Thinking the Contemporary Landscape, a new collection of essays edited by EHTZ professors Chistophe Girot and Dora Imhof takes on the considerable task of creating a unified understanding of landscape. The essays’ takeaways don’t quite paint as cohesive a picture as the editors suggest. But if the rational and the poetic in landscape are to be reconciled, as the editors insist they must be, this scattershot approach seems as good as any.
Several of the essays deal with the critical issue of place, and how design might enhance rather than obscure it. Girot, in his essay, points to the trend of homogenized ecological design as a missed opportunity to enter a dialogue with the local context. An increased reliance on 2D mapping techniques is to blame for this, Girot argues. An alternative? 3D, of course. Girot is an effective pitchman for the point cloud and the specificity it allows designers to access. Still, it seems too convenient to blame out-of-the-box designs on one set of tools or methods. Girot himself describes these ecological designs as a trend. And as trends are by nature fleeting, perhaps the fear of homogenization has outgrown its actual threat.
In her essay, Allesandre Ponte at the University of Montreal suggests the mapping craze Girot refers to might be a sign of insecurity on the part of designers who find themselves groping around a dark and ever-expanding room of ecology, territory, and culture. The multitude of ways designers can approach sites could come as a relief to some but also induce further “paralysis by analysis” in others.
A meditation by Kathryn Gustafson, ASLA, on model-making weaves together interesting personal anecdotes to make a valid criticism of 3D technologies. Rhino and Grasshopper are a necessity but don’t confer good landscape sense. One trusts Gustafson writes from experience when she shares that a designer cannot explore a landscape with just a keyboard and mouse. “Where are you?” Gustafson prods. “What are you truly experiencing? This is the only thing, for me, that really matters.”
It’s possible to get the impression from some contemporary landscape architects that the greatest transgression a designer can make is neglecting aesthetics in the pursuit of ecological function. Reading of people drowning in the streets of Beijing due to urban flooding, one can forgive Kongjian Yu, FASLA, this offense in his deployment of urban sponges. “Healing the ecological system at the national scale needs simple, replicable, and inexpensive solutions, not self-indulgent ornamental design or artistic form,” writes Yu. Of course, Turenscape’s Qunli Stormwater Park is staggering in its messy functionality. Yu shares its origins as well as the genesis of Turenscape in one of the book’s more personable essays. It’s organized as a guide, with steps such as “Do not Try to Influence the Experts,” and “Make a Proposal to the Prime Minister.”
The book’s most successful essays tell stories. Yu’s falls into this category, as does Susann Ahn and Regine Keller’s delightful essay on nature and imitation. Conceiving of nature as a construct can be extremely liberating. But what happens when that conception runs up against cultural expectation? Designers buckle and imitative natures get built. “The question remains whether, and when, the imitation will render the original meaningless.”
In Lund, a city in southern Sweden, the MAX IV Laboratory houses a synchrotron, a giant particle accelerator. Unfortunately, scientists there found the facility was buffeted by ground vibrations from a nearby highway. They discovered even the smallest vibrations could throw off their precise studies. Instead of finding a new site, the lab decided to use smart landscape design to create a solution. Working with Fojab Architects, landscape architects with Danish multidisciplinary design firm Snohetta created a 19-hectare park that absorbs vibrations while creating public space, a constructed meadow land, that also captures stormwater.
On their web site, Snohetta writes that ground vibrations are “commonly created by wavelengths between 10 to 40 meters in height and follow the surface of the ground.” If a landscape is flat, their models showed, vibrations could reach the laboratory. But experiments with different types of wave topography found that certain forms could actually absorb the vibrations.
Snohetta used the software program Grasshopper to model the effects of vibrations, defined at 10 to 40 meters at an amplitude of 4.5 meters, on their site. The primary lab building had to be a circle. But they decided to twist and raise it, creating a “dynamic shape based on the Möbius strip,” which is a surface with one side and one boundary. And then they went further, creating a sort of Möbius volume. Landscape wave forms radiate out in a pattern that breaks up incoming vibrations. According to Snohetta, “the more chaotic combinations of waves, the better.”
