BY Bradley Horn in Reviews | 06 JUN 07
Featured in
Issue 108


BY Bradley Horn in Reviews | 06 JUN 07

America squanders its waste. Countless parcels of contaminated land in de-industrializing urban centres and unplanned, interstitial territory at our cities’ peripheries are left idle by developers and architects who either do not possess the tools to take advantage of them or simply don’t care to.

In the preface to this inspiring book Alan Berger (a landscape architect and associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design) sets out to develop ‘a new aesthetic and vocabulary’ for these waste landscapes. Through naming and typology he begins the difficult process of identification and reclamation. Derived from a 1995 essay ‘Stim and Dross: Rethinking the Metropolis’ by Lars Lerup that used ‘dross’ to denote the ‘undervalued, unfortunate economic residues of the metropolitan machine’, ‘drosscape’ joins neologisms such as ‘terrain vague’, ‘boomburb’, ‘dumpspace’, ‘midopolis’ and ‘off-world’ in the struggle to comprehend horizontal urbanization and the production regimes that catalyze it. Lerup’s description of Houston as an ‘oceanic’, ‘zoohemic’, ‘holey plane’ was a significant precedent. It captured the ecological and topographical indeterminacy central to ‘landscape urbanism’ two years before Charles Waldheim even coined the term. By mapping the movement of manufacturing establishments from the centres to the peripheries of cities and the redistribution of populations outwards in ten regions over a decade, Berger links urban sprawl with the drosscapes that are the natural by-products of such change. The book’s spindle charts, maps, dispersal graphs and aerial photography successfully convey these phenomena. The ‘aesthetic’ of Drosscape owes much to James Corner and Alex S. MacLean’s ground-breaking book Taking Measures across the American Landscape (1996), which combined photographs, diagrams and text to chart the intersection of natural and man-made ecologies in the US. Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha’s Mississippi Floods (2001) and Berger’s first book, Reclaiming the American West (2002), also drew inspiration from Corner and MacLean’s use of aerial photography to capture the ‘total spatial and visual entity of human living space’.

The first comprehensive overview of its kind, Drosscape’s greatest contribution lies in its speculative taxonomy of the wasted and the wasteful. Berger classifies drosscape sites into landscapes of dwelling (LODs – voids of land in housing developments), landscapes of transition (LOTs – temporary storage facilities), landscapes of infrastructure (LINs – transportation rights of way), landscapes of obsolescence (LOOs – junkyards and landfills), landscapes of exchange (LEXs – abandoned malls) and landscapes of contamination (LOCOs – military bases and other brown fields). While popular design competitions for the reutilization of defunct spaces have made it more common today to imagine junkyards or abandoned airports being reprogrammed, it remains far more difficult to picture how or why voids of land on housing enclaves or the space underneath fully functional motorway junctions would ever be reused. Berger’s point is that as economies and technologies evolve, so does the distribution of human occupation on the earth’s surface; whatever isn’t dross now eventually will be. This is why architects need to think ahead. With few ‘stakeholders, caretakers, guardians or spokespersons’, drosscapes demand serious initiative, not only in anticipating potential projects but also in forging the constituencies needed to support them. Berger ends the book with a ‘Drosscape Manifesto’, which demands a shift in outlook from the designer as ‘sole expert and authority’ to one of ‘collaborator and negotiator’. This means thinking like a landscape architect, urban planner, architect, developer and politician all at once. Drosscape allows us to take stock of the linguistic and representational resources the design world will need to marshal for this challenge.

Bradley Horn