The View from the Envelope: the experience of being locked down without landscape

Last changed: 04 June 2020
Plant, face-mask and photograph by Richard Allenby Pratt from his "Abandoned & Consumption" series 2014.

In this text Dr Julian Raxworthy, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, reflects on the subjective experience of the lockdown from his tower in a city on the Arabian peninsula, and on how that experience re-casts how he sees public space, his professional focus as a landscape architect.

I can look out of the envelope, and when I do the context is epic. The buildings are big 30+ stories, none particularly good: services clad with finishes, each with a flourish at the top, and a brand. I must remind myself what I have been teaching: density is GOOD, it is RIGHTEOUS.

I like Sci-Fi movies, and submarine movies too. Escaping into them is not the same as it was. Now. Stories of ships floating in space, crew dynamics, self-sufficiency, looking out at stars now seem, well, less abstract. Of course, unlike the space-ship, or the sub, we can sit on our balcony, 33 stories up (maybe more like a ship, like a prow?). It is ramping up into summer now, 38-40 celsius. If I touch the glass – the membrane between us and the world – its warm; it hints at an outside, but yes, we are the sub and the space-ship, buffered climate controlled, fine for us and the indoor plants that, like us, are ex-pats, placeless.

Lucky enough to have my wife with me – to not be alone – the envelope feels secure. Entertainments have been secured, games, instruments, DEVICES – adjuncts to the Matrix – and externalities (food deliveries, online shopping) come in and internalities (washing & ironing, rubbish) go out, like osmosis. And we are not alone, right? We never talked as much to people as we are now. But the closer you get, the further away you are. But at least they are not a vector of infection, right?

We could open the envelope. The “public” was once people but is now a spacing, a distribution. We would welcome the externality of space but remain cautious of the vectors – “Not like those college students in pools during Spring Break! Do they want to kill the their girl/boy-friends grand-parents?”. But where we live, the public spaces were never really public. Their “landscaping” never quite made them inviting, rendering them as extended forecourts to commercial space. In the envelope, saturated nature is served: Trees groups on Facebook; Apple TV screensavers of glaciers; live web-cams on You Tube show animals by waterholes on Africa, wishing for a lion in wait, dreading it.

Rather than a balcony-prow, perhaps the envelope could be on the ground, connected to it, so we could have a garden? Simulated nature is served – green roofs, walls – see? We can have nature without ground, but the more it is simulated the more the envelope is a space-ship, a submarine, again. Land provides not just a buffer but “buffering”: a capacity to weather change, contingency. Thinking about this brings back a key reality of now: the envelope is a holding pattern. Amongst all the pronouncements and optimistic “carpe diem” advertorials, we need the envelope because we don’t know what is next, because the envelope is actually temporary, transitional, not about space, but time. Wait.

Reflections by Julian Raxworthy.

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