History of Art and Architecture

Joel McKim Lecture


Monday, February 13, 2012 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm

Landfills and Lifescapes: New York’s Fresh Kills and the Politics of Landscape Urbanism

Joel McKim, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow

New York’s Fresh Kills landfill, formerly the largest garbage dump in the world, is in the process of being transformed into a public park and wetlands conservation area. Once receiving over 29,000 tons of New York’s garbage daily, the landfill’s mounds of waste have been covered over in preparation for the conversion of the site into a 2,200 acre “Lifescape.” The ambitious design by James Corner’s Field Operations landscape architecture firm is the most prominent example of a recent design movement that seeks to renew architecture’s engagement with infrastructural concerns and the life processes of the city. Landscape urbanism views the change, mutability and emergent properties of natural and biological systems as a potential paradigm for architectural practice as a whole and a method of reestablishing the discipline’s political instrumentality.

Yet the political consequences of the Fresh Kills Lifescape are far from straight forward. The area also served as the post-9/11 containment and processing site for the World Trade Center debris and the implications of the landfill closing for New York’s expanding program of waste exportation complicate the project’s celebratory narrative of renewal and revitalization. Drawing upon the discussions of protection and vulnerability that appear in the later texts of Jacques Derrida, this paper will seek to question the political assumptions of both the Lifescape design and the landscape urbanism movement more broadly. The concepts of immunity and autoimmunity that play an increasingly important role in Derrida’s post-9/11 writing serve as guiding terms for thinking through the complexity of the Fresh Kills conversion and whether or not the project offers the promise of a landscape immune to its own contentious history.