From the 17th to the 29th of March 2015, the Andrew Lee King Fun Gallery (ALKF Gallery), located within the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at Melbourne University, hosted the exhibition Operational Landscapes: Towards an Alternative Cartography of World Urbanization, featuring a series of scientific activities directed by Neil Brenner from Harvard University (including a public lecture by Brenner fully available here).

In 2014, as the Head of the Urban Theory Lab (UTL) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), Brenner published an influential book entitled Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. The 2015 exhibition brought some of the ideas of Implosions/Explosions to Melbourne. Given the book’s cover photograph, by Garth Lenz, of oil sands in Alberta, Canada (Figure 2), it came as little surprise that Brenner’s lab was considering, as starting points for the study of the urban phenomenon, the Arctic territories, the Amazonian region, the farthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and even the atmosphere. This constitutes Brenner’s “inside out” approach, which, in part, is his attempt to invalidate the notion of “urban age” and claims like “50 per cent threshold of world population now living in cities” as a starting point for urban study. The investigation of what stands outside cities and of their processes, he thinks, proves to be far more relevant to comprehending the global urban than a demographic threshold that threatens to hide radically different local situations. 


Figure 1: The main exhibition room of Operational Landscapes in the Melbourne School of Design (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015, work by UTL-GSD Harvard)


Figure 2: Implosions/Explosions (2014), a collection of theoretical texts assembled and edited by Neil Brenner (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015)

The exhibition in Melbourne—which is planned to be reproduced elsewhere in the near future—appeared to have three goals: firstly, to promote the release of the book to an audience of researchers and students; secondly, to create a theoretical and epistemological discussion within the Melbourne School of Design; thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, to show how “the development of new theories of urbanization can … be translated into new visualizations of ongoing spatial transformations across places, sites, territories and scales” (Brenner, 2013: 19). This dialectic between theoretical development and cartographic visualization reflects two aspects of Brenner and the UTL’s work: a strong desire for a theoretical foray that is experimental and innovative, and the creation of a collaborative and pedagogic space (Brenner, 2013: 6-7).

Set in the unique, spacious and luminous room of the ALKF Gallery, the first part of the exhibition consists of video screens displaying a synthetic overview of the UTL’s work, as well as its main theoretical and epistemological positioning. The exhibition then continues with eight poster-panels, each presenting an operational landscape and the fruits of the impressive technical and theoretical work of the GSD teams. 


Figure 3: The pedagogic approach of the exhibition, featuring one operational landscape per panel. Here from foreground to background, the Artic, Sahara, Siberian landscapes, and the critique of spatial ideology (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015; work by the UTL-GSD Harvard)

Theoretical and epistemological genesis of the operational landscapes

The introductory chapter of Brenner’s Implosions/Explosions offers a definition of the operational landscapes that we find again throughout the exhibition. Operational landscapes are are those “zones of resource extraction, agro-industrial enclosure, logistics and communications infrastructure, tourism and waste disposal, which often traverse peripheral, remote and apparently ‘rural’ or ‘natural’ locations” (Brenner, 2014: 20). Historically, these processes of strategic accumulation find their founding principles in Marx with the formation of capitalism and economic production being created by certain spaces that sustain urban growth:

“The capitalist form of agglomeration thus presupposes the enclosure and operationalization of large-scale territories located well beyond the city to support its most basic socioeconomic activities, metabolic cycles and growth imperatives” (Brenner, 2014: 20).

The rhythm in which these spaces develop and the size of the production and engineering processes taking place within link them even further to the major urban centers and to the planetary spatial division of labor.

This generalized operationalization of the planet, in its terrestrial, underground, oceanic and even atmospheric spaces, discounts the morphological and demographical approaches to urbanization. Notions of hinterland and urban/rural distinctions find themselves rejected for their lack of acuteness and relevance in regard to the industrial, economic and ecological transformations now reaching formerly marginalized spaces.

