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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

BOOK REVIEW: "Lo-Tek; Design by Radical Indigenism" by Julia Watson

Entitled "Rooted in Place", in the May 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine my extended book review of Julia Watson's new book was published.


(The following is the final draft of the review which can be seen in its entirety in the published magazine).

Recently I tried to find a citation for the expression “the same thinking that got you into a problem won’t get you out of it,” which is generally ascribed to Albert Einstein. But as I dug deeper I found the original is impossible to trace. Einstein’s putative expression is pertinent to Julia Watson’s important new book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, because she offers new, but old, thinking, but also because it’s about knowledge passed on by word of mouth, with mythological origins. With a multi-faceted environmental emergency pressing hard on human civilisation, the thinking of modernity that caused these crises is indeed being mobilised again to fix them, and geoengineering, in particular, has the potential to precipitate an even bigger crisis. A key problem in this type of thinking is its singularity. It’s an attempt to analyse and work with factors that have been segregated by science into silos but that actually interact in highly specific, complex ways that cross disciplinary boundaries, a common feature now of project and research teams.

Watson’s beautiful book describes natural “technologies” used by indigenous people that comprise soil, water, climate, and, most important, culture. At first glance, these categories might provide a useful division for the book, but in fact all the technologies use all these ingredients, which shows in the first instance why “indigenism,” as Watson calls it, might be a useful approach in contrast to the singularity of modern solutions. When you plop open the rough, loose cardboard cover, you may wonder whether the binding is failing, though it is soon revealed that, no, the book’s construction is deliberate. On the inner pages you find an index of elevation in meters (a rational measure) that calibrates the organisation of the book into four sections–Mountains, Forests, Deserts, and Wetlands–with 18 sites that are a synthesis of place, culture, and what Watson calls “technologies.” This book is a clear change from the glossy, picture-based titles that one associates with Taschen–on people such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Zaha Hadid, Antoni Gaudí, et al–because it was designed by Watson with W-E Studio. The book is a careful example of what I call “propositional geography,” a mining of the real with an eye to its utility in design, and it has a number of the tropes that are familiar to this time–CAD-drawn axonometrics drawn like aircraft emergency cards, illustrative sections, etc.–that verge on but just hold back from design speculation.

A key evocative technology, the “living root bridges” in Jingieng Dieng Jri, India, of the Khasa people, could have prompted the book, as they instantly demonstrate its key themes. The bridges are the de-facto emblem for the book, appearing in most publicity for it because they are so recognisable and intriguing but also because, as Watson notes in her introduction, the word “radical” in the subtitle of the book comes from the Latin radix, meaning root. They are made of the aerial roots of rubber trees planted along river banks that have been braided together over time to create bridges across the river for use in high water during monsoon. Hollowed-out betel nut trunks are used to encase the developing roots, which grow along them, taking many years to join, the roots naturally thickening as they do, to create bridges that are approximately 250 years old, overlaid with rocks that act as stepping stones and ladders for access. Watson notes the paradox that while conventional timber bridges decompose over time, cutting their lifespan, “by using living roots, over time the living root bridges grow stronger.” This type of approach typifies what I have called the “viridic,”[1] which is a language for growth as a material in landscape architecture and highlights a quality that the statistician Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragility,” wherein something gains strength over time rather than losing it, which he contrasts with resilience, a term he considers negative.[2] This approach to growing material has also been a fascination for architecture for the past 10 years, such as in the investigation of “proto-cell architecture,” which seeks to overcome the inherent static quality of building materials.[3] Watson’s focus on the use by indigenous people of these living materials as “technology,” fits within the discourse of landscape architecture after landscape urbanism, which established a kind of “instrumentality,”, as Richard Weller called it,[4] that I would argue persists today in a contemporary fascination with metrics in the discipline. The framing of these practices as “technology” by Watson, I would argue, evidences a contradiction in Watsons approach, because such a Modern view (by another name) is exactly what she seeks to oppose, though Watson is careful to locate such technology in a cultural frame

In describing her aims for the book, Watson notes: “Lo-TEK is a movement that investigates lesser-known local technologies, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous cultural practices, and mythologies passed down as songs or stories… [to] extend the grounds of typical design.”[5] This emphasis on mythologies as a part of culture is revealed throughout the book and also in the very name of the society that makes the bridges: Khasa translates to “above of, in the clouds,” Watson tells us, which also explains why the bridges appear in the first “Mountains” rather than second “Forests” section of the book, as their lush surroundings would suggest. The TEK, in Watson’s “Lo-TEK”, comes from the ecologist Fikret Berkes, and is an abbreviation for “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,”[6] which is part of a much larger discourse on “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” (abbreviated as IKS) which UNESCO characterises as “the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings.”[7] On the one hand, Watson’s recognition of cosmology is both an important contextualisation of the technology she discusses and a tonic to the implicit instrumentality of both the time and the book, which I shall discuss below, but on the other, it has the potential to exhibit what has been called in anthropology “the denial of coeval,”[8] which is where the anthropologist is talking about current people as if they occupy a different time to themselves, for example, as if their practices are ancient. This way of thinking permeates landscape architecture history, where indigenous approaches are located at the start of the histories, generally before Stonehenge or the Pyramids, for example. Such framing can seem respectful, though it also typifies “the denial of coeval,” and Watson negotiates this particular tension throughout the book. Does the liberal imagination deny indigenous people to right to be “present” in the present, as parts of the world, as it is now, owing to a nostalgia about the “ancient” or “untouched,” an otherness such as Levi-Strauss’ “noble savage”? In these times of intersectionality, can indigenous people be hybrid, specific?

