, no comments

This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine

This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine

“I really want to make the whole city like this,” says Martí Franch of Estudi Martí Franch (EMF), speaking of his vision of designing the green infrastructure of Girona, Spain, through a process of enlightened and engaged landscape management. We are sitting in his office, among shelves full of models and a table full of drawings. With us are Marc Rosdevall, a landscape architect with the City of Girona and the project’s director, and Marta Costa-Pau, a reporter from the local newspaper who is eager to report on the most recent transformations EMF’s work has wrought on Girona, and, in an amusing bit of journalistic circularity, to interview me to find out why this work is of interest and important to an American journalist and his landscape architecture audience.

Girona is a city in Catalonia with a population of roughly 100,000, situated in the rocky green foothills of the Catalonian Coastal Ranges at the confluence of four small rivers. The landscape is typical scrubby Mediterranean maquis, studded with stone pines (Pinus pinea), holm oaks (Quercus ilex), and the inevitable and omnipresent formal Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), which have an air of nervous, attendant stiffness in the loosely informal Catalonian landscape, like butlers at a barn dance. When I visit in late spring, there is a festival of flowers in the central city called the Temps de Flors. It’s a mix of floral installations that range from the highly professional and artistic to the desperately tacky. However, in the spirit of spring, with the soft air at skin temperature, the rivers full of water, and the maquis replete with shades of fresh and fleshy greens on the hills above the honey-colored stone of the old town, the exuberant bad taste is forgivable and welcome, even charming.

The Can Colomer meadow during its periodic mowing and maintenance. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

The Can Colomer meadow during its periodic mowing and maintenance. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

The town’s generous web of green spaces reflects its topography, with concentrations of agricultural terraces on the hillsides, and the valleys between full of lush and wild plants all pushing into the densely built fabric of the town. It gently pushes back, curving into the green. All this gentle beauty belies a much less idyllic history of the landscape’s continual mistreatment. Girona’s citizenry has not recently had a virtuous relationship with the land: “The forest is for violation and for dropping fridges,” says Franch, referring to the long-standing problem of the regular dumping of building and household waste and appliances willy-nilly on the city’s fringe. His goal is to reveal the beauty of the whole of Girona’s landscape, opening up strategic views, providing access to the rivers, installing pathways and resting places, and, in doing so, encouraging the populace to value its surroundings more and creating a new relationship between the city and its surroundings. Even in the early stages of his project, he notes, there has been a visible reduction in the amount of dumping.

Beginning in September 2014, Franch embedded himself in processes of management across Girona, working closely with the city’s landscape maintenance teams, known locally as “brigades,” in particular with Jordi Batallé, the charismatic and energetic lead (comisari) of the brigades. Rosdevall describes the early stages, in which his superiors decided they would humor Franch in what they assumed was a quixotic journey. “My boss didn’t expect much from Martí. ‘Leave him alone and don’t spend any money,’ he said.” Franch, inspired by the approaches exemplified by the work of Gilles Clément in France, wanted to generate design from a direct engagement with site. He doesn’t see himself as a lone practitioner or a “master”; rather, he works in an informed conversation with the ecology of his practice, the ecology of the site, and the ecology of ideas in the world of landscape architecture.

Clément, when describing his approach in his 2015 book, The Planetary Garden and Other Writings, could be speaking for Franch, too: “For a long time I gardened without clarifying my ideas. Nevertheless, there were plenty of standpoints: to conserve the diversity already present, to increase it, to utilize the energy inherent in the species, not to use opposing energies unnecessarily, and to end up with a pledge that I repeat as often as necessary: to do as much as possible with, and as little as possible against.”

An annual diagram of maintenance including mowing and planting, growth of vegetation, sunlight hours, and other variables. Festivals, when maintenance brigades are busy, are shown as red sunspots. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

An annual diagram of maintenance including mowing and planting, growth of vegetation, sunlight hours, and other variables. Festivals, when maintenance brigades are busy, are shown as red sunspots. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

Franch’s work in Girona is healing, connective, and narrative. The project can only loosely be called a master plan. What he has created is a series of walking loops, itineraries that knit Girona’s neighborhoods together, but these come together on the ground more than in the plan. “The final drawing is almost the as-built,” Franch says. The work begins on site, to understand the topography, hydrography, and viewsheds. With the maintenance brigades, he begins an active process of clearing, mowing, pruning, and cleaning. “The main thing we do is subtraction,” he says. Bearing in mind a framework of green infrastructure coaxed into presence by following the existing topography and river corridors, sites are cleared, trees are limbed up, and connections are made apparent. Only then, for the future management practice, is the work transferred to plan and section. In essence what is created is an action plan, not a master plan.

View from a terrace on the Torre Gironella itinerary. In the foreground is the barrel arch of the water mine roof. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

View from a terrace on the Torre Gironella itinerary. In the foreground is the barrel arch of the water mine roof. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

A striking example of the approach is the “shore edge” project, on the bank of the River Ter opposite the historic center of Girona. The district has had shady associations, appropriate to its formerly overgrown character, but it is now part of a legible riverside itinerary. Limbing up and clearing trees and shrubbery pulls the eye and the walker along the path with cool and luscious glimpses of the burbling river glinting in the sunlight. Where the path once followed a ruler-straight maintenance road, glaringly paved in white gravel, there is now a parallel route that brings people into the space of the river. It is palpably cooler, shaded. The river becomes audible, a balm to the senses.

This path leads to a newly created beach. Since the river was dammed, the natural scouring action of the river ceased to expose it, but through a process of clearing and rototilling, a gentle forest beach, softly shaded, allows ample room for play and relaxation. For the festival of flowers, the Temps de Flors, a lifeguard’s chair has been installed, a gleeful marker of the new mood introduced here, and a sprinkling of beach chairs adds color and life. Many are occupied, even on our weekday visit. They’re examples of what Franch calls “confetti,” small, irregular site interventions that give visitors occasional reminders of the fact of design. These can be sculptures, furniture, stumps left for climbing, almost anything. Visitors themselves become confetti in this setting. We approach a man in a motorized wheelchair, which has negotiated the sand successfully. He greets us with pleasure, and speaks of his pride in how the space has been transformed and how his daily excursions here have been improved. Equally important is his influence on the site, in which his regular presence serves as a daily marker of safety and comfort for others.

Girona green infrastructure and walking itineraries.

