Representations of nature in urban contexts

Markus Ambach
Representations of Nature in Urban Contexts
More than ever cityscapes are defined by specific uses. The city’s structural grid obscures political hierarchies, cultural imprints and the demands for representation constituting them. European metropolises are moulded by their religious history and in particular by those economic positions of Christianity which, originating in the reformation and protestantism, were finally secularized in the capitalist era. When one takes a closer look at the guises in which nature is represented in the social sphere – in gardens, parks and zoological gardens –, the focus quickly zeroes in not only on colonialism (as the secular variety of Christian missionary mythologies), but also on the urge to rule and contain the whole world which today finds its realization, with the markets organized on capitalist terms, in so-called globalization. The claim to act as the sole messenger of salvation for the world at large, heedless of the agendas of other cultures, appears as a prototypically western cultural concept which is abrasively superimposed upon the rest of the universe. Whereas in former times any cultural expansion was heralded by pioneers and explorers, today the technique of import and export – introduced in colonial times – prevails. In the wake of the scientific collections, museums and Wunderkammern, but also as a result of international trade, the metropolis – the “cosmopolitan city”– in particular is developing as a concept defined by its need to assemble and exemplarily represent the whole world in one place. In its claim to universality it seeks to demonstrate the omnipotence of one who can afford to wait for the mountain to come to him rather than the other way round. In order to live up to this expectation, the metropolis has to collect and represent all the world’s typologies. Thus the “Chinese Quarter”, the “Quartier Latin” or the Arabian Market are a requisite part of any cosmopolitan city, providing the various continents not only with a representative instance but also serving as a model-like replica, a live miniature of the respective original. The colonial concept of importation, in which the various cultures, practices and objects, torn from their original context, are transplanted into a reserve-like existence abroad, also emphasizes the aspect of rule and accumulation, musealization and utilization. The cosmopolitan city shows a tendency towards isolating and putting on display the myriad ethnic groups, traditions and practices of the world population. In this it resembles both the museums and collections, in which national or local elements – although extant – have become inert. The districts in which they are tolerated are reintegrated into the capitalist parcours of exploitation by being designated a tourist destination (provided they have an ambience sufficiently exotic for that), thus putting them under societal control. In Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin, the further influx of Turkish immigrants was monitored by the authorities in order to prevent the autonomous and unregulated reproduction of an ethnic group in another place. The pressure for integration maintained by the state is one symptom of the apprehension that an autonomous cell with an alien religious imprint might be about to establish itself in the heart of the Christian-western metropolis, creating an extraterritorial zone. The Turkish quarter – marketable as a tourist attraction – is welcome as the theatrical downscale rendition of a “Little Istanbul”, but undesirable as an active milieu. The global exchange of goods accentuates this possibility of representing the whole world in one particular place. The department stores, which have adopted the techniques of systematization and organization, image production and decontextualization developed by the economic sector of society, its institutions and archives, can be seen as universal points of intersection of the economically utilizable top-quality products of the various regional societies. The canon of isolated spaces and decontextualized objects is used by museums and shopping paradises alike, and can be found even in zoo enclosures and the borders in the botanical gardens. The procedures of sorting, cataloguing and disciplining are universally applied to everything – goods, people, flora and fauna. Aligned to the city grid, they arrange themselves into cultural circles, political networks and individual interrelations whose presumptive master plan is based on the matrix of the economical city. The city as a large showcase, a big glass of the world, which has to receive, duplicate and preserve everything that is in it. The metropolis as the model of a world which operates on cultural conditions and has been wrenched from the grasp of Thus the enclosure and localization of nature – as its antagonist – is one of the central objectives of the cosmopolitan city. The ambivalent paradigm of origin and threat provides the backdrop to the cultivation of the world. The containment of nature and the exclusion of those of her processes which cannot be controlled by man provides the basic foundation of the systematizing urges of culture: it strives to assimiliate to the human norm that which lies beyond it and thus poses a potential threat. Forever ambivalently caught between fear and admiration, culture puts itself in opposition to the luxuriant ebullience of natural forms and the virulent complexity of their growth processes, at the same time paying homage to their overwhelming creative power and productivity and seeking to imitate them. It pits the economy of the individual, the canalization of natural processes and their exploitation in the accumulation of multifarious values against the luxury of continually reworked forms, death as a phenomenon which spells boundless abundance, and the prodigal stance of the perennially new. As a result of the progressive cultivation of the world, which has by now led us even into the dark chasms of the human psyche, it dawns on us that, far beyond the urban context, nature pure and