An Incomplete Atlas of Stones: A Cartography of the Tsunami Stones on the Japanese Shoreline

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Material practices are deeply political practices. In the early history of landscape architecture in North America — where I was trained in philosophy and landscape architecture — Frederick Law Olmsted and some of his contemporaries worked as designers and, crucially, as advocates for public literacy, awareness, and ultimately the protection of landscapes that they considered essential to the overall well-being of the public sphere. In so doing, they explicitly acted to expand the field of possibilities for landscape architecture, moving back and forth between designing discrete sites and designing political dialogues.This movement not only extended the influence of landscape architecture beyond the boundaries of the site, but it empowered a profession in its early stages to consider its agency at scales beyond the site, endowing it with the responsibility to consider the forces that shape landscape outside of design, including politics, economy, and material processes.

The problem of moving shorelines, of transgressions and regressions, remains a fundamental question to disciplines from geology to landscape architecture, and to the safety (or risk) of those who live along coastlines. An Incomplete Atlas investigates a type of stone set into a coastal landscape, the tsunami stones of Japan, in order to carry those aims forward, in order to think collectively about how we design and conduct research, in order to develop a greater fluency about the relations involved in making landscapes.

Landscape Agency ///
It is, after all, “landscape’s genius, landscape’s own agency, is that it is forever masking the work that makes it” (Don Mitchell, “Landscape’s Agency,” 2017). For the most part, Mitchell goes on, the illusion suits us fine — those who the landscapes are for — until it’s not, when the material labor of the landscape is revealed, usually in disaster or in conflict but also through scientific enquiry. How, then, can we reveal landscape’s agency before the event? Or, how might we recover the critical capacity of landscape architecture, assuming it ever had it to begin with?