Performative Organic Machines | Landscaping L.A.

In “Landscape: Tree Huggers”, Warren Techentin focuses on “landscape as a foundational infrastructure” in Los Angeles. He describes a sort of historical journey about the presence of trees in the city, from the early native semi-arid and riparian species to the decorative palms that has become a symbol of a leisure city, promoted by reals state forces at early 20th century. Techentin also sketches the raise of trees as performative machines, subject developed later by mammoth. As refered by Holmes in a previous post, he catched up our attention on some kind of vegetal infrastructure which appears in all cities: the “crypto-forests” as called by Primate Poetics, that is the vegetation that appears spontaneously on neglected urban interstices. “Greenery fills the vacant spaces between our roads, homes, and businesses; lines ditches and chain-link fences; sprouts in sidewalk cracks and atop neglected rooftops” as pointed by Tredici

We were really impressed by the provocative suggestion of start seeing those traces of spontaneous vegetation as a valid source of urban landscape. At the same time, the potential task of architects as explorers and promoters of this landscape as infrastructure is exciting. “Architecture, here, is not a building, but a viral meme, infecting the genetic code of a country’s building practices” as Rob Holmes says.

We have realized then that already exist interesting practices that could perfectly fit into this kind of agents mentioned by Holmes, they are architects and artists with scientific and technical skills and urban sensibility. In some way they’ve been developing interesting hybrid species generated by technologies rarely used in architecture or sometimes as a result of our detritus left in urban environment. Some of these projects are listed below:

[1] Urban Parasites by Gilberto Esparza


Hanging Parasite by Gilberto Esparza

The urban parasite are small robotic creatures that explore the urban space in search of any source of energy they can feed on. The species above, the hanging parasite belongs to the chain of “helmintos poleápodos“. Their body is formed by the rest of some PVC pipes, articulated in parts or small pieces. This parasite lives suspended in the telephone wires and beeps to interact with the surrounding sound environment. It gets its energy from the same source of the electric pole.


Autótrofos inorgánicos by Gilberto Esparza

The autótrofos inorgánicos [not known translation, it could be “Inorganic autotrophs”], are organisms that use sunlight and transform it into electrical noise. Outdoors, these organisms have their own live and are susceptible to changes due to the light and shades of the environment. These variations are processed and translated into sounds, involving the soundscape of their environment.

These urban parasites could to be a materialization of viral memes mentioned by Holmes. They live just as one more of the species of the whole cultivated landscape of the city, and with its sounds interaction, they become another character that inhabitat the urban space.

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[2] Eco-Boulevard by Ecosistema Urbano


Tree from the Vallecas Eco-Boulevard. Photo by dpr-barcelona

The whole proposal for the eco-boulevard in Vallecas can be defined as an urban recycling operation consisting of the following actions: insertion of an air tree-social dynamizer, over an existing urbanization area, densification of existing alignment trees and reduction and asymmetric arrangement of wheeled traffic circulation. In this context, Ecosistema Urbano‘s air tree became a light structure that is self-sufficient in terms of energy and can be easily dismantled. It consumes only what it can produce through photovoltaic solar energy collection systems. Selling this energy to the power network generates a superavit on the annual balance sheet and this is reinvested in the maintenance of the structure itself. Focusing on the air-tree as a “tool for supplying cities with higher climatic comfort and serving thus as the seed of a public space regenerating process“, we can’t avoid to relate this project with Techentin words, when he wrote:

Recently, however, this relationship [between trees and humanity] has become more symbiotic as we have come to an understanding of the importance of trees in the urban ecosystem. Taken in conjuction with plant life everywhere, trees collectively fuction like a giant machine –an enormous oxygen-producing and pollutant-filtering infrastructure for the city.


Tree from the Vallecas Eco-Boulevard. Photo by dpr-barcelona

The use of technology plays on this project a critical and decisive role as it adapts to an authentic and specific context, as our friends from Ecosistema Urbano explain, and they add that the architectural potential of technology lies on its reprogramming and combination with other elements, so that true architectural ready-mades are configured.

