Mise-en-Scène: A new book from Chris Reed and Mike Belleme explores the theater of urban landscapes

Black and white photograph of a structure covered in foliage.
Photo by Mike Belleme for Mise-en-Scène.

Conceived as a multidimensional investigation into “the social lives of urban landscapes,” Mise-en-Scène: The Lives & Afterlives of Urban Landscapes (ORO Editions) is a powerful collaboration between photographer Mike Belleme and landscape-urbanist Chris Reed, professor in practice of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The book is centered around seven case studies: Los Angeles, Galveston, St. Louis, Green Bay, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Boston. It intersperses photo essays by Belleme with selected maps, drawings, and wireframe renderings of projects from Reed-led landscape firm Stoss Landscape Urbanism, along with essays from guest contributors, quotes from contemporary and historical writings on the city, and interviews with residents. Reed describes Mise-en-Scène as “a bit of a scrapbook, a collection of artifacts and documents that are not necessarily intended to create logical narratives, more intended as a curated collection of stuff that might reverberate, one thing off another, to offer multiple readings, multiple musings, multiple futures on city-life.”

In the context of theater, “mise-en-scène” refers to the arrangement of scenery, props, and actors onstage, and in a broader sense, to environment or milieu. Reed draws out both of these connotations through the book, describing the work he does as “understanding the scripts and dialogues as they are playing themselves out; interacting with those on stage and the forces behind the scenes in ways that both respond to and shift what is at work; re-setting the trajectory of the play in ways that sometimes reveals what is hidden; and giving new voice to those who have been off stage—all allowing for new and healthier interactions among urban dwellers, their cities, and the environments in which they live.”

Through the triangulation of what is, what was, and what ought to be, photography and design prompt one to indulge in the kind of utopian imagination necessary to energizing activism.

Mise-en-Scène contributor Sara Zewde

The book features textural black-and-white photography, often shot at street level, and unwavering in its portrayal of gritty detail that highlight the many facets of a city. Candid images of people, landscapes, and built form are occasionally overlaid with sketches and annotations. Through his photography, Belleme captures small, everyday moments of joy or interest and finds commonalities across cities, despite differences in size, density, and environmental features. The maps in the introduction of each of the cities make obvious the difference in scale, morphology, and geographical features of the cities, and yet an inherent interconnectedness emerges. Perhaps this can be explained by the quote from Teju Cole that the book opens with: “All the cities are one city. What is interesting to find, in this continuity of cities, the less obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.”

Black and white photograph of church goers exiting the building.
Photo by Mike Belleme for Mise-en-Scène.

And therefore, much as described by Jim Dwyer in Scenes Unseen: The Summer of ’78, or seen in William Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), which Reed lists as two of the influences for the book, there is a dynamic relationship of people’s interaction with public space, impacted by time of day, and patterns of sun and shade. The influence of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is clearly perceptible in the photographs—portraying people adapting the space to their own needs and using it as they see fit. As Reed says, “Many of Mike Belleme’s Mise-en-Scène photographs capture the rich social dynamics and urban-environmental conditions that we play off as designers and urban strategists; they document the lives of the places where we work, the afterlives of some of the places we have designed.”

The photo essays are interspersed with five essays from a diverse and interdisciplinary group of collaborators, to further provide framework. Curator Mimi Zeiger grapples with the issues of climatic and socioeconomic disparities in edge conditions in Los Angeles. Artist and activist De Nichols (LF ‘20) delves into issues of social equity and identity, along linear demarcations in cities such as St. Louis and Cleveland. Julia Czerniak analyzes the aesthetics and experiential quality of Stoss’s work, and speaks to the importance of aesthetics, in addition to today’s preoccupation with performance and sustainability. Nina-Marie Lister contextualizes landscapes within the climate crisis, and touches on issues of resilience and adaptation, stressing the need to work collaboratively across boundaries. In the final essay, Sara Zewde, assistant professor in practice of landscape architecture, reflects on the parallels of photography to design, positing them both as “acts of shaping how someone views the world.”

Graphic displaying predicted sea level rise from 1950 to 2100.
Diagram of predicted sea level rise in Galveston, Texas by Stoss Landscape Urbanism for Mise-en-Scène.

The writing is specialized, yet accessible, catering to activists, sociologists, aficionados of art, culture and photography, and city-lovers in general. These are spatial observations, and analyses of urban landscapes, but they are also deeply personal accounts. Nichols writes of her experience on the frontlines of protests in St. Louis that she was “harassed by patrons at the most deluxe mall of the county. I was tear-gassed in one the neighborhoods most lauded for its diversity and safety,” and Zeiger writes of the implicit privilege of inhabiting a white body in Pasadena.

Though the photographs were taken pre-pandemic, and this project has been four years in the making, the writings are oriented to a post-pandemic world. They reflect the inequity, systemic racism, and police brutality that were exacerbated by the pandemic, made glaring by the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the country. The photographs and writings shine a light on what the last two years have meant, environmentally and socially—and on the importance of having equitably accessible landscape spaces in our urban environments.

As Reed explains, “[Mise-en-Scène] is at once an artful documentary project on contemporary cities, city people, and the forces playing out across cities and public spaces everywhere. But it’s also a creative project about the future, about identifying pathways forward; about how people as individuals and entire communities, with artists, planners, designers, thinkers, government leaders, citizens, and activists can collaboratively shape our futures.”

Black and white photograph of birds flying over the horizon with an large boat in the distance.
Photo by Mike Belleme for Mise-en-Scène.

And Zewde echoes, “Through the triangulation of what is, what was, and what ought to be, photography and design prompt one to indulge in the kind of utopian imagination necessary to energizing activism. There are striking similarities in the analytical endeavors of remembering the past, analyzing the present, and imagining a future. What worked? What didn’t? What is working? What isn’t working? What shall we conserve, destroy, and build in our new world? And, how do we advocate for it?”

If the pandemic and the past two years have taught us anything, it is that despite human resilience, and moments of celebration captured by Belleme, cities as they are today do not work. As design professionals, we have a chance to pause, recalibrate, and pivot toward a more equitable and climate-resilient future for our cities, and we must take it.