Practice of Tending
We search our collective memory and imagination for the birth of the city. Myths abound, from Romulus and Remus’ wild beginnings and ultimate founding of Rome to the divine guidance of the Aztec people to the site of their new capital, Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City. Many of these myths display a connection between the city’s birth and the communion with the “natural” world. The contemporary academic consensus, points to an “agriculture first” account of city growth: we first set down seeds, and then we set down our buildings.1 Gardening – which I define as the creative practice of collecting and breeding organisms for sustenance – and urban spaces are of the same process; despite our current perception of an urban-rural dichotomy. Our buildings are fundamentally intertwined with the economy of the seed – to this day, opaque and distanced as the connection may be, seeds are required for any foundation.
I spent last year running a small farm in Baltimore, Maryland. In a city rife with vacancy, new typologies emerge. The overgrown lot, the rubble pile of a demolished building, and the vacant building – all provide an opening to the physical ground, the field. In these untended spaces, the true character of the site begins to peek through. Wildflowers bloom in vacant lots and Trees of Heaven split open the roofs of abandoned row houses. In observing this formerly “urban” spaces return to a “natural” state, the myths of our beginnings resonate: the process of the city is one of tending over generations, of shaping growth within the ecology of the site. Now, our cities have become metastatic, defined not by collective tending but by the speculative market. Through my time working in those fields, where structures once stood and may stand again, I have made some observations regarding the act of gardening that may be of interest to the architect.
- Unlike the designer of a building, the gardener expends most of her energy not in the planting phase, but from seedling to harvest.
- The gardener’s primary duty is that of presence. To see which weed must be removed, where critters are eating crops, what needs more or less water, to know when to harvest which crop, and to treat blights. It all requires daily ritual.
- In gardening it is not only negligent but criminal to seed without attention to the field condition. A seed within an alien field will not grow or will kill all else in the horror of fecundity.
- The vegetable gardener operates on the scale of years. The best yields come not from a season but from a deep knowledge of plants and soil over decades of close observation and the honing of a sustainable approach.
- Small-scale growers have continually defied the market in favor of shaping it to their ethical considerations, sometimes eschewing the market entirely.
- The resources a garden produces for its community are far more numerous than fresh food: green space, connectedness, education, food sovereignty, biodiversity, reduced runoff, and an ethics of care, to name a few.2
- A garden can exist for decades, and then be gone in a year.
Did the first architects of the first cities approach their work with the creative and impermanent hand of the grower? Did they go to the building like the gardener goes to their plants, nurturing, building, adapting through the seasons? The modern architect rarely lives within her buildings; the role of the architect ends once the building is complete. In the field of horticulture, there is a necessary connection between project and creator, through a constant weeding, watering, and fertilizing. We call this tending. What could an architecture of tending look like?