simple is to be encountered almost nowhere; it has almost completely been replaced by its cultivated simulacra which reflect our ideas of nature rather than the natural per se. Even at the outer boundaries of our imagination, the strategy of reproduction and representation is at work: upon taking a closer look, the reservation is revealed as a place in which only through the exclusion of specific factors an artificial protective zone emerges which does not so much shelter the various species threatened by extinction as create a museal space in which, in economic terms, nature is accumulated as a resource of itself. The nature reserve presents itself as a diorama and museum of a nature which has become extinct. A similar thing happens with a typology which we actually perceive as natural. The nature reserve or the national park, in which the natural order is ostensibly reinstated, can thus operate solely by means of the constitution of an exceptional situation. Through the exclusion of specifically human influences, a territory is artificially created which possesses extraterritorial qualities. Like in a concentration camp, the ordinary laws of man are here – under his control – suspended. While the last remaining areas which could with reason be designated a wilderness are consumed by economic interests in one part of the world, they are in another spot artificially recreated by man – under his permanent control. Whereas these situations generate artificial landscapes which are perceived as natural ones by us, within the urban context gardens, parks and in particular the zoo provide the major typologies by means of which we incorporate nature in the cosmopolitan city, positioning it on the semantic grid of the city in order to represent it as a domesticated image of itself. We enclose nature between the fences of the garden, behind the walls of the park, but especially in the center of the city. We contain, fasten and exorcize it in the very heart of society so as to make sure that it will not live anywhere else: as an irrepressible, terrible, uninhibited and thus also erotic “other”. The cosmopolitan city integrates nature in order to exclude it by means of enclosure. Through its rhetorical incorporation in the urban subtext nature appears as something assimilated and compatible. Only its conspicuous heterogeneity and the isolated position of its abodes still bear witness to its former precarious contentions. Localization plays a crucial role in the process of this exclusion: as a result of being assigned a finite location, nature can afterwards exist only at the places provided for it, and nowhere else – as a domesticated, harnessed natural simulacrum which negates and excludes its wild forms. Order banishes that which is threatening, and allows us to direct our attention to the “naturally beautiful”. The differentiation in good, useful, beautiful (and thus economically utilizable) nature and the threatening wilderness which can, as a result of this operation, henceforth be denounced as a non-form, classifies and confines the luxurious growth of omnipotent nature and its Wholly aligned to the city’s purposes, it takes its place in a structure of manageable, serial measures, categories and structures. Both botanical and zoological gardens and museums of natural history establish archives in which the overabundant natural multiplicity of forms is subordinated to the systematized scientific increase of knowledge, analysis and accumulation. The exclusion of nature by means of its inclusion in the city refers to the political component of this operation: whereas in the Wunderkammern and museums nature is presented in a fragmented and decontextualized way, gardens and parks are perceived as wholly natural, almost as places of Where in former times difference and the impossibility of fraternization necessitated the violent suppression of nature, our society of consensus smothers any discrepancy in a brotherly embrace. The irreducibly alien, which threatens to evade this procedure of assimilation, is imperceptibly renamed, enclosed within the bounds of society and encapsulated. The garden, the park and the zoo thus are perceived as natural places, although they represent artificial interpretations of nature within the city limits. Despite their transcription, they develop inclusions and contradictions of their own which are capable of providing subtle comments on their urban In these three essential typologies, society provides a semantic pattern which declinates the utilization of nature in the city. Whereas the garden reflects individual ideas of nature and its interpretation, the park represents urban society’s general conception of natural beauty (and its variation through the ages). In the park, that choreography is deployed in which the city can remind itself about these very attitudes. The park is a place in which temporal and spatial perspectives intersect. The zoo, finally, is a grand and universal typology in which the world’s flora and fauna is collected, enclosed and displayed in one place. Can one imagine a cosmopolitan city without its own zoological garden? It is the place where the urban principle is portrayed the most expressively (and with a subliminal global claim to colonial rule), and where urban society comes to reassure itself with regard to its omnipotence every Sunday. In its origins, the garden already represents the idea of a world within the world: in the Persian garden, a river branching towards the four points of the compass springs from its centre. In Christianity, the garden develops into a paradisiacal world within the world, an enclosed, peaceful (read: pacified) place which is sheltered from the ambiguities of the natural universe. It already provides an excerpt, sorted, ordered and classified by God, of that which is best in nature as seen from a human point of view. Man here leads a life integrated into nature, in a miniature model of the Good World. Only after the fall of man, having appropriated the creative power of knowledge and thus the secret matrix of ambivalent nature, he leaves this place which he henceforth seeks to reconstruct: