Field Notes September 25th 2022
Text by Rony Emmenegger
Photographs by Rony Emmenegger, Flurina Gradin and Offshore Studio

Ordered Hybrid Ecologies: Unearthing Sedimented Histories in the Arboretum


It was a rainy Saturday morning, shortly before 9 am. We were about to meet the new president of the IG Seepärke, an association that has launched a visionary initiative for the basin of Lake Zurich. His association envisions the merger of the fragmented green spots and parks around the basin into a high-quality recreation zone in the near future.

We were heading to our appointment with the president with an inevitable delay when passing through the Arboretum, a park on the lake's western shore. Within the urban fabric, the park is a key recreation site for residents and tourists in summer and in winter, which we found in silence during the rainy weather morning hours. Unless the walker is not in a rush, as we were, unfortunately, this morning, the park has a quality as a place to breathe or pause a moment when resting on one of the meadows between the trees and small hills or when moving along one of the pathways meandering through the park. We had finally reached our meeting point. After a short introduction by the president about his personal background as a hotelier and tourism expert, his new IG mandate and the association’s vision for the lake basin, we run off to pass the Arboretum – now in the reverse direction, receptive and open to engaging with the park.

Gate to Arboretum

Enlightenment nostalgia
The Arboretum was initially designed in the style of the late landscape garden, inaugurated in 1887 as part of the Quayside. As visitors and citizens can learn on the competent municipal authority's homepage, this very rebuilding project signified Zurich’s ultimate “transformation from a small town on the river to a big city on the lake.”

Beauty and science merge within the park: Initially designed as a conventional landscape park, the concept was enriched after reputable botany and geology professors demanded to integrate scientific elements into the established landscape design.

It materialized in the composition of the park in the form of an exotic tree collection, a rock collection and an alpine panorama as a miniature of the nearby mountains – all initially arranged to “provide the citizens with a piece of education on their Sunday walk.” The design of the Arboretum still tells us something about nation-building back at the time: The prominent miniaturization of the Alps in an urban center speaks to the imaginary bond between modern urban and sublime rural spaces – a bond of key significance for a “holding together” federalist Swiss nation. And yet, it is more than that. It provides an example of the close entanglement of the scientific discovery of the Alps and tropical colonial projections: As Schär (2015: 35) has elaborated vigorously in his essay “On the Tropical Origins of the Alps”, Switzerland has for long been centrally positioned within an emerging system of knowledge about the Earth.1  As a node in such a knowledge system, the Arboretum appears as a site for educating urban citizens and for building a sense of ‘tropicality’ into a collective national consciousness.  

A certain enlightenment nostalgia still haunted the scene during our visit that other day in the rainy morning hours. Indeed, the ‘original’ concept that had initially inspired the formation and the later reworking of the park was simultaneously manifest and hidden. The park’s long history appeared evident as trees had grown enormous, so big that only the Earth itself is capable of carrying some of the heavy brunches touching the ground. The immense growth and age of these trees has been possible, as infrastructural projects do not threaten the green field as related species in many other parts of the rapidly growing concrete city.

At a recreation site, land value seems to be assessed differently than in the rest of a neoliberal expanding town. And yet, an interpretation of the park as a last refuge in a neoliberal world is deceptive – as I will elaborate further below. Within the park, these trees appear as remnants of the past, placed within a rather timeless structural design that municipal gardeners maintain.

At first glance, what gardeners do is rather simple: they regularly cut grass, bushes and trees. By doing so, however, they also enact an orderly regime within an essentially hybrid ecology, ensuring these species will not break boundaries within the properly ordered park.

The maintenance of the park’s timeless appearance requires work – and borders. It is the work of the seemingly innocent municipal gardeners that is instrumental in enacting a choreography for ecological relations when maintaining a park. While the ecology at the spot continues to evolve as an ensemble of species in relation – or metabolic socio-ecological flows – it is this work that establishes the order in otherwise essentially transgressive ecological relations. They arrange the park into entities, drawing lines between those species empowered to endure and others to disappear. Indeed, maintenance is a more complicated exercise, as the competent municipal authority underlines: “The tree population developed enormously in the good hundred years; many groups of trees have reached their maximum, others have already been renewed. The challenge of the coming decades is to renew the tree collection faithfully to the scientific concept of yesteryear to allow future generations to share in the refined richness of the botanical collection.” Maintenance still appears here as an essential task for enacting a biopolitical regime that constitutes what we then consider or perceive as ‘the park’. And yet, we may also ask whether such gardening work inspired by a scientific concept can be fully successful in regulating an ecology so vibrant in nature.  

Dealing with the history of the park and its evolution reveals it as one of these strange places in which the ecology’s hybridity looms in the selection, composition and cultivation of alien and unfamiliar plants over time.