To build this intricate landscape, Snohetta uploaded the 3D model directly into to the GPS systems guiding the bulldozers who carved the shapes. For the firm, it was like “having a giant 3D printer producing the project on a 1:1 scale.”
On top of blocking the vibrations, the designers also brought a sustainable design approach — soil was cut on site and then filled in elsewhere to create the waves. They argue this will help ensure the site can return to agricultural use if the synchrotron is no longer used.
The waves also help channel stormwater into ponds designed to accommodate both 1-year and 100-year rain events.
And throughout the park, there are native meadow grasses, planted from seeds gathered at a nearby nature reserve. The lab will bring in sheep to help manage the grasses.
Even though the location looks fairly suburban, there is also ample bike parking for lab employees and visitors.
The second day of the Landscape Architecture Foundation‘s New Landscape Declaration: Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future offered critical responses to the 23 declarations delivered on the first day of the event and looked ahead to the next 50 years. Afternoon sessions were divided into five panels, each representing a different aspect of landscape architecture: academic practice, private practice, public practice, capacity building organizations, and emerging voices. Each panelist gave a short talk before engaging in a group discussion, addressing audience-sourced questions, and offering perspectives on what needs to be achieved over the next 50 years:
Academic practice: Maintain the value of the “long view”
“Academics combine teaching, scholarship, and service” while “taking the long view: looking back, then to now, and forward,” argued University of Illinois professor Elen Deming, ASLA, moderator of the first panel. The panel largely resisted responding to the more-urgent cries for action from the first days’ declarations, with Jacky Bowring, professor at Lincoln University, cautioning, “there is power and danger in the language we use.”
The academicians saw the future of landscape as both cultural art and applied science. While Anu Mathur, ASLA, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, championed “design as a field of inquiry” in which “design tools and techniques are our academic science,” Susan Herrington, ASLA, professor at the University of British Columbia, reminded the largely-professional audience that design schools “do not train scientists,” citing long hours in the studio. Yet a question from the audience concerning the rising costs of education revealed that a lack of scientific rigor in landscape architectural research limits access to external funding that could help lower escalating costs.
Julia Czerniak, ASLA, professor at Syracuse University, spoke to the power of design writing and criticism in spreading ideas. Other panelists noted the academy’s global reach comes from the increasingly international students it recruits and where schools build partnerships.
Anita Berrizbeitia, ASLA, professor and chair of landscape architecture at Harvard University, delivered four points the panel saw as critical to the future of academic practice: 1) commit to frameworks of learning, 2) avoid binaries and ideologies, 3) encourage student thinking and action, 4) increase diversity and range of students.
Private practice: Lead through collaboration and deep expertise
The private practice panel was moderated by Laura Solano, ASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), who emphasized that practitioners deal with the challenges of not only serving clients and achieving design excellence, but most also “run profitable businesses, all without harming the earth.” In their contribution toward a new declaration, the practice panel called for firms to become increasingly adaptable and gain deeper expertise.
Joe Brown, FASLA, consulting advisor at AECOM, insisted that “practices must respond to students’ ambitious ideals.” He later added that larger firms can act as teaching institutions as well, helping students achieve their new ideas. Thomas Balsey, FASLA, founder of Thomas Balsley Associates, agreed that in private practice, “a commitment to growth and evolution” can come from being open to what students bring. Through internships and the induction of recent graduates, Balsley offered ”student-led seminars” as a bridge between the ideas of the academy and the constraints of contemporary practice. Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA, founding principal at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, claimed “education in firms will be the biggest draw in future private practice.”