Girona green infrastructure and walking itineraries.

As we leave the shore edge, we pass a nightclub (“Pandora”) advertising exotic dancers, indicative of the uses to which this neighborhood had previously lent itself. The nightclub had opposed the improvements to the site, which included some loss of unsightly parking spaces along the river, but this year for the first time it’s decked its balcony with flowers for the festival.

Franch’s understated approach is not geared toward big wins—spending concentrated on visible central sites with sculptural and photogenic results, which are so often what politicians prefer to support, but it has captured the imagination of the area’s politicians. We have lunch with Narcís Sastre, the Girona city councilman responsible for landscape and urban habitat, on the terrace at the El Cul del Mon restaurant just outside town, and he tells us his reaction to Franch’s quiet, covert work. “When I first saw the meadows, I wondered what was happening. Once I knew, I wanted to spread it around the city.” Since then, the city’s mayor, Marta Madrenas i Mir, has also become a supporter. The “big win” with Franch’s designs is across the whole city and on every constituent’s doorstep, or at least it will be once all the looping landscape itineraries are created. What politician could resist such immediate, inexpensive, and widespread impact? When I talk about how many small projects can add up to big things, Franch grins and corrects me: “This is not a series of small projects. It is the biggest project in Girona ever.”

Martí Franch in the EMF office, Girona. Photo by Tim Waterman.

Martí Franch in the EMF office, Girona. Photo by Tim Waterman.

After lunch we climb from the valley to a hilltop overlooking Girona to see further interventions of this biggest project ever. Past a well-established and comfortably eclectic former favela, we come to signage indicating we are at the head of a “water mine.” Franch has created an itinerary that includes its edge. The water mine is a curiosity—it is a horizontal well that follows the contour of an agricultural terrace. Along our route, the edge of the terrace is marked by the barrel-arched roof of the tunnel, punctuated with chimneys which I speculate may work in the manner of a qanat, using air pressure to push water along to augment the sluggish movement caused by the infinitesimally slight gradient.

Postcard-worthy views open to the city and cathedral below as we move from an olive orchard abutting the water mine up to higher terraces. A steely blue-black thunderhead has filled the sky on the other side of the valley below, so we enjoy the view for only a moment, and hurry back through a tunnel of holm oaks formed by yet more judicious pruning. Thunder and lightning and the crepuscular light of the tunnel draw attention to how the nature of the itinerary is shaped not merely by place, space, and movement, but also by shifts of time and weather that animate the space. Fat, cold raindrops begin to slap down on us.

The drawings for the shore edge project serve first as plans for action and maintenance, and then only later add up to a master plan. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

The drawings for the shore edge project serve first as plans for action and maintenance, and then only later add up to a master plan. Image courtesy of Estudi Marti Franch.

Franch’s management-based, hands-on methods have led him to try to find a new term analogous to genius loci that speaks of a deep understanding of diurnal and nocturnal cycles, weather, the seasons, and cycles of work and play framed by such markers as harvests and festivals. He suggests genius tempi, and I venture that zeitgeist fulfills at least part of that sense. We both like that each term contains time, presence of mind, spirits, and ghosts in their etymological derivations. Later, to find the right term, I ask the help of a friend, C. A. E. Luschnig, a classicist and etymologist. “Well,” she tells me, “tempi is not correct. The genitive of tempus is temporis, tempus being a neuter noun of the third declension. Maybe temporum (the genitive plural) would work better. Tempus has a full range of meanings including season, lifetime, the times.” This seems to crack the problem and to improve on it beyond our expectations—the term we were looking for was “the genius of time,” but conceiving of time as plural and nested is even better. Thus to add to genius loci, we now have genius temporum, the genius of times.

There is genius, too, in Franch’s propensity for action first and reflection alongside and after. He knows action is necessary, and his project is to learn by doing. There is no possibility of “analysis paralysis” because analysis, evaluation, design, and action are all part of the same impetus and bound up in the same nexus of energy. There is generative genius (or perhaps what Brian Eno calls “scenius”) in the collaboration, in the fact that the project’s ownership, design, and management are distributed and shared. The collaboration and co-creation mean that the design is not a totalizing one, but that it is a set of ways of acting and shaping in accord with changing uses and ecologies over time, perhaps beyond the lifetimes of all concerned. There is genius, finally, in the project’s tacit insistence that we must rethink the timescales, budgets, and commissioning of projects to embrace much more embedded and long-term practices of landscape management and design. Beyond the “big win” there is something at once softer and sweeter and more rich and grand that can develop in the sets of relationships through which we build great cities. In Girona, the genius of the place and of times—genius loci and genius temporum—are conspiring to create the city as a work of landscape art for the ages.

Despot, Martyr, and Fool: An Obituary for the Garden Bridge

by Tim-Waterman on June 6, 2017, no comments

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has switched off the public life support to London’s embattled Garden Bridge, a tempestuous, contested, and deeply symbolic idea that will die tightly clutching a sheaf of contemporary perversions of the civic good, a cautionary portfolio of design’s worst addictions.

Its life charts a course through the sordid world of politics and displays how the ambitions of the nation–state and the re-emerging city–state have uncoupled from democracy and attached to unplaceable global flows of power and money. The people are left helpless in a muddle of endless doubt, misinformation, threat, and the magical thrall of consumer glamour and celebrity pull. All this is held within the fading body of the Garden Bridge.

City skylines have become trophy cabinets of branded building concepts (Witold Rybczynski has written compellingly of this here), increasingly greenwashed to pull the heartstrings of a populace that still largely wishes to see good done in the world. Although the Garden Bridge design lacked the space of the sky as isolating backdrop, it made up for it with the clean plane of the River Thames in a site chosen not for its dearth of transportation opportunities but for its eminently Instagrammable setting.

Its protagonist was the former mayor Boris Johnson, for whom it was another high-profile vanity project, like his cable car to nowhere (the “Dangleway,” as it is known), and the awful red loopy thing at the London Olympics. Johnson’s habit is to say truly horrible things that represent his sinister ambitions (or prejudices), and then to chortle at them as if they were jokes, in a chummy, conspiratorial way that makes his audience feel like insiders (though they’re clearly mugs). Thomas Heatherwick uses the same trick: “It feels like we’re trying to pull off a big crime,” he said to the Guardian critic Olly Wainwright in the early days of the design, “with a twinkle in his eye.” He has compared his design to guerrilla gardening, dubiously recruiting an edgy, idealist grassroots urban practice into his globalized brand. Heatherwick has been called the “Leonardo da Vinci of our times”by Terence Conran, which is tragic not for what it says about Conran’s judgment, but for what it indicates about our times. Cultural appropriation, high-concept gimmickry, branding, and spin are the new hallmarks of genius, as is whom you know, of course, but that, at least, has probably always been the case with genius.

