Strategies Against Sameness #2

© Yann Monel

In this series, we present different concepts of space that have been important in the theory of spatial design and can contribute to the depth of the design process in landscape architecture. In the first article of the series, we observed examples of projects that could be tagged with ‘weird’ or the notion of a feature being ‘out of place’ and perhaps even ‘uncanny’. We stressed that openness to the strange could contribute to the identity, genius loci and how ‘pleasing beauty’ can shut out important particularities of a place. In this piece, we are dealing with the perception of spaces that can open new doors in understanding the metaphysical dimensions of places you deal with in your work. In the end, this understanding may result in a different and enriched design process. 

We continue with French philosopher Michel Foucault. In his 1967 speech to an architecture audience, he introduced the concept of “heterotopia”. It was published in 1984 as an essay, Des Espaces Autres (Of Other Spaces), and it deals with the nature of space and its relation to society. Heterotopias are unique spatial entities that challenge conventional notions of space and compel reflection on the social, cultural, and ideological matters of our world. Even though Foucault mentions gardens as heterotopia, other modes are just as relevant for any spatial designer to consider. The concept of heterotopias directly concerns the meaning of spaces.

Heterotopias are “counter-spaces” that contrast with everyday spaces like homes, schools, workplaces, and streets. While common spaces conform to established norms, heterotopias disrupt and question these norms, introducing difference and complexity into our spatial experience. Foucault writes about heterotopia as spaces “that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” These spaces take many forms, from cemeteries and museums to gardens, prisons, theatres, and asylums. Their diversity defies easy categorisation, highlighting their dynamic nature.

Foucault starts his essay with utopias. Unlike heterotopias, utopias have no physical space. They remain entirely metaphysical. They are visions of a perfect life. I’ve written about renders featuring too many beautiful, young and happy people, sepia sun-beams, aestheticised situations of urban biodiversity, where there are colourful birds and pretty butterflies living in Edenic harmony with humans, etc. But there are no homeless people, rats and cockroaches in the picture, these renders are essentially representing utopias, painting impossible wishes and unreal situations. 

But, of course, the dichotomy between reality and utopia is not that binary. Real, physical spaces can represent utopias in order to offer hope in the light of grim realities. Political regimes, religions, other social structures, and economic systems, referred to by philosopher Jacques Lacan as the ‘Big Other’, have all been generating or instrumentalising utopias. If utopias are about the ‘perfect life’, what is perfect? How perfect? Utopias as social tools always seem within reach, and there is a blurred line between utopia and a vision of a better future. Before they get built, most of our projects are, to some extent, utopias. Landscape architects produce better alternatives; it’s in our resume and every competition submission. It can’t be otherwise because it’s our job to envision a more positive future. Someone needs to have a dream.

So, utopia cannot exist in a physical space as it is an idea, but it can be represented. At that point, and according to Foucault, we would talk about heterotopia because a place that represents utopia negates its reality and opens a metaphysical dimension of space. Heterotopias do exist in physical space. They are spaces that, within their purpose and meaning, contain, reflect or reference several other spaces that are not about the perfect life but have a spiritual or some metaphysical function.

Foucault starts with heterotopias of crisis. Spaces ­that are meant for temporary use when one finds oneself in crisis. Here, he mentions adolescents, pregnant women, the elderly, and so on. He stresses that such places of crisis are disappearing and, in a way, are themselves in crisis. Decades later, we can observe how basic comfort and empathy are often commodified and increasingly more exclusive, even in the public realm; for example, a bench that is adjusted so homeless people can’t sleep on it.

In the second principle, Foucault mentions cemeteries, “the cemetery begins with this strange heterochrony, the loss of life, and with this quasi-eternity in which her permanent lot is dissolution and disappearance.” Although it would be interesting to think that while cemeteries have indeed been facilitating the passage between here and there, as I wrote in another article, they are increasingly more about ‘here’ and the transitory nature of being that unfolds in this ‘here’. Bodies are being processed into fertilisers, and ashes are committed to the immediate natural processes that remain here, as is the case in the Colserolla Forest Path. The monumentality, symbolising eternity, withdraws from the design. 

In the third principle, Foucault mentions cinemas and how they, within their limited space, include a canvas on which to project another world, a movie that gives an impression of a real space. In The Cute, The Bad and The Ugly essay, I was critical of how some landscape architects resort to designing supposedly biodiverse and ecological spaces based on an image of how things look rather than work. Similarly, the ecology reduced to an image of ‘messy naturalness’ is projected onto the space we design, lacking in depth and processes, establishing no more than a Potemkin ecology. It is a simulation of a world within a world.

But there is a strong dialectical presence as projected quasi-nature references nature and, at the same time, is nature. The green wall in Madrid suggests a messy vegetational situation, which, following the laws of natural processes, could never happen in the middle of Madrid. Plants grow from a plastic structure with limited conditions and need constant watering. It is a projection, a simulation. On the other hand, insects are coming, and there are natural processes unfolding and offering food to some species. In a way, it could be considered a simulacrum, a new situation based on a simulation of nature. 