The panel addressed the importance of having both deep expertise and leadership skills as landscape architects manage complex, collaborative projects. Mark Johnson, FASLA, co-founder of Civitas, noted that being a leader isn’t just about being a “good generalist, but also an expert.” Balsley, who saw collaboration as the key for smaller firms to get big commissions, elaborated: “you need preparation and dedication to being an expert to be capable of collaborating.” Or as Gustafson put it, “to let landscape lead, you have to be the smartest person in the room;” but also be pro-active: “know your experts and demand what you need from them.”
Adding a more critical voice to the private practice panel was Keith Bowers, FASLA, founder and principal at BioHabitats. Noting he is often on the other side of these collaborations, providing ecological design services, Bowers re-asserted the importance of private landscape practices to lead by “turning around political and financial institutions.” He emphasized the importance of sticking to your environmental values and having “conviction, spirit, and humility in everything you do.”
Public practice: Change policy to achieve impact
Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, led the public practice panel, which advocated for their important role in “defending and expanding” landscape’s role, all the while “creating places of experience that stick with people throughout their lifetime.” Acknowledging the stigma of bureaucracy, Nette Compton, ASLA, senior director of ParkCentral and City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, said to “young professionals: you can get a lot done at a young age;” her own rise in the New York City parks department being but one example.
Joking that landscape architects are a “shade-loving species,” Mark Focht, FASLA, former ASLA president and senior official in Philadelphia’s parks department, joined others on the panel in suggesting landscape architects must “push themselves out there” into positions of power and “demand design excellence for under-served communities.” This point was affirmed by Deborah Marton, executive director of New York Restoration Project, who noted that “private dollars rarely go into low-income places.”
Going one step further was Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director of landscape architecture for U.S. General Services Administration, who encouraged landscape architects to be “infiltrators and insurgents,” using policy as a mechanism to deliver action. Citing his involvement in the Obama administration’s efforts to restore pollinators to health, Gabriel thinks re-conceptualizing policy through ecosystem services “is where our greatest future and capacity lies.”
Picking up on the Beth Meyer’s keynote speech and Martha Schwartz’s declaration from the first day of the LAF Summit, Edward Garza, CEO Zane Garway and former mayor of San Antonio, challenged landscape architects to “embrace the political world” and even to run for mayor.
Capacity organizations: Design a path to increased diversity
As demonstrated by the summit itself, capacity organizations like LAF play a crucial role in forging the future of landscape architecture. Having heard all the declarations and much of the audience and Q & A, the panel, which included representatives from the LAF, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architecture (IFLA), Public Architecture, and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), acknowledged how important diversity is to the future of the profession. Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA, announced a multi-organizational effort entitled Mirroring the Nation, which is meant to attract and support more minorities to the profession, so that “our profession might better mirror the population it serves.”
The panel also called for landscape architects to have more impact on a global level. Leading the cause was Raquel Penalosa, ASLA, who is using her position as President of IFLA Americas, to “work globally in the service of localities. We must be humble and listen” closely to what communities want. And IFLA president Kathryn Moore said the world’s tens of thousands of landscape architects can have more impact by forming an “interdisciplinary vision” based in “common values,” particularly given the field is one of the fastest growing worldwide.
LAF President Barbara Deutsch, FASLA, and Somerville debated a bit on whether a “new narrative” was needed to achieve greater public awareness, with Deutsch calling for an entirely new set of messages, and Somerville arguing that “we are making progress with our current messages among some groups — like the older, wealthier, and better educated — but need to better reach diverse audiences. We need to get the messages out where they need to be.”
Emerging voices: Promote the next generation
With the help of Lucinda Sanders, FASLA, CEO of OLIN, the emerging voices panel assembled a group of recent LAF Olmsted scholars. An appropriate ending to a summit on “the future of landscape architecture,” these future leaders each wrote their own declarations, which they then presented to the 700-plus crowd.
