The Softest Power

Faculty

Fionn Byrne

Civil engineering, infrastructural or otherwise, is often invisible in our urban environments. If it is the function of design and ornament to stand out, it is the function of engineering to recede into the background, to be invisible. The banal, the bland, and the neutral are the preeminent aesthetic of civil engineering, suburban development and urban ecology. Yet while aspiring to evade notice, this aesthetic is an integral part of Western society and consciousness.

For the new reality of irregular warfare, post conflict reconstruction is a critical component of successful military operations. For example, the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) allowed active military units to spend money for rebuilding and reconstruction where they were engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. CERP designated project categories include architecture, landscape, and infrastructure. Most of these works are completed as engineering projects having no formal design expression. Yet this aesthetic, and what is otherwise neutral in the West, is certainly not so in many post conflict situations.

Being impossible to avoid questions of design and aesthetics for works of rebuilding and reconstruction it is worth considering the potential benefits. The first is social. Moving away from the banal may lead to greater cultural sensitivity and social integration or the work, but can a foreign power shape a design aesthetic that is culturally appropriate? The second is psychological. Certainly, it is well known that physical space conditions mental health. 

Here, landscape architecture presents itself as a cost-effective tool for large scale environmental and attendant community wide psychological modification, with benefits increasing through time. Nature is a unique tool of reconstruction, having a time based formal logic and a place based functional aesthetic, it is perhaps a neutral intermediary in works of post conflict reconstruction.