The Shape of Things: Reimagining Landscape Parliaments in the Anthropocene
By Karl Kullmann
Reviewed by Deni Ruggeri
13 February 2018
Photo courtesy of Michal Hubert
Image: Fluid parliament, the Öxará River intercepting the Thingvellir Fissure Swarm
“We are standing in the parliament in the rain. Following parliamentary protocol, a cold clear river crosses the floor from left to east. From the margins, basalt walls move motions at a rate of half a millimeter every week. In the midnight twilight, it dawns on us that this fluidic chamber reports to an ad hoc committee of continents and islands. As Europe and America drift physically (and politically) apart, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge admits new ground to the quorum: Tristan da Cunha, St. Helena, Ascension, the Azores. And Iceland.”
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Karl Kullmann recently published an essay titled "The Shape of Things: Reimagining Landscape Parliaments in the Anthropocene" in Forty-Five, a journal of outside research.
In the essay, Kullmann discusses the Thingvellir, the space that once served as Iceland’s annual outdoor parliament for nearly a thousand years. Thingvellir, which exists between two tectonic plates, was a beacon for citizens to come and discuss issues of concern. “Here amidst the rocky fissures of Almannagjá Gorge, divisive matters were debated in a literally dividing landscape,” Kullmann writes.
Kullmann states that sites still remain across Nordic lands that pay homage to the celebrated parliament. The sites retain names similar to the old norse word “Ting/Þing” meaning public assembly. For example, Gulating in Norway, Tingwalla in Sweden, Tinganes in the Faroe Islands, Tingwall in Shetland and Orkney, and Tynwald on the Isle of Man.
“Pings” can be traced to the ancient Germanic proto-parliamentary “Ding,” which were sites for general assembly or court of law in Old High German. These spaces tended to exist in topographically significant locations that featured megaliths, large trees, or springs.
The Thingvellir Parliament is significant in the larger trend of European modernization. “With the rise of the centralized state and the application of modern cartography, land enclosure eroded the feudal commons that Thing parliaments typically occupied. With no place left in the landscape, Things moved undercover and, eventually, within fully enclosed buildings,” Kullmann writes.
This also marked a transition of “things” being references of landscape-based community assemblies to “things” becoming reified as physical objects. And so is how we perceive “things” today, “as all manner of inanimate and unnamed objects that surround us with our own indifference,” Kullmann writes.
Kullmann states that this transition has led to friction and divisiveness between humans and capital. Especially notable in the environmental impacts of humans which has become increasingly problematic since the Industrial revolution.
To retrieve the political agency of a landscape, it is necessary to take consideration of all the things we overlook, Kullmann says. Non-human objects have the power to instigate actions just as their human-counterparts can. The parliament of things, or the assembly of things that draw issues together, must be considered in object-oriented politics, in which humans are connected.
To re-foster the divergence between things that happen in buildings and things that unfold in the landscape, it is important that symbolic buildings aspire to be more landscape and less building. Kullmann offers the example of Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue’s design for the Scottish Parliament, which emerges—basalt like—from Edinburgh’s geologic setting.
Kullmann mentions that future parliaments should link shape to scape, that is allow the landscape to impart “significant agency through its contours.” This encourages a space that is decentralized and invokes “a sense of time that flows not only in one direction.”
Kullmann also discusses linking our field of perception to the topographic horizon to provoke a feeling of trajectory, to remind us about the semipermeable threshold of things, and to bring attention to the wider landscape.
Kullmann's essay questions the role that landscape architects have in the evolution of cities. He ultimately suggests that old knowledge will have great significance in determining future landscapes. “Landscape transformations will require full and rich participation, and partnerships between experts and citizen scientists, activists, and entrepreneurs investing their hearts and stewarding the landscapes of Things-that-matter for generations yet to come.”
Read the full essay here.