And yet, I started stumbling when walking along the pathways within the park: Were other visitors aware that the park is much more hybrid as an ecology than its structured appearance suggests? Did they realize a difference in the temporality of grass, bushes and trees here in the park and how it is cultivated? Did they perceive the landscape as dynamic or static, artificial or natural, ordered or chaotic, rational or subjective? Masculine or feminine? Indeed, the idea of a static landscape is deceptive and difficult to maintain when one starts to realize the dynamism and vitality of the hybrid ecology shaping the scene. And yet, one can learn on the homepage of the competent municipal authority that the park has been restored recently “in accordance with the original design concept” in the course of the comprehensive rehabilitation of the embankment and the lakeside promenade in 2015 and 2016. It refers to such an idea of ‘originality’ in which time can become powerfully suspended, freezing a cognition of the park as a timeless, eternal and even sublime entity – regardless of its rather vibrant hybrid nature.
Tree with branches at the lakeshore

Gendered Commemoration
Rain had turned into mist. As we were walking through the Arboretum, the president of the IG Seepärke provided further details and insights into the project his association had developed. Despite his enthusiasm and charismatic performance, members of our visiting group seemed to have very diverse interests and foci when walking, everyone with their own sensitivity to the hybrid entanglements constituting the park and the city as a whole. The group drew out as human and non-human conversations intensified here and there. In my case, my passion for monuments probably made me sensitive to the material markers of ‘history’ placed prominently within the park. Quite obviously, history was written in the form of a memorial stone – polished on one, abrasive on the other side – erected for Arnold Bürki (1833-1894), the Swiss building engineer and municipal planner of the city of Zurich responsible for the realization of the park back at the time. As a designation, a white marble-like portrayal of Arnold Bürki embellishes the stone on its flat-sliced polished side.
Arnold Bürki memorial

Indeed, Arnold Bürki is well known among urban citizens and appears prominently in vernacular imaginaries of the city. A square is named after him not far, just where the Limmat river opens its mouth to gulp the lake at its basin. During the toponym at the traffic node and tram stop, Bürkliplatz explains his contemporary prominence, its appearance in the park is much more monumental. The commemoration still speaks to a memorial obsession with successful male engineers in Switzerland as mythical figures embodying the country’s progress and progression as a nation. In the Arboretum, this manifests in a stereotype about men’s capacity to tame, master and design nature. The culture-nature dualisms that this implies appear crucially gendered in the Arboretum.

Not far from Burkli’s boulder, a monument dedicated to Aphrodite is placed under a tree across the green in the visible distance. As a figure from Greek mythology, she embodies the goodness of beauty and love – an ultimate human desire. Men’s desire? The carver’s desire? Or who has once decided to expose Aphrodite’s female body naked to a visiting public? The statue built by the Danish carver Einar Utzon-Frank was once acquired after an international statuary art exhibition that took place in Zurich in 1931. Today, the statue remains open for interpretation and imagination as monuments, in general, hardly enforce predefined meanings in the eyes of an observer. Even more, statues do not necessarily affect passers-by with their spectacular appearance. Somewhat contrary, statues often remain invisible and unnoticed despite their seemingly stunning material presence: they live in “half-live” as Taussig (1997: 149) once put it.2  Approached as a marker of history within the park, the statue of Aphrodite homely appeared to me as a mythical anti-thesis to men who had built the park.

Within the park, dualisms between culture and nature, men and women, and reason and desire seem to fuse in an orderly landscape, subjecting humans and non-humans to myths about their own ‘nature’.

Acknowledging these structural conditions and their sedimentation in the park raises questions about how to counteract subjection or how to articulate alternative accounts of co-habitation in the past and future.

Bunkered lakeside
Mist obscured the view of the lake and the river when we passed the Limmat bridge to Bürkliplatz shortly before 9 am – still on our way to the initial meeting with the president. Passing the bridge was more thrilling than usual, as I intended to reveal to our group of visitors the past geopolitical significance of the site. At the mouth of Limmat, a bunker exists hidden underneath the sidewalk with shooting slits open towards the river. Hardly visible from the river bed and the bridge, I doubt many citizens or tourists passing the high-traffic bridge are aware of the underground bunker underneath their feet. Me, I became aware of its existence back in 2018 due to a Master thesis submitted at the Department of Architecture ETH, recalling a significant chapter in Switzerland’s military history and registering the many different military facilities in and around Zurich on a map. I brought that “Bunker Trail Map” to the scene this morning for our group to discover yet another layer sedimented in the river basin. While passing the Limmat bridge, the map guided our search for the bunker, which had by now been so neatly and smoothly integrated into the urban infrastructure. After a while, the shooting slits became more apparent, turning the seemingly neutral urban concrete into a military battlement and evoking a violent past long gone at a usually ordinary traffic node.

