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untamed : delving into a city’s third landscapes

Reading London : Place, Experience and Representation

MA Architecture (Digital Media) 2021/22 (Distinction)

This essay and set of cyanotype prints aim to highlight and discuss the potentials of ‘leftover’ spaces, fragments which are often overlooked yet embedded in the fabric of cities and people’s lives. Compared to the well-maintained and manicured public spaces within a fast-growing city, these pockets can be seen as a celebration of the untamed - these territories may serve as subtle reminders of pure natural processes of growth, migration and decay. Just like the buildings erected, the people present and the events that happen within, the presence of untamed nature occupying leftover spaces also contributes to a place’s narrative.

Being the city that it is today, London does not seem to be one which can afford to have these spaces, but it does. Even in areas characterised by redevelopment, undefined pockets still exist, and within these discrete fragments, nature is presented with the opportunity to thrive. Throughout this essay, the characteristics of these spaces will be defined and analysed in terms of architectural discourse and landscape theory presented by leading figures such as Gilles Clément and Ignasi de Sola-Morales. As an attempt to narrow down the subject to a regional scale, the text will be supported by photographic work of the often-hidden ecologies that London hosts. The sites of study are mostly situated along the docklands area of East London, particularly along Canning Town and Silvertown. Some locations are, however, intentionally undisclosed to emphasise their autonomy and ambiguity.

The representational toolkit of cyanotype printing developed throughout this module, which aims to represent the hidden ecologies that London has to offer, will also be presented as part of this essay.

They are everywhere in our cities - we pass by, through or over them everyday, although often overlooked. We might not notice them, but they’re always there. Some are more persistent than others, some are situated in sites in which they can afford to grow, to thrive.


Gilles Clément’s notion of a ‘third landscape’ refers to the “totality of all those places abandoned by man” (Clément et al., 2015), the intermediate spaces between the built environment and managed forests and fields which support a unique biodiversity. The term is derived from the ‘third estate’, a term coined by the Abbé Sieyès in the 18th century to define those who were neither nobility nor part of the clergy (Skinner, 2011). Third Landscapes can be seen as pockets of uncontrolled, indeterminate zones, located within, or at the edges, of heavily controlled and maintained areas. They can be found in a range of places and be of various scales, such as road shoulders, riverbanks, wastelands, rail road edges, pavements, etc., however the richness of the ecologies that each can host is what binds them together. The term ‘ecology’, as coined by Ernst Haeckel, does not refer to a static collection of beings and objects, but rather to the dynamic energy that connects them to each other and supports the levels of exchange between the living and the non-living (Clément et al., 2015). Clément recognises these zones as having special biological intelligence, with the diversity present within them allowing for constant reinvention by nature.

‘Terrain vague’, originally derived by Ignasi de Sola-Morales, is a term which encompasses spaces which may be slightly different to Clément’s - it is used to describe undefined urban spaces which are internal to the city but exist outside the effective flows and productive structures of that urban system (Solà-Morales, 1997). These include abandoned spaces, ruins, spaces beneath bridges, neglected subways and more. They are essentially dormant, undefined spaces characterised by neglect and decay, generated from theflows of a contemporary mutable city. It can be therefore said that spaces belonging to the terrain vague are perhaps all spaces of potential for third landscapes to develop, as nature thrives in spaces which are no longer defined or controlled by man.

As the term ‘nature’ may offer itself to multiple interpretations, in the scope of this essay, nature can be defined as all the constituents and processes on earth that can exist independently of humans. Although very little remains which is outside of human effect, uncontrolled nature can be referred to as the potential of earthly processes (growth, death, decay, birth, migration etc.) to occur in the absence of human interference.

The spaces where uncontrolled nature thrives in urban left- over spaces, often referred to as urban wildscapes, provide a transition zone between formally managed public spaces and offer a low-maintenance setting for nature to thrive. They are often spaces which have limited accessibility and would be economically difficult to manage. However, by understanding wildscapes from a nature-based approach and considering the various contexts in which they are perceived and experienced, they can help us appreciate wild urban vegetation as the living landscape’s response to the often harsh conditions provided by human-created spaces. They also provide pockets of respite, offering haptic environments of relief from the noise, pollution and chaos of the contemporary man-made city.
It can be seen that these concepts essentially explore the relation between humans and non humans, constantly inventing ways of coexisting. Third landscapes can be seen as ‘small laboratories for observing the spontaneous movement of planets and their planetary intermingling, but also as a place for friendship and sharing” (Clément et al., 2015). This agency and activity between natural systems and the earth’s constituents has become a central theoretical issue for those associated with actor-network theory, which provides a theoretically complex approach to representing nature. This is concerned with the way in which humans, non-humans, artefacts and theory join together to form hybrid structures or networks of socially meaningful activity, as it emphasises that the world works at much higher levels than our ability to describe, control and predict how it will behave (Gold and Revill, 2004). This level of hybridity can also bring about the possibility to reflect on the level of human dominance over nature. Rather than solely focusing on humans actively moulding and modifying passive nature, hybridity turns attention to the physical world’s involvement in social and cultural systems. As Clément recalls, landscapes that have been controlled by humans can usually be recognised by simple geographies, which is very different from the complex and seemingly illegible ways nature organises itself (Environ(ne)ment : Gilles Clément. 2016). These spaces can reveal social organisations and ways of coexisting, spaces where control is exercised in balanced ways, and where life is respected in all its forms and throughout all its stages.

