Gandong Cai and Sergio Lopez-Pineiro
GC: The latest version of the New Geographies has been released with the title "Extraterrestrial, " reflecting one of the current academic tendencies to extend the tentacles beyond the earth-scape and into outer space. Following the ongoing planetary research and studies, design competitions in the universe scale, such as designing the settlement on Mars are emerging in recent years too. How do you see it affects the field of Landscape Architecture?
SLP: I am interested in the question of the planetary, which is a fundamental issue right now. There was a lecture by Bruno Latour given at the GSD three years ago called the Tale of Seven Planets. He discussed the difficulties of trying to understand the proper term to talk about the planet as a way of approaching climate change. He put forward seven different ways of thinking about the earth, depending on how we understand the world, the process of globalization, climate change, national identity, and where they lead us in terms of the approaches to the future of the planet. Right now, the difficulty is not beyond the planet but within the planet. What do we think about globalization and climate change, and what does the public mean? The term was conceived in the 18th century due to the enlightenment period and industrial revolution in the west. So it is a purely western term that represents a particular body of society. However, at this point, this is no longer useful anymore because it is no longer related to a particular condition and a particular urban environment. So we have to come up with other ways of thinking about the world as a whole, experiencing climate change, and all the globalization-related consequences. I think the planetarization in the way you frame it is particularly important. We need to understand this concept within the context of the earth, rather than saying that we already resolved all the questions and need to go beyond it. In my view, we might never get beyond the earth because we might not survive this situation. Some of the questions beyond the earth are interesting because they force us to think about landscapes without human and non-human life. To me, the purpose of these discussions is more about the possibility of fully thinking about landscape without life. That's something interesting as an intellectual and aesthetic exercise. But these questions are not as important and not as relevant in relation to planetary urbanization, which is a complicated and polemical term.
GC: In studying the profession, I found that landscape has an extensive range of scales that can go tremendously big or small. But in recent years, when we are talking about the planetary urbanization and indigenous issue, I realize that the scale range of landscape architecture has been even enlarged.
SLP: I think landscape architecture can have planetary ambition, but at the same time, it is helpful to look very closely at the ways through which particular groups of people and communities can establish a relationship between people, other beings, and the environment. I think this intention of looking at the two themes at the same time can be beneficial. The most radical thing to do, if we take this position, would be to suspend the in-between scale: get rid of the middle ground and cut off the scale of the country, region, and in some cases, the scale of the city. We only look at the smallest scale and immediate effect that can be controlled, manipulated, enjoyed, and experienced. And then look at the planet as a whole, particularly through the lens of landscape architecture, climate change and globalization as a political-economic phenomenon. It might not be the most practical way of approaching the discipline and it is not what I am advocating, but in order to understand and engage the ends of the discourse and the field of action, I think this is an important exercise.
For example, this semester in Core III at the GSD, we were dealing with climate change and a particular site in the studio. I am telling them to think about the territory scale, and they have to look at a very specific site of the traditional landscape scale. At the very beginning, we were not looking at anything in-between, not in the region, state, or city scale. We were looking at the huge one, understanding the industry changes, the commerce, political relationship and policies, and the climate and trends in water patterns. Then we focused on the small one. I think the middle scale-the region and city-comes second at this point. It's very different from the one that we have been experiencing in the last two decades. The last two decades have been a lot of resurgences about thinking of the city and regional planning. The situation right now implies a different understanding, which lets us not deal with the in-between scale initially, but to the two extremes, and then we will deal with the middle ground in a second stage. But obviously, these have very tricky consequences. Not dealing with national identity or regional patterns makes many people uncomfortable, but I think it is a valuable and appropriate thing to do at this moment. We can immediately deal with human and non-human experiences from the beginning, which is significant to the local people and indigenous communities or communities disenfranchised. At the same time, we can deal with the large scale question that is fundamental at this point in time that are trans-national and have to do with the planet as a whole. I think that's the radical approach to do right now, but it is challenging. I don't think our world is constructed to deal with things in that way. There is an inertia to go toward the middle ground first to think about the regions and city. I would follow what you are putting forward of these two terms. I completely agree, and this is actually what we are doing in studio right now--cutting out the middle ground at the beginning
GC: That's a fantastic way to think about planetarization and locality--get rid of the middle ground! Your provocative idea resonates with my interpretation of your works on the urban voids. They are spaces abandoned by the meta-narrative and the ideological framework, but they are full of potential and possibilities to create alternative public spaces. We know that planetary urbanization based on globalization, capital flows, and the neoliberal economy is one of the meta-narrative in the age of Anthropocene. To project this to space means that every place, including the public space, is inter-connected and nobody is isolated. In your book A Glossary of Urban Voids, however, you point out that the urban voids shall be considered the opposite of the spaces of capital accumulation and consumption. Are you suggesting that urban voids can play a role as the resistance of the planetarization and provide an alternative interpretation and understanding of public space?