Heatherwick and the English actor and bridge booster Joanna Lumley have both hastened to the Garden Bridge’s deathbed to declare the injustice of its consignment to the Tomb of the Unbuilt Project and to register their shock at its passing. It did not die a natural death of public disapproval! No! It was killed by naysayers and philistines! And it was loved by a silent majority!

In reality, it was a show of exuberant wastefulness against the black cloth of a cruel, calculated national policy of austerity. It also helped to bolster suspicions outside London that the city draws in wealth like a drain and spews it out again in showy geysers to the delight of a sweetly wettened metropolitan elite.

How will the Garden Bridge die? It will die a despot—unaccountable to opinion and the needs of the people. It will die a martyr—a symbol to the wealthy and powerful of how ungrateful the little people are for their benevolence and thus how, perhaps, they ought to disregard their feeble desires. It will die a fool—a leering Punch and Judy show to the sweeping drama of genuine and necessary civic endeavor.

But what can we learn from all this foolishness—so that this is not a tragic life lived in vain? That the whole debacle came this far shows that we might have a human predilection for showy waste, and that channeling it fruitfully and beautifully rather than damagingly is an important job for designers. That greenwash might be losing its power to persuade people of the environmental worthiness of projects, which means designers had better get serious quickly about building deep ecological value into their projects. That there is a growing public distaste for signature projects as urban baubles, and that civic and public value must be considered as a priority. That the architectures must work together to identify, create, and promote worthwhile projects, even to become their local developers. And, finally, that design education and practice must strive immensely to work with building projects not just as objects and concepts, but to embrace, understand, and value context while striving for spatial justice.

This article first appeared on Landscape Architecture Magazine’s website on 12 May 2017.  

A Word … ‘Storytelling’

by Tim-Waterman on December 21, 2016, no comments

20111126-170845“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Autumn 2016  issue I talk about the importance of telling a good story. The Autumn issue contains an extensive section featuring the winners of the Landscape Institute Awards. 

This year’s Serpentine pavilion, by Bjarke Ingels Group, was welcomed with descriptions in the architectural press of Ingels as ‘the king of one-liners’. A good one-liner (in comedy, that is) involves a pithy statement, usually that skews a simple situation or idea with a pun, a non sequitur, or perhaps that exotic-sounding bit of wordplay, the paraprosdokian: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” A good one-liner in architecture, presumably, would remix spatial tropes surprisingly, perhaps to comic effect.

There is good reason to believe that the architectural one-liner is most suitable to an ephemeral building such as the Serpentine pavilion. Once uttered, a one-liner doesn’t stand up very long. One-liners are hardly ever appropriate to landscape, with the exception of very ephemeral landscapes such as those of the major flower shows at Chelsea, Chaumont, or Métis. True landscapes – the ones that people live in – offer layered, nuanced, complex narratives with plots, subplots, and sub-subplots. Apologies for the pun on ‘plots’. That’s clearly enough with the one-liners.

A one-liner goes down well these days, though, especially in social media, where a single arresting image and 140 characters of text are absolutely key to communicating and promoting a project. But what works for buildings is simply too reductive for any landscape project worth its salt. We need to find a ‘narrative hook’ to jar the reader and engage them with a complex act of storytelling that will follow. ‘Septimus, what is carnal embrace?’ is the opening line of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. We want to know more – and any Stoppard fan will know that what follows is layered, nuanced, complex, probably carnal, and will require their full attention.

If there is one characteristic that the award-winning projects represented in this issue of Landscape display, it is the quality of storytelling, and probably also the employment of a narrative hook. Judges need to understand the story of a project and why it is worthy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The practices that consistently win also happen to be consistently good storytellers who use words and images together most effectively. Now, some of them (though not as many as one might suspect) also have PR people to help with this, but this should not deter those without such resources from giving it their best try.

The awards are not just about communicating our best work as a profession to the world, but also serve as a moment when we can all communicate with each other. Furthermore, they offer an opportunity for us all to sit down and figure out what important messages from our work need to get out to the rest of the profession and the world at large. This is really crucial for everyone to ask at least annually – what is the year’s story? That time to take stock and communicate what we do is particularly important when justifying our work from day to day. Everyone, particularly those in the beleaguered public sector, which needs good storytelling more than any other field, must figure out how to find the time to enter the awards. The reward will be greatest in everyday work, and in everyone’s understanding that it is part of a necessary story.

Other Stranger’s Paths: in homage to John Brinckerhoff Jackson

by Tim-Waterman on August 26, 2016, no comments

This is published in the new journal Testing-Ground, by the Advanced Landscape and Urbanism research group in the Department of Architecture and Landscape at the University of Greenwich, London.

Detail of Old London Bridge on 1632 oil painting "View of London Bridge" by Claude de Jongh. Image from Wikimedia

Detail of Old London Bridge on 1632 oil painting “View of London Bridge” by Claude de Jongh. Image from Wikimedia

Nearly sixty years ago, J.B. Jackson wrote one of the most insightful essays about landscape ever written, “The Stranger’s Path”. Jackson’s warm, gentle, and wise voice and keen observation have been constants in my career as a landscape architect and writer, and I offer the following piece as a kind of fugue, a flowing together of Jackson’s voice into mine, in the way that so many stories flow together in the city along the Stranger’s Path. Our dearest hopes for the future will always evolve from the places and the voices of our past. The city is a cosmopolitan story we write together, and so many of us have come there to write it as strangers.

Spokane, Washington, 1986

In what was, I think, the spring of 1986, my good friend Lisa and I ran away from the small town of Moscow, Idaho where we lived and went to high school together, and spent the day in Spokane, Washington. Spokane in the 1980s was a city only in shape, hollowed out by suburban expansion as well as an economy depressed over most of the twentieth century, though it had briefly stuttered into faltering recovery in the late 60s and 70s. For youngsters like us, with sarcastic anti-establishment attitudes, vertical hair-sprayed hair, and cassettes of obscure German industrial music in our Walkmans it was precisely Spokane’s grittiness that gave us both something to sneer at and to revel in. In Moscow, my friends and I would spend hours mooching around by the railway tracks, and exploring abandoned grain elevators and empty farmhouses, participating in the birth of an aesthetic based in the blasted remnants of rust-belt style decline and the demise of the small farm and farmer’s cooperative.

