The Landscape of Tyranny

LA+ journal
LA+ journal

“The social and spatial manifestations of power are directly relevant to the design and use of public space,” explained Tatum Hands, editor-in-chief of LA+, the University of Pennsylvania school of design’s interdisciplinary landscape architecture journal. Tyranny, the third issue of LA+, delves into the complex relationship between abuses of power and public spaces.

The issue devotes much of much of its first half to the split identity of spaces of tyranny. For example, public squares can benefit peace protestors and goose steppers, revolutions and counter-revolutions alike. Steve Basson, associate professor of architectural history and theory at Curtin University, exhumes the more disturbing historical uses of public squares in the opening essay, citing examples from Robespierre’s beheadings to Soviet oppression and Nazi torchlight parades.

Perhaps more sinister than tyranny facilitated by physical threat is tyranny facilitated by camera lenses. Pontifical Catholic University professor of urban management Rodrigo José Firmino explores the effect of the ubiquitous security camera and “see something, say something” posters on public spaces in his essay. In the security camera’s eye, movement arouses suspicion, José Firmino writes, and “must be controlled.” Military dominance has come to depend on these eyes on the ground, in the sky, and in your inbox. Buried in José Firmino’s essay is a question that perhaps deserves its own LA+ issue: Are landscape architects enabling or challenging this militarization of the globe?

“Operation Hello Eden” by Fionn Byrne / LA+

In another essay, University of Pennsylvania lecturer Nicholas Pevzner documents landscape-based efforts at reconciliation in a country just 22 years removed from genocide. In that time, the Rwandan national government has instituted a tree planting week and monthly civic holiday in which all able-bodied persons contribute to civic improvements, such as wetland restoration and erosion control. The effect of these efforts has been to help develop a national identity that is “neither Tutsi nor Hutu, but simply Rwandan.” This essay raises other questions: What is the role of landscape in the aftermath of tyranny?

Rwanda / LA+
Collage by Hannah Davis, with component images “Photographs of Genocide Victims at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda” by Adam Jones, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license via Wikipedia Commons, and “Umuvumu Tree” by Nicholas Pevzner / LA+

If landscape helps form national identity, then displacement abets its erosion. Nowhere would one expect to find this more than in refugee settlements, where residents are consigned to unfamiliar, informal living conditions. But what shines through in shelter and reconstruction professional Jim Kennedy’s essay is the resilience of the displaced. Kennedy offers the example of Dorniz Camp in Northern Iraq. The camp has sadly tripled in size from its initial population of 15,000 in 2013, but has also seen its residents replace tents with concrete and mortar, develop their plots of land, and install commercial structure. The work of residents has had unforeseen consequences, however, as economic stratification has emerged; concrete barriers installed by the “wealthy” divert water onto poorer plots. Political tyranny begets informal settlements begets economic tyranny.

Some of the issue’s essays require especially strong powers of association to discern their relationship to landscape and tyranny, but it’s worth the effort. Only by probing such fields as immigration and securitization are potentially significant relationships to landscape uncovered. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with bucking the tyranny of the journal topic.

Posted by “The Dirt”