Forum 2016 - Infrastructure Space - Detroit (Ruby Press)
133 132 The scale at which earthworks and infrastructure can now be executed warrants an urgent examination of the problematic of land reclamation and other such activities. Touching upon hinterlands, architectural blind spots, and the sand trade that has reshaped Singapore, Milica Topalović charts a route through the history of what are not just constructions of land and infrastructure—but also politics and systems of power. When Chinese military ships and warplanes took position in the South China Sea in 2014 in order to en- sure an undisturbed realization of an infrastructural project, the earthworks filling the shallow waters and cor- al reefs of Spratly Islands suddenly found themselves at the center of media attention worldwide. It was fas- cinating to see the photographs of a typically unnoticed landscape of land reclamation—sandy islands growing in the sea, surrounded by batteries of dredgers and sand barges—garnering so much attention. Of course, these new patches of terra firma being con- structed in the middle of the South China Sea are more than infrastruc- ture: the newly built sites for Chinese bases controlling the maritime basin constitute a territorial encroachment, in “violation of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea” and “causing ‘irreparable harm’ to the marine environment.” Apart from provoking an interna- tional uproar in disturbing the global geostrategic hierarchies, this case also speaks in a clear, and even spec- tacular, manner about the nature of earthworks. This example helps lift in- frastructure and land construction out of the mundane world of engineering and muddy construction pits in order to remind us of what philosophers of land or territory have long since established: that land (and infrastruc- ture) are never innocent, or purely technical and utilitarian, but always strategic, political, and ecological. What has taken place in the South China Sea illustrates that ecology and politics of land are intertwined in ways that lead to fundamental Fig. 1: Land construction is political and strategic: Reclaimed land in the South China Sea at the service of China’s campaign of territorial claims. questions about the nature of governance in the globalized world, capitalist urbanization, and urban sustainability. For example, new land construction often involves increasing the scale and complexity of resource politics; a growing patch of new land often links to long distance resource extraction and transport, to networks of sand trade and geopolitical games in transnational sand hinterlands: “sand wars” among governments and other entities, corporate, local, and international. 2 This case also shows that new land construction exceeds the commer- cial motivations behind, for example, Dubai’s Palm Islands, or the purpose of environmental engineering for transport or industry, as seen in Chi- nese and South Korean ports, such as Shenzhen and Saemangeum. Land construction is also a tool of territorial appropriation and even of encroach- ment on sovereign borders. Enabled by ever more powerful construction technology, earthworks now serve as a strategy of colonization—much more than infrastructure works were thought or meant to do. Importantly, the South China Sea case also helps remind us that earth- works, and infrastructure in general, still constitute an activity lacking public visibility and critical study, in particular from the social sciences and design disciplines. “Many as- pects of infrastructure are singularly unexciting,” points out ethnographer Susan Leigh Star, launching her call “to study boring things.” Many char- acteristics of infrastructure “appear as … technical specifications, or as hidden mechanisms subtending those processes more familiar to social scientists. It takes some dig- ging to unearth the dramas inherent in …” these systems, and “to restore narrative to what appears to be [a] dead…” bulk of data. But to study a city or an urban territory and to neglect its sewers, power supplies, or reclaimed lands and landfills, is to miss essential aspects of aesthetics, change, distributional justice, and planning power. 3 In one of his seminal essays on philosophy of land, French-Swiss ur- ban historian André Corboz describes land as a multidimensional entity, not solely physical in nature. Land, ac- cording to Corboz, originates from culture and politics as much as it is shaped by direct human intervention, and by “nature’s forces” deriving from climate or geology. In other words, land is a process , a product , and a project at the same time. 4 There is no doubt then that land can be under- stood as problem of critical research, and of design. But how can we ele- vate earthworks out of the realm of the utilitarian and rethink them in the domain of the political and the eco- logical? How can we approach land as project? Land Construction: A Lexical Entry A great many concepts are used to describe human interaction with the surface of the earth, its transforma- tion, exploitation, structuring: land , landscape , and territory are the most Land as Project: On Territorial Construction Milica Topalović The scale and speed at wh ch earth-w rk projects c n now be implemented warrants an examination of the problematic of land reclamation for territorial expansion. Touching upon the role of major infrastructure projects that have reshaped Singapore’s coastline, Milica Topalović charts route through the history of what are not just constructions of land and infrastructure, but also of political power relations.