In Spokane these same forces were writ slightly larger, and the modern and postmodern buildings and landscapes produced in its short recovery were also empty and decaying. Spokane possesses one of the most extensive ‘skywalk’ systems in the USA, built around the time it hosted the environmentally-themed World Expo of 1974. Presumably grown from the Corbusian ideal of the ‘death of the street’, but also in defence against the area’s frigid winters, this shopping-mall-in-the-sky had first killed the streets below, then slowly killed itself. Lisa and I wandered its empty corridors eating chocolate-covered espresso beans and contemplating a seemingly post-apocalyptic cityscape from which all the citizens had simply disappeared.

A few streets away, at the Greyhound bus station, which was full, not of travellers, but of people trapped by permanent transience and precarity, and the smell of urine and fear, we wondered together whether bus stations, once planted, would spread their black tendrils of decay into the neighbouring soil; bad seeds that would ensure a continuously poisonous urban harvest for an area. Lisa and I sat on the pavement and sang a comic jingle together from the Sex Pistols movie Sid and Nancy, “I want a job, I want a job / I want a good job, I want a job / one that satisfies / my artistic needs.” We laughed together at the irony of the postmodern condition, savvy, world-weary punks.

We are welcomed to the city by a smiling landscape of parking lots, warehouses, pot-holed and weed-grown streets, where isolated filling stations and quick-lunch counters are scattered among cinders like survivals of a bombing raid.

No matter how blasé we pretended to each other to be, though, this was one of our first, rare moments of escape from home without our families. Rather than being swept solicitously past the iniquitous and ubiquitous head shops and adult book stores of the Stranger’s Path, we were now free to stand and stare at them, even enter them. Though we pretended we’d seen it all, we hadn’t really seen anything yet, certainly not in Moscow, Idaho. We were both making a time-honoured exchange with the city of Spokane; its secrets and lures for our inquisitiveness and invention. But poor Spokane—where Jackson’s ideal Stranger’s Path would lead us from potholes to a clean, bright city centre, Spokane’s Path at the time only led to a gaping absence where that centre should have been.

[I]s it not one of the chief functions of the city to exchange as well as to receive? … These characteristics are worth bearing in mind, for they make the Path in the average small city what it now is: loud, tawdry, down-at-the-heel, full of dives and small catchpenny businesses, and (in the eyes of the uptown residential white-collar element) more than a little shady and dangerous. 

London, England, 2015

It’s Saturday the 14th of November 2015, and there is a steady rain. I’m starting a short walk from the base of Christopher Wren’s monument to the great fire of London, just at the intersection of London’s two most venerable Stranger’s Paths: London Bridge, for 700 years the only dry crossing of this reach of the Thames, and, of course, the River Thames itself. London has many Stranger’s Paths, which now include some routes oddly distended by public transport. Heathrow Airport, for example, sits amidst a vast terrain of potholes and parking, but travellers smear quickly across the suburbs via the Piccadilly Line or the Heathrow Express to eventually rejoin the Stranger’s Path in Earl’s Court or Paddington, each place raffish and lightly sleazy. The Borough High Street and London Bridge are still part of continuous Stranger’s Paths that, from Borough, fan out into Kent, Surrey, and East and West Sussex. I’m walking the stranger’s path out of the city, because now I’m a long time resident here, a Londoner as much as any other, it doesn’t make sense to me to walk the Stranger’s Path from the view of one entering. I will walk from the civic centre, that which absorbs, towards the periphery and beyond, from which the Path flows.

The simile was further that of a stream which empties into no basin or lake, merely evaporating into the city or perhaps rising to the surface once more outside of town along some highway strip; and it is this lack of a final, well-defined objective that prevents the Path from serving an even more important role in the community and that tends to make it a poor-man’s district.

Vistas in the City of London, with its tangled, medieval streets, are tightly enclosed. As one approaches London Bridge from the City of London along King William Street, the view expands dramatically. It is possible, here, to quickly comprehend the topography; the high north bank and the once-marshy south bank. The surface of London Bridge, a very clean plane, emphasises the horizontal and draws the eye out over the river. The water is shining as the sun breaks through the day’s dark, moist clouds. To the east, the Tower of London with flags waving. When London Bridge was crowned with its twin walls of houses, shops, and chapels this experience would have been very different. Before 1760-61, when the bridge was cleared of these habitable encrustations, and at the height of British naval power and transatlantic shipping, it must have been possible to catch glimpses from the crowded bridge, between the buildings, out to countless masts and ship’s decks forming an unbroken but uneven ground where now there is open water. Out the gate to the south, one would have passed under the cautionary severed heads of the executed, held aloft on pikes, signifying, perhaps, that the rule of order was rather weaker outside the gate than it was inside. Outside we would find the petty criminals, hucksters and whores, bishop-pimps, betting, drinking, and theatrical acts of all scales. On the south bank I reach the Borough High Street, its narrow footpaths jostling with people and its streets full of cars splashing through puddles gurgling up onto the curbs.

The sidewalks are lined with small shops, bars, stalls, dance halls, movies, booths lighted by acetylene lamps; and everywhere are strange faces, strange costumes, strange and delightful impressions. To walk up such a street into the quieter, more formal part of town is to be part of a procession, part of a ceaseless ceremony of being initiated into the city and of rededicating the city itself. 

The Borough High Street and the myriad alleyways feeding into it are a writing and rewriting of the dialogue between congestion and commerce. A succession of narrow courts and alleys open up with only a building’s width between them. On a map, they appear like the teeth of combs, and they echo the parallel streets that once thronged perpendicular to the Thames, pulsing with a constant flow of people and goods from across the heaving seas. This whole place Jackson might have described as ‘honky-tonk’, and despite recent attempts to Manhattanise the area, I have hopes that it will retain its rough-and-tumble demeanour. The incredibly fine urban grain here reminds us that not only would these streets have been congested, but so would the commerce itself, with many businesses not wider than a person’s girth—and the prostitutes, of course, themselves commodities—‘commodity’ even being a name for their most private parts. The prostitute’s business fits precisely the space of her body. The carts drawings goods into the city to discharge in its markets would have been constantly clutched at and called to from these many stalls, perhaps most when the carts were returning empty and the purses were full; bellies filling, balls emptying; the city’s carnal and pecuniary tides are one.

