Inside ALI: Slow Reveals, GIS Trajectories, and Watercourse Urbanism | Jennifer Bonner

Slow Reveal

The political, geographical, and ecological acts inscribed in the desert landscape by the land artists of the 1960s – a key historical precedent for Arid Lands Institute’s curriculum – ask students of architecture participating today in the desert west questions about visibly staging the forms and processes of occupying dry lands.

The Arid Lands Institute (ALI) is an applied research center of Woodbury University School of Architecture, dedicated to issues of aridity, climate change and the design of the built environment. Based out of Los Angeles, ALI and its Summer Field Station use the 500,000-square-mile interior west as classroom and test-bed for design innovation.

Beyond the physical artifacts left behind at these earthen works – piled basalt rock (Smithson), carved sandstone (Heizer) and formed concrete (Holt) – the land artists also documented the construction (and deterioration) process as a performance. Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, a time-based film, recorded the sequence of dump trucks as the landform evolved over time. Likewise, works like Heizer’s “Double Negative” are designed as observatories for their own slow processes of transformation, decay and disappearance.

This slow reveal combined with an ecological proposition is the basis for a project by Stepan Andreasian entitled “Toxic Island”.  What Andreasian proposes to reveal is both the (slow) construction process and the (slow) process of ecological restoration it is designed to accomplish.

In Andreasian’s proposal, there is a strong desire to promote public participation within a civic park during the staging of a fifteen-year remediation strategy for a post-industrial site in the City of Burbank. Initial mapping research by ALI charts a territory of migratory toxic plumes in Burbank’s ground water – the legacy of Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works” facility and the aerospace industry – and a depleted aquifer. Andreasian chose a challenging remediation site – a concrete-capped ‘island’ land-locked by freeways in the heart of Burbank.

Three large site plans labeled “Years 1-5, Years 5-10, and Years 10-15” illustrate Andreasian’s manipulation of a new public ground. By calling attention to the subterranean plumes otherwise “out-of-sight” and allowing opportunities to witness remediation, public space manifests in the form of drive-thru inflatables during Years 1-5 when toxicity is at its height on the construction site. During Years 10-15, the inflatables are removed and recreational spaces are implemented, slowly allowing the public to re-occupy a larger portion of the site. A visual, time-based proposal emphasizes water scarcity yet also fits into the arid West’s heritage of infrastructure as art form and art form as infrastructure. This slow reveal or unfolding of the past (Lockheed Martin’s occupation of the site), present (derelict concrete plinth deemed a Superfund site by the EPA) and future (a re-constructed landscape) found in Andreasian’s work differs from Land Art as a mark about time as subject. Rather time is part of the medium – a requirement of the architecture and landscape design itself.

Andreasian’s proposal arranges space into an appropriate sequence of processes and public occupation while also cleaning and recharging the aquifer. The project claims to not be merely a technical fix to the water contamination, but promises more out of its performative landscape. However, I’m not sure we are convinced. Architects would benefit from a stronger marking of a similarly symbolic territory that Heizer, Smithson and Holt accomplish so elementally. This generation of students, those that were coming-of-age during 9/11 might also benefit from using more politics and agency in their work, or else we are slowly left with piles of pragmatic, appropriate and polite productions of architecture and landscapes. Yes, they are “functioning” and “fixing problems” (as observed in the architect-as-landscape-urbanist projects), but they are lacking the confrontational potency that the Land Artists still own.

Beginning with a different historical precedent, the following project suggests how ALI might further develop a pedagogical position within a GIS-based (Geographic Information Systems) trajectory.

GIS Trajectories

Drawn by visionary surveyor of the American West, John Wesley Powell, the map of “The Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts” (1890) boldly envisions the settlement of municipalities and agricultural zones to fit within hydrographic basins. Powell’s watershed map represents an ideological framework with traces of a “meta-project” (Jeffersonian grid) but most importantly advocates for a “meta-particular-project” (proto-GIS) – one that is hyper-local and with specificity.[1]

This map is a strategic starting point for much of ALI’s messaging – be it to a public audience or in the classroom. By understanding the limits and possibilities of human inhabitation given changing hydrologic conditions, a water and climate GIS trajectory allows ALI teams to rethink capacity, scale, processes and forms of inhabitation.

