Wet Matter: New Ways of Understanding Our Oceans

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Wet Matter / Harvard Graduate School of Design

Wet Matter, Harvard Design Magazine’s latest issue, asks us to reconsider our oceans, which cover the vast majority of our planet. Edited by Pierre Bélanger, ASLA, associate professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the issue brings together a range of fields and an array of lenses to “unlearn our binary, dichotomous relationship with the ocean,” as the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jennifer Sigler writes in the opening remarks. How?, she asks. With an eye to the oceanic, not defined as “not land” — but a matter to be investigated on its own terms. Below are brief summaries of some of the articles in this rich compendium:

In The Other 71 Percent, Bélanger stares what he considers “the glaring blind spot in the Western imagination” straight in the eye. He urges the reader to take the oceanic turn: recalibrating our attention away from the space race and back to the earth’s oceans to better understand how we are shaping and shaped by this “vast logistical landscape.” By recognizing the oceans, the other 71 percent of the planet, as a key dimension of climate change, Bélanger challenges “the dry, closed, terrestrial frameworks that shape today’s industrial, corporate, and economic patterns” to imagine an alternate and more fluid future.

CUNY professor Catherine Seagitt Nordenson reads the ocean by its flora. She begins her piece, The Bottom of the Bay, Or How to Know the Seaweeds, by claiming “to know the seaweeds is to know the ocean.” Protista, these “brackish-water dwellers,” display no roots, stems, or leaves, present an illuminating, telescopic view of an otherwise elusive, dark territory– the benthic zone. Collecting seaweed for study is a “local enterprise,” requiring “actual immersion into the waters of the littoral ocean.” From the literal bottom up, Nordenson’s article suggests that “benthic thinking rescales the oceanic, reinserting the body.”

In Destination Whatever: Touring the Cruise Industry of the Caribbean, Martin Delgado, Zuanna Koltowska, Félix Madrazo, and Sofia Saavedra with Supersudaca warn us that indulging our delusional expectations of a perfectly familiar yet still “exotic” vacation destination in the very bowels and on the decks of a cruise ship may lead to a “terrorism of tourism.” The cruise industry has transformed piers, “once perceived as extensions of land” into extensions of the ship, a new “fictional territory” that tethers the cruise ship to the port town by only a provisional string. As the “distance between travelers and islanders grows at an alarming rate,” they forewarn us of a grim future in which “floating fantasies” may become “economic albatrosses, en route to somewhere other than paradise.”

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Costa Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico, 2013 / Supersudaca: Martin Delgado, Zuzanna Koltowska, Félix Madrazo & Sofia Saavedra
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Day at sea on the Carnival Valor, 2007 / Supersudaca: Martin Delgado, Zuzanna Koltowska, Félix Madrazo & Sofia Saavedra

Architect Hilary Sample and engineer Bryon Stigge trace both ancient and new approaches for inhabiting coastal regions. Building Soft suggests that by capitalizing on the ebbs and flows rather than resisting environmental dynamics, “these ‘soft’ construction techniques are constantly operating and responding to alternating calendars of climatic and oceanic forces.” Jacking, leaking, weakening, slipping, and swapping make up the “collective lexicon of spatial interventions” emphasizing “slow systems, soft structures, and weak infrastructures.” This photo essay depicts stilts, flotation structures, permeable exteriors, relocation, flexible materials, and wet proofing to reform both architectural and cultural attitudes of “building strong.”

German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who just died in January, makes a compelling argument in How Climate Change Might Save the World: Metamorphosis. He turns the question of whether climate change has “the potential to alter the political order of the world” around by claiming that “climate has already altered our ‘being’ in the world–the way we think about the world and engage in politics.” Through seven theses, Beck explains why we should focus on “what is now emerging–future structures, norms, and new beginnings” rather than be tempted by “a supermarkets of apocalyptic scenarios,” falling back on an old “nation-state perspective” that separates the decision makers from those most affected. Beck urges us to break out of this imperialistic structure and to instead adopt a “cosmopolitan perspective,” which recognizes “the world city” as “becoming the main cosmopolitan actor” in addressing global issues.