The George, down one of these narrow side streets, is a rare survivor from the seventeenth century, and its history is longer—its original building was burnt. It is a galleried coaching inn, decked with balustrades on all levels from which to watch the comings and goings of horses and carriages below. Its interior is as intricately wrought as the streets outside. There are grand rooms and snug corners and stairways that allow glimpses of action above and below and which carry snatches of laughter from floor to floor. It’s full, loud, and friendly today with big groups crowding around tables filled with food and ale. It’s a dry spot to wet the innards, and my glass of Southwark Porter goes down a treat as I write, perched on the edge of a high bench with my notebook on a sticky table. The men next to me are talking about women, then about smoked meats.

For my part, I cannot conceive of any large community surviving without this ceaseless influx of new wants, new ideas, new manners, new strength, and so I cannot conceive of a city without some section corresponding to the Path. 

When I leave The George, the beer has gone cold in my belly and rainy day melancholy has begun to take hold of me. Just to the south a hoarding has gone up around a large building site. Signs show images of the excavations that preceded the construction; foundations and walls closely stacked parallel and perpendicular layer after layer, generation after generation. Somewhere they begin in the silty ooze this part of the city is mired in. They are a reminder that the trajectories we inscribe have been written over centuries. As a species we don’t simply leave trails on the surface, but also below and above. When I look through the windows cut in the hoarding, I see all that is now gone, and sheet pilings line the edge of a vast, clean pit with freshly poured concrete curing at its bottom.

At last I arrive at the Marshalsea Prison wall, a place I have brought numerous visitors and guests because it is a place where you can feel the full weight of London’s terrible past. This blackened and dreadful high wall, studded with occasional spikes and rings, was the outer wall of the prison in which Charles Dickens’ father was incarcerated, amongst many others of London’s wretched. A site redolent of woe. Today, as the rain falls, I arrive to find the wall ‘restored’ and almost completely rebuilt, still solid and massive, but clean and crisp and regular. I knew I would find it this way, as I had caught a glimpse of this atrocity of cleansing while it was underway, again behind hoardings, but I’m still unprepared for the magnitude of the loss now that the hoardings have been removed. All its presence, its meaning, has been washed away, scrubbed away, normalised. That cruel history that called out to every visitor, “Never again!” has been whitewashed. What once was chillingly, silently eloquent is now merely mute. I stand in front of the wall and I can’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes.

Afterwards I wander aimlessly through the Borough Market, pushing through the crowds, and then cross the river at the Southwark Bridge, where the tide is high and the river is brimming with water that looks like cold, milky tea. Behind a glass curtain wall in a new restaurant in a new building near St Paul’s, a woman with shining hair and perfect teeth is laughing in a way that shows practiced charm, but that is clearly forced. I find my way back to the narrow streets with brick buildings shouldering in and panes of glass emitting warm, yellow light.

The Stranger’s Path exists in one form or another in every large community … preserved and cherished. Everywhere it is the direct product of our economic and social evolution. If we seek to dam or bury this ancient river, we will live to regret it. 

A Word … “Unity”

by Tim-Waterman on June 5, 2016, no comments

The work of EMF - Estudi Martí Franch - in Girona, combines techniques of landscape management and architecture with garden design, maintenance, and planning, illustrating the need to conceive of a more ecological relationship between landscape disciplines, urban and rural, in the future. See my upcoming article this summer on EMF's work in Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The work of EMF – Estudi Martí Franch – in Girona, combines techniques of landscape management and architecture with garden design, maintenance, and planning, illustrating the need to conceive of a more ecological relationship between landscape disciplines, urban and rural, in the future. See my upcoming article this summer on EMF’s work in Landscape Architecture Magazine.

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Summer 2016  issue I call for a unified voice and fewer petty distinctions between different arms of the landscape profession. 

Last year Monty Don hosted a series on the BBC called ‘The Secret History of the British Garden’. In four parts, it covers the history of British landscape design from the 17th century until the present, with each episode spanning an entire century. Naturally, such a large scope compressed into four hours is inevitably going to involve some simplifications and generalisations, and much is guaranteed to be missed.

In the final episode, some familiar characters from modern and contemporary British landscape architecture appear: Geoffrey Jellicoe (without mention of his wife and design collaborator, Susan), Dominic Cole, and Phil Askew. While Cole and Askew both manage to make articulate plugs for landscape architecture, Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe aren’t alive to insist on identifying the profession, and thus Monty Don refers to their work repeatedly as garden design, even when he is talking about large-scale masterplanning such as their work at Hemel Hempstead. Does this do landscape architecture a disservice, or does it simply highlight a reality of public perception that we can either fight or accept? In the public mind, garden design and landscape architecture are synonymous, and despite a century or so of clever and articulate people championing a difference, this conflation has not shifted at all.

From a garden design perspective, what is conspicuous about Monty Don’s treatment of twentieth and twenty-first century gardens is that, after having checked in at Hestercombe and Sissinghurst, his focus thereafter is strictly upon the work of landscape architects, which may well explain why he felt the need to identify Geoffrey Jellicoe as a garden designer – in order to throw a bone to garden designers who might feel they had been given short shrift. Indeed, where was Dan Pearson or Todd Longstaffe-Gowan or Arabella Lenox-Boyd or any number of garden design personalities who are not, by any means, shy of the lens or press? It’s worthwhile considering that garden designers are going to feel just as aggrieved about Don’s programme as landscape architects are about Jellicoe’s misidentification. Are both professions forever doomed to play second fiddle to each other?

Pearson and Longstaffe-Gowan are both garden designers who employ landscape architects, and both are undertaking large-scale public projects. In the case of their two practices, it is impossible to make a distinction between the two professions, with the possible exception of the fact that garden designers tend to be more visible to the media. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the two professions, while distinct, are interpenetrating. Perhaps, given that the big issues of our profession, from climate change to water-sensitive design, are being addressed in gardens as much as in public landscapes, we need to treat gardens with the utmost seriousness. Perhaps the British garden needs total reinvention. Perhaps we also need to insist that garden designers are educated as thoroughly and licensed as strictly as landscape architects.