The aesthetics that third landscapes and the terrain vague present are continuous with environmentalism - the natural environment and its degradation became the canvas for nature-based artists in the Modern and Postmodern periods (Kinney, 2012), who created meaning out of working within the landscape itself. In a time when technology, capitalism and consumerism were rising in popularity, the environmental arts movement sought to investigate the human relationship with the environment through embedding artistic practice within it. Usually through site-specific interventions, environmental arts support the values of restoration, rehabilitation, sustainability and natural land reclamation by increasing awareness of environmental processes and engaging with nature by using the landscape itself as a medium. Adopting the ideas of active nature, the movement acts as a means of both highlighting the beauty nature offers, and also as an act of recognising the potential threats of human dominance over landscapes.

The conversations brought about by movements such as the Environmental Arts Movement have slowly started to create the shift towards recognising the potential these spaces can offer and how cities can celebrate their third landscapes while adopting or reinterpreting the principles they present.

Contradictory Perceptions

With the terrain vague being characterised by forms of absence, these spaces lack any form of scripted activity. These are spaces which are very much part of the city, yet are outside the flows of everyday use by the general public. It is also, however, outside the bounds of defined territories that creative and new appropriations of space can be generated. Through certain interventions, or even looking at these spaces under a new light, they can be transformed from the unproductive to the cultivated. These architectures can support the “contemporary city which looks for forces instead of forms, the incorporated instead of the distant, for the haptic instead of the optic, the rhizomatic instead of the figurative in their lived experience of the city” (Sola-Morales, 1995).

This leftover space should, however, not be idealised to a point where it becomes separated from the often violent and negative forces which have acted upon and defined the space. It is important to consider that the activities invited by these spaces will not always be positive, but will include activities which manifest in urban places of seclusion like violence, crime, waste accumulation, substance abuse and squatting. Vacant and indeterminate spaces are therefore usually representative of deterioration and problematic situations, be it social, cultural or economic. It is space which falls outside of the productive efficiency of the city and embodies a seemingly unsettling disorder. These spaces are often marked for eradication by top-down urban initiatives. (Ho-Tong, 2011)

What these spaces offer, essentially, is the opportunity for spontaneity - for activity not accommodated for in urban structures of order or consumption. Such freedom easily translates to human behaviour in space, yet it is extremely hard to predict the kind of activity which can take place, as its unpredictability is what defines it. Establishing control measures which can support natural growth while deterring negative forces are not as straightforward - there exists a fine line between disorder that supports growth, and chaos whichleads to disrepair and degradation. Revealing the potential these spaces afford can start to change perspectives on these areas of neglect, and can also increase the level of surveillance and attention present, which may deter some criminal activity. A tabula rasa approach in these spaces may not be the only means for rehabilitation. By over-cultivating public spaces and limiting the possibility of spontaneity, the diversity which can occur within becomes limited. In order to have beauty, there may not necessarily be full control, forone can still find beauty in chaos. When third landscapes are appreciated for the diversity they offer, they are no longer a place of neglect or detriment, but spaces which represent an ecosystem that is tomorrow’s genetic heritage. They are an accumulation of treasures that truly point the way to the future (Clément et al., 2015). There is an aesthetic that is derived from diversity, from a sense of unpredictability, from an understanding of the mechanisms involved and the endless relations present between all the city’s constituents - the living and the non-living. The essence of nature is growth and change, and the constant interaction between the living and non living realms, which is essentially the same principle which culture is defined by. By looking at our cities as places that welcome diversity, support multiple levels of interaction and interchange and are not heavily-controlled, they can start to reflect the values that third landscapes represent.