University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Mathur, ASLA, and her design partner Dilip da Cunha call into question the line between land and sea. Through both historical references and a contemporary case study, Sundarbans: A Space of Imagination addresses the “chasm between the incommensurable natures of earth and ocean.” Tracing the term “ocean” back the ancients, Mathur and da Cunha discover Oceanus, “the watery element that escapes the disciplines of geometry.” A lyrical description of the source of all rivers and seas is replaced by a map, an arrangement of points and lines. Using the Sundarbans at the mouth of the Ganges as an example, with its “field-like condition being far too complex to mark and hold with points and lines of geometry,” the authors create a new design approach that considers “a temporal and material appreciation of ocean,” including all the “states and cycles of hydrology.”

In Interplay, Yale University architecture professor Keller Easterling, author of the ingenious book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, proposes a radically new approach to coastal planning. Calling on urban planners, landscape architects, and environmentalists to use site analysis as a way of rating properties for their more qualitative indicators, Easterling imagines an index to supplement the “bureaucratic layers of jargon” of banks, insurance companies, and real estate firms in which the “many of the physical, volumetric, and climatic attributes of a property are ironically called ‘intangibles.’” Recovering from hurricanes may necessitate a more innovative approach, “a parallel market of spatial variables could offer more tangible risks and rewards.”

Ballast Water follows “alien, invasive stowaways” into the hidden compartments of cargo ships. Author Rose George explains the practice of filling compartments around the hull of ships mostly empty of cargo as a necessary defense. To stay afloat, cargo ship’s bowels are filled like a Trojan horse, carrying along seawater, species, and bacteria (“7,000 alien invasive species are also imported every hour”), disrupting local habitat, and occasionally causing pathogenic effects or infectious disease. Adequate testing standards and ballast water management systems lag behind the “mobility and fluidity” of the sea’s organisms.

For University of Florida architecture professor Charlie Hailey, “‘Inland’ is a multivalent term.” In Camps, Corridors, and Clouds: Inland Ways to the Ocean, he addresses how Internet access can pave a “way to the ocean” for Somali refugees at Dadaab, an “archipelago of five camps, constituting the world’s largest refugee settlement.” For a place defined by as “geographically landlocked, politically adrift, and economically blockaded,” a new network cloud and telecommunications corridor enables new digital interactivity, “allowing it to become not just a surrogate state but an inland camp with its own inherent possibilities for livelihood.”

Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Women on Waves and Women on Web, shows how to use international waters and the Internet to provide safe abortions to women around the world in Bodies, Boats, and Borders. “The idea of the ship was the basis of the organization.” Furthermore, “the ocean is a space of solidarity,” enabling the organization to exploit international law in their efforts to provide “life-saving treatment” to women in countries where abortion is illegal.

In Oan Bubbles: Fact or Fiction?, <smythsmuths 22012143> surprises the reader as a small booklet inserted into the center of the magazine. An excerpt from Sundogz by Mark von Schlegell, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) 2015, this piece of science fiction tells of a future astro-marine world, “an artificial anti-bubble of Earthside Ocean,” “a hydro-ecology” realized by an international panel of scientists, “spacer amateurs,” and fishing unions.

With the assistance of Jean and John Comaroff, both anthropology professors at Harvard University, Bélanger identifies man-made tidal swimming pools along the shores of the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa as democratic structures in a place otherwise governed by the 1947 Law of Apartheid. Between the Tides of Apartheid recognizes the intertidal pools as “marginal spaces constantly in flux…attracting a cultural diversity rarely seen in South African cities or the interior hinterlands.” Bélanger explains how through informality and low-tech infrastructure, “beaches and pools edified a non-state, or extra-state, manifest as spaces of political others.”

Wet Matter concludes with Flotsam: A Visualization of Swimmers, Sinkers, and Spills in the Urban Ocean, a contribution from Colombian architect Luis Callejas with Martin Pavlinic, a designer at MASS Studio. Each of the 35 silhouetted items in the I Spy-arrangement corresponds to an index of oceanic items, characters, terms, and stories. From Mobro 4000, a notorious waste-loaded barge, to Laura Dekker, the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the world on her own, the index juxtaposes the unlikely bedfellows of an urban ocean.

Purchase a copy of Wet Matter. 

This guest post is by Lara Mehling, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

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