Leading off was a 2015 University Olmsted scholar Joanna Karaman, Student ASLA. Now working as a landscape designer at OLIN, Karaman challenged landscape architects to “be honest about how we represent what we build.” Her work in time-based media (Karaman is also working on a film about and for the LAF Summit) seeks to bring power to the profession through the use of videos that can make more accessible the volatility and transformational potential of landscapes.
Following Karaman was Nina Chase, ASLA, senior project manager at Riverlife in Pittsburgh, who advocated for “capitalizing on the resurgence of fun” through short-term pop-up projects that can serve as prototypes and catalyze public participation. Embracing the mantra of “test before you invest,” Chase suggested that developing projects incrementally is both good for creating fun, but also for building resilience to climate change.
Scott Irvine, a 2015 University Olmsted scholar from the University of Manitoba, delivered a message from the Canadian plains, cautioning that landscape architects should beware of “becoming overly urban,” and that too often now, “regionalism stops at the edge of the city itself.” Another caution was issued by Timothy Mollette-Parks, ASLA, associate principal at Mithun, who argued that “landscape can’t be formulaic, and we must not lose our dedication as designers.”
Wrapping up the panel was the 2016 National Olmsted scholar, Azzurra Cox, Student ASLA, a recent graduate from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, who called for landscape architects to engage in what she calls “critical ethnography: design as a humanist, political, and narrative act.”
This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA,2016 master’s of landscape architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
The MacArthur Foundation, creators of the “genius” grant, have just launched 100&Change, a competition for a single $100 million grant that can make “measurable progress towards solving a significant problem.” The MacArthur Foundation seeks a bold proposal with a charitable purpose focused on any critical issue facing people, places, or the environment. Proposals must be “meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.” The goal is to identify issues that are solvable.
The MacArthur Foundation expects to receive applications mostly focused on domestic American issues, but they welcome international proposals as well.
Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s managing director leading the competition, told The Washington Post that the grant competition is designed to inspire more creative problem solving. “We believe there are solutions to problems out there that $100 million might be able to make significant headway or unlock resources, and we want to hear what those are. By focusing on solutions, we can inspire people to focus on problems that can be solved, and we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to it.”
In other competition news: AECOM, the Van Alen Institute, and 100 Resilient Cities have announced the latest Urban SOS, an annual student competition. Fair Share will explore the principles of the “sharing economy,” and how it can be applied to “support more equitable access to resources, improve the built environment, and enrich the quality of life of urban residents.” Fair Share is looking for multidisciplinary teams of students “to create a new generation of digital innovations combined with physical design strategies to improve how cities provide housing, open space, transportation, jobs, care, and many other services and resources.” Register by June 14 and submit proposals by September 12, 2016. Winners will receive $15,000 and up to $25,000 in services to support the implementation of the winning concept.
“The infrastructural situation in the U.S. is bad,” said Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Traffic causes “5.5 billion of hours or about $70 billion of lost productivity, costs 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, and increases our healthcare costs by $45 billion each year.” About a quarter of American bridges are crumbling and structurally obsolete; and we hear horror stories nearly every month of another major collapse.
“But technology is the big hope.” Kantor argued that embedded sensors can be used to make roads and cars smarter so they can relay traffic reports in real time, identify structural issues and report them, and reduce traffic collisions and fatalities, which also cost the U.S. hundreds of billions each year.
And autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, on-demand mobility apps like Ridescout, as well as parking apps, could reduce the inefficiency of traffic. With so little investment in actual structures and asphalt, technology is seen as one cost-effective way to lengthen the life of our crumbling transportation system.
What is holding back this safer, more efficient future? For Kantor, the problem is “very silo-ed governments, from the federal to local level.” What’s instead needed is a “whole ecosystem approach, connecting across systems.”
And that’s what the U.S. department of transportation (DOT) is now attempting with its Smart City Challenge, which will give up to $50 million to one city to become the “country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network.”
At SXSW, DOT announced the finalists: Portland, Oregon; Kansas City, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. DOT will work with these cities to refine their plans before announcing a winner.
