If you were in San Antonio between 1964 and 1999, you certainly remember the Brackenridge Skyride (1964) and the HemisFair Monorail (1968). Everybody reminisces about gliding through Brackenridge Park, feeling the warm wind in their hair, seeing the horizon, and experiencing the city from completely new vantage points with a smile on their face.

This bit of San Antonio nostalgia outlines a shift in the relationship between culture and geography, and nature and society. Western modernity established radical divisions between the environment and culture — and the subject and object — fostering the idea of “a conquest of nature by reason, synonymous with the continuous progress of our human condition.”1 As a result, every facet of life is segmented and compartmentalized, occurring in separate spheres. At work, home, and in public life, everywhere there are distinct spatial separations. We keep the ill in hospitals, criminals in prisons, and the elderly in homes for the elderly. We work in offices and factories, learn at schools and universities, go to museums to see art, to the symphony for music, and at the theater we see plays. Streets are for movement; stores are a place to purchase products; stadiums are for sports; parks are a place for recreation; and transportation is a means to efficiently move from A to B.2 But where are we, as Richard Sennett suggests, experiencing “the complexities of life?”3 In “The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities,” he elaborates on the differences between the Greek and modern societies: “[T]he ancients could use their eyes in the city to think about political, religious, and erotic experiences, [but] modern culture suffers from a divide between the inside and outside. It is a divide between subjective experience and worldly experience, self and the city.”4 Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace or Walter Benjamin’s Paris Arcades stand as metaphors for the spatiality of modernity without an “outside.” Peter Sloterdijk provocatively describes this condition as “the world interior of capital, an agora or a trade fair beneath the open sky that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside.”5

Globalization, and capitalism with its interior spatialities, completely reframed the discourse on the anthroprocene as an event to be celebrated, rather than lamented or feared. Eco-modernists welcome the “new epoch as a sign of man’s ability to transform and control nature. They see it as evidence neither of global capitalism’s essential fault nor of humankind’s short-sightedness and rapacity; instead, it arrives as an opportunity for humans finally to come into their own.”6 From the Greek, anthropo- (human), and –cene (new), the anthroprocene emerged as a proposal for a new geological epoch by Paul Crutzen. In an article published in 2002, Crutzen outlined a planetary-wide system of causes and effects, explaining how changes to the planet have become so prominent that humans are now described not only as geographical agents, but also as geological ones. Within the framework of human territoriality, Robert David Sack argues, geography is everywhere and “we humans are geographic beings transforming the earth, and that transformed world affects who we are.”7

This not only outlines global change, or that the human condition is an urban condition. In fact, as some have argued, the world itself is a human construction rather than an a priori condition. Architecture straddles the intersection of these geographies, and at this trajectory it makes nature a fundamentally architectural issue. Dietmar Steiner alludes to the relationship between architecture and nature by saying, “Sometimes it requires architectural interventions in nature, in order to get closer to it.”8
New, hybrid conditions demand new sensory approaches to nearly every aspect of our lives. To shape our environment, it is not simply about adapting to new ways of life or “thinking sustainably.” “There is something deeply troubling in many ecological demands suddenly to restrict ourselves and try to leave no more footprints on a planet we have nevertheless already modified through and through,”9 as Bruno Latour puts it. What’s troubling is not the level of restrictions that are demanded, or how we think we are solving systemic issues by making better machines. It’s that we continue to rely on “the management discourses of environmental science and technology, seeing environment as an object that has the possibility to create alternative trajectories for architectural scholarship and experimentation that could build unprecedented relations with eco-criticism, science-technology studies, and environmental history.”10

In the Expander Lab, a “think/do-tank” in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, we are arguing for a fundamental ontological shift in the relationship to the environment without reducing the urban to a totality without an “outside.” Our research is concerned with the geographic, a design and research paradigm to foreground the politics of isolationism in the urban-ecological question. In “The Politics of Nature,” Latour claims that “nature is not a particular sphere of reality but the result of such a political division.”11 In the lab, we explore strategies and tactics that do not just question the limits of the politics of divisions of urban and suburban spatiality, but also critique urbanisms that are too focused on the city and ecologism that is too concerned with “nature.”

How do we respond to these spatial, if not ontological, problems? How do they unfold, and what are the political forms their spatial organization produces? What are the implications for the agency of architecture? Can architects venture into an era in which we show political commitment to become protagonists of a new alliance between architecture and nature?
By 2040, San Antonio’s population will have increased by more than one million people. As a result, existing infrastructure, public transit, and ecological systems will be challenged. Territorial partitioning and compartmentalization have contributed not only to an increased spatialization and division of the urban fabric, but to a political economy, at both macro and micro levels, in which “interpreting these effects depends once again on one’s view of capitalism.”12 More pragmatically speaking, ongoing urbanizations are begging for refreshed morphological models.

It is no secret that San Antonio is struggling with inactive systems being unavailable to the public; more importantly, however, its cultural markers are not blending with the fabric. Furthermore, roads need repair and the city’s mass transit and public park systems need capital improvement. The larger systemic issues reach far beyond the obvious. Alexander D’Hooghe, MIT professor and director of the Center for Advanced Urbanism, investigates how infrastructure-related dissatisfaction is primarily rooted in a sense of cultural impoverishment. He argues that culture not only collectively reflects shared values; it also “requires, at its most basic level, a common space for these expressions to be articulated and received.”13

