Book Review: Paradoxes of Green

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Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, a new book by Gareth Doherty, ASLA, director of the masters in landscape architecture program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a successful hybrid of landscape writing and ethnography focused on the island nation of Bahrain. It presents a portrait of Bahrainis’ rich and evolving relationship with their landscape as well as a model for future studies.

“Landscape, when perceived through color, reveals aspects of relationships previously hidden,” Doherty writes in his book’s introduction. Paradoxes’ main inquiry is into Bahrain’s relationship with the color green. Why green? Because it’s associated with greenery, and greenery “is at the heart of the political struggles over the land,” Doherty tells us. Why Bahrain? “Bahrain is small.” Good enough.

While Doherty’s approach may seem like a gimmick, the results are truly novel. Situated in the milieu of ethnography, Doherty spends a year in Bahrain speaking with laborers, real estate developers, farmers, and government officials, constructing a forensic composite of green. The book satisfyingly explores green’s tendencies, as well as the social and built infrastructures that support it.

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Green carpet of house in Gafool, Manama. Photo by Gareth Doherty / University of California Press

If green is the book’s central character, then the central conflict revolves around water and its accompanying politics. Bahrain is seeking to maximize its green space and improve its sustainability metrics — these are admirable but directly conflicting goals. As it is, almost half of Bahrain’s freshwater goes towards watering lawns and washing cars in the hot, dusty city-state. Doherty figures that parks and roadside planting strips need 18 liters of water per day per square meter. Would Bahrain’s leaders be open to using grey water or native desert vegetation to conserve precious freshwater? That’s a step too far, at least for now. But as water’s strategic relevance overtakes oil’s in the Gulf, attitudes will change.

Before oil and the unsustainable pursuit of beautification in the form of lawns and noodle-shaped beaches, Bahrain’s green was most prominent in the form of date palm groves. The groves have diminished over the last century, but Doherty finds them still incredibly impactful. Their grey-green fronds stand in stark contrast to the surrounding environment, and their presence creates a micro-climate in the desert. In the past, the groves supported a culture that saw farmers name their trees as they would children. Their decline has coincided with the rise of residential compounds, some with green-painted roofs. Needless to say, Doherty is skeptical if this paint represents fair compensation for what’s been lost.

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Water channel, 1963, from Glob and the Garden of Eden. Torkil Funder, Moesgaard Museum / University of California Press

Doherty insists on walking to get where he’s going in Bahrain. He meticulously catalogs his encounters with green, and walking allows him to encounter very many. This penchant recalls similar tendencies in the writers Bruce Chatwin and Rory Stewart. Both are known for their travel writing (and, to greater and lesser extents, their interest in the Middle East).

Intentionally or not, there’s an element of the travelogue in Paradoxes. It’s no Road to Oxiana, nor does it aspire to be. It’s undeniable the book has benefited from its glimpses into Bahraini culture and life. Future writings on landscape would benefit from an ethnographic, travelogue approach.

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