Archaeologies of urban landscape

Hinge Park, as if the past was present (Nicole Crawford, 2019) 

This past summer I taught a special topics course for graduate students in architecture and landscape architecture entitled “Archaeologies of the Overgrown Garden.” The course was inspired by my research at the Jardins des Floralies in Montreal, but there are not that many overgrown public gardens in Vancouver (where the course work was carried out), so it ended up dealing more generally with landscapes that “visibly display an interesting history and/or troubled present.” Student projects explored a variety of creative strategies for excavation of different kinds of public landscape: temporary and at-risk community gardens, a post-industrial park, human-tended bog, abandoned commemorative plaza, contested beachfront walkway, and others. It was a great pleasure to watch these projects unfold.

The main task of the course was to grapple with an archaeological perspective as it pertains to the critical perception of landscape. In other words, what can we learn about the social, cultural and political functioning of public landscapes by investigating their material remains?

In the abstract, archaeology distinguishes itself from other approaches to the study of human cultures by privileging spatial relations of depth and proximity: where in the soil, and in what relation to other remains do artifacts appear? That said, when applied to the study of cultures of the recent as opposed to deep past, relations of depth are less relevant (or practicable to consider, in our case). An archaeology of the contemporary past is less oriented toward depth and more towards grappling with the temporally heterogeneous constitution of the present–that is, with the fact that the materials appearing at a given site in the present were also there in the past–alongside or in direct contact with other things, beings and processes that have disappeared or left only partial remains. As Laurent Olivier puts it,

…the present, the here-and-now, is not what is uniquely happening at this very moment, but on the contrary what has always been happening: the ageing of materials, the wearing-down of places, the growth and movement of bodies in space; to be brief, what the present of today expresses is the effect of time as expressed by the life of beings and things, just as all other presents, both past and to come, have expressed and will express it.

Accordingly, Rodney Harrison suggests that an archaeology of the recent past is best conceived, not as excavation but as surface survey. That is, it proceeds via processes of assembling and re-assembling that are at once rigorously attentive to the materiality of relations constituting a particular site, and creative–in the sense that any re-presentation of those artifacts adds something to the world, and changes our relation to the site at which they were discovered.

There are many methods–quantitative and qualitative–that could potentially be employed in the course of a surface survey. In this course, I left the choice of method open, and asked students first, to describe what they found at their sites as fully and evocatively as possible; and then to connect those descriptions with critically salient local circumstances and/or historical context. Description was defined simply as “an account of the way things are or were in a given time and place.” The connections they sought between artifacts and local circumstances or historical context, were to be based on material as opposed to presumed or theoretical relations.

For example, one student was interested in what might be learned from the plant tags left behind at his plot in a temporary community garden. The tags had a material relation with specific plants in the sense that they had arrived at the site in the same container (since such tags are normally inserted in the soil of plants purchased at nurseries or garden centres), and by association, with the individual who had acquired, planted and cared for the plants. While it seemed that this series of relations might permit the identification of different ‘types’ of gardener (e.g., those who favour the ease of planting nursery-grown seedlings over the time and attention required to successfully raise plants from seed), the student soon realized that they lacked adequate information about the circumstances under which gardening had been undertaken in a given plot (e.g., by one or several gardeners? under normal or provisional circumstances with respect to timing, access to resources? etc.). So they turned instead to investigating the production of the tags themselves, uncovering, via one company’s website, details with respect to the role of the tags in the marketing of plants by growers. From this point of view, the tags could be seen as an artifact, not only of a relation between people and plants, but also the commercial interests that influence which species will be made available for purchase, and which qualities will be presented as desirable.

Duncan LARC 582G P3 (dragged) 1
Plant tags excavated from plot #16, Alma Temporary Community Garden, Vancouver (C. Duncan Chambers, 2019)

In other projects, students moved between graphic observations about the materials and physical construction of features such as paths, boardwalks, fences and signs, to documentation of activities observed at a given site, mapping of potential and actual itineraries through it, cataloguing discarded objects and detritus, experiments with viewpoints and recordings of the local soundscape.

Maps for a layered description of the Point Gray Foreshore, 1: MacDonald, Bruce, 1992; 2: Google Maps; 3: City of Vancouver, 2019. (Rhi Myfanwy Kirkland, 2019)

The more students returned to the materiality and specific social, cultural and economic situation of their chosen artifacts, the more they were able to make us see something new in the landscape. This is in part because, as Marcus, Love and Best observe, the process of carefully describing something, generally leads us to perceive it in greater depth and complexity. At the same time, restricting oneself to description–as opposed to explanation–of material relations, is a way to avoid having perception of those relations be prematurely shaped by the assumptions and categorizations that provide the scaffolding for explanations.

Staying with the task of description is also a way to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can know for sure about most artifacts, particularly when we are working in public landscapes, and as architects (or media scholars) rather than archaeologists. This is not only because we lack access to the specialized tools, techniques and expertise of archaeologists, but also because, in a public landscape, things often change in ways that are irrational and/or mysterious in character.