gardens are places of tranquility and rest, enclosed individual paradises beyond the ambivalent bustle and procreative forces of the cities and of their Especially during the era of industrialization, this function of privacy in the garden was used for purposes of social pacification. The alienation of workers at the factories and other places of production as well as in their inhuman living quarters soon bred undesired side effects: from the weavers’ uprisings to the fights of the labour movement, a weak point in the system of industrial production materialized, and gardens played a not unimportant role in its defusing. In order to counteract alienation, workers were soon offered those tracts of land which in any case posed an administrative problem for the various squires and councils: they were given pieces of land along railway lines and roads as well as urban waste land free of cost as garden plots which they could The principle of the English allotment garden – popularized in Germany in its bourgeois “Schrebergarten” guise – aimed not only at containing the land under inexpensive control and at excluding undesirable modes of use, but also seeked to dampen the workers’ open aggression against the inhuman work conditions and the exploitation of their labour by offering them symbolic proof of participation in the city as well as a private refuge. The allotment gardens provided a restitution of that sense of belonging which had had no representation in the industrial The garden allowed them not only to improve their meagre diet, but also to translate into reality their own individual idea of a peaceful place, providing an alternative to the lodgings in which frequently several families were crammed together in utterly restricted circumstances. The garden evolved into a space of romantic imagination feeding on the limited dreams of a starving working class. Its characteristics in turn reflected the image of a pacified world: springs and other features of “natural beauty” were a part of every garden, as was the garden hut as a miniature house and the beds of useful plants plus a compost heap as the garden’s economical section. The garden developed into a world within the world, an individual paradise in the heart of the city. Depending on the individual era it presented itself as a kitchen garden, a rigidly organized flower garden or a wildly romantic miniature replica of the English landscape garden. But at any time its central features have been its model-like character and its complexity on a The „Schrebergarten“, too, still today reflects, in its sometimes rigid compartmentalization, the various needs which were to be fulfilled by the privatized paradise. Its systematic order not only bears witness to the bourgeois urge to tame luxuriant nature (along with the gardener), but is also connected to the rise of a disciplinary society. Contrary to popular belief, the eponymous Daniel Moritz Gottlieb Schreber (1808-1861) had nothing whatsoever to do with the gardens. A sports enthusiast, the pedagogue and gymnastics teacher was primarily known for the development of crude apparatus for educational purposes and bodily exercise such as the “Schreberscher Geradhalter”. About three years after his death, his former associate Ernst Innozenz Hauschild initiated the foundation of the first public playground in Leipzig, naming it after Schreber. At the „Schreberplatz“, a supervising teacher created small educational plant beds for the children. As children are rather impatient by nature, something which does not harmonize too well with the slow growth of plants, the small beds were soon taken over by the childrens’ parents. As opposed to their offspring, their interest in the garden expanded beyond measure, so that the area was rapidly covered with small garden lots. In this way the designation “Schreberplatz” was transferred to the new garden category. Today the paradise garden is represented in numerous illustrious forms in the urban environment. In particular the obligatory trees flanking the entrances of shopping centers, a variation on the gates of paradise theme, mark out the chain stores and shopping malls as places where almost everything can be got (almost) for free – paradise as an economic wonderland where the world meets to glory in the state of earthly happiness during a prolonged shopping trip, nestling in the peaceable interchange of Whereas private gardens are embodying individual interpretations, the park represents urban society’s latest conception of nature in a historical context. Nature here is presented as a theatrical production – the park leads us imperceptibly along an almost movie-like choreography of paths, time intervals and pictorial sequences, traversing our respective ideal of domesticated nature. Walk here, sit there, rest in contemplation on that bench, turn the eye inward here while getting lost in the panorama over there: paths, seats, interspersed views interrelating with one another, ready-made attractions and hidden sequences form a semantic repertoire stage- Extensive meadows, pieces of sculpture, borders and hedges articulate, accentuate, time and dramatize the deployed attitudes in a choreography along which the visitor, guided by a subtle lead, is following the architect’s discourse. In the park, nature is transformed into a film-like event, the epicentre of which is occupied by the observer himself. As in a play, the various objects insensibly arrange themselves around his figure which marks their invisible focal point. Man as the measure of all things, the city as the structural matrix where his cultivating and disciplining measures are consummated: both in the park and in the zoological garden nature is not explained through itself but by means of cultural signs. In this process, parks reflect the various political formations of society through the centuries. In baroque gardens, nature as the expression of sovereign power is subjugated to the dictates of human and mathematical forms, and presented in the fashion of a drawing board. They openly and confrontatively stage the fight of nature versus culture, formally reflecting