Artificial Landscapes – from Eco-system to Deco-system (and back again)

When my parents built their house in the late 70’s, the inside decor they chose was pretty much standard Scandinavian fare: plenty of simple wood panelling, wooden floors and earth tones; their choices reflecting perfectly their right-out-of-college urbanized taste.

The next door neighbours, who built their house at the same time, went in a different direction: in their living room a whole wall was dedicated to a stunning sunset scene.  Reds, oranges and yellows were competing for attention, and in the foreground the dark shadow of a couple of palm trees. The novelty of the tropical sunset photo wallpaper made their living room into a tourist attraction for neighbouring kids.

In hindsight, I see the irony of putting a fake sunset on one wall, when you on the other side of the room had a view of one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, albeit considerably less tropical.

I had completely forgotten about my former neighbours’ wall, when the memory hit me like a hangover a few weeks back. The occasion was my first ever walk down to Toronto’s “Sugar beach”.

From the “product description”  on the website : Sugar Beach is a whimsical new park that transformed a surface parking lot in a former industrial area into Toronto’s second urban beach at the water’s edge. Located at the foot of Lower Jarvis Street adjacent to the Redpath Sugar Factory, the 8500 square metre (2 acre) park is the first public space visitors see as they travel along Queens Quay from the central waterfront.

And indeed, Sugar beach is a nice break from a dismal record of city planning in Toronto, where any open lot near the lake has been exploited for outrageous real-estate developments. No attention has been wasted on esthetics or the public’s access to the waterfront, and that’s been going on since long before we landed in Toronto. So, yes, making a parking lot, in the middle of an industrial area into a public space, is almost revolutionary, locally speaking.

But what is it exactly? It is a beach that isn’t a beach; with water you can see in the background but not swim in; with foreign-looking sand that could be mistaken for sugar; pink parasols in durable plastic that don’t function as parasols since you can’t tilt them to get better shelter from the sun. And that’s when I remembered my neighbours’ wallpaper.

Sugar beach brings a lot of the same emotions. It looks real, but un closer inspection, there’s a dimension missing; and though you can’t pinpoint what it is, it leaves you with an eerie feeling.

Our shared imagery of beach-life is of course far from that of a natural landscape. The famous and fashionable Versilian beaches in Italy were once thin little strips of sand, that have been added to over the years to create business and recreational opportunities. Nowadays, renting a parasol in the furthest row on the beach leaves you so far from the sea that you can’t see it without binoculars. The sand is groomed meticulously every day, to keep it smooth and to get rid of any plankton or seaweed that may discolour an expensive bathing suit.

It is part of a trend spanning over several centuries of trying to keep nature within certain boundaries, to protect ourselves from it, to only enjoy certain chosen fragments of it. Most of the landscapes we consider particularly beautiful in Provence and Tuscany, were cultured at an early date. Completely untouched nature, with impenetrable forests, or unknown wild beasts, scares us.

And I have seen all that, and experienced the confines between the cultured and artificial landscape before. So how is it that the gut reaction to Sugar beach is even stronger?

Even the most cultured and groomed landscape, will in the long run be unable to control the force of nature. Animals that weren’t supposed to be there will show up. Eco-systems that include the fox eating the hens in the hen-house will develop. Iron weed and dandelions will make paths in any field. Little crabs will find their way and bite bare feet walking along an expensive beach.

It’s the lack of all this that triggers my memories of tropical sunsets in a Sub-Arctic living room.

But there’s hope: The way things are going in large cities across North-America, wildlife and nature have a way of creeping in, without it ever being part of the plan. Coyotes in NY-city, raccoons in Toronto, and the chipmunk in my backyard, are all testimony to that.

So I’m guessing, in a year’s time the seagulls will have discovered the place, the pristine sand will have traces of insects, and dandelions will have started making cracks in the pavement. And that will be the end of the pure “deco-system”.

And that’s also when I’ll enjoy coming back.

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~ by Hege on September 24, 2010.

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