How Like a Reef


Terra Forma1 
Venice Lagoon

Alexandra Arènes
Alexandra Arènes is a landscape architect, researcher and cofounder of SOC (Society of Cartographic Objects) in Paris. She is currently conducting postdoctoral research on a visualisation project related to the "Critical Zone" at the Institute Physics du Globe in Paris.
1 Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps by Frédérique Ait-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, and Axelle Gregoire is an experimental cartographic manual that charts the exploration of an unknown world: our own. Just as Renaissance travellers set out to map the terra incognito of the New World, the mapmakers of Terra Forma have set out to rediscover the world that we think we know. They do this with a new kind of cartography that maps living things rather than space emptied of life and available to be conquered or colonised. The maps in Terra Forma lead us inward, not off into the distance, moving from the horizon line of conventional cartography to the thickness of the ground, from the global to the local.
Each map in Terra Forma is based on a specific territory or territories, and each tool, or model, creates a new focal point through which the territory is redrawn. The maps are “living maps,” always under construction, spaces where stories and situations unfold. They may map the Earth's underside rather than its surface, suggest turning the layers of the Earth inside out, link the biological physiology of living inhabitants and the physiology of the land, or trace a journey oriented not by the Euclidean space of GPS but by points of life. These speculative visualisations can constitute the foundation for a new kind of atlas.

Ait-Touati, Frédérique; Arènes, Alexandra; and Gregoire, Axelle. (2022). Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

In 2022, as part of the research commenced in collaboration with environmental anthropologist Heather Anne Swanson and ecologist Meredith Root-Bernstein through the European Commission-funded S+T+ARTS4Water initiative in partnership with TBA21 Academy, Ocean Space, we invited landscape architect Alexandra Arènes to apply Terra Forma1 mapping methods to Venice's unique geographical setting, with a focus on gaining insights into the complex substratum of the Lagoon. 

Arènes' objective was to cultivate an awareness of Venice's unstable grounds and to investigate the intricate interplay between water and land. She proposed reevaluating our perception of soil, advocating for a shift from viewing it as solid ground towards recognising its fluid nature.

Arènes presented insightful inquiries to foster nuanced comprehensions of the Venice Lagoon's complexities: "How can we alter our viewpoint to perceive the lagoon 'from below' – as proposed by Levy's project– exploring its depths rather than merely observing from above the waterline? How do we articulate the intricate amalgamation of soil, water, and mud, constituting its materialities and defying conventional categorisation as solely aquatic or terrestrial? Might we characterise it as 'sub-aqua-terrestrial'? And in light of this, how do we navigate this realm of 'hydro-mudology' within the lagoon's ecosystem?"

The mapping endeavour began with a synthesis of scientific literature alongside insights gleaned from local sources, notably Sonia Levy and Meredith Root-Bernstein, whose firsthand experiences enriched the understanding of the terrain during their fieldwork. This integrated approach facilitated the collection of data about sediment dynamics and water movements. Understanding the lagoon's varying depths, subsidence and erosion was central to this project, as was grasping sediment composition, which transitions from clay to sand. This change holds the potential to destabilise Venice's terrain.

The investigation extended to studying water's residence time, yielding insights into the lagoon's hydrological patterns and the composition of its sedimentary layers. Analysis of the formation and disappearance of islands underscored the dynamic nature of the lagoon's landscape.

The resultant soil map depicts the lagoon's changing topography, emphasising water and sediment continuous movements. The principal challenge was interpreting fluctuations between water levels and depth resulting from phenomena such as aqua alta, erosion, and the emergence of new land masses. Therefore, the map serves as a tool for comprehending the lagoon's ever-shifting boundaries, a porous space perpetually reshaped by natural phenomena and human interventions. 

Alexandra Arènes: Mapping the Soil of the Venice Lagoon, 2022

Alexandra Arènes: Mapping the Sediments' "Life Points" in the Venice Lagoon

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