Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Bacteria Rule Everything Around Me

HInder3[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I somewhat randomly found myself reading back through the irregularly updated blog of the British Museum earlier today when I learned about a project by Bristol-based artist Heidi Hinder called Financial Growth.

Financial Growth, Hinder explains in her guest post for the blog, is a still-ongoing “series of petri dish experiments.” It “reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.”

Hinder1[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

While Hinder develops this train of thought into a lengthy and provocative look at other means by which human beings could exchange microbes and bacteria for the purposes of financial interaction, I was actually unable to go much beyond than sheer awe at the basic premise of the project.

Hinder4[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

By culturing individual coins, Hinder has revealed a vibrant ecosystem of microscopic lifeforms thriving, garden-like, on every monetary token in our pockets; these are landscapes-in-waiting that we carry around with us every day.

Hinder6 [Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I was reminded of the famous shot of “the bacteria that grew when an 8-year-old boy who had been playing outside pressed his hand onto a large Petri dish,” posted to Microbe World last autumn.

IMG_6288[Image: Via Microbe World].

We’re surrounded by the unexpected side-effects of these portable microbial communities.

We leave our traces everywhere—but we bear the traces of innumerable others, in turn, trafficking amongst microbiomes that are content to remain invisible until we force them to reveal themselves.

HInder2[Image: Via Microbe World].

Think of artist Maria Thereza Alves’s project, Seeds of Change, for example, a “ballast seed garden” that explored the hidden landscapes unwittingly carried along by ships of European maritime trade, with seeds unceremoniously dumped as part of their ballast, often centuries old.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

These were seeds left behind specifically from the ballast of ships—yet isn’t that exactly what Hinder’s project also explores, the portable, everyday ballast of bacteria left behind on our cash, our coins, our hands, our bodies?

After all, 94% of the money we handle every day has human feces on it. Put it in a petri dish and be wary of what begins to grow.

While Hinder’s larger point is that perhaps we could design a microbe-exchange economy based on the already-existing trade in bacteria we are all currently engaged in, whether we know it or not, the brute-force power of revelation makes Financial Growth grotesquely compelling.

We bring with us nearly infinite potential landscapes, carrying them in our wallets, purses, and pockets—on our hands, in the random waste left behind by ships and even airplanes—forming new, erratic ecosystems, a pop-up micro-wilderness we’re unable to control.

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”