Then, as the “oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites”, Foucault mentions gardens. In gardens, the four elements of the world come together and represent a microcosm. Foucault also mentions rugs as a representation of gardens and comments that today’s zoological gardens are essentially derivates of this representation of microcosmos, which, in effect, represent the totality of the world.

In the project ‘Still Alive’, Wagon introduces a small garden that works as a distant coordinate in the metaphysical structure of the place. It juxtaposes the entire historic milieu with contemporary issues of landscape, in a contemporary language via the historic, round-shaped container and its position. It acts as a paradox; it is a counter-site and plays with time.

In the fourth principle, Foucault mentions museums and libraries where time ‘gets accumulated’. He calls them heterochronies as the notion of time in these spaces gets particularly dynamic. Similarly, many landscape architects emphasised the notion of palimpsest that is a site. Portuguese landscape architect João Gomes da Silva of Global Arquitectura Paisagista, speaks about the ‘thickness of time’. His project at São Jorge Castle in Lisbon is a project that deals with this thickness, or, in Foucault’s terms, accumulation of time.

From heterochronies, Foucault moves to chroniques, heterotopias that emphasise a transitory quality of a site. He mentions fairgrounds, festivals and such temporary occupations of sites that offer a specific experience or change some norms of social life for a limited time.

We could associate tactical urbanism with this type of heterotopia. As an experience of a project dealing with tactical urbanism, one needs to contemplate the potential and possibilities of changes in modes of habitation and ‘try out’ a possible future for a limited amount of time. 

In the fifth principle, Foucault mentions highly exclusive places like prisons, where entrance is compulsory, or one must go through a special process or make certain gestures in order to be let in. This exclusivity could also be assigned to private spaces, exclusive resorts etc.

Foucault moves on to places that invite one inside, but once one reaches the ‘inside, ‘ it is not, in fact, inside, but in the simulation of the inside. By entering, one is excluded from the true inside. In landscape terms, these could probably be a nature reserve where visitors are limited to certain areas but are not given access to the actual ‘inside’. Norway Tourist Routes is a project that invites visitors to explore the natural beauties, but precisely by following the network of 18 selected routes, one doesn’t enter the protected areas. We can find many natural protected areas where only a part of it is accessible to protect the real ‘inside’.

Foucault concludes the essay with the notion of ‘ship’ as a heterotopy par excellence. He writes that it is a piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself … “and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilisation, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development, but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination.“… 

Landscape architecture as a design discipline is a bit like the boat sailing between sites, not only as an agency of change but also, as Foucault states, the reserve of imagination.

Moving away from Foucault, we also know of dystopias. Usually, they represent failing societies, failing ecosystems, and post-apocalyptic and uncanny situations full of hostile living conditions like disease or oppression. In fiction, they are in abundance, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Blade Runner, Matrix, Brave New World, 1984, Mad Max … 

Like utopia, dystopia is an imagined state of affairs, and there can only be a dystopian feel to a real situation. When it comes to the production of space, one would think that post-industrial parks like Duisburg Nord would feel so. On the contrary, they seem to carry an optimistic message of how we can appreciate and live with our own debris and how we can enjoy and relax within the decay of these beautifully monstrous machines once they become obsolete. 

Much more dystopian, I find the neo-liberal city streets featuring brands like Zara, H&M, Starbucks, McDonald’s and such, while failing to provide free seating opportunities. Furthermore, many of the brands involve low-paying and low-quality jobs and goods produced in third-world countries, again, for low pay. Due to high rents caused by these brands, these consumerism-focused streets are often empty and lifeless after closing time. They render the widening gap between the performative front and the much less shiny realities, lurking from the backstage of capitalism as a sour local dimension of globalism.

In the past decade or two, landscape architecture has become increasingly more complex and technical in light of the unfolding climate catastrophe. We are under pressure of data and systems: ecology, space, water, climate, biodiversity, economics, politics, poetics, meaning, production and consumption of food, material, energy … And then there are different living species, each with its own coordinate of interdependedness with everything else. For landscape architects that have to process all these layers, the landscape is much more. It is too much. It is in excess, a ‘hypertopia’. As an agent of change, we are put in an almost universal position to apply our knowledge to it. On the other hand, we can never grasp it in itself, in its entirety of overlaying interconnected layers, as it is impossible. The landscape will remain a hypertopia to those who are tasked with prioritizing its inherencies and finding the most credible possible ways to engage with the unfathomable complexity. 

Stay tuned for the next article from the series soon!

written by Zaš Brezar

Published on December 1, 2023

One thought on "Strategies Against Sameness #2"

  1. silvia wichmann says:

    muy interesante las miradas. para pensar los espacios que intervenimos de una manera que nos aleje de la utopía irreal del mundo en el que vivimos

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