Take the Cottonwood Community Garden, where, in 2017 a mysterious fire destroyed  the garden greenhouse, tool shed and all of its contents. According to the student who chose the garden as the site for his coursework, none of the gardeners know who set the fire or why. And because it took place at night, none of them were there to see it. So not only for the student, but also for those who are intimately familiar with the landscape, the fire created a gap in the landscape. If you look at the place where the greenhouse used to be, it is both there and not there, an absence that is nonetheless present–in bits of charcoal, and in the small but visibly empty space left in an otherwise densely vegetated landscape. The fact that the greenhouse is not there, is most apparent there, where it is no longer.

SReindl - Artifact Final
Cottonwood Community Garden, after the fire (Stefan Reindl, 2019)

The task of describing artifacts, and tracing their material relations within the landscape, led many students to grapple in one way or the other with effects of absence. This was in part, I think, because public landscapes often contain zones of ambiguity and uncertainty: they are used by a wide variety of people, for purposes that, by definition, can never be exhaustively established. At the same time, especially in a city like Vancouver, where the power of real estate interests combined with a housing shortage puts many public spaces at risk, it is hard to know what the future holds for many such landscapes. In fact, the future is uncertain for the majority of the landscapes studied by my students. The artifacts they presented often took shape as entities belonging, less to the present, where they were always in some way unknowable, and more to the past and the future.

In the Cottonwood gardens, contemplating the remains of the fire on the one hand, and the question of whether the city would decide to put a road through the garden on the other, generated a palpable sense of loss and precarity. At other sites, ambiguity and absence pointed more towards a sense of openness and ungoverned possibility. As one student observed of an abandoned memorial plaza, where the statue that had once provided a focal point had been stolen and never replaced, sometimes absence opens a stage.

Screenshot from an animated interpretation of the abandoned Piazza Italia, foregrounding its empty pedestal, East Vancouver (Rose Marie Pickard, 2019)

At other sites, the form absence took was diffuse, constituting a more abstract lack, or troubling sameness, where it seemed that there was once, or should be, something more. In this case, absence was generative not only of unintended uses, but also critique. Take the Himilayan blackberry–an invasive species that has colonized a significant proportion of abandoned and in-between spaces in Vancouver, in a manner that is at once eventful and indiscriminatory–signifying neglect and choking out the majority of other plant species. As one student observed, the fact that these blackberries grow over the traces of almost everything that came before, creates contradictory social and political effects, particularly in public landscapes (in this case a community garden slated for demolition): on the one hand they prevent access to the spaces on which they encroach; on the other they suggest a greater openness to alternative forms of cultivation and occupation, since their presence signals that the space is otherwise unclaimed.

Section I of the Cedar Cottage Community Gardens: Bean Garden (D’Arcy Hutton, 2019)

In an archaeological sense however, and as this project demonstrated, the blackberry’s present ambiguity belies a material continuity between the past and future–that is, between events of irresponsible cultivation (wherein a cultivar bred for agricultural productivity was permitted to establish itself in ecosystems across the Pacific Northwest), colonization (wherein the people living in and caring for those ecosystems were evicted), and future development (which profits from both eviction and abandonment). As Rodney Harrison argues, there is a substantial creative and critical potential to be exploited in describing such continuities–established by relations of material coincidence rather than causation. He argues for the importance of an archaeology, not of the “contemporary past” but of the present, for the future. 

Normally a critical or historical perspective on landscape is strongly oriented toward articulating the meaning or significance of a given landscape. In contrast, I asked students to work towards being able to say something about what public landscapes do, for and to us. The point was less to produce a comprehensive answer, and more to experience the difference this makes to perception. What is the difference, for example, of suggesting that a human-tended bog is like a garden, and showing concretely what a camera sees from different points along the boardwalk that circumnavigates it?

Luis_Camosun Bog_image
Panoramic views from the boardwalk circumnavigating Camosun Bog, Pacific Spirit Park (Luis Fernando Yanez, 2019) 

 And what happens when you experiment with the setting in which a given type of artifact is normally found?

Himilayan blackberry ‘tag’, on the seawall, across from Science World  (C. Duncan Chambers, 2019)

It turns out, there is a certain humility involved in taking the material dimensions of landscape seriously. Concluded one student, in an essay reflecting on what they had learned,

I noticed in my research how much easier it was to list the species that benefit from blackberries than to name those that were displaced or extirpated. The first list is short and simple, the second impossibly complex. What do blackberries do? The outcome is inscrutable and complicated, but the action is simple. Perhaps that is enough to avoid the danger that the totalizing homogeneity of blackberry thickets across Cascadia might be taken for granted (D’Arcy Hutton, 2019).

The very definition of landscape–that is, the disinterested viewing of land from a distance (as opposed to up close, while working it)–is inscribed with privilege. To refuse this distance, or at least, to insist on balancing it with a more intimate and painstaking knowledge, is to both situate and realize the limits of one’s knowledge. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, this makes it possible to see something new in landscape, while also creating the basis for an ethical engagement with it.

1 Comment

  1. Erin,
    Thank you for pointing to the fact, that many times what I SEE and receive, may be one small aspect of what a garden is communicating. Sadly, these conditioned eyes miss what a garden has to communicate and offer.

    I now see I should spend more time within “Being”, when in a garden, and look past the present visual to receive a deeper gift!

    Thank you

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