SLP: Your understanding is accurate and aligned with what I am saying. The urban voids are spaces that outside and marginal to these processes. So the question is, what can we do with that outside? There are two questions. The first one is, in many cases, these spaces are connected to social and economic injustice. Urban voids might appear in disadvantaged communities, so their approach should be much more practical and conventional in order to bring that spaces into the process of capital accumulation so that it can be an asset for the rejuvenation or the benefit of that community. In many other cases, which is the second point, these urban voids are not necessarily tied to clear social and economic injustice issues. In that case, they are outside of the overall process, and we have to protect them because they are precious as space that allows things to happen, while the process of planetarization does not.
So it is not so much to resist the process of planetarization--which I think is impossible--but to see them as spatially disconnected to the new reality or as an alternative reality. That context can provide an idea of different public spaces connected to the middle and small scale. Though they are the results of the large scale, the connection between these spaces and the large scale is almost symbolic. When we think about the public in this particular context of urban voids, we are thinking of the public of the city and neighborhood. I don't think the urban voids are provided for the large-scale discussion; thus, we need another alternative public space to deal with the planetary. I am not sure what that is, but it could be outside of the planetary process. It would be interesting in this proposition that you are setting up between the planetarization and the locality in which the urban void can be seen as the alternative public space in the context of the locality, even though it is a reflection of a large scale process. We need to have another one in the context of the planetarization that has to do something more with climate change.
GC: I also want to talk about the condition of the current public space. With the outbreak of the virus and the lockdown of the cities worldwide, people are staying at home, and suddenly, public space becomes redundant and inaccessible. All good words we use to describe the quality of public space become problematic, and finally, the word public itself becomes the synonym of dangerous. We all think the pandemic will go and the public space will come back, but the issue exists much longer than we imagine initially, and it might become a new normal. How do you think the pandemic has changed the concept of physical public space, and how will public space be in the new normal?
SLP: What is happening is that public space in this context is tending to a very solitary and individualized experience. Instead of being a place of community and collectivity, publicness has to become a place of individuality--I am here in my bubble and don't get too close to me. Public space is moving toward individualization rather than toward collectivity. I am hesitant to say that the public space is radically changed because of the pandemic. Public space changes when there is a natural disaster or a war when it suddenly becomes a space of shelter. I see those as typically temporary rather than permanent situations. The nature of the space itself will go back to what it used to be.
GC: I currently start to pay attention to a particular group of people who don't like to get too close to others. These people enjoy public life but feel uncomfortable talking to others and sit close to a stranger. Yet this kind of feeling is ignored in the design of public space during the normal time. But after the pandemic, individuality has been picked up and we need to design the public space more carefully to take care of all kinds of people. That's my reflection of the post-pandemic public space.
SLP: Thinking of public space as a space of solitude or a certain possibility of remaining alone is not how we typically think about public space, but definitely a role public space should have. That's also one aspect of urban void regarding loneliness and solitude that is the possibility happening there. That's a great point to enrich public space with different scale of human experience, which is more based on solitude and loneliness and the ability to be by oneself.
This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture journal June volume, 2021. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.