October 20, 2022

Karen Lewis Publishes “Towards a Scientific Imaginary”

The architecture professor’s paper discusses the scientific inquiry, ecological speculation, and landscape experimentation in the work of the 19th-century Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Associate Professor of Architecture Karen Lewis has published “Towards a Scientific Imaginary: Uncovering the Landscape Speculations of the Corps of Topographical Engineers” in LA+ 016, Speculation.

In 1855, the Corps of Topographical Engineers, an elite group of Westpoint-trained military men, published the first report depicting the geographic conditions of potential routes of a transcontinental railroad. Sponsored by Congress, teams encompassing topographers, astronomers, doctors, botanists, explorers and anthropologists, articulated a multi-scaled vision of the American West with an extensive pallet of visualizations describing the landscape of each proposed route.

The images generated were simultaneously descriptive as well as persuasive; section cuts from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, pastel-hued landscape paintings, intricate botanical illustrations, well-ordered charts of collected data—along with 10,000 pages of text—formed a rigorous and intricate setting for government investment. But the reports and images accomplished far more than Manifest Destiny propaganda. By synthesizing the new sights from the wilderness into projections and images, the Topographic Corps set a new agenda for the American West based in scientific inquiry, ecological speculation and landscape experimentation.

Read more at LA+