The bunker at the edge of Bürkliplatz is a node in a much more extensive infrastructure built as a local response to the beginning of the Second World War. Shortly after he was nominated the General of the Swiss Army Forces, Henri Guisan commanded on October 4, 1939, to build a line of defense from east to west – with the city of Zurich and the Limmat strategically placed along the line. Within less than a year, the so-called “Limmat Emplacement” was fortified, among others, with hedgehogs, bunkers and barbed wire to secure Switzerland’s fortitude in case of a Nazi German invasion from the north. The national defense strategy turned the Lake and the Limmat into the military spotlight – and into what we might call a ‘hybrid hydro-political war ecology’ – and the city into a fortress or “obstacle absolute”. A war would have had devastating consequences as the city’s population had to be evacuated and the northern part of the city was left behind for its destruction.

And yet, it came differently: With the fall of France in 1940, the geopolitical situation shifted and rendered obsolete an east-west line of defense. Switzerland’s military strategy moved away from the conception of territorial defense along a line to General Guisan’s “National Redoubt” concept. According to the new concept, the Swiss Army would have retreated into the Alps relatively soon if attacked, keeping up resistance through guerrilla and stay-behind tactics. The strategic shift had significant consequences for Alpine landscapes during WWII, materializing particularly in the form of underground military infrastructure hardly visible at the surface. Luckily, the nightmare scenario of a Nazi occupation was never realized during WWII. Nevertheless, or may precisely because of its invisibility, the supposed existence of military infrastructure in the Alps has inspired myths of Swiss national resistance during WWII. These myths have since been instrumental for Swiss nation-building around the concept of “National Redoubt” in general and in a quite problematic manner.

In the city of Zurich, national myth building around WWII found its expression as the road connecting Bürkliplatz and Arboretum was renamed in 1961, with its initial name Alpenquai now replaced by its new name – General-Guisan-Quai.

By now, the meaning of the street name has long reified and yet, it appears slightly ironic to name a road after the very General once willing to scarifies the entire city. In contemporary Zurich, many bunkers of the former “Limmat Emplacement” have remained as “material witnesses” of a war. Located in and around Zurich, I had the chance to discover some of these bunkers built into the sandstone of the hill range Üetliberg setting a horizon to the city in the west. While these bunkers on the forested hill are often hidden in the bush, their equivalents within the city appear a bit more recognizable. In fact, little is also left of the barricades once established along the southern riverbank through the city – from the train station up to the lake. And yet, twenty-four bunkers were listed in the official inventory of protected objects in 1992 due to their cultural and historical value for the present. Four of them are located prominently in the Arboretum. Each is registered by an object number – A 4839, A 4840, A 4841 and A 4842 – that allows for their unique identity as specific types of military installations – with “A” referring to fortification. Despite this registration, these bunkers placed so prominently in the lake basin are reused today by municipal gardens to store equipment.
Bunker in the Arboretum

 When looking for these bunkers on our walks through the Arboretum, we found them overgrown by different plants that, to me – as a person who doesn’t know anything or at least little about plants – appeared as members of the ivy family. Within an otherwise properly maintained and cultivated park, these overgrown bunkers now appeared as an exception: hybrid entities constituted by a merger of artificial and natural forces adnate into each other. Looking closely, however, complicated this interpretation:

What about the wire rope spanned along some of the bunker walls, providing ivy plants a grip and direction to spread? Are these bunkers, in the end, hybrid by design? What for? For their hiding?

Indeed, their concealment could hardly be intended as a military tactic in a city so peaceful as Zurich at the present. But is it then just for aesthetic purposes? In fact, the bunkers must have been restaged during the rehabilitation of the embankment and the lakeside promenade in 2015 and 2016. While the broader aim was to restage the park in line with its original design, it resulted in the restaging of the monolithic concrete structures in their hybridity – partly visible and partly concealed, partly artificial and partly natural. Such restaging has allowed keeping the memory of a violent past simultaneously hidden and present. In effect, it integrated into the park yet another understanding of ‘nature’ – one that is deliberately kept hybrid and wild.

Neoliberal Future
But what will happen to these bunkers in case the association IG Seepärke can realize its project at some point in the future? Will the graffiti tags be considered art by some and disfigurement by others be removed? Will they be valorized as tourist attractions? Or, will they continue to evolve in the hybridity of a wilderness tolerated (or even intended by urban planners and gardeners within clear confines) as an integral anti-thesis to the neoliberal nature realized or envisioned in the lake basin? I asked the president about the significance of the bunkers in his vision. Yet, he seemed not so much interested at all. Rather than the past, his interest was the future. He shared with us his vision: Roads currently fragmenting existing recreation areas will be removed; roads and parking spaces as concrete deserts turned into green spaces; the Limmat bridge at Bürkliplatz as a main traffic artery transferred into the underground.