The case of the Kayapó in the Brazilian Amazon, which is included in Watson’s “Forest” section, provides an interesting case, one that links to the recent fires in Australia, the place both Watson and I come from. The Kayapó use fire, or what Watson calls “pyrotechnology,” to create forest openings for agriculture spaces called apete, where layers of species above and below each other work in the way that we might now be called permaculture, a web of microclimates, nutrients, and companion relationships. When I visited the Ecuadorean Amazon in 2010 to explore indigenous ethnobotany,[9] I had expected a clear binary between forest and opening/village, but found a very dispersed series of different types of clearings in various states of development and abandonment, maturity and regeneration. It revealed a much greater extent of influence than I’d imagined, and indeed contemporary LIDAR investigations are revealing the Amazon as a network of agricultural urbanism. Traces of villages are generally less than 300 meters apart, organised along river systems.[10] This was a hypothesis that the anthropologist Phillippe Descola also put forward on the basis that the arrangements of plants in the forest mirrored the arrangements in gardens, suggesting to him that the whole forest was really a garden, or perhaps a park. He also showed how paths from hunting grounds and rivers crossed to areas allowing picking of fruits and foraging from these older garden remnants.[11] In terms of indigenousness and time, the plants in the apete gardens have a cosmopolitan origin–banana from Asia, maize from Mexico, for example. Indigenous trading networks brought colonial spoils to otherwise “uncontacted” tribes, again demonstrating the denial of coeval and the bricoleur[12] nature of indigenous communities. Questions about the old, the new, and about tradition and innovation can put boundaries around how we view the hybrid habits of indigenous people.

In her introduction, Watson draws a diagram of Berkes’s model of TEK in the form a pyramid with “worldview” and “social institutions at the base, and with the “individual” at the top, and “land and resource management systems,” and “local knowledge of land and animals” between. These placements suggest the ways customs provide knowledge to the individual that are then deployed in working with the land, developed through their own experience. This is a pertinent point to Australia and the recent catastrophic fires, which have elicited much discussion about Aboriginal land practices. The historian Bill Gammage has suggested that the appealing “park-like” condition of Australia at the time of colonisation,[13] resulted from Aboriginal fire management practices, which balance the knowledge of animals with land management, as Berkes’s model describes. Gammage used colonial accounts to show that small, carefully timed and located fires created abundant “green pick,” as my mother called it, for kangaroos, while keeping fuel loads low and protecting forest and habitat from major fires.

Watson notes that designers privilege “the artificactual,” the concrete, the built, over ephemeral practices, despite their being more tied to the inherent nature of landscape. At the moment, in the wake of the fires, there is a recognition that we must return to Aboriginal land practices to rethink the ways Australia manages fire, something my friend Gini Lee told me she thought was more than a little ironic, as up to this point the Australian treatment of indigenous people has been abhorrent, yet now we expect they will sort out this problem for us. That Watson chose to use an Amazonian precent for fire management rather than an Australian one strikes me as an omission, and indeed, although included in a few maps, Australian cases are omitted generally.

Lo-TEK is an earnest and incredibly important book, both for this current moment, when we need to find carbon positive solutions that can if not halt at least mitigate climate change, but also for landscape architecture. Watson is a landscape architect, though the book is directed more broadly. Her book shows that the idea of Lo-TEK, first in material and then in approach, presents huge opportunities. These broad technologies are old and smart, actually deeply embedded in the discipline, if only the discipline can modify its practice to suit them. Watson shows that they are separated from us by a type of thinking that Walter D, Mignolo argues started during the Renaissance with its creation of a “zero point,” where everything before and outside the Western was other. Watson’s book is rejoinder.[14] Watson side-steps issues such as decolonization, identity politics, and intersectionality. This is both a strength and a danger of the book, a manifesto for change and a future going forward by looking back, but actually in the present.



[1] Julian Raxworthy, Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening (Cambridge, Massachussetts: The MIT Press, 2018). [2] Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (London: Penguin Books, 2013). [3] Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong, Protocell Architecture (London: Wiley, 2011). [4] Richard Weller, “An Art of Instrumentality: Thinking Through Landscape Urbanism,” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader, ed. Charles Waldheim (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006), 70–83. [5] Julia Watson, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism (Cologne: Taschen, 2019), 18. [6] Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecology: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Resouce Management (Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 1999). [7]

[8] Johannes Fabian, “Presence and Representation: The Other and Anthropological Writing,” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 753–72. [9] I discuss my experiences in the Amazon and also other questions related to indigenous practices and landscape history in Julian Raxworthy, “The Landscape of Practices: Decolonizing Landscape Architecture,” in The Routledge Companion to Criticality in Art, Architecture, and Design, ed. Christopher A. Brisbin and Myra Thiessen (London: Routledge, 2018). [10] Michael J. Heckenberger et al., “Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon,” Science 321 (2008): 1214–17. [11] Philippe Descola, In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). [12] To use a phrase from Levi Strauss, also popular in design in the post-modern period [13] Traditional colonial ideas about “terra nullius” and the lack of agriculture in Australia have been refuted both by Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2012). and Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident (Broome: Magabala Books, 2014). In a similar way Paul Memmott, Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia (Brisbane: Univesity of Queensland Press, 2007). , who Watson acknowledges as an important influence, has demonstrated that Aboriginal people also made architecture, turning another erroneous belief on its head. [14] Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto,” TransModernity 2 1 (2011): 44–66.

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