The Toolkit

As an attempt to represent these often overlooked spaces, a toolkit was developed which sought to highlight the presence of these ecologies and the diversity present within them. Taking the area around Canning Town and Silvertown in East London as a site of investigation, different kinds of left-over spaces were identified and studied. The different levels of scale and settings correspond to what Sola-Morales recognises as spaces of terrain vague: dock basins, river embankments, ruins, but also spaces beneath bridges, sidewalk cracks. Although in most of the spaces, the presence of nature may seem unassuming compared to what they typically represent, they are all equally important examples of nature reclaiming spaces which may be neglected and forgotten by humans.

At the sites identified, a series of specimens were collected to create small botanical arrangements representing the area - a process being highly subjective and time-dependent, yet effective in establishing an intimate connection between self and site. Personal tastes and preferences predetermined some degree of choice, however the selection was mostly based upon observation of species which particularly stood out to reflect the area’s character. Upon selection, specimens were then documented and identified, creating a catalogue of species hosted by each of the sites at the time of visit, resulting in a series of tactile psychogeographic collections of these ecologies.

In order to reveal these ecologies in their belonging sites, the technique of cyanotype printing was adopted in order to simulate the process of uncovering the unseen and forgotten. Through the combination of producing negatives of photographs and overlaying the actual specimen collected, a collection of prints was created, showcasing these ecologies and the way they relate to the built environment. Different combinations of the physical specimen collected and manipulated photo negatives were presented, their varietyoffering different ways of representation and reflection. With the man-made and the wild operating at completely different time scales, the blurriness of the specimen contrasts with the sharpness of the built fabric in all of the works, as the ghostly figures of the species present themselves around the site, claiming the space as their own while they remain unseen for most.

This conscious experience of an environment is highly subjective and unique. It portrays the sense of ‘what it is like’ for someone to be present and mindful of these spaces. It is therefore different from a scientific, objective approach in that it will allow those who receive it to imagine what it is like to experience the space. It will provoke recipients to simulate the experience in their minds.

Through physical presence, our bodies act as vessels for our mental simulations of the narratives that spaces present. Therefore, our interaction is “neither of the body alone nor of the brain alone” (Damasio, 1994, cited in Weik von Mossner, 2017), and our conscious way of place experience can only be understood in the context of the interaction of a body within an environment. In Affective Ecologies (2017), Alexa Weik von Mossner highlights several states of mind which correspond to cognition that have been presented over the past - understanding the mind as being embodied in a physical being, but also embedded in a physical environment.

The process this toolkit developed is effective as it allows one to start creating possible narratives these spaces present, be it both the user (navigating the space) but also the observer of the finished pieces. This includes both the potential that the physical environment holds, but also the narratives that the final work itself presents. If we look at narrative as a means of making sense of the world we live in, we can look at representational methods as the tools which help us perceive the lives we live, yet also enable us to interpret the world other people choose to represent. These two may not be fully differentiated entities and are bound to overlap and influence one another.

Similarly to how areas of the terrain vague can be ill- perceived, new ways of representing these environments centred around neglect, decay and hybridity can provide both opportunities and dangers. While the processes of exchange and interdependence of the constituents of these ecologies should be celebrated, we should not be the ones speaking on behalf of nature by devising new means of symbolic representation, while promoting spaces where all levels of control are dismissed. This toolkit and the works emerging from it seek to start a conversation and allow others to observe and question nature’s role in our cities, where it is autonomous and when its growth is hindered. They seek to inspire future interventions by humans in spaces where they can interpret nature, diversity and the synergy between constituents in order to create new places of belonging without destroying diversity. As Clément expresses, “nature is not necessarily at the service of man; he exists within her, submerged in her, and therefore intimately associated with her.” (Clément et al., 2015)

Perhaps this definition of nature by Clément further emphasises the fact that humans are just as part of nature as all its other constituents. By rescripting our thoughts into fully acknowledging we are submerged in nature, we can understand how every decision taken has an impact, whether miniscule or colossal, on all of it.

The third landscapes presented in this essay, often emerging out of spaces belonging to the city’s terrain vague, can be seen as one of the remaining links to the untamed in our cities. By appreciating them for their resilience, beauty and unpredictability, these serve as reminders of beauty and growth after decay, and highlight the importance of intersections and exchange - values which should be extracted from nature and applied to ways of designing our cities and our ways of life.

This is what the toolkit presented here strives to achieve; through the highlighting of overlooked ecologies and the processes occurring within them, observers may start to appreciate the levels of diversity these spaces offer and thus be encouraged to experience these places themselves, creating new narratives of their own through embodiment and embedding. As cities grow and societies evolve, it becomes easier for the disjunction in values between man and the natural environment to grow. May this toolkit serve as a reminder that beauty and growth can still be found in the smallest or most derelict of places; a reminder that nature fights back to establish itself whenever possible, and that our aim should be to remain grounded and connected to it as much as we can.

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