This epistemological construction takes as a starting point and theoretical base the second chapter of Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970). The dynamic of implosion/explosion as conceptualized by Brenner may then be read as a response to the provocative assessment of Lefebvre according to whom the entire society is already urbanized. Brenner’s “implosion” and “explosion” then constitute moments within the process of urbanization, dialectical and interdependent but also profoundly conflicting, echoing the attention of Lefebvre to the temporal and diachronic dimension of socio-spatial phenomena (2004). This dialectic is particularly fertile when conceptualizing urbanization but also when developing cartographic tools for the study of socio-spatial organisation. 


Figure 4: The theoretical thought process of the UTL, from the refusal of the morphological and demographic categories of the urban to the development of historicity within the process of planetary urbanisation, photomontage (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015, work by UTL-GSD Harvard)

This epistemological challenge to urban studies may seem to lead to a methodological dead-end, an absence of localized or regional content. But the abolition of the city boundaries, of its hinterland, of its outside and of its demographic definition does not result in the death of the urban, nor of its landscapes. On the contrary, Brenner’s theoretical construction is built on a cartographic approach and an extremely meticulous study of operational landscapes that enrich and complete the comprehension of planetary urbanization.

The “urban theory without an outside”, which gives its name to the introductory chapter of Implosions/Explosions (2014), then, consists in a prise de position in both senses, epistemological and geographical: it takes a stance outside the common doxa on urban age and places itself beyond the limits of the urban. To “get rid of the outside” for Brenner means to come to grips with the spaces rarely or never considered by urban studies—a lack of consideration which can be contested by the importance and renewal offered by political ecology—and show the role of such spaces within the planetary urbanization.

The urban without limit or periphery: a pioneering and radical cartography

Through the speculative cartographies of these emergent landscapes, the Operational Landscapes exhibition illustrates the transformations that occur at the other end of the city, places far away from the centers, the “outsides” commonly represented as rural, isolated or even untamed. The cartographic work of the UTL focuses on eight regions and asks the following question of them: Which of their features involve them in the planetary fabric of urbanization? The answers include their utilization of energy, water, raw materials, agricultural resources and their involvement in logistics systems—restructuring and enclosing processes that radically transform them. We all, then, assist in planetary urbanization, measured in terms of installations, infrastructures and ecology far beyond the demographic and morphologic limits of the city. 


Figure 5: The eight operational landscapes presented in the exhibition, photomontage (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015, work by the UTL-GSD Harvard)

The UTL aligns itself with a radical cartography that is intimately linked with recent theoretical debates:

“We view the projects of urban theory and urban mapping/cartography as inextricably connected. … On this basis, we aim to develop new ways of visualizing urbanization that supersede inherited metageographical binarisms (for instance, urban/rural, town/country, city/non-city, society/nature) and thus offer new perspectives for understanding the variegated and deeply polarized geographies of our urbanized planet” (Brenner, 2013: 13-14).

The UTL thereby places itself directly in the tradition of the critical work of radical cartography as it was first envisioned by Brian Harley (2001; see also Gould et Bailly, 1995) then by Denis Wood (Wood and Fels, 1992) and Mark Monmonier (1996). Brenner and his peers want to deliver, through innovative and alternative methodologies, politically engaged material, liberated from the ideological ascendency of the command of technological tools such as the GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and the GPS (Global Positioning System):

“… [G]eospatial visualizations have become a commonplace reference point used to illustrate or justify diverse interpretations of the world’s built and unbuilt landscapes at nearly every conceivable spatial scale” (Brenner, 2013: 16).

To fight this “photographic illusion” (Brenner, 2013: 16), the UTL suggests the development of a critique of geospatial ideology—an attempt also outlined in Michel Lussault’s L’Avènement du Monde (2013), which was inspired by the work of geographer Denis Cosgrove (1994)—as well as a “radical reinvention” (Brenner, 2013: 17) of visual cartographic representations.

