As has been written previously on this site (in many different ways) the practices of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and other such activities of land management, planning and design are deeply humanist endeavors. At first glance this is not all that surprising as they are generally products “for humans” and “by humans” but more subtly and more nefariously so, they are humanist in that the condition of “being human” is wrapped up in their practice. In many ways we define ourselves as a species by performing these activities. Through shaping and reshaping the environment, selectively planting and manipulating environments (be they interior or exterior) constructing shelters and micro-habitats we demonstrate a kind of dominance over the earth and the animals therein – all of this reinforcing particularly western ideas of humanity and, depending who you ask, Judeo-Christian theology.
But to an extent this conversation transcends cultural differences. The history of these practices – practices centered around environmental, animal and habitat management – reaches far enough back into the past of human biological and societal evolution (arguably the beginnings of Humans as a social animals) that today their intrinsic humanism is nearly invisible. They are truly, human activities. And this cuts to the core of our species identity and thereby, our relationship to the world around us.
The anthropocentrism of these practices wouldn’t be problematic except for two main reasons: It is becoming critical that we as a species move out of an anthropocentric mind-set, leaving behind mono-species practices for environmental reasons, and secondly it’s plainly misleading. As to the first point, studies in urban-wilderness illustrating the rich biodiversity that exists within the human sphere are being issued with increasing frequency. Also the benefits of fostering and developing bio-diversity in our cities are becoming better understood and more clearly defined. To the second point, it may be debatable that we were ever the humans that we claimed to be (meaning that humanity as always been an assemblage of genomes, non-human agents and players) but now any claim to humanity is entangled in a mess of other actors, animal agents and cyborgs. Clearly, being human today is a complex issue. Yet while our political, scientific and cultural discourse is moving the human further and further outside of the center of the universe, or at least introducing many others into that center… our practical professions are sorely behind the times.
If the impetus to begin a non-anthropocentric, an anthro-eccentric practice of urban design or architecture, or landscape etc… is understood to be a necessary and important step for the survival and evolution of our species, it has yet to be demonstrated in the field. Currently design and construction practices seem mired in a romanticized and fetishized obsession with biological models, metaphors, heuristics and tropes. These are manifest in the work and the language about the work (and we’ll admit that our hands are not spotless). A recent review of the Rebuild By Design proposals for New York City in Log Journal by Ross Exo Adams, provides excellent critical insight into the ideology of Resiliency and current trends in Landscape Architecture. To it I would add a critique of anthropocentrism.
Here’s the tip that anthropocentrism is a root problem with current environmental discourse: an obsession with biology and “natural systems” all the while conveniently neglecting the fact of human’s a biological reality. The fundamental problem with current rhetoric around sustainability, resiliency etc… is the near total denial of the presence of the human within (immanent to) the biological system. It seems that despite our best intentions, the applications of bio-inclusive, -mimetic, -philic, or morphic etc… labels pertain to things other than “human” which constantly reinscribes a level of difference between “us” and the biosphere. Not to mention, I would argue a persistent sense of guilt through-out the discourse focused on looking beyond and outside of ourselves of our salvation.
An anthro-eccentric practice, on the other hand, if that were possible (the jury’s out on this) would reshape the role of the human before it reshaped the environment. It would consider impacts of changes in the environment from a variety of perspectives. It would reinforce living in the world, rather on the world.