From USA’s “underground service alerts” to “Performative trees” and Frankenpines

Well, I am a bit behind on my contributions to our last two weeks of the Mammoth book club. Therefore this post will explore both “Invisible City” by Kazys Varnelis and “Landscape: Tree Huggers” by architect Warren Techentin. The gents at Mammoth have put there’s up already; here and here respectively.

Additionally, Faslanyc’s take on Varnelis’s chapter led to an interesting discussion (in Mammoth’s comments) re: Command line v. graphic user interface as a metaphor stretched too thin. F.A.D. concluded that “Trying to tease apart the virtual and the physical chasms is impossible, which I think is a repeated theme of the book.

Before examing the chapters directly I want to say that these two chapters out of all so far were stimulating, quick reads. Yet, a few things stuck with me. In the case of the Varnelis essay the focus on the building as metaphor for a new networked condition left me a bit unsatisfied. Even his call for “engaging with the code” (somewhat akin to Mammoth’s command line architecture”) reads to me, more like a Matrix reference than a representation of the sort of dull but exciting realism of civic volunteering, and human agency as urban actor that I want to engage in. How does one engage the code? Can I see some instructions? Maybe cause he is preaching to the choir?

As for the Tacheutin essay, the passages toward the end wherein he suggests a future of trees as constructed artifact left me a bit cold, longing for a valuation of the real green performance of trees today, within a local ecosystem, as services/things. F.A.D. (paraphrasing Mammoth) wrote in their response to the article that “a shift from iconography to “productive machines” opens up broader questions about what future urban natures might be and by what performance criteria they might be measured“. Yet, I would suggest that this shift could (and should) occur without requiring a switch to constructing artificial/performative trees. I would argue that in fact this really requires a shift in ideology or in how we conceptualize trees/forests as they exist already. For, trees are already “performing”. F.A.D.‘s comment is actually spot on, in that it focuses the attention on the need to stop viewing the existing urban forests and vegetation as merely image or within purely decorative terms, and rather to expand our understanding of what it is that trees are for. Thereby re-evaluating a current “foundational infrastructure“…

Finally, I want to touch on a few points that I jotted down while reading the two chapters, as particularly of interest or noteworthy.

Here pavement is ripped up with such regularity that the rules of USAs are modified; instead of adding paint when a service alert is issued, companies preemptively mark asphalt ass soon as an excavation is patched over.

Varnelis, Pg, 122

Kazys Varnelis “Invisible City” opens with an image, of the street in front of, One Wilshire. What I found so striking from the photo was outlined in the passage above. The diagram is always outlined. The street and it’s markings display a near constant mapping. Moreover, that same language is moving. For, it is always being updated, and it displays direction. The usual rules are abandoned and the future “need to know” is replaced, “Preemptively“! And, color-coded, for your help.

The convergence of the unmappable hyperspace here in this location, serves as the Bonaventura Hotel did for Frederic Jameson, read as cognitive map of sorts. As an embodied, “networked society“, woven together by fiber.

But in the end complexity overcomes reality, with a new spatial regime. Or does it? I suppose I would like to know where the networked is engaged, or through what? At the source of it’s connections? If 1 Wilshire is the real parallel, a “key (s)witching point”, then is the asphalt marked pavement a patch, which could serve as a platform? Or perhaps, the networked fiber can be viewed as a woven fabric.

For me the real solution may lie in, a reprogramming not of code, but as Varnelis identifies “the union of governmental, institutional, and capitalist forces“. Intervening here in a literal way. Maybe, by re-directing already existing forces and sources, for example of funding.

Cell phone trees suggest that technology is itself natural

Techentin, Pg, 138

In “TreeHuggers” Warren Tacheutin begins by looking at the constructed image of Los Angeles via the palm tree, of which we learn only one species is native to the area. In fact he asserts that in Los Angeles a missing architectural skyline is replaced by “rows of palm trees“. Tacheutin goes on to suggest that this “formless polyglot landscaping” is a foundational infrastructure of Los Angeles. The original condition of the city and it’s surrounding landscape was fairly dry and consisted of scrub brush. The current tree cover of palms, eucalyptus and the plurality of non native species is the result of man’s cultivation and landscaping of the land. I was especially surprised to read that the even with one million trees comprising LA’s urban forest, the city canopy is only 18% compared to a national average of 27%. One wonders if local climate/conditions has shaped the limits of the canopy cover or if the disparity is shaped by Los Angeles post-modern/future-modern urban form or density?

Tacheutin makes clear a great opportunity lies in the city’s future. With the (over the next decade or so) impending demise of the Los Angeles palm, the city will need to replant it’s canopy on a large scale. For him this is an opportunity to picture a future wherein the fall of the palm leads to “rise of the performative tree” “living infrastructure” or “organic machines“. The model here is the synthetic “Frankenpines”, trees as camouflaged cell phone tower. I contend we should focus our efforts on reconceptualizing what we mean by “tree”, not by making a new “tree” but by questioning our valuation of “tree”. In fact a passage in Tacheutin’s essay makes clear that such a valuation regime can be  developed. Towards the end he discusses how local/regional laws have codified a “pro-tree agenda“. For example those protecting, local oaks or requiring planting X amount of trees per new development. Such an approach which increases the literal, value could serve as a first step. It would need to be applied more broadly though. Not just to legacy oaks, or other top-rated species. Definition does matter.  If we can learn to apply such valuations in larger terms, ones which include emergent, non native or urban conditions, then we can perhaps, begin to move towards a future wherein, rather than seeing cell phone towers as natural, we more fully embrace all that is nature. Thus, embracing the full expanse of the natural.

The Fallen Fruit project he discusses in his essay is a perfect illustration of such an expanded application. What they are doing is re-naturalizing fruit. As opposed to the tree and it’s fruit being a private, unknown, unused or unnatural thing, the project is re-claiming the natural. Through expanding knowledge and re-claiming common ownership. To me this is the essence of a urban hack… Urbanism Future.0, a making visible through diagramming, available public data/goods or goods. As Tacheutin writes “a new form of neighborhood ethics and generosity“.


1 thought on “From USA’s “underground service alerts” to “Performative trees” and Frankenpines

  1. Pingback: infrastructural city update – mammoth // building nothing out of something

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