Julian Raxworthy

Landscape Architecture, Matthew Gandy, Landscape Ecology, Weeds

Notes from the margins: Matthew Gandy (Long Edit)




Mathew Gandy Landscape Theory Landscape Architecture Landscape Ecology Geography Weeds


Landscape Architecture Australia

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Gandy, Matthew. ‘Notes from the Margins: Matthew Gandy’. Landscape Architecture Australia, no. 175 (August 2022): 44–48.

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Pathbreaking urbanist and geographer Matthew Gandy explores unusual spaces at the margins of cities, where ecological, topographical and historical perspectives collide.

Gustav Lange's Mauerpark in Berlin exhibits the dynamic vegetation qualities discussed by Gandy, that suits a park where people organise themselves around the sites topography and perceived safety (Julian Raxworthy, 2006)

Matthew Gandy is the professor cultural and historical geography at Kings College at the University of Cambridge Fabric of Space and Concrete and Clay published by The MIT Press. You’ve got a bit of a following in landscape architecture, so I'm excited to talk to you about your new book, Natura Urbana. But I am going to start by asking you a question about geography: why geography? What is it? And can you locate it as a discipline in terms of how you think about it?  Geography is a very open discipline... and this is very attractive to me. In very broad terms, I would say that geography has certain working concepts that people often repeatedly returned to, like place, space, nature, landscape. I did get a geography degree then a PhD in geography and I've worked in Geography Departments but also in interdisciplinary settings. My first academic post was with the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex (which no longer exists) and I'm currently based in Hamburg at the Institute for Advanced Study, so I'm with a range of different disciplines at the moment and I like these conversations across disciplines. _We are in a time where geography has become important, and it is prominent in landscape architecture discourse where people are “looking at the overlooked.” Why are people interested in these spaces and systems that previously they were either trying to disguise or actively avoid [like urban wastelands with weeds, for example]?  That counter discourse was always there and something I discovered in in writing my book Natura Urbana is that it was in the early 20th century when there was the first attention to these marginal spaces, and [indeed] then you discover it also in decades before: in the 19th century urban botanists were studying ruins and ballast floors [for example]. This kind of counter current has become more prominent in recent years and I think one [reason] might be the focus of cultural and scientific attention on these marginal spaces in cities, [and] perhaps a shifting environmental discourse with a growing interest in various forms of wildness. Discovering wild spaces in cities is suddenly a very exciting aspect of public culture.  Do you think that the climate crisis and the Anthropocene has changed the subject of interest from the purely natural to something else? The Anthropocene discourse has become a almost hegemonic point of reference which is problematic because there are other interesting perspectives on this question, such as the the capitalocene, the plantationocene, which I find compelling. I think on the one hand the Anthropocene discourse reflects pressing global environmental issues, but it’s flattened aspects of this debate. There's a heavy emphasis on reengineering nature and resilience discourse things, so I think this focus on wild spaces of urban nature can serve as an alternative perspective on how he had lived with nonhuman others.  It’s interesting because in your [past] writing on infrastructure there has been an emphasis on infrastructure as a high-tech thing in the past, whereas increasingly in your writing – and Gilles Clément’s writing about the third landscape, too – it's about a kind of a decay, a lo-fi approach to systems and infrastructure, which is tied to these spaces and types of environments. Yes, I mean with the question of infrastructure. I sometimes think of it as a kind of cultural and material palimpsest because previous networks and structures are often still there but may be in a state of decay or overlooked or buried or hidden in these interesting layers of technological networks. I began to feel that infrastructure is a kind of space or landscape, that it's not just the functional component of modern landscapes. In that respect, for example, the photographs of Bernd & Hilla Becher were fascinating to me in terms of presenting [disused German] structures in a kind of a kind of taxonomy of industrial structures, presenting a very different angle. Artists [or] photographers often highlight these unexpected aspects of place and landscapes that are sometimes missing in the environmental or urban literature.  It’s interesting: if you go to the Ruhrgebiet [where Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord is located] and look at the landscapes the Becher’s were [documenting], that landscape is turning into [birch] forest. How do you think about proposition in relationship to the work you're doing and that sort of observational gaze? In trying to make sense of urban nature in broad terms I've come to the view that there are four different perspectives in play.  The systems-based perspective is the dominant view in the ecological sciences, landscape design and [others], which conceptualises space as sets of interrelated and flows and different components that can be quantified, managed, and predicted. Running parallel to that is a second strand going back to the 19th century: the observational paradigm, concerned with the intricate material spaces of nature in the city by botanists and ornithologists, etc. The third area emerging from the 1990s onwards is the field of urban political ecology, that my own work is closely associated with, looking at the circulatory dynamics of capital and the built environment, but also potentially looking at cultural representations of nature and the relationship between politics and environmental discourse from different angles. And then there is a fourth aspect here, which I refer to as the ecological pluriverse, and thinking about the multispecies city & how we might live better with nonhuman others, linking with recent developments in anthropology, for example.  [I read that] you're also an entomologist, so you have your own observational practice. How does that inform or interact with your academic practice? I've been writing my recollections from nature in Berlin and the space where the Berlin Wall once stood that I used to visit repeatedly, undertaking an ecological ethnography. [by] repeatedly visiting the same site and making observations, taking photographs, making notes, etc. [In] Berlin [there is an] interesting intersection between the cultural and scientific on the one hand, the delight in multi sensory spaces of urban nature & using aesthetics in a slightly broader sense, and the scientific aspect that being immersed in these spaces [as] an inspiration for thinking about nature from a more analytical perspective.  