Eternal Ephemera

Soft Infrastructures in the Floating City of Uros, Peru

It could be easily said that the history of human civilization is one of grass. Wheat, rice, maize and sugar—which account for 60% of the world’s caloric intake—are only but a few of the species of grass that where pivotal in the development of large urban centers, and that are still important today. But in addition to providing food, drink, paper, fuel, and clothing, these graminoids have also been directly used as building materials. Because of their overall tensile strength and lightweight nature, they can be buoyant in water and have been used to make rafts and boats. Uros in Lake Titicaca, Peru thus becomes of unique interest as being a floating settlement made entirely out of grass: totora reeds, specifically (Schoenoplectus californicus ssp. tatora). Little literature has been dedicated to this water city beyond superficial and picturesque treatments aimed at Western tourists. However, growing environmental pressures and economic forces are precipitating a slow exodus from these settlements into adjacent urban centers. Thus, even in a few decades, the grass infrastructures used for the buoyant nature of this city will be slowly abandoned and eroded. Their ability to inform landscape epistemologies will be lost.

Therefore, this research both documents historical/vernacular manifestations of reed/water urbanism and aims to inform future material research—articulating a potential for soft-infrastructures to become more prevalent in the discourse of urbanism theory and urban-design praxis—a speculative oscillation between new ideas and syncretic strategies. Landscape and its geographies are an inherently hybrid medium, and research insights might question how notions of preservation and regionalism could inform design thinking. Moreover, floating cities often suggest temporal and fluid manifestations of urbanism. Yet, conditioned by people and a variety of competing, and sometimes complementary, externalities, what agency might the field of landscape architecture claim in the physical constructions—in this case woven—of ephemeral vernacular cities? At the same time, intersections and overlaps between amphibious architecture, hydrological landscapes, and natural ecologies, tempered by adaptive practices, integrate multiple spatial scales at which these soft infrastructures operate. These dynamics make Uros and its islands fertile territory for exploration. This research seeks to elucidate on questions of mobility, fluidity and indeterminacy.

Operating outside traditional understandings for a city and its “urban fabric,” vernacular constructions often resist fixed, normative frameworks or spatial conditions in relationship to human habitation. Yet, this research project, perhaps paradoxically, aims to record and index the shifting nature of the indeterminate boundaries—both physical and abstract—that exist across, arguably, artificial territories. Taking a material as the point of departure (totora reeds), this research examines existing phenomena and relationships in a perennial wet gradient between the aqueous and the buoyant. When “dry land” is as fluid as the water that sustains it, preserving a simple set of guidelines allows for a critical examination when the only constant is “grass.”


Author: Alberto de Salvatierra
Additional Credits: Drawings in collaboration with Anagha Patil
Affiliation: Center for Civilization

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