Taking clues from Powell’s provocation, graduate researcher Cesia Lopez proposes her own version of a meta-particular-trajectory regarding the role of water infrastructure and public architecture in the city of Los Angeles.

Lopez’s thesis work began by charting a vast regional scale – the California State Water Project and the Colorado River Basin – combining specific variables such as water and energy, water and climate, and water and topography. Next, through a series of tightly-focused methodologies, Lopez mapped water and gravity, water and public space, and water and culture. She looked at historical precedents in Rome and Istanbul, and at three disparate sites in Los Angeles: Pershing Square, Dodger Stadium, and the headwaters of the LA Aqueduct.

This combinatory act of placing hydrological data, topographic elevations and civic space together into a singular drawing challenges the way we might view a city, thus alluding to Powell’s radical re-survey of the arid west. The potential in a GIS trajectory lies in the curatorial decision of the author to combine variables or data sets otherwise separated and studied in isolation. In Lopez’s proposal, she recognizes a semi-arid Mediterranean climate within the city (and hydrography) of Los Angeles and encourages gravity fed water systems to fulfill a larger role in the public realm, noted in a series of large urban geographical sections.

Critical to Lopez’s proposition is a subset of drawings that count, sort and catalogue less desirable points, lines and surfaces of the city’s infrastructure including maintenance holes, storm water pipes and catch basins. These offer a visual taxonomy of specific and local sites in the urban fabric where water infrastructure and public architecture might co-exist. Meta and particular, this body of work understands the full range – from the regional scale to the overlooked storm drain – of a large gravity-based infrastructure.

Using Powell’s map as a throw-down, ALI has developed a pedagogical position enabling a variety of water and climate trajectories amongst its participants and through academic outreach. I believe this position is already well underway within the Institute; studio by studio, the GIS research is forming a territory for designers to express their Powellian voice, curiously and innovatively.

Watercourse Urbanism

Seventy miles south of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti community (1970), Jesus De Anda gets to work on envisioning a post-sprawl, post-foreclosure Phoenix and constantly struggles with the historical baggage that is associated with such tabula rasa projects. De Anda proposes to raze Phoenix and its poor housing stock completely, but carefully embraces the historic and modern day canal infrastructure.

At first glance, the project entitled “Canal Adjacencies” resembles a bad version of Arcosanti, but a more careful reading of the proposal reveals the contemporary relevance of a watercourse urbanism. Similar to the landscape urbanists, there is a direct correlation between the performance of landscape and the organizational quality of infrastructure, which in this case yields a potentially productive urbanism.

De Anda does this by repositioning the role of waterway. Stepping away from the historic role of waterway as idyllic, scenographic or industrialized-utilitarian, the canals some perennial, some ephemeral, some natural, some manmade – are accepted as the basic fabric of desert urbanism: both sustenance and civic space. By adopting a ground-zero scenario of nothing-but-the-canals-remains, De Anda then generates a set of rules for desert city- and building-design. The project contends that architecture must behave, above all, as a topography shaped, like soil itself, by hydrography. Housing topography is a series of surfaces shaped to control, direct and collect water. Exaggerated extrusions of space in section create deep shade and cooling air flows. In the context of De Anda’s selective tabula rasa conceit, architecture is re-drawn to serve water rather than water drawn to serve architecture: a reversal of industrialized urban production in arid lands.

De Anda mined a singular history (canals) yet disregarded context (the existing city). This risk he took put aside the political, economic and cultural implications of erasure in favor of conducting a thought-experiment. It is important that drylands pedagogies leave room for experimentation that just might result in these fundamental reversals.

These notes taken from Inside ALI suggest there are multiple positions percolating within the framework of the Institute.


[1] For further clarification, the Jeffersonian grid is used as an example of a meta-project, one that is totalizing and operates regardless of changes in climate. Respectively, GIS exemplified here as a meta-particular-project places emphasis on local specificity and case-by-case scenarios.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Pedagogies

Comments are closed.