it as a display in which the final victory of humanity is a foregone conclusion. In contrast, the English landscape garden reflects the rise of a power which, subtly obscuring itself, acts, arranges, orders and controls things in the background. The ostensible naturalness of the gardens and parks maps them out as a domesticated and pacified, model-like diorama. Man moves freely through the wilderness robbed of its wildness, camouflaging the aboriginal conflict in an almost realistic Whereas the depiction of the conflict as a „display“ and rhetorical form admits the alienness of the radically “other” in order to enable its expulsion from society, the “model” as a strategy imitates that which is alien in order to integrate, assimilate and finally replace it. These two major plots demonstrate clearly the virtually analogous relation of the attitudes towards nature to political action, essentially corresponding to its systematizations if not ruling them altogether. In the urban context, two major types of park can be distinguished: whereas the private or semi- public park picks out the relationship with nature as its central theme, subtly negotiating it in a dialogue with the visitor, the public park is strangely unfocused in this respect. Although its determination as a representation of nature in the urban context clearly anchors it to the city’s grid of values, this signification increasingly diminishes as the alienation from nature progresses. Owing to its necessarily rudimentary flora and fauna and the latent desensibilization of urban society in the face of nature, the public park can no longer take nature as such as its central topic, and accordingly it is perceived as an open space no longer predetermined. The repressed nature in the park turns into a contentless content, a purely structurally determined area, the park’s empty stage on which urban society is free to act out its discourses. As a result the urban park gains in political importance. It could prove one of the last remaining public spaces, lying low in the slipstream of economic and political interests. Through the removal of the pervasive purpose-bound definition of the urban sphere, which usually restricts the citizen to the role of potential customer and consumer, social, political and private interests are here in a pleasant manner interwoven with recreation, preferences and idleness. Against the backdrop of staged dioramas, in both public and secret places, the relations of ethnic, cultural and religious groups, of citizenship, subcutaneous anarchy and establishment are formulated as well as the relationship between city, nature and culture. Right in the centre, the park establishes a „different space“, thus providing subtle comments on its urban environment. A self-regulating space, it uses its open position and its model-like character for the induction of a subtle alternative position into the over-regulated city. To that extent the park, as an open space of urban society, reapproximates the ominous in nature: a confusing place in the heart of society, virtually devoid of any regulation from outside, in which all those groups and interests intersect and commingle which are otherwise segregated, sorted and systematically compartmentalized in the various city districts. The model as a tool of representation plays a crucial role for the metropolis or cosmopolitan city. Just as in the dreams of a colonial-bourgeois society which assembled plants from all over the world in the parks of the late 19th century in an unprecedented bout of botanical exotism in order to display the (natural) world in one place in the “worlds’ garden”, the cosmopolitan city represents an agglomeration of diverse typologies and models which are arranged, accumulated and interrelated in the urban structural grid. The universal typology applicable here could be provided by the zoological garden. It is perhaps the ultimate example of an exclusion by enclosure, and simultaneously one of the most complex heterotopias. Apart from its claim to collect all species of flora and fauna from all over the world in one place – both a romantic dream and a colonial claim to global domination –, it perennially oscillates between the enigmatic paradigms of the prison, the reserve and the ark. Whereas in the beginning the cages used to be of a distinctly majestic aspect in order to theatrically articulate the animal’s power as well as that of its tamer, today they all but disappear in the so-called immersion enclosure which reenacts a natural scenario in a hyperrealist manner. Whereas in the classical cage (the German also knows the term “Zwinger”, i.e. “that which forces, subjects, tames”) the animals were ostensibly overpowered, pictorially emphasized and thus decontextualized, arranged and displayed, in today’s florally enhanced enclosures they seem not to know the urge to escape any longer: the wild captive finds himself suddenly presented as a helpless creature seeking shelter under the gracefully extended mantle of crafty humanism. The ominously wild finds itself transcribed into the natural deperately in need of protection; the tamer is recast as samaritan – the cage suddenly changes from prison to ark. In zoological gardens as well as in gardens and parks we obviously try to explain nature by means of cultural signs. The dioramas, scenarios and stage-productions reproduce nature as various stereotypical elements of the human rhetorics of imagination. In the zoo, one thing is obvious: artificial trees, rocks made of concrete, plastic plants and utterly abstract scenarios such as car tyres, ropes and tiles as surrogates of the jungle vegetation are perceived by us as virtually natural because they make use of the human and cultural terminology of signs. It is easy for us to accept that animals are living in houses which correspond to our idea of the architecture of their native country. In the zoo, it is not nature itself which is the focus of observation, but something which has been translated into a cultural language, something which has been assimilated in the process of culturalization. It reproduces nature as a decipherable