“The Ka’apor cultural consultants whom I considered to be the most knowledgeable on the subject of forest types and vegetative associations told me our destination, the old growth forest, looked like a true forest, but that it was in reality an old village, long abandoned by any human occupants. They called it taper”.
This is how ethnobotanist William Balée narrates one of his first encounters with what he later termed “cultural forests” of Amazonia. Though they look pristine to eyes underequipped to identify them, the Ka’apor informants could clearly distinguish that type of forest, recognizing the remains of an ancient village in patterns of distribution of vines, trees, palms, plants and soil.
Throughout the 1980s, William Balée conducted a series of botanic inventories with the Ka’apor, producing a detailed documentation of the ways their communities used, transformed and codified the forest environment. Based on this research Balée suggested that vast areas of Amazonia are in fact the product of long-term human engagements with the environment, that is, they are socially designed.
What does it mean to say that an environment which functioned as the quintessential representation of the natural is in fact a cultural, “architectural” artifact?
An Architectural Botany unfolds these questions by revisiting the visual material produced by ethnobotanist William Balée during his path-breaking research with the Ka’apor in 1980s. Can this archive be narrated and visualised as an architectural inventory? Traditionally this type of documentation belongs to the collections of natural museums or botanical gardens, for they are considered evidences of natural - not social/architectural - history.
The proposition to develop this project at CCA, an institution dedicated to archive architecture, is also aimed at critically engaging with this spatial order of knowledge, asking if the remarkable botanic designs of indigenous societies could be interpreted and displayed in parallel with the documentation of other significant architectural projects and practices present at CCA’s collection.
What constitutes an architectural archive, or the archive of the history of architecture (and the environment)? We address this question by looking not at what the archive contains, but through its absences, which are in themselves a form of historical erasure.
This absence/erasure is noticeable, for example, in the way architecture has been framed by the concept of “world heritage” espoused by Unesco since its inception in 1945. Only in the early 1990s, in the context of worldwide indigenous struggles, that the concept of “cultural landscapes” – which puts emphasis on the “combined works of nature and man” – started to be discussed as a way of understanding built heritage beyond the western epistemic dichotomy nature-culture that, for far too long, has constrained architectural imagination.
The project interprets the history of architecture and the environment by probing that void, that gap, that absence as it manifests in architectural archives. This absence is also noted in the way indigenous landscape designs that for centuries have shaped the land of Canada are underrepresented in the architectural archive hosted by the CCA, an institution that seats on indigenous stolen lands. In that regard the project is “site specific,” also addressing the context of settler colonialism in Canada and its visual manifestations in presence and absences.