Our Round Table explores the use and consumption of materials as part of landscape practice, and expands the definition of landscape materials to consider the intangible.
MODERATED BY KANWAL AFTAB AND MELISSA POULIN, OALA
BIOS/ KANWAL AFTAB IS A DESIGNER AND WRITER BASED IN TORONTO. SHE HAS DEGREES IN ARCHITECTURE, LANDSCAPE, ECONOMICS, AND ART HISTORY. SHE CURRENTLY WORKS AS AN URBAN DESIGNER FOR SVN ARCHITECTS AND PLANNERS AND IS A MEMBER OF THE GROUNDEDITORIAL BOARD.
ORIT HALPERN IS AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR IN THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY AT CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY AND A STRATEGIC HIRE IN INTERACTIVE DESIGN AND THEORY. HER WORK BRIDGES THE HISTORIES OF SCIENCE, COMPUTING, AND CYBERNETICS WITH DESIGN. CURRENTLY, SHE IS WRITING THREE BOOKS. THE FIRST IS A HISTORY AND THEORY OF SMARTNESS AND MACHINE-LEARNING; THE SECOND IS A GENEALOGY OF RESILIENCE AND THE HISTORICAL TRANSFORMATIONS THAT HAVE OCCURRED IN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ECONOMY, ECOLOGY, AND COMPUTATION SINCE THE 1970S; AND THE THIRD IS AN ATLAS OF INTELLIGENCES. SHE IS DIRECTOR OF THE SPECULATIVE LIFE RESEARCH CLUSTER, A LABORATORY SITUATED AT THE INTERSECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES, ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, AND COMPUTATIONAL MEDIA.
DIANE MATICHUK, OALA, AAPQ, IS PRINCIPAL LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AT CIVITAS GROUP, AN INTEGRATED ARCHITECTURE AND LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PRACTICE BASED IN OTTAWA. DIANE IS ALSO A CAHP LANDSCAPE HERITAGE PROFESSIONAL. HER CAREER SPANS MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS AND BEGAN IN THE MUNICIPAL SECTOR, WHERE SHE DESIGNED COMMUNITY PARKS AND OPEN SPACE. MORE RECENTLY, AS A DESIGN CONSULTANT, SHE ADVOCATES FOR BOLD, COHESIVE SOLUTIONS IN EACH PROJECT, WHETHER IT IS TO RE-WORK EVOLVING LANDSCAPES OR BUILD NEW PUBLIC PLACES. IN 2017, DIANE RECEIVED THE OALA CARL BORGSTROM AWARD FOR SERVICE TO THE ENVIRONMENT.
MELISSA POULIN, OALA, IS A TORONTO-BASED LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT AT WSP AND A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.
ZOE TODD IS A PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AND INDIGENOUS STUDIES AT CARLETON UNIVERSITY IN OTTAWA. ZOE RESEARCHES MÉTIS LEGAL TRADITIONS IN THE LAKE WINNIPEG WATERSHED AND ASKS QUESTIONS ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH WE NEED TO REORIENT OUR UNDERSTANDINGS OF OURSELVES, AND OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH FISH AND WATER, IN ORDER TO SHIFT THE TRAJECTORY THAT CANADA IS CURRENTLY ON IN TERMS OF ITS DESTRUCTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT. ZOE IS ALSO A VISITING PROFESSOR IN THE PROGRAM IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND MEDICINE AT YALE, WHERE SHE IS A 2018-2019 YALE PRESIDENTIAL VISITING FELLOW.
Kanwal Aftab (KA): Can landscape designers play an active role in mitigating negative impacts of the materials they “consume”?
Diane Matichuk (DM): There are so many negative connotations to the word “consume.” It’s about taking, using, extracting… For centuries, we’ve been using natural materials such as water, air, stone, oil, plants, etc. to make our world habitable. As a landscape architect, my day-to-day work involves selecting materials such as concrete, wood, stone, and metal, so we’re bridging the natural world and the built world. We play a role—for better or for worse—in what’s happening to our natural environment.
Orit Halpern (OH): I’m interested in trying to shift the conversation away from ideas about resources (as if the world were a resource for us to utilize) and more towards capacities, or organic function. That might seem very theoretical, but it actually changes how we think about the life cycle of materials. We need to think more aggressively about how we reuse or salvage materials, and about the entire life cycle of the material—from its production and extraction, to making it, and then using it.
Consumption has a positive side to it—a metabolic side, as in “I need food.” And also, of course, a negative side, which is around exhaustion, dissipation, completion, extraction.
Vikram Bhatt (VB): I would say that before we even touch materials, it’s very important to consider the land itself, the foundation on which any real environmental design takes place. Generally, we don’t address the land as a material resource, and yet it’s so valuable. Land, water, and air are important material resources; the way we engage with them affects the environment.
Zoe Todd (ZT): I like the point that if we’re going to talk about materials, we need to think about space. Metabolic processes come down to how things relate to one another in space and place and time. Capitalism and colonialism have reordered the way we understand the world; they’ve made it possible for us to take things out of the earth without necessarily considering what their afterlife will be or how that impacts our long-term relationships with non-human beings. In Western, Euro-capitalist systems, we use materials in a way that isn’t easily metabolized by the environment that the materials come from.