Mark Dowd, senior advisor at DOT, said the “car has caused disconnection in communities; but technology can reconnect communities. We can’t build our way out of our current problems. We are leaning hard on the technology piece.”
Dowd said big cities have the resources to start their own high-tech, integrated transportation programs, but “urbanization only increases pressure on mid-sized cities that can’t build their way out of the problem or attract the tech talent they need,” so they can only benefit from the involvement of the DOT.
DOT was surprised by the incredible demand for these funds. Some 78 cities sent in applications. “There is a hunger for a new way of doing things.” But $50 million only meets a slim share of that demand.
The question for Kantor is “who is going to pay for new infrastructure?, ” smart or otherwise. The only way forward may be an increase in the gas tax, which is seen as a third-rail in American politics. But perhaps a tax gas increase could happen if it’s tied to local fixes that benefit commuters and result in a measurable reduction in fatalities. “Over 36,000 people every year die on the roads, and their deaths are preventable.”
There are expected to be 20 million unmanned aerial vehicles or drones in the U.S. by 2020, according to Lisa Ellman, who ran drone policy under the Obama administration. At SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Ellman painted a rosy portrait of a future filled with drones carrying out useful tasks like delivering packages, conducting routine crop dusting on agricultural fields, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, taking aerial photography, and even monitoring endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, the reality is many states and municipalities have restricted or outright banned these flying robots from going anywhere near people due to real safety and privacy concerns. A man in Kentucky recently shot down a drone hovering over his home, claiming the air space above his home was his property. This incident and others raise questions about how to regulate our air space for drones.
Ellman said the domestic market for drones would likely reach $13 billion by 2018 and $110 billion by 2025. But even with these huge projections, the U.S. may be falling behind other countries. “In Japan, for example, already 85 percent of crop dusting is done by drones.”
The U.S. is falling behind because Americans still have major concerns. Two examples of this can be seen in popular culture — In Modern Family, there is a hilarious moment when everyone tries to take down a drone hovering over the family yard, and in South Park, drones are put to particularly egregious use.
These satires of the dangers of these vehicles aren’t far off from Americans’ perceptions. Some 59 percent of Americans have concerns about privacy with drones, while 40 percent think they present a safety issue. To address these fears, Ellman thinks drone manufacturers need to do a “hearts and minds campaign — given they have a real PR problem” despite new regulations.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released proposed rules for the hobby and commercial use of drones. Hobbyists must register their drones, which must be less than 55 pounds and fly less than 100 miles per hour. They can’t go higher than 500 feet and must be flown away from people and cities. “Drone operators must maintain a constant view of the drone at all times.” Furthermore, drone operators can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport.
Commercial operators must apply for a license. So far, there have been about 10,000 applications for licenses, with 4,000 granted. “Most of the early licenses went to Hollywood film producers.” Others have been granted to urban planning, landscape architecture, and other design firms to do aerial studies. Ellman called this approach a “band-aid before a final rule is released.”
Ellman said proposed rules severely limit the potential of drones, because they “need to be able to fly over congested areas and not be in visual sight lines” if we want them to “inspect oil and gas pipelines” or monitor the health of a forest.
She thinks one way to address these safety concerns is a new technology called geo-fencing, which enable operators and owners to pre-set GPS parameters that prevent drones from entering sensitive areas. Another set of new technologies could enable drones to better communicate with other flying vehicles and planes to avoid collisions.
But Ellman admitted getting over the safety concerns — a drone crashing into an airplane or a person — will be hard work. “There have been near misses with drones and aircraft caused by some irresponsible pilots.” For her, the answer is another “public campaign,” and “some enforcement to make examples of these bad actors.”