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[3] Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza


Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza

While visiting Mexico City as part of Postópolis! DF, we had the opportunity to attend to Gilberto Esparza‘s presentation, invited by Regine Debatty from We Make Money Not Art. Nomadic Plants is part of a series of experiments that aim to stimulate a critical discussion about the ambiguous forces wielded by technology, as Regine describes it:

Vegetation and microorganisms live in symbiosis inside the body of the Nomadic Plants robot. Whenever its bacteria require nourishment, the self-sufficient robot will move towards a contaminated river and ‘drink’ water from it. Through a process of microbial fuel cell, the elements contained in the water are decomposed and turned into energy that can feed the brain circuits of the robot. The surplus is then used to create life, enabling plants to complete their own life cycle.


Nomadic Plants by Gilberto Esparza

According to Techentin, in Los Angeles, the original landscape and its agricultural successor have been virtually supplanted by alien, ornamental trees. In that sense, it’s interesting to speculate on the idea of also having this kind of “vegetal alien” as Esparza’s Nomadic Plants in L.A. They can even be helpful to reduce The Los Angeles River‘s pollution. Esparza pointed that the microorganisms that live inside the robots are identical to the ones that can be find in the river and he also comment that he prefers to use the plants that used to be native to the river before it became so polluted. Even if the experiment has taken place in Mexican rivers, the technology can be exported to Los Angeles and be part of this new organic-machines described by Techentin.

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[4] Breeze by Robotany


Breeze by Robotany. Click this link to see the interactive animation

Robotany is a collaborative of Jill Coffin, John Taylor, and Daniel Bauen to combine nature and robotics. Breeze, the first installation of Robotany, is an ambient robot inhabiting the body of a japanese maple. Breeze can visually sense and react through 360 degrees, allowing her to reach out to you and others whenever you are near. We read at The Infrastructural City about the idea that trees in the city are not anymore just merely ornamental, but are becoming a kind of performative organic machines, that will be capable of generate fresh air and shade our cities and we inmediatly thought that Breeze is on its way to become part of this idea, and that the 360º reaction is only the first step for future developments that will permit that technologies like these can create new urban landscapes.

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[5] Generator by Cedric Price


Artificial trees from Generator. Picture taken from the book The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Going back in time, to the late 1970s, we can see that the idea of creating artificial trees was already in some architect’s mind. Cedric Price worked from 1978 to 1980 on the project Generator, an early investigation into artificially intelligent architecture that, as we can read in the book The Changing of the Avant-Garde, was designed with no specific program, but only a desired end-effect in mind. Molly Wright Steenson pointed at her research work:

Technologically speaking, it must be said that Generator was a notably prescient project. It represents the nexus of architecture and nascent ubiquitous computing. The technical ideas behind Price and the Frazers’ collaboration on Generator have still not been largely realized.

The main project was designed to house dance, theather and visiting artists from the Gilman Paper Corporation, but as part of the main design we can see the trees, both natural and man-made as site totems.


Artificial trees from Generator. Picture taken from the book The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Price had created a complete set of temporary structures. It was intended to operate by means of a central computer with which a visitor would combine any of the 150 of the Generator’s four-by-four-meters, fully serviced, air-conditioned cubes, or walls, screens, gangways and communication chanels into a structure. His forward-thinking vision of the future is now our present, where cities can create urban environments by mixing natural vegetation with a whole forest of imitative, performative and embedded artificial “trees”.

This concept drives us to think about the Frankenpine, a term used to describe a cellular telephone tower that has been camouflaged to look like a pine tree, when Warren Techentin pointed:

With the Frankenpine thriving, it is possible to speculate on an urban future in which thousands of artificial trees might be deployed throughout the city: on streets, in malls, and in our office landscapes. In the next generation of office or mall equipment, we may see new tree-machines proliferating amongst this landscape–providing wireless communication, video monitoring, air filtration, security, and space for storage, digital or otherwise.

When Techentin asks about having a “prosthetic system that would augment living trees, providing necessary features that we otherwise would find disagreeable to look at, some of which may provide a solution for some of today’s urban ills“… isn’t he talking about the Nomadic Plants or the Eco-Boulevard?

Or should we envision the future os Los Angeles as a city nurtured by organic machines and migrating vegetation at the same time?

What if the next step in L.A. vegetal fabric is moving from this:


Trimming of palm trees in Los Angeles. Source flickr and Pruned

To this:


Tree from the Vallecas Eco-Boulevard. Photo by dpr-barcelona

Maybe the next step is going to have urban parasites growing and loitering in L.A. urban landfills transforming them in new cyborg crypto-forests
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This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading “Landscape: Tree Huggers”, by Warren Techentin.

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