VB: I started working on urban agriculture more than 20 years ago, and I identified pieces of land—real estate—that were leftover spaces, neglected areas, overlooked spaces. Nobody wanted them. Now we’re using those areas to grow food. Can we do that with material resources as well? Can we look at materials, including waste, and ask, “Are they real liabilities or do they offer opportunities? Can they potentially be converted into something positive?”
OH: First, we have to transform our relationship to land—and in many ways, to property and value—in order to transform how we design. It is often dispossession that makes land valuable, which creates a lot of inequity in our urban space. Or think about the fact that cities are full of brownfields and toxic spaces. We’re dealing more and more with a planet that we’ve geoengineered and terraformed, and we’re forced to inhabit this toxicity. We have to think creatively and innovatively about these supposedly unused spaces.
DM: One of the areas I work in is heritage conservation, and there are three levels to this. The first is preservation. Then restoration and rehabilitation. And I find that very useful to think about when I’m working on any project. When you get a team together to work on something new, I like to ground it in questions such as: What are we preserving? Is there an element that we’re restoring? Are we making something new by rehabilitating something that already exists?
The other principle that comes from heritage conservation is the idea of minimal intervention. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a small gesture; it can also be a grand gesture. But the idea is that it’s no grander than it should be. A good starting point is to pull back and understand whether we’re adding enough or adding too much.
Another idea that comes from heritage is that when we’re building something new, our methods should be contemporary at the same time as we’re being responsible to the past and to context. Are we making the best use of the newest technologies? Are they the right technologies? Are they the right materials?
VB: This judicious engagement in heritage conservation is a very thoughtful idea, and I agree with you, Diane. It applies not only in conservation but even in new design. When Olmsted designed Mount Royal Park, in Montreal, the “City Fathers” reached out to him as people were clearcutting this very valuable asset. When he designed the park, he basically looked at the mountain. He did not change what was there. It was a master stroke of design because he understood the value of the existing natural asset.
KA: Are there contemporary examples of how we can positively engage with the land that we are building on and deriving our materials from?
OH: One example is a place like Rotterdam, where they’re allowing flooding. There’s a rethinking of disaster planning—not thinking of the city as something that has to be blocked off or quarantined from an external environment, but, rather, understanding these things as coexisting.
DM: In the construction process, there’s something called “the chain of custody,” in which each person passes their work on to the next stage and the next stage and so on. You can also think of that in terms of materials, and an ethical chain of custody. Where is the original material from? How does it go through the production process? How is it being used? I have an example from a project in which we had to source wood for an exterior application. We were looking for something that would be very durable (it was on a national historic site). We studied different types of wood, and the best material that met all of the criteria was actually Ekki, an African tropical wood. It offered greater durability than the second choice, Canadian Douglas fir. We had a long discussion about it. Would it go through that chain of custody and meet sustainability standards? In the end, the Canadian government supported the Canadian Douglas fir. The concern was responsible sourcing of the tropical wood. So, this idea of social justice in materials has me thinking about an ethical chain of custody.
KA: How do temporality and time affect the life cycle of our materials? The transportation of materials from far away has an environmental cost, but with rapid development, we need those materials faster and faster. Part of the reason that resources get depleted so fast is because of our expectation of rapid change.
DM: We had a project where we had to source stone, and we needed high-quality, local stone. What we found was that there were limited numbers of quarries in our area from which to select the stone that we needed, because many had switched to crushing granular for roadways and construction. The owners of those quarries couldn’t just let their quarries sit there for the times when high-quality stone would be needed. There was speed and economy to exploit it for crusher runs.
OH: Can we think of speed in beneficial terms? Because it would be nice to get people housing faster, if they needed it, right?
VB: This is an important issue because urgency of housing for Indigenous people, in Canada, is the greatest. If we look at the Canadian North, what should we be building out of in Nunavut? The greater part of Nunavut is tundra, and 70 years ago nomadic communities moved through it; now, there are suburban subdivisions, a building form exported from the south. Every piece of building material, except some gravel, is shipped from the south. With poor-quality buildings and overcrowded situations, people are getting sick. It is not only the distances and shipping and logistics of it, but also the urgency of these issues and extreme shortages that are crucial.
ZT: How do we address an urgent crisis, while also creating time so that communities can address challenges thoughtfully? Maybe we don’t have that choice, and we just have to do what we can with what we have now.
DM: I’m an advocate for what I call noble materials: using woods and metals and stone and other natural products. Stay away from plastics, as much as possible. I think we’re at the cutting edge, now, of vegan-type products in which plants are used as a new chemical compound for building products, and I think it’ll be interesting to see where that goes.
VB: In warmer climates, bamboo was very extensively explored, and it has been used very beautifully and ingeniously. We need to expand this idea of natural systems and using them to our benefit. It’s a positive direction. These natural materials have tremendous character and value, and they offer artistic opportunities. And yes, challenges.
OH: I don’t really want to go back to nature. I’m actually very much about engaging, aggressively, with technology and the future of technology. The issue is: How do we make it more equitable and ethical, rather than nostalgic? I run a lab and I have students who are working with technical development, rather than just critiquing it. But they’re doing it in a mindful way that remembers the devastating history of things like the green revolution. I think it’s really important for us to actually engage in political, ethical, and economic battles about the future development of materials.