The research calls out plants as a design medium, a proposition that acknowledges that we remain in a period of discovery when it comes to transformations of the plant itself. The subject of live matter is, in a sense, about how we participate in the universal act of planting. Therefore, the term is suggested to invoke the animated but rarely fully appreciated existence of plant life. Plants displace, conjoin, sequence; they are irritable, sensitive, or combative and display a range of postures including anticipation and mobility.
April 12 until May 21, 2016
EPFL – ENAC School
SG 1211 (SG Building)
A CONSTRUCTED PAST
Botanical history as presented here is at the center of a dialogue that informs how we encounter and structure plant life. Measurable classification, quantifiable data, simplification, and regularity are easily discerned as fundamental themes of scientific botany, a singular perspective that raises awareness of what we can do with plants, rather than what plants are actually doing. Within the scientific tradition, plants are generally studied as to their kind, their structure, or their value.
Botanical history is filled with attempts to achieve predictability, reflecting a longstanding desire to organize the processes of life. Stemming from early botanical exploration, this history is expressed as one of exploitation and exchange, of economic advantage realized through cultivation—attitudes that do not appreciate the indefinite number of forms that can be derived from a living, breathing collection of slowly dividing cells. As the botanical sciences evolved and specimens were displaced, traded, and classified, the plant was envisioned as a static object—an instrument of control or a binomial label. Yet plants were adapting, reproducing, multiplying, and crossbreeding through force or will, creating the mutants and hybrids that now define our planted world. Plants represent the intersection of life and matter, and are a manifestation of irregular design, yet we know and share live matter through a longing for either divine beauty or supreme utility—our collective desire to domesticate.
The contribution of plant morphologists—from Goethe to Arber—expands the study of live matter and advances our understanding of the plant as a unique series of formations, an ongoing developmental process. When structures in different species are believed to exist and develop as a result of common, inherited genetic pathways, their material becomes fluid, roots grow into stems, from branches emerge stems and transform into leaves. Rather than considering the sciences within the confines of heterogeneity, morphology breaks the tendency to isolate and dislocate the plant and offers a uniform structure that unifies the material composition of the plant world.
Live Matter introduces an alternative to dualistic readings that counterpose qualitative and quantitative information, art and science, scientific proof and verifiable observation—ultimately humans and plants. Rather than merely highlighting the views that have created the dissociation, a new natural history of live matter is proffered here to reinforce the study of plants as living, breathing organisms.
Landscape architecture is a discipline of borrowed consequences, deriving value from a distant horizon, a geological condition, an extreme climate, an adjacent geometry.
The practice of transforming the land is indispensably tied to forces external to the design itself. In much the same way, landscape architectural history grafts itself to diverse allied disciplines, from agronomy to art, engineering, and architecture. As a relatively new field and one that has been purposeful in its distancing from gardening, landscape architecture is in the midst of a contemporary renaissance; many practitioners and theorists are diligently articulating an agenda within the built environment that makes landscape principles more essential than ever. In this work, we need re-envisioned histories as well as futures. If landscape architects could broaden the perspective from the environmental sciences that accentuate our large- scale ambitions, we could attend to the much smaller scale of this transformation. Each microscopic fragment culminates in a macrocosmic reading of the subject as a whole.
Perhaps the greatest promise of live matter is an act of the imagination that goes beyond grotesquely twisted branches, proliferous flowers, and other clonal deviations to project a future of invented plants and designed morphologies. While botanical science continues to manipulate plants to construct the choicest fruits, the stoutest stalks, or an excess of seed, landscape architects have yet to apply their spatial imagination to design or invent plants. At a more fundamental level, the question of live matter is also a challenge: can landscape architects not only design with plants, but design plants?
THE ROOT STEM
Although some emphasis has been placed on acknowledging the dynamic behavior of plants, they remain in a perceived state of fixity, as alleged by their limited mobility. Nevertheless, many plants display an incredible range of movement, as explicated by dispersal and other forms of distribution that scale from the individual to the territory.
A plant’s growth in stature is entirely dependent on its root system. At a smaller scale, the zone of activity at the root tip is a vigorous area that achieves length through cell division. In the life of a plant, the initial stage of growth may not always be uniform, but it is always limited to the root system. The little rootlet pushes through seed and then soil by ineffable powers, as it senses its way downward toward moisture. This additional stimulus catalyzes the growth of a tiny little stem, whose sole desire to reach toward light is as remarkable as the rootlets’ urge to drink. Tough, resistant cells are deposited at the end of the root tip to withstand the wear and tear of this search for moisture, over rocks, through compaction, and into crevices. Root hairs emerge for a short term, perhaps just hours, but are constantly renewed and increase the root’s capacity to absorb water. These root hairs do not occur at more mature areas of the root, which have no active participation in this quest for absorption.
There is no question that the biological world poses problems of inventory and origin, behavior and exception. Reflections on underlying orders, veiled patterns, and inconspicuous structure represent an endeavor to advance the role of thinking through practices of transformation, an encounter with the sciences that asks more questions than it answers, where every description exists against a background of biological theory. There is no true measure of a root system. Ideally, describing clonal growth would include the root system, thereby valuating the entire biomass of the plant. Instead, typical measure is taken from the annual increments in the radius of a vertical stem. The most visible and commonly celebrated flowers, fruit, bark, nuts, and leaves that make up the appreciated plant world amounts to just a small fraction of the life that exists under our feet.