Operational Landscapes aligns itself with this injunction. A first panel entitled “Critique of spatial ideology” presents a set of cartographic criteria—“the night-time lights,” “the last of the wild,” “the anthropogenic biomes”—that is commonly used in representations of urban spaces and applies them to the team’s eight operational spaces. Doing so reveals the inability of these criteria to explain the process of urbanization. When used by urban scholars as tools for studying these spaces, they in fact act as shutters; they reveal neither the geopolitical processes nor the technical and logistical operations at stake, nor the ecological transformations that the spaces undergo. Against the prevalence of such cartographic choices in urban studies, the UTL proposes to reveal other phenomena going across these spaces through a counter-mapping that transforms extreme territories into urban places undergoing intense densification.

For this counter-mapping, Neil Brenner and the UTL team elaborate a new set of criteria that appear on another screen of the exhibition (figure 4): “connectivity, intensity and geopolitics,” the three notions that have served and tested the processes of operationalization in the chosen territories. The Atmosphere panel (figure 6) then presents a timeline sitting on top of a world map and linked to the different countries. Colored beams represent the installation of satellites in the atmosphere and visually fill the space occupied by these communication and observation technologies. 


Figure 6: «Atmosphere» (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015; work by UTL-GSD Harvard)

According to the same criteria, the Pacific Ocean panel (Figure 7) emphasises ports, communication roads, and geopolitical exchanges as well as extraction mines and waste produced in this region. Very close attention is given to the temporal dimension intervening in these territories. This is particularly the case on the Siberia panel, which represents extraction rhythms and fossil energy transportation that fosters Asian and European urban growth.

On top of the Himalaya panel stands a sibylline quote by Andy Merryfield:

“The urbanization of the world is a kind of exteriorization of the inside as well as interiorization of the outside: the urban unfolds into the countryside just as the countryside folds back into the city.”

On a black background, the cartography of the mountain range allows us to see through luminous dots the network of hydro-electrical dams forming a logistical arsenal to supply India and China with electricity. With the Gobi desert (figure 7), the cartographic approach borrows from infographics to make intelligible how such a system of extraction and environmental deterioration can impact the quality of air in Chinese cities such as Beijing. Cartographic innovation, however, never interferes with clarity, and the work of the UTL remarkably allies complex theory with data richness and visual pedagogy.


Figure 7: « Pacific Ocean » (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015; work by UTL-GSD Harvard)


Figure 8: « Gobi » (photograph by Louise Dorignon, 2015; work by UTL-GSD Harvard)

The theory in action: a piece of epistemological bravery saluted by the scientific community

Implosions/Explosions has already been raised to the level of a reference book for the social sciences (Sklair, 2015: 1550), defined by the most enthusiastic as a theoretical “tour de force” (Acuto, 2014: 1), and recognized by all for its intention to provoke a paradigmatic change within the urban studies disciplines (Sklair, 2015: 1550).

Three popular criticisms to the approach come to mind, however, and may be usefully linked to the exhibition. Leslie Sklair, for instance, points out in his review of Implosions/Explosions that the deconstruction of the morphological argument is forgotten, as are architecture and the image of the city (Sklair, 2015: 1550). The voluntary omission of the built environment in the exhibition is signaled at its beginning and is certainly a provocative and engaged choice; however, we could agree with Sklair and hope for more nourished justification. The second criticism is that the input of radical and alternative cartography (whether it comes from scientific or activist spheres) does not appear in the exhibition: one remains curious about the methodological choices behind the mapping. Finally, the most felt absence of the exhibition—and maybe of Brenner’s book as well—is the mention of political ecology, a surprising absence considering the fact that the epistemological choices and content of this sub-discipline work in linking the presence of logistics networks, infrastructures and industrial operations with the political and environmental dimensions of territories (Dietz et al. 2014) and particularly with what seems most at stake in the exhibition: the whole of energy and resources that makes for urbanization. 


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A French version of this commentary originally appeared in the online journal Urbanités. It is re-published here with their kind permission.