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British Exploratory Land Archive

[Smout Allen & BLDGBLOG] ‘The Centre for Land Use Interpretation aims to record human interaction with the earth’s surface’

Having long admired the Centre for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Los Angeles, Mark Smout, Laura Allen and Geoff Manaugh saw Venice Takeaway as an opportunity to investigate the organisation and its context. Founded in 1994, CLUI is a research and educational organisation that aims to understand and record the nature of human interaction with the earth’s surface. From its small base in Culver City, CLUI publishes books, conducts public tours and offers information and research resources through its library, archive and website.

As an outcome of their research, the studio of Smout Allen, along with Manaugh, will launch the British Exploratory Land Archive. BELA will unite a variety of organisations and individuals to document a diverse range of sites, centralising scattered catalogues and becoming an internationally useful body for recording land use in the UK.

Where did your idea come from?

All three of us are long-time fans of the Centre for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in the US. We have casually discussed what a similar institution in the UK might look like and, in particular, what sort of sites might be catalogued. This seemed the perfect opportunity to pursue the idea of one central repository of human land-use sites. The UK already has a large number of organisations whose remit includes the cataloguing, preservation and/or public touring of unusual sites. Our project explores a model for a different landscape taxonomy, one motivated by a desire to expand the bounds of what it means for an organisation of this kind to archive and explore sites of human intervention in the British landscape.

Most surprising thing you found out?

‘Surprising’ is perhaps not the right word, but one eye-opening realisation was how shockingly normal most of these landscapes really are. Sites that would not be at all out of place in a science-fiction novel were simply right there, woven into the city’s most distant suburbs and desert communities. Over time, these landscapes have been absorbed into the regional geography. Stadium- sized debris basins catching landslides in the San Gabriel Mountains or an airport for testing spaceplanes are considered ‘infrastructure’ or simply ‘business’. Things that seem spatially extraordinary and somewhat unbelievable - at least to us - are part of everyday life on the fringes of LA.

Most challenging part of your trip?

The challenge we faced was limiting ourselves to visiting only a handful of sites in the Greater Los Angeles area. We could very easily have spent two or three weeks in Los Angeles alone, exploring the city’s regional infrastructure, its networked periphery and the industrialised landscapes that allow the city to function.

How do you plan to take this forward?

We hope to realise the British Exploratory Land Archive (BELA) as a functioning research and design organisation in the UK, with the funding to take student groups to visit or produce work in sites of interest.

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