And privacy remains an issue. “Our homes are our castles and we need to have control over our personal life. There is a fear that drones could spy on us in our backyards.” And so a “privacy campaign is needed,” more than new laws and ordinances. Existing privacy laws already cover the action of any potential “creep,” and additional laws banning drones are really just “playing into people’s fears.” However, many states and cities disagree with her: “In 2015, there were 168 pieces of drone legislation. And in 2016, 33 states considered new rules, while 22 cities passed ordinances.”
Drones raise questions about airspace ownership as well. Our property rights extend above our home, but “only to a certain point.” Under American law, “we own the air rights above our property up to 83 feet, but not past 400 feet. What about the space in between?” The drone shot down by that man in Kentucky was flying 200 feet over his property. “Is that private or public air space? It’s a fascinating question.”
Ellman’s focus was entirely on the interaction of drones with people — what was missing from her analysis was drones’ potential impact on nature. How will drones impact wildlife, like migrating birds? Already, the police in Amsterdam, Netherlands, have trained eagles to take down illegal drones. While an eagle may likely be able to beat any good-sized drone, can other birds defend themselves? The noise from swarms of drones, which Amazon would like to see corralled into airborne highways, could also negatively impact all sorts of wildlife. More research is needed before millions of these are unleashed on our remaining natural world.
Some designers and engineers want to bring high-speed Wi-Fi to as many public parks and plazas as possible. But instead of expanding the style of the unobtrusive yet freely-available Wi-Fi found in New York City’s Bryant Park, they want to make a statement with advertisement-laden towers that appear to be about 15-feet tall and could be used to charge your phone or access useful neighborhood information via a high-tech interface, a sort of modern-day bulletin board. Their thinking is these towers will act as beacons to attract visitors, who can interact with them 24-7. In a session at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, Randy Ramusack, founder of LQD Wifi, Daniel Holtzman with frog, and Francesca Birks with Arup discussed this possible vision of “smarter public spaces” created through LQD’s Palo.
Computing has rapidly evolved over the past few decades. Mainframes found in big data centers have morphed into hand-held mobile devices supported by cloud-based data services. “But the cloud is not helping communities,” asserted Ramusack. “More neighborhood information is needed to boost community interaction.”
He explained that when he picks up one of those free neighborhood newspapers to find out what’s going on in the part of New York City he lives in, he goes to more local events. So what if a glowing tower in the park showed you ads about those events, or even pushed you notifications as you walked by?
And LQD Palo could also address more basic equity issues. Vast number of people in cities still don’t have Internet access at home. In New York City, about a third of the population does without. What if these people could go to this interactive kiosk to do basic job searches? This is what Ramusack envisions for the future.
The interaction with these smart towers will also need to be two-way, said Holtzman, with frog, which designed the Palo. He thinks the high-speed connectivity these towers offer can only “further enhance the social activities that already happen in public spaces.” But others may say that it will only drive people to spend more time on their devices, sitting alone yet together, which is now a sad but common sight in so many public spaces.
Holtzman said these interactive kiosks need to be urban and contemporary but also customizable so they fit the feel of a city and perhaps the public park or plaza they inhabit. He even sees them doing well on streets or in malls and college campuses. Advertisements would be needed to finance the systems, which can’t be cheap. According to Ramusack, “targeted advertisements are viewed as less annoying, so Palo needs to display ads relevant to the places they are in.”
There are also security and privacy issues that will have to be addressed. Today, Wi-Fi hotspots are dangerous zones for transferring personal data. But Ramusack was optimistic these issues can be fixed and thinks implementing these high-profile devices would be a huge win for any city’s mayor. “Tech can make you look good. Wi-Fi gets you re-elected.” Old pay phones are already becoming Wi-Fi hubs, at least in New York City. Link NYC will replace 7,500 pay phone booth with free Wi-Fi stations, local phone calls, and phone charging.
Palo may be better suited for the streets than the middle of Central Park. Who wants to see large flashing ads in the middle of their peaceful respite from the city? Likely no one. But they could be a draw if well-incorporated into plazas and put near existing park facilities, like perhaps the bathrooms.
Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect with over 17 years of experience and a 3D modeling and visualization expert. He has authored two books: SketchUp for Site Design and Rendering in SketchUp. Tal runs a 3D modeling, visualization, and BIM studio for Stanley Consultants, a 1,000 person multi-disciplinary engineering firm and is the tech-editor at large for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
A few decades ago landscape architects weren’t working with complex software. Now that many software choices are available to landscape architects, how do these new technologies change what landscape architects do? What functions are now solely done through technology?
It has completely changed the way the profession functions. The expectation now is anyone out of school has to have some level of proficiency with AutoCAD, Photoshop and SketchUp, at a minimum. Knowing Rhino, 3Ds Max, GIS, and others is expected by some firms. It has become necessary to have some understanding of 3D modeling. This is even true for the landscape design industry.
Also, the workflow has changed. The nature of deadlines has changed because we’re so dependent now on technology. The ability for us to assess design and create revisions to design is remarkable. And among clients, expectations for how much we can change and incorporate have increased, whether it’s from a client overseas or a municipality in the United States.
And, of course, there’s the push for BIM, whatever that really means. I would encourage people to read the recent Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Dummies, which clearly explains the challenges landscape architects face in implementing BIM.
Are clients driving the use of these new technologies or landscape architects? Where is the demand for these new technologies coming from?
As consultants, our approach is client driven. The owners of offices recognize the benefit of being more competitive by having specialties in different software. And the expectation is landscape architects have to do it in a shorter amount of time.
Since the Great Recession, project budgets have gotten tighter and more competitive. Every edge matters. Keeping current matters. This means landscape architects will need to explore new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), 3D printing and fabrication, in-house programming. Soon enough, clients will expect these skills.
How do new technologies support the development of sustainable landscapes? Do they ease the process of design and implementation?
In some cases they do. Environmental assessment or modeling companies are starting to consult with urban design companies, landscape architects, architects, or they have an energy modeler in-house.
Something like Revit and other BIM applications help an energy modeler understand the levels of impact a building or structure might have on a landscape. And we’re seeing and pushing new technologies which measure flows and water for sustainability.
You’ve authored a few books on SketchUp. What do you see as the principal benefits and drawbacks of SketchUp?
SketchUp has become a somewhat standard tool for many offices. It’s expected as part of most professionals toolkits. I know of firms who test SketchUp skills during interviews. It’s proven to allow for quick site modeling and renders. This technology enables the ability to spread the work load among production staff like other typical software like AutoCAD and Adobe products. As a design and assessment tool, it’s invaluable. It’s also pretty easy to learn and fast so it’s well suited for typical landscape architecture firm budgets.
But I also fear SketchUp is falling behind. Don’t get me wrong, it enjoys widespread adoption in the landscape architecture industry and others and it will be around for years to come. But there is a need to incorporate more powerful tools that are becoming standard in other 3D modeling applications, like the ability to import LiDar and laser scans, automated modeling, and the inclusion of GIS and similar data. For example, there is UNDET, which allows for the import of LiDar data into SketchUp. What an amazing tool! But the price is prohibitive at $3,000 vs. something like AutoDESK Recap 360, which is free.
SketchUp’s development philosophy is to let the user and developer community create these tools. This has been great, as there are many amazing SketchUp Extensions, but also challenging, as more robust tools should require the SketchUp teams direct development. We’ll see what happens. For right now SketchUp is here to stay, but my hope is we see the genuine inclusion of new, powerful tools.
SketchUp and other technologies enabled you to design at large scale. What is the relationship between these new technologies and various design philosophies? Are technologists drawn to certain design and urban planning philosophies?
That’s a very good question because there’s been a dialogue that perhaps we’re too quick to go create something visually in 3-D, or in some other program, without actually going in and assessing the design aspect or the real-world impact.
There is a bit of a lag because the excitement has been that “we can convey anything,” but at the same time, we need to make sure what we’re conveying is responsible and correct for community and resource management.