And now that I’ve opened that can of garden- enriching worms, I shall open another. It is not just garden design, but also urban design that is a nebulously defined discipline which is nibbling away perennially at our borders. If we are to increase our visibility and viability as a profession, it will not be by retreating to a well-defined position that is almost certainly indefensible, but by opening up the discussion about how to build a unified voice with other professions and about how to ensure that all concerned are as highly qualified as possible. Opening up this discussion is very seriously overdue. If we can manage this discussion, which we must, then perhaps we can eventually get on to the one about how property developers also ought to have rigorous built-environment qualifications.

A Word … “Profession”

by Tim-Waterman on March 31, 2016, no comments

Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Big Fish Eat Little Fish'. In an increasingly predatory political world, we need professions more than ever.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’. In an increasingly predatory political world, we need professions more than ever.

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Spring 2016  issue I address the importance of professions and institutions. 

In the middle of the 17th century, at the dawn of modernity, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, described human relations as bellum omnium contra omnes – a war of all against all – an idea which subsequently came to underpin dog-eat-dog conceptions of social Darwinism, and which characterises the mindset that made possible the transatlantic slave trade and the enclosures and clearances in early capitalism. Contrasted to this are the premodern commons, those shared lands and practices that were the basis for communal well-being and wealth, unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno – all for one and one for all. The dog-eating dogs continue to consume each other and to enclose the commons globally, and the ideology that allows it still echoes Hobbes. It is known as competitive individualism and it is the foundation for neoliberalism, the ideology under which we have seen governments everywhere become more authoritarian and market-driven.

It is commonly assumed that the commons are historic conditions, but people still work together everywhere for mutual advantage, and we might even regard professions as types of commons. What does a profession do and how does it function? It consists of a variety of interlinked supports and guarantees: it ensures trust both internally and externally by providing the certification of the group and adherence to a robust code of ethics; it provides support for students and young professionals through education, training, and/or apprenticeships; it provides promotion, advocacy, and communications; it lobbies in government; it provides statutory protection for the work of its professionals. Last but not least, it provides for togetherness and sharing of ideas, friendship, and the common good. Professions thus have great importance both for their members and as models of what society can and should be.

Professions and institutions of all sorts are now increasingly under threat from competitive individualism, however. The relentless intensity of our working lives makes it ever more difficult for us to make time for togetherness and sharing.  Downward pressure on professional wages in many sectors makes long periods of time and quantities of money spent on education and qualification seem wasteful instead of the vital structure of our mutual guarantee. Finally, and probably not only, our perception of society as composed of disconnected individuals means that we are putting greater trust in crowd-sourced certification (Trip Advisor springs to mind, with its five-star ratings for popular but unexciting restaurants) rather than expert or institutional judgment.

Competitive individualism complicates professions even further. We tend to see achievements as the work of disconnected and miraculously inspired individuals – this is evident in the trend toward starchitecture – rather than as the work of professions and the sharing and supporting networks engendered by them, from education to practice. We have come to see value as being created by the lone genius rather than by a great collective work over many years.

It may be that the multiple threats which professions face, as they are presently constituted, and in a winner-takes-all world, will be enough to overwhelm them completely. Or they may change and adapt to new forms that we cannot yet predict. Or finally we may decide that we need to make a case for the continued survival of professions and stand stalwart together in defence of the idea of mutual aid. As for me, I know I’m one for all.

A Word … “Seedling”

by Tim-Waterman on December 7, 2015, no comments

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Winter 2015 issue I talk about how nurturing plants and creative and community interests are essential for both children and for the future of our landscapes. 

Seedlings growing in my North Sheen allotment greenhouse - sadly I had to give up the allotment when I moved some years ago.

Seedlings growing in my North Sheen allotment greenhouse – sadly I had to give up the allotment when I moved some years ago.

When I was eleven years old, I can recall standing before the bench in the small greenhouse at the Chartridge School in Chesham, Buckinghamshire and being struck by a bolt of green lightning. At that age and height I was not far from eye level with new seedlings pushing their way up through the compost. The wonder of that moment when seed becomes plant became suddenly clear to me, and filled me with a sort of electricity that has always since arced and sparked whenever I’m presented with another opportunity to nurture a plant.

I filled my bedroom windowsill with pelargoniums of the most mundane green-leaves-with-red-blossom kind. They filled my room with their odd, pungent scent mixed with the smell of moist soil and terra cotta. My parents entrusted a small corner of the garden to me where I could inflict the least damage on the grounds of our rented house, and I’m quite certain that, though I didn’t discover landscape architecture as a profession until I was in my 30s, that it was then that my journey into the profession began. Over the years, though, I’ve moved around too much ever to properly have a garden of my own, so I suppose it is fitting that I should be occupied with making landscapes for others.

As a child in an American military family I was moved from place to place roughly every two years, and I continued that restless movement, perhaps out of habit, for much of my early adulthood. Thus it has taken me a long time to come to the understanding just how privileged my upbringing was. Far from an experience of rootlessness, I’ve learned to put down roots quickly. When I think of ‘home’ I think of London–but then I also think of a handful of other places where I’ve made myself at home. I’m one of the lucky immigrants–a garden-worthy species that thrives in a variety of soils. I’m also terribly lucky to have attended a primary school with a greenhouse, to have had a small patch of soil to tend, to have had friends and clients with gardens that needed my attention over the years.

Currying an interest in landscape amongst the young begins at the crucial early stages; through a dalliance with plants leading to passion, civic involvement, and/or immersion in the arts. When we wonder why it is hard to bring young people into landscape architecture, it is that so few of them have access to or involvement with these things any more. I have spoken about my experience as one of privilege, and indeed it was, but it shouldn’t be. A simple combination of access to a small patch of earth to sow in, to play a musical instrument or to draw pictures, and the duty and pleasure of involvement in community, society, and culture–these should be cheaply or freely accessible to all–and they’re not privilege, they’re necessities.

This said, I’m not pessimistic about the future of landscape architecture (or the arts, or civics). I think we’re just at a cultural and political low point of obsession with objects over contexts, personal gain over public wellbeing, ‘growth’ over nurturing, cold hard cash over art. And we’re already climbing out of that pit of despair. Landscape architecture and the landscape professions, however they are named or constituted in the future, will remain essential to civic life, the arts, and, of course, the environment. In our short history as a profession, we’re just a seedling, filling out our foliage, preparing to bloom.

