Tim Waterman

Landscape, Urban, and Food Studies

National Progress

by Tim-Waterman on July 18, 2018, no comments

Here is a little piece on landscape, technology, and nationhood (or the lack thereof) I wrote for the Bartlett School of Architecture’s Unit Eleven publication for 2018. It’s part of the thinking I’m doing towards our upcoming ‘Landscape Citizenships’ symposium. https://landscapecitizenships.wordpress.com

Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going? How will we get there? These are all questions lurking within the idea of national progress, and progress always implies a forward direction towards a goal, a telos, and technology is usually the tool to get us there. William Morris, in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, imagined this goal to be a withering away of the state (he was a socialist, but not necessarily always a state socialist), and a mutual and pleasurable management of all affairs without the domination of government. Famously, he envisioned the Palace of Westminster in the future would be used for storing dung: clearly a punitive downcycling form of adaptive reuse, and, of course, a symbolic home for what he saw was the primary product of governments. 

If we see technology in its broadest terms, as the application of a system to a task or set of tasks, then it is possible to see both nations and buildings (including those at Westminster) as technologies or means. Systems and technologies are mesmerising, and mastery of them deeply satisfying and engrossing. Thus it is easy for them to become worlds unto themselves, bounded and complete, ends rather than means. Questions of government become questions of procedure and policy rather than equality and emancipation, and questions of architecture are framed in terms of practice and construction rather than the classic Vitruvian ideals.

The ideals Morris and others of his time were cooking up (including Ebenezer Howard, Peter Kropotkin, Edward Carpenter, Emma Goldman, Patrick Geddes—not all of them architects or landscape planners) were dreams of whole life economies; how whole community and individual lives could be wholly lived in whole, flourishing places. The task was to bring together head, heart, hand, and land: Geddes sought the encouragement of ‘insurgent life’. Before the hard political boundaries of the twentieth century had formed as ideological schisms and concrete walls, the anarchists, socialists, and a broad range of other radicals were discussing an insurgency in which they all had a stake. The Paris Commune, author of its own unique form of socialism and victim of massacre in 1871, had not died without releasing the ideal of communal luxury into the world, and this was the egalitarian, emancipatory framework for shared human and planetary flourishing in which the forms of garden cities and green belts as planning tools (or technologies) would emerge. 

The green belt is an example of how these grand dreams have progressively been stripped down. From the view of a planner’s, politician’s, or developer’s map, it is merely empty space. From both a radical perspective and a landscape perspective, with a goal of insurgent life and life economies, it is empty not of buildings and development, but of all the rich layers of use, belonging, and conviviality it might contain. And what is humanity’s great project if not conviviality? Green belts are not just technologies, tools, or mapping strategies. They are also landscapes that demand convivial practices of dwelling and meaningful, productive, interesting use. They need life to surge up within them. 

All technologies, from smartphones to planning frameworks to buildings, need to be detached from the worlds they create unto themselves and reconnected with larger practices of dwelling. Our lives have become arenas of permanent destructive revolution (‘disruption’, restructuring, ‘flexibility’ meaning precarity, gig economies), and instead we need insurgencies that rise up from within, holding together those things which are truly of value while transforming all that is malign. Technologies must be bent upon the convivial, upon belonging, upon connecting to landscape. And national progress? The technology of the nation should always be working to minimise its own self-absorption and to prepare us all for finding conviviality in the substantive landscapes in which we dwell: the real towns, cities, countrysides, watersheds, bioregions, and continents to which we belong. The technology of nations should drive progress toward landscape citizenships and towards their own obsolescence.