Cities across the nation — New York, Chicago, Boston — have already re-conceptualized the needs of new demographic movements from the periphery into the center. Under the umbrella of landscape urbanism, newly designed streets, parks, and public spaces incorporate artifacts of the American industrial landscape, unused and underutilized interstitial spaces, and infrastructure.
At 8.6 miles long, Broadway Avenue in San Antonio is such an a priori condition. Stretching from the airport to downtown, Broadway is centerless and fragmented, an agglomeration of micro-communities, residential areas, businesses, and parking lots. The experience of the avenue only feels urban through the windshield of a car. As a pedestrian — if someone would dare to walk, let alone cycle — it feels suburban, because there is hardly any pedestrian experience to be had along the avenue. Nearly 50 percent of its urban landscape is flanked by parking space. In fact, nearly all spaces along Broadway are tied to businesses, and almost no public spaces exist for people to mingle or gather as citizens without being consumers. As a result, the architecture is incoherent, with an urban facade that reminds one of a commercial corridor rather than a great avenue in America’s seventh-largest city. Despite developments like the historic Pearl Brewery district, the architecture leaves no room for imagination, supporting the argument that Broadway is an unresolved urban space. One could take this idea further and argue that Broadway is an artifact of the suburban American consumer landscape.

“1,000 Parks and a Line in the Sky” proposes a linear park system of 1,000 parks and a skybus public transit system that connects the San Antonio Airport to Travis Park. The project renders Broadway Avenue as (micro)-geography. Within the framework of San Antonio, a polycentric field of geographic objects and events — the downtown tourist core, San Antonio Museum of Art, Pearl Brewery, Alamo Heights — Broadway, a centerless line, has the potential to articulate a more nuanced awareness of sharing a common geography, a common web of individual and shared memories, and, ultimately, a common destiny within the city.
Ranging from micro to macro, 1,000 potential frameworks for parks we propose are unused interstitial spaces we mapped along Broadway. The idea is to avail citizens of new geographic frameworks for activating larger systems along the thoroughfare. To amplify the contestation between architectural and geographic scales, parks, as well as the skybus, are experienced as sequences of encounters and events, as one moves from place to place. The 1,000 parks stretch from the airport — the moment of arrival or, as a matter of fact, departure — to downtown, expanding and contracting horizontally and vertically to completely obliterate any set boundaries of urban perceptions, infrastructures, and transportation.

Rather than simply the context within which architecture performs on Broadway, the environment is actually defined by architecture. Like architecture, it has been and continues to be manifested in various incarnations with multiple meanings and implications. Within this framework the linear park system did not conceptualize the environment as “natural,” requiring being preserved or protected, or systemic, needing to be managed and maintained, but as a geographic non-naturalistic conception of the environment. The material presence and performance of “1,000 Parks and a Line in the Sky” draws from its familiarity that is strategically suspended somewhere between nostalgia and identity, and abstraction. These various environments are revealed at all of the scales at which architecture operates, such as a room, a building, a facade, a city, and an infrastructure. We are not looking at them as epistemological provocations or discrete phenomena to speculate about the city of the future, but how they come together.
The way we engaged with the contemporary city not only shortened the distance between innovation in design research and the way we as designers impact the world, but it also instigated new political and social realities, and recovered regional aesthetics that derived a new legitimacy from the (causal) relationships between micro-geographies, infrastructure, ecologies, and demographic flows that are crucial in developing new meanings of new (sub)-urban geographies that greatly affect Broadway Avenue, and San Antonio as a region. This not only postulated a new level of significance for the readability of the urban fabric, but it allowed for a critical look into how contemporary urban theory unfolds in questions immanent in San Antonio. As a matter of fact, some of our findings and methodologies gave us a better sense of how, currently, the agency of architecture plagues architects, planners, and designers on a regular basis.

Macro-scale community engagement — lectures, symposia, roundtable discussions, and the exhibition of our 50-ft-long model — were our means to keep an open dialogue in the design process, but we also aimed to expand and refine our own methods of public engagement to embrace San Antonio’s rich cultural heritage in the design of the future of one of San Antonio’s main avenues. Our reflections on history and experiences in the present, along with the involvement of a vast array of people from the public and private sectors — decision-makers, stakeholders, consultants, specialists, and citizens — all contributed to active participation and the shaping of new social and cultural spaces, perhaps even new identities, as a reflection of the larger cultural fabric of San Antonio.

The way we engaged with (sub)-urban natures or anthropocenic trajectories, both as an investigation and as a geographically infused practice, illuminated deeper conflicts between society and nature. We replaced them, and regarded the contested relationship as an opportunity to reformulate spatial systems as metaphors for epistemology and a new rupture of geographic relations upon which, arguably, the totality of urbanism rests today.

Antonio Petrov is a professor at the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction, and Planning.

  1. Chiambaretta, Phillippe, ed. Inhabiting the Anthroprocene, Steam 03 Anthroprocene: Steam/PCA, 2014, p. 9.
  2. Sack, Robert David. Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History. Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography.  Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  3.  Sennett, Richard. The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. 1st ed.  New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1990.
  4.  Ibid.
  5. Sloterdijk, Peter, and Wieland Hoban. In the World Interior of Capital: For a Philosophical Theory of Globalization. English edition. ed. 2014.
  6. Hamilton, Clive. “The Theodicy of the “Good Anthropocene.” Environmental Humanities, Vol. 7 (2015), pp. 233-38.
  7.  Sack, Robert David. Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness, and Moral Concern.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  8. Steiner, Dietmar. “Die Sieben Letzten Tage Der Moderne.” Bauwelt 16.17-16 (2016).
  9. Latour, Bruno. “Will Non-Humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 459-75.
  10. Jørgensen, Dolly, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard. New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies.  Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
  11. Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy.  Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2004
  12.  Sack, Robert David. Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History. Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography. Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  13. Allen, Stan, Meredith Baber, and MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism. Infrastructural Monument. First edition. ed.

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