A Word … “Decant”

by Tim-Waterman on September 20, 2015, no comments

“A Word …” is my quarterly column for Landscape: The Journal of the Landscape Institute. Here in the Autumn 2015 issue I warn against the use of the word ‘decant’ to describe the forcible ejection of people from their homes

DecanterWine is symbolic in a host of ways. A silver chalice of it can represent the blood of a historic martyr. A cellar full of aged vintages represents private family wealth and educated taste. A table with wine at the centre at any income level represents conviviality, togetherness, sharing, family and community. In France and Spain, for example, where wine is central to culture, it represents a wealth of heritage that is shared across all classes and which undergirds a whole national identity.

Such strong symbolism of the beverage itself naturally spills over into the associations we have with the actions and paraphernalia that are part of the rituals associated with wine. From wine-making to storing, to presenting, serving, and drinking, every layer of dust, every glistening glint of crystal, every red drop soaking gently into a crisp white napkin has great significance.

The great comfort such symbols and rituals afford us (not to mention the tipsiness following what Auden called ‘the cloop of corks’) points to the incredible importance of establishing place, whether around the table or in the spaces of communities, and of human association in rooms and landscapes that accrue significance when they are filled with love and laughter.

Thus it is with sinister irony that some bright spark thought it fit to use the term ‘decant’ to describe the process whereby, in one council’s ‘Decant Policy’, ‘residents are compelled to move from their homes because either their landlord or an authority with compulsory purchase powers has redevelopment plans for their home.’ Oh yes, let’s examine this irony.

What happens when a wine is decanted? Usually a wine to be decanted is a vintage one. It is gently aerated by the process, and most importantly the good, clear wine is separated from the bitter dregs at the bottom of the bottle. It is an easy step from here to determine just what the dregs represent. These are the urban poor to be discarded and rinsed away. Who knows where the drain leads. Who cares?

Here, however, is where the symbolism of ‘decanting’ people ends in its similarity to that of wine. Wine gains from a long association with place, whether this is where the vines are rooted, a cellar rested in, or a culinary culture that has developed over time. The French call this terroir: deep place, deep time, deep satisfaction. Decanting people treats a building as a simple vessel, empty of association built up over time, and of context.

Finally, we have come to glorify the winemaker. Face wrinkled and baked like the stony soil. Dirt under the fingernails. Not so the urban poor. They have no right to the fruits of their labour or to a deep connection with place and community. What trump their rights are the processes in which developers, aided by a weakened planning system and the exodus of capable designers and planners from the public sector, present ‘viability assessments’ which protect their profits while pruning away any planning gain that might provide homes for low-income people. Those low-income people have a right to landscape and a right to the city, but these rights are bulldozed by a de facto ‘right to profit’ of the developers. It’s not just the urban poor, but us – landscape professionals who have struggled through the recent recession – who know one thing for certain: there is no ‘right to profit’.

So let’s not ‘decant’ people. Let’s be honest about the fact that they are being forced from their homes rather than dressing the process up in pseudo-gracious language. Then both we and they will be more clear-sighted about the whole debacle. And then in the good times we can decant a little bit of clear, vintage wine together with clear consciences.

The Global Cucumber: On the Milan Expo 2015

by Tim-Waterman on July 28, 2015, no comments

This article appeared in the July 2015 edition of Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), with the subheading “The Milan Expo raises unsought emotions about food, cities, the world.” The text and photos are both mine. 

The 'Tree of Life' is a sound and light spectacle every evening that includes dancing waters and a techno soundtrack.

The ‘Tree of Life’ is a sound and light spectacle every evening that includes dancing waters and a techno soundtrack.

A city like Milan reflects the strivings of generations. It has a rich quality of everyday life that includes a sophisticated food culture, which, as in so many Italian cities, is both distinctly local and, because of its history of trade, cosmopolitan. The evolution of the city’s form has intertwined with the tastes and appetites of the Milanese. The convivial quality of many of its spaces comes from enclosures such as its ubiquitous courtyard gardens, its cool semiprivate zones where neighbors come into contact, or its sidewalk cafés. Milan was once Mediolanum (meaning “in the midst of the plain”), the capital of the Western Roman Empire. It was enclosed by walls, but open to its countryside in the Po River Valley, where alluvial soils raised abundant grain and grapes, and roads brought influence from all over Europe.

Milan’s economy has suffered, as has all of Italy’s, from the crash in 2008, and recession and unemployment are tenaciously rooted. While its economy continues to be underpinned by industry and agriculture, notably by small, family-owned farms, government policy has looked to urban and infrastructural development for solutions to the crisis. Italy’s new, post-Berlusconi government is trying to show evidence of its ability to deliver, and Milan, the financial center of Italy, has become a showcase of contemporary neoliberal development. In particular, two developments have shown great international visibility: the Milan Expo 2015 and the business district at Porta Nuova, best known for the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest), the heavily vegetated and much-published twin luxury apartment towers by the architect Stefano Boeri.

Boeri has courted controversy at both sites, attracting antigentrification protests both from the working-class neighborhood the towers protrude from, as well as accusations of deploying expensive greenwash that would never be possible in a lower-cost development. Much the same objections have been raised against the plans for this year’s expo in Milan, which he master planned with Jacques Herzog, William McDonough, and Ricky Burdett. “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is the expo’s motto, meant, as it was, to embody a sustainable ethic, but it clashed with the presence of food giants such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola among the nations represented. Lavish spending on the project further excited anger, as many people questioned the concentration of municipal spending on one site instead of many, and the inevitable siphoning away of funds that such concentration engenders. On May Day in Milan, cars blazed in the streets, windows were smashed, and ‘No Expo’ graffiti proliferated.

A vandalized shopfront in central Milan.

A vandalized shopfront in central Milan.

Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ Vietnam Pavilion.

Vo Trong Nghia Architects’ Vietnam Pavilion.

The Nepal Pavilion by the Implementing Expert Group was unfinished on the day of the second big earthquake in Nepal.

The Nepal Pavilion by the Implementing Expert Group was unfinished on the day of the second big earthquake in Nepal.

