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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Book Review: To the Ends of the Earth – A Grand Tour for the 21st Century

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“As developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, to experience the sublime is to feel an acute sense of being overawed by nature, a combination of terror on the one hand and attraction on the other. The difference between the sublime then and now, however, is that whereas for the Grand Tourists nature was something God-given, awesome, and seemingly inviolable, for us post-moderns it is something polluted and irrevocably altered by technology.”

  • From the Introduction

Author: Richard Weller, Birkhauser Basel, 2024

In this new book from Richard Weller, professor of landscape architecture and urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, he states outright that our restless world is in need of a new Grand Tour, which since the 17th and 18th century has been considered a rite of passage and educational necessity for young students, to visit Italy and Greece and study firsthand the art, architecture, and landscapes of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. With two years of Covid lockdown to collect its contents, Weller’s book of 120 curiousities is a primer for several earthly and unearthly destinations, but moreso it is an eye-opening exposition of our collective hubris when it comes to our relationship with the only planet we have.

Featuring several notorious locations, Mar-a-Logo and the World Trade Center among them, the 120 carefully curated entries also include sites of new hope for the planet, including the Great Green Wall in Africa and the Eden Project, along with several sites that have existed since the birth of the environmental movement in the 1970’s, such as Camp Leakey Weller has been teaching in a time when our awareness of climate change has grown in parallel to truth and reconciliation with the original Indigenous stewards of the land, and making explicit here the negative impacts that colonization and industrialization has had for them and our planet.

For as the title of the book suggests, as much as these are ideas of places along with their physical geography (with longitude and latitude coordinates provided in the margin of each page), so does it suggest the extremes that civilization has gone to in order to command Mother Nature, showing how we have often altered the landscape for the worst in the process. As a counterpart to this, Weller also provides some astonishing up to the minute signs of hope, including several projects under the purview of the United Nation’s Decade of Ecological Restoration (2020-2030).

With each of the 120 destinations succinctly captured in a single page of text, along with a facing page illustrating the site in plan, Weller uses each moment as an opportunity to dig into the backstory of each place, often with an accompanying moral lesson. As an example, his narrative on the Athabasca Tar Sands extends from a technical explanation of the extraction process to both its environmental and sociological ramifications, along with it being Canada’s biggest black eye on the International stage. Similarly we learn about the Three Gorges Dam and China’s history of moving water, alongside a generic data center in the Nevada desert emblematic of the large shadow Silicon Valley casts. There is some similarity in Weller’s journey with the imagery of Edward Burtynsky, especially in Manufactured Landscapes.

Divided into seven chapters, the first thirteen destinations are more Platonic ideas that physical places, what Weller refers to as Hyperobjects. With the first few pretty obvious: the body, the universe, the city, Weller steps things up by including more modern notions such as the Critical Zone, Climate Change, and the Sixth Extinction. And of course the Internet is here, along with the Economy, and the Environment. With this firmament established, the six remaining chapters are pairings: Paradise and Utopia, Machines and Ruins, Monsters and Instruments.

In each chapter Weller starts with a brief exposition on each sub-heading, branching into a different discussion of how the ends of the earth are tied to the ends of our intellect, whether Judeo-Christian dogma or the lessons of the Greek philosophers. While the twenty examples of Paradise he lands on orbit around the Garden of Eden and its religious underpinnings, similarly the twenty he has chosen for Utopia gravitate towards the more modern idea of the city in the world, extending from Plato’s Republic to Sir Thomas More‘s treaty of the same name. Catalogued in this way, no ethical hierarchy is necessary, such that Mar-a-Lago appears in Paradise while Pruitt-Igoe and Seaside appear in Utopia.

In the book’s darker moments, especially in Ruins and Monsters which the author describes as the negative results of using Machines and Instruments, Weller reeducates us on such horrors as Auschwitz and Chernobyl. As he explains in the introduction, Monsters like the original Mary Shelley creation are ongoing car accidents environmentally, but Weller believes there could be a redemptive aspect:

“What Frankenstein’s monster teaches is not (only) that we shouldn’t have transgressed natural limits or theological taboos in the first place, but that we have to take responsibility for the consequences when we do. Translated into practical terms this means returning to the wastelands of the modern world and doing the hard work of now repairing the landscape. This is what is meant by the United Nations’ declaration that this is now the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.”

The Athabasca Tar Sands is a Monster, along with Fracking Wells, the Israel-Palestine Border Wall, as well as the already mentioned Chernobyl Reactor #4 site. Monsters, Weller points out, are presented here in juxtaposition to Ruins, which are static and simply the result of the passage of time – everything, he says, becomes a Ruin. And having stated in the introduction that the 120 sites would only be from the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps the most famous Ruins of all time – the Forum and Acropolis – do not appear here as they most certainly would’ve been a part of the original Grand Tour.

Rounding out the book, Instruments includes twenty technological marvels that are extensions of our physical body, quite literally touching the heavens at the ends of the earth. While one would expect to see the microchip and smartphone here as our physical selves extend into the digital universe, Weller has also included here a Large Hadron Collider, the Greenland Ice Core Project, and both the Mars Rover and Voyager Spacecraft, the latter of which left the Earth’s atmosphere in 1977.

Not just a book for cultural anthropologists and urban educators, To the Ends of the Earth is a clarion call to all environmentally conscientious citizens of our planet, with several sublime moments of ongoing habitat restoration and climate justice, including the Parque de la Papa in Peru. Weller introduces to the reader, with astounding clarity, what will be to many new and important concepts of our age, such as rewilding, the Anthropocene, and the Carbon Cloud. Part instruction manual for saving our planet, part guidebook for the new Grand Tourist, this book takes us on a journey not to be missed!

For more information on To the Ends of the Earth, go to the website.


Sean Ruthen is a Metro Vancouver-based architect.


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