object compatible with consumption. In this respect, both in the zoo and in gardens and parks it is not nature on which our interest focuses but human culture itself and its procedures. The development of the zoological garden has been decisively influenced by both colonial concepts and scientific institutions and museums. Yet its origins lie not only in the menageries of botanical gardens. With regard to the evolution of the enclosure, the cages in which roving showmen exhibited nature – in the guise of exotic animals – for the entertainment of the visitors of fairs and other urban festivities preceded the aviaries of the French baroque garden. In Germany, the first zoo evolved out of a Leipzig beer garden whose owner, an aficionado of predatory big cats, offered them as additional entertainment along with the beer. This zoo and its enclosures, which its cages reflecting and reproducing themselves in long rows, was also known as the “Raubtierfabrik” – the factory of predators –, a rhetorical reflex of the multiplications of the industrialized process of production. Within the economy of industrial production nature is connoted as a commodity. This characteristic of nature in urban contexts is emphasized by a further analogy: with respect to the lexicon of forms used, the cages for beasts of prey developed analogously to the shop windows of the department stores which emerged simultaneously. Here, nature is not only decontextualized, musealized and exhibited, but also and especially declared a commodity which The fact that this reclamation of many sectors for capitalist production and the colonialization of social agendas was prone to develop to extremity has been documented by the so-called Völkerschauen, in which whole villages – including their population – were exhibited in zoos and at world’s fairs. The transference of the semi-scientific-zoological entertainment business to the peoples of the colonies not only relegated them to the status of a mere animal species, but also classified them as a commodity. Nature and everything subsumed under this heading is made available as such, and utilized for the entertainment of urban society. On Sundays, the bourgeoisie met in the beer garden, surrounded by the prospect of global nature – occasionally enlivened by another Völkerschau passing through –, in order to reassure itself with regard to its As has been alluded to before, the architectures of the department store and the zoo reflect each other with regard to their function of transcribing and subsuming autonomous objects under the systematic order of the commodity economy. While Asian pagodas and Indian temples display the produce of distant countries in the global grocer’s displays of the department store chains, in the zoo the worlds are collected. The stylistic assimilation of alien cultural languages to the native way of thinking results in bizarre exoticisms comparable to those known from shop windows displays. Thus for example an African house in the Berlin zoo consists of Moroccan minarets, Greek columns and a German shed roof. The fact that this hybrid has nothing to do with Africa, but distincly partakes of the European notions of the „black continent“ (and can thus be read by the European visitor as „African“) appears even more peculiar if one takes into account that the zoo – apart from the aspect of entertainment – also tries to live up to its own scientific standards. The intersection of highly disparate requirements and concepts at this place which, simultaneously enclosed by the city and projecting the whole world into the city, is responsible for its development into the most complex, enigmatic and revealing heterotopia in the metropolis, a subtle mirror of the operation The contemporary metropolis reflects these central typologies in multi-faceted, endlessly fragmented and adapted forms. A tour through the city with this circumstance in mind reveals balcony biotopes and tree disc gardens, pet discount stores and shop window displays, park architectures and roadside greenery, boxwood gates and no-parking bollards within the context of a representation of nature which has been dissolved, mosaic-like, throughout the city. It is precisely the functional bent of its deployment which records its domestication as a commodity. While zoological and botanical gardens are still clearly marked as an enclosing exclusion in an extraterritorial terrain, surrounded by walls and providing subtle comments on their urban environment, nature in the urban sphere all but disappears in its assimilation to the status of a commodity. It gets lost in the semantic sign which is dispersed in the city’s subtext and insensibly inscribes nature into it. Thus, imperceptibly, it continuously informs man about the assimilation of the natural to and by the cultural, about the grand victory which has driven from the city all menacing traces of a nature which had perennially put in doubt his own self- Along with it, the radically “other”, that which is enticingly cryptic and uncontrollably liberating, goes into hiding, vanishing from the focus of urban society for the time being. It seems inappropriate to, at this point, seek refuge in an elegiac, naive perception of nature. The “other” – that much is certain – is bound to resurface in unexpected places at unexpected times: maybe as something boundlessly alien whose language we have long forgotten and with whom no communication is possible. Perhaps it will reappear in the guise of new, multi-resistant bacterial strains clinging to the ostensibly aseptic air shafts of hospitals, or as “bad” immigrants who, as “neophytes” and survivalists, attack the native purity law. Maybe, too, as those foxes in the inner cities establishing their habitat in the temporary urban waste lands created by economic forces in between the seamless chains of houses, or simply as those plants, denounced as weeds, which bulge out of the gaps between the tiles in the garden of your neighbour, roundups and Schreber laws nonwithstanding, and have so far never acknowledged any ordinance levelled against them.


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