Indeed, his vision appears tempting. But would it be feasible? As the IG Seepärke clarifies on its homepage, the project is feasible: This has been demonstrated by a feasibility study revealing that the affected roads and parking spaces could be opened up as green spaces without negative impacts on the traffic system. Being well familiar with the traffic system on the lake’s western shore, the argument also appeared convincing to me – not least because two roads currently run in parallel only one block from each other. However, these model- or intuition-based conclusions about the project’s feasibility stood in a certain contrast, as I had to learn, with legal consideration and questions of authority: It had led the municipal council to doubt the feasibility, as the road falls under cantonal authority meaning that the project implementation would be dependent on changes in the spatial planning rules beyond its authority. Regardless of these legal hurdles, the president had few doubts about the project’s feasibility. He argued that the future of transportation would be fundamentally different so that roads and parking spaces will be obsolete. He was further convinced that cars are about to disappear in the near future. And yet, less of his concern was the question of how the future of transportation will look alternatively.
View from Bürkliplatz

In essence, the IG Seepärke wants to make better use of the lake basins great potential, creating high-quality recreation zones almost “in the spirit of Arnold Bürkli (city engineer 1860-1882)”. The project’s central aim is to design and valorize the lake basin as ‘nature’ at a planetary scale, attracting residents and tourists. As it states on its homepage: “The IG's long-term project lays another foundation stone for people to enjoy living and working here in the distant future as well.” In fact, learning about the project for me as a Zurich citizen was intriguing. The well-designed drawings and animations of how the park will once look combine a savanna-like landscape with heritage and modern architecture in form of a music pavilion (built elsewhere in Zurich in 1930 and planned to be relocated) or an extended succulent collection, just to name a few of the prominent ideas on the existing, but still open list. Indeed, I had little difficulty that all this would contribute to my well-being as an urban citizen.

However, some sort of skepticism emerged when the vision was considered in the broader political-economic context in which it was articulated. The initiative is about making Zurich “one of the most livable city” in the world even more livable. The project is thus part of a competition about the city’s status at a planetary scale, providing an example of the advance of the neoliberal city and the way this advance is intertwined with the production of nature.

This more radical interpretation of the project is inspired by Swyngedous (2022) analysis of the capitalist form of urbanization of nature for which the project in Zurich provides an excellent example.3  Problematic in his view is thereby “the process through which all manner of non-human ‘stuff’ is socially mobilized, discursively scripted, imagined, economically enrolled (commodified), and physically metabolized/transformed to produce socio-ecological assemblages that support the urbanization process.” As Swyngedous argues, this form of urbanization of nature is characteristic of the advance of planetary urbanism and the neo-liberalization of nature it entails. For us, it marked an invitation to consider once the visionary recreation project not simply as an antithesis to the ongoing neo-liberalization of urban space in Zurich – but essentially an integral part of it.

In fact, we might say that the neoliberal proposal is not a problem, as it will improve the quality of life and well-being in a city like Zurich. And yet, the value of neoliberal visions should not be measured by the benefit it generates for some, but by the alternative it excludes for many others. One such an alternative we had explored in form of an agro-ecology project elsewhere in Zurich, promising a more divers, just and common future for the city and its population. When I asked the president whether some sort of community projects as urban gardening would fit into his vision for the reuse of land at one of the concrete deserts he proposed to turn green, his answer remained indeterminate. More determinate was rather his elaboration about the swimming restaurant his association proposes at prominent location at the mouth of the river – at Bürkliplatz – open for the public. Mobilizing capital to build the restaurant will not be a problem in a city like Zurich, if the public will finally support and approve his association’s vision. And yet, it will in effect, bring into a being another hub for consumption not simply to bring people into exchange, but also to pay off the investment.

The rain had stopped and the weather had changed.

1 Schär, B. C. (2015). On the tropical origins of the Alps: Science and the colonial imagination of Switzerland, 1700–1900. Colonial Switzerland: Rethinking colonialism from the margins, 29-49.

2 Taussig, M. T. (1997). The magic of the state. Psychology Press.

3 Swyngedouw, E. (2022). Capital's Nature: A Critique of (Urban) Political Ecology. Tzaninis, Yannis, Mandler, Tait, Kaika, Maria, Keil, Roger (Eds.). Pumping up the Heat: Urban Political Ecology. The University of Manchester Press.



Essential references 


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