Review of Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State

Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State
by Gareth Doherty

University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2017
216 pp. Trade, $29.99
ISBN: 9780520285019; ISBN: 9780520285026

Reviewed by
Giovanna L. Costantini
April 2018

To identify Gareth Doherty’s Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State as a multi-disciplinary investigation into ecological urbanism understates the book’s extraordinary reach into disciplines ranging from cultural anthropology, environmental design and urban planning to Middle Eastern Studies, political economy and landscape architecture. Doherty’s year of field work conducted in Bahrain, an island-nation situated between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean (known as the Green Sea), is centered on the matrix of economic, political, aesthetic and social infrastructures that reflect what he terms “an urbanism of landscape” in which the color green serves as both an organizing principle and an optic through which to examine and depict Bahrain’s multilayered ethnography. Rendered in the manner of a paysage stained by the hues of its underlying fabric, Doherty’s interest in the relational life of a people within a given environment forms the canvas on which his study is delineated. As a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Senior Research Associate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, this research is aimed at creating more human conditions of constructive design.

Cultural ethnography, the social construction of nature, and the environment from the point of view of the ethnic group that constitutes a given community, serves as one disciplinary platform for Doherty’s innovative methodology. Typically conducted as year-long social immersion projects in which field workers interpenetrate the daily lives of local populations, such studies include analyses of terrain, climate and, habitat that reveal the social life and symbolic associations of a region. These approaches reflect newer theoretical frameworks that can lead to impact and sustainability assessments for environmental design. With landscape a driving force of urbanization indicative of self, cultural, and national identity, Doherty asks “not if but how, and where, [Bahrain] will grow, and how green that growth will be” (5).

Having taken classes in Arabic, Islam, Middle East ethnography and political economy as part of his doctoral studies, Doherty arrived in Bahrain determined to integrate as fully as possible with the local community, accepting the unpredictability of chance encounters, conversations with strangers, meetings with ministry officials, and friendships as open-ended introductions to the gait and pace of life around him.  Walking great distances “to follow the green” became an essential part of his method, for it allowed him to experience a fuller range of perceptions than he would have had by automobile. He became attuned to shifting perspectives, vertical extensions of the built environment, unobstructed vistas, planar surfaces, horizon lines, courtyard enclosures, and gateways. Among his personal encounters were families, government officials, expatriates, and students whose customs, dialects, and many kindnesses enriched and enlarged his knowledge of subjects as varied as irrigation, horticulture, and sewage treatment.

The text includes an encapsulated overview of Bahrainian development during the last century, its demographics, population growth, constituent ethnicities, languages, settlements, economy, natural resources, and governance. It takes account of religious and political structures and tensions in light of Bahrain’s complex historiography and ethnic composition. Through color Doherty examines land and water usage, annual rainfall, ocean currents, species of trees and flora, agricultural production, economic development, coastal reclamation, and conservation. He notes variations of light at dawn or dusk, the colors of the sea from cerulean blue to Tyrian purple, and freshwater springs known as “sweet water” that once provided a distinctive luster to Bahrainian pearls. As brighter shades of green encountered in advertisements, slogans, roadside plantings, greenbelts, weddings, and revolutions become more prominent, he emphasizes the value of sustenance, of relational registers of ecosophy in which ecology includes social relations, human subjectivity, aesthetic, and environmental factors.

The date palms that dotted the coasts and areas contiguous to human habitation were for many a source of Bahrainian identity. Yet the palms that once distinguished Bahrain as the “Land of One Million Palms” are rapidly diminishing. For generations the trees held cultural significance, some named like children, providing food, shade, the focus of social gathering and family life. In the poem “The Lady in Green” the date palm is rhapsodized as “wife to the sea/where melting with love onto his knees/ he kissed your feet and went away/and rushing back brought you his salty tears to drink.” But today the groves are dying en masse, with the country losing one of its most distinctive natural assets, a vital source of greenery and color.

Among the references cited are Farha Ghannam’s Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation and the Politics of Identity in Global Cairo, an ethnography about a housing development on the edge of Cairo and Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, an anthropology that reaches beyond a study of people to the relationality of things.  Doherty compares the analytic methodology of scientific mapping favored by Ian McHarg to the more synthetic process of painting advocated by Geoffrey and Susan Jellico in The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day.  Borrowing from pictorial processes, Doherty juxtaposes color resonance with acute cultural analysis to create a conceptual abstraction comparable to a Pollock or Kandinsky whose paintings provided the inspiration for the book.

The paradox of green is the opposition between aesthetic values that drive economic factors and colors that serve as an embodiment of deeper cultural values. He laments the creation of green deserts in which whole species do not interact with their environment; where the care and irrigation required to maintain curated gardens and private estates, traffic roundabouts, and industrial operations deprive the community of precious natural resources; and where rampant reclamation, deforestation, and development in the interests of shopping malls and gated communities leave a negative environmental footprint leading to the depletion of resources necessary for growth and subsistence. Once identified as a Garden of Eden, Bahrain’s distinction as an oasis among the nations of the Gulf has eroded in recent decades, with many of its once verdant groves reduced to sand fields and pockets of desert scrub. For Doherty, the challenge of landscape design must be to integrate the human factor into its natural environment in ways that promote both progress and sustainability.