You talk about queerness and [blackness]. How do you tie weeds with identity’s that are now emerging in public discourse? In the German context during the Nazi era notions of nativist landscape and nativist technologies were prominent in environmental discourse. But in the post war era, when the urban botanists and others started studying spaces and discovered that there were species from all over the world through their articulation of what we could call cosmopolitan ecology, it effectively turned these earlier ideas on their head [by] producing interesting inventories of cosmopolitan urban flora, challenging ideological as well as scientific assumptions.  Within plant science and ecology that had come before it questions also related to marginal spaces and thinking about these spaces as spaces of creativity, and how they relate to the public realm [where] some ideas about socio-ecological complexity also relate to understand understandings of social complexity. For these discourses around queer theory, access to nature is often limited in poorer neighbourhoods, which is where questions of race and ethnicity often come into play in terms of access to nature. Local communities regard these marginal spaces as a kind of ocular public realm, and we're not just talking about spontaneous nature, but also spontaneous socio ecological relations emerging in response to these spaces [Can you think of a] botanical example? I've got a particular plant in mind right now, and I wonder whether it's the same one.  You could say that every plant tells a story, and if you're looking at urban ecology, there are certain plants such as Ailanthus altissima, the tree of heaven – That was the one I was thinking of [too].  – which features from different angles. I'm also interested in the fact that in the 50s and 60s it was planted as a as a regular street tree and then forgotten about and then reappeared [because of] its capacity to colonise inhospitable spaces. It’s also a symbol of cities of the future because of its ability to withstand dryer or hotter microenvironments  I worked in bushland regeneration in Australia so I dealt with a lot of Tree of Heaven – it’s got an unpleasant smell to it. It's a plant that’s hard to redeem for me because of it being an invader within the space of indigeneity, which is also the space that I occupy as a [settler colonist].  Why was Berlin the place for you to think about [all] this? About 18 years ago I had a research fellowship in in Berlin looking at infrastructure questions but became more closely interested in these marginal spaces of nature, so I think to to look at Berlin just for a second. I think that [Berlin] is fascinating from an ecological, topographical & historical perspective, but it's also an interesting scientific and intellectual centre  to work on these questions. Do you think that Berlins history gives it spaces and an approach to the city [which] allows those [conditions] to exist, that history… opens up those spaces?  Yes, that's absolutely true. There’s a particular history to these anomalous spaces and produced both by wartime destruction, geopolitical separation, economic change, and so on. But one thing that's quite distinctive in Berlin, which really struck me is recent developments in park design, where elements of unusual marginal have been woven into new park design, either in terms of retaining fragments of these marginal landscapes or creating similar conditions, like laying stony substrates that might encourage certain plants to flourish. This kind of aesthetic and ecological continuity built in the public realm is fascinating.  Landscape architecture has a kind of paradoxical relationship to this discourse [on weeds]: a simultaneous fascination in the novelty of spontaneous vegetation and [practical] lack of acceptance [of weeds]. [Are there any] landscape designers you admire that inform how we think about [non-human] species in design? [Gilles]Clément really stands out. I first came across his work at an exhibition [Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal] and when I came out the other side my whole ideas were changed. I looked closely at his writings and visited his projects in Paris and Lille, and from a methodological point of view it was very clear to me that to engage with this kind of work, you have to visit sites. It's not enough just to read about it. Being there is part of the method, and it's very important to me. [Clément] was very serious in terms of the both the science and the politics, so, for example, he refused a commission from the former President Sarkozy on political grounds, [and] that's quite unusual for architects and designers. I like aspects of [Clément] work which were experimental, such as the project where he bought a field and just observed changes over time. There’s an experimental dimension to his design practise, linking smaller scale projects with bigger questions in in a very, very interesting way. Temporality and engagement through practises like gardening or occupations of space are inherently tied to the urban natures that you're talking about. Yes. There’s something very interesting about temporalities and urban ecology'. Going back to the late 60s, early 70s, artists like Hans Hacke were experimenting with small patches of earth and watching what happens and things like that, [seeing] how spaces transformed without obvious human intervention. There is this sense of uncertainty and there's a chance element, maybe the birds feet.  The complicated thing in a design sense is how to communicate to a public audience that nothing remains the same [and] that things are in a constant state of change, so the wasteland full of flowers is not going to stay that way forever. If you want a site to stay the same, there has to be some kind of strategic intervention which does take place in some cases or if we leave it alone completely there will be a wild urban woodland within 10 to 20 years: something very different. This sense of temporality's aesthetics and ecology – and bringing these things together in a design context – is a big challenge, I think.  Do you garden? I have a small urban garden in London which I've turned over to a kind of a nature garden and I recently installed a pond. [To] my delight five different species of dragon flies turned up in the first year, and there are frogs appearing as if from nowhere, so that that's great: I keep a careful check on what biodiversity there is in my London garden


A lot of the time people outside a discourse have more to say about it than those inside, and Gandy is definitely one of those people, in a serious way that belies his own quietness when you talk to him. (2024).



Landscape Architect