In this case, radical protesters have shown a conservative attitude toward public spending. Such stubbornness can also be found in Italy’s culinary and agricultural traditions. Like Milan’s urban fabric, these traditions reflect the strivings of generations: make-do-and-mend and waste-not-want-not methods ensure the sustainability of these traditional practices. Frugality is a fruitful practice, and thus the delights of the Italian table are legendary. Italy’s food culture provides the perfect platform to present good food practice to the world. This was the starting point for the master planning team, who wished to create a very different type of expo, mixing a necessary message in with all the usual flash of a multimedia, multination consumerist extravaganza.

I spoke in London with Burdett, who told me the original intention was that 50 percent of each expo plot should be given over to green open space, which meant that the whole would have been landscape-driven rather than focused on pavilions. Drawings from the 2009 proposal show delicate fabric awnings, fields of sunflowers, and canals. This much calm sincerity was, perhaps, doomed from the beginning, and all the partners on the master planning team except Boeri disowned the process and left the team when the requirement for green space was abandoned by the organizers.

The parts of the master plan that have survived are based in classical Roman city plans or plans of military camps. The site is bounded, in military or urban style, by fences, guards, gates, and canals, and it is organized on a grid with two primary axes: the cardo, or north–south axis, and the decumano, the east– west axis. Tentlike canopies, other survivors from the original master plan, float above.

The expo involved spending on major new highway, rail, and subway infrastructure and interchanges, enough for a permanent new city quarter, which now seems unlikely to be built in the near future. No developer has yet been found for the site, which is located on Milan’s western edge immediately adjacent to one of Europe’s largest convention centers, Fiera Milano. The area is typical urban fringe, a loose agglomeration of industrial uses, working-class neighborhoods, and strip development, all studded with islands of remnant agricultural land. Reports of scandals and boondoggles were rife, as all the usual problems with corruption, profiteering, and inflated land prices, along with a now-familiar story of worker exploitation and poor working conditions, unfolded. The growing cost of the event forced the organizers to search for more corporate sponsors, which included McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, as well as the confectioners Lindt and Ferrero Rocher. Their presence is “perverse and bizarre,” Burdett says.

DSCF1388 copy

The Coca-Cola Pavilion

Sited between national pavilions, food giants, perhaps appropriately, take on the status of nation-states.

Sited between national pavilions, food giants, perhaps appropriately, take on the status of nation-states.

This familiar mix of corporate influence and official and private corruption angered not just those who demanded satisfaction in Milan’s streets, but also workers at the expo who have a keen sense of the politics (“In Italy, politics is everything,” says Burdett.). I toured the children’s area, which was filled with installations for interactive play designed to teach children about plants, food, and environmental responsibility. It was the end of the day, and there was a handful of children left. Many of the workers were gathered together and winding down. Among them was Stefano Bisi, who is scandalized by the presence of the food giants and convinced that “the only people who will gain are the big firms and those who poured the concrete.” Against a backdrop of giant multicolored fruit and vegetables, he warns me that we must “beware of the global cucumber.” Naturally, I’m mystified by this, and he explains by acting it out—he presses his back flush to a wall—“we have to guard our behinds from the global cucumber.”

There are some moments of real beauty, and pavilions that have kept to the original idea of 50 percent green space. These pavilions are without a doubt the most successful. Austria and the United Kingdom are the big showstoppers. Austria provides a steadily misted and cool, wooded undercroft. As the path climbs into the pavilion through trees, a neon sign which reads “breathe” comes to read “eat.” The UK Pavilion by the evocatively named Wolfgang Buttress and BDP is hardly a building at all, but rather a swarm of steel members hovering over a wildflower meadow humming with bees. Everywhere else, plants are growing on green walls at wild angles, as at Israel’s pavilion, or even upside down in a number of pavilions where any number of technocontraptions are employed in horticulture. It’s a relief to see plants growing happily, right-side up, in soil.

Wolfgang Buttress and BDP’s UK Pavilion works with the trendy metaphor of “the hive.”

Wolfgang Buttress and BDP’s UK Pavilion works with the trendy metaphor of “the hive.”

A path leads to the Austria Pavilion, which was designed by a team led by Klaus K. Loenhart, who is both an architect and a landscape architect.

A path leads to the Austria Pavilion, which was designed by a team led by Klaus K. Loenhart, who is both an architect and a landscape architect.

The USA Pavilion is presented with our usual national swagger, second only in height to the Italian pavilion, and with great technopomp, a massive lighted sign at its entrance announces the dawning of the new age of “American Food 2.0.” This means that plants are grown both sideways and upside down, and that an enormous living wall encrusted with lettuces undulates rhythmically from stem to stern, apparently (avowedly) to evoke the vaunted national image of “amber waves of grain.” Not even your patriotism can overcome such leaden high concept and overzealous technophilia, though they’re certainly appropriate to the expo format. The Belgians, punching above their weight, also bring high-tech farming that looks like the inside of a laboratory, and the Ikea-like, serpentine circulation system through it spits us out into a wonderland of costly chocolates, beer, and pommes frites.

Biber Architects’ USA Pavilion has green walls by dlandstudio that undulate mechanically.

Biber Architects’ USA Pavilion has green walls by dlandstudio that undulate mechanically.

American Food 2.0— the sequel.

American Food 2.0— the sequel.

Some countries get the point of an expo but not of the foodie theme. Brazil has a bouncy climbing structure, while Russia’s mirrored, cantilevered erection is, says Burdett, “something an oligarch would build.” And, of course, a glib comparison to the global cucumber is apropos. The centerpiece of the whole exhibition, located at the south end of the cardo, next to the vast, white Italian pavilion, is the Tree of Life, designed by the event entrepreneur Marco Balich, and the focus for a fountain and multimedia light show every night of the expo. Like the “supertrees” at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, the form is the shape of a vortex like a tornado or a whirlpool, or perhaps the bell of a horn. (To describe the shape, an old friend suggests it might be called “vuvuzeliform,” in reference to vuvuzela, the stadium horn made famous by the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa.) Since the conflation of tree and vortex in Singapore, it’s become possible to see this “vuvuzeliform” as invoking the symbology of the tree of life, though this is an uncomfortable pairing, given that the tree of life is so often depicted with roots equivalent to its canopy. Rooted in the ground, reaching to the sky, a reflection of the cycle of life. The vortex/tree form appears everywhere at the Milan Expo, but it’s rootless.