More important, 3D modeling has opened the door for more accurate and powerful simulations and site analysis without having to be at the location. This is an aspect of BIM used often for buildings, structures, and power plants. But now we are now able to simulate traffic patterns for complete streets and pedestrian movement, weather, fluid dynamics, and plant growth.
Furthermore, as more powerful computers become available, and the smart algorithms that come with artificial intelligence and drones become prevalent, we will see another shift in how we work with the landscape. It will inspire new ways to think and design.
Open source software is getting better at meeting the needs of design professionals. Can you discuss some of the pros and cons with these?
One example is Unreal Engine, which is free even for commercial use. It is a gaming engine now available for landscape architects and others to use for their work. As important, it works with the Oculus Rift VR glasses. Really powerful stuff but it does have a learning curve. Many tutorials are available online.
Having free, open source software is important, obviously. For me, there’s the spirit of just having something available that’s free for everyone. We’re finding people go out and explore these things by themselves. They don’t have to have a budget of several thousand dollars to buy software. They’re picking up new skills to better represent their ideas. And we’re actually seeing that more and more. Within our office, there are different people trying out different software, coming to the table in a forum and saying, “This is what I got, and by the way, it’s free, and this is how you use it.”
What are some basic practical steps every landscape architect can take to better incorporate technology into their design and implementation process?
People need to make sure they’re familiar with what’s out there, and at least have a basic understanding of how they’re affecting the profession and who is using them. Hiring IT experts familiar with the landscape architecture, architecture, and engineering fields can help. For example, John Hanson in Denver, Colorado, does IT for several firms. He consults and builds high powered but affordable computer systems, using VR and experiments with 3D printing. Similarly, some students coming out of school can offer guidance.
There is so much new technology it’s hard to keep up with. It used to be that you just had to know your lessons about how things come together in construction and how people design. Every office now needs somebody that’s technologically savvy and knows how computers and hardware work, what programs are out there, and even how to program custom code for existing programs. It’s about making sure you’ve got the edge.
What do these programs mean for hand drawing skills?
I did a survey with Rodney Benton, a student from Auburn University, in 2014 that found hand-drawing skills are very much alive and in use, with 70 percent of firms saying it was still part of their practice and something they looked for from perspective employees. Similar findings have come out of industry surveys.
Knowing how to design, create specifications, administer construction, and manage projects are still the keys to success. 3D is just another tool in the bucket of landscape architects.
“Someone once asked the nature photographer Ansel Adams, ‘why are there no people in your photographs?’,” said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., at the opening of Luminous Landscapes, a new exhibition featuring the landscape photography of Alan Ward, FASLA, a principal at Sasaki Associates. “Adams replied that there are always two people in his photographs — the photographer and the viewer.” Piedmont-Palladino added that in Ward’s photography of landscape architecture, there is always a third unseen person: the landscape architect. The exhibition covers landscape works from before 1900, “before the profession of landscape architecture,” then the period from 1900 to World War II, and, lastly, post-war modern and contemporary landscapes.
Ward said photography is his second career, but his decades-long immersion in this art form is symbiotic with his day-job, which is planning and design. His first photograph, taken back in 1978 with 30 pounds of equipment, including an unwieldy tripod, was of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (see image above). The cemetery, which features prominently in the first part of the exhibition, opened in 1831, so it even predates Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park. It was one of the first picturesque Romantic landscapes in America, and Ward’s photograph similarly evokes that style’s wild feel.
The exhibition features Ward’s black and white photography, which he seems to prefer to color. As he explained, “color photography can just have too much information. Black and white helps simplify and also abstract the forms in the landscape designs.” Ward mostly takes his black and white photos in the early morning or late afternoon in order to capture the “very soft light and not over-expose.” He looks for ways to “put all the information together into a coherent image” and create a story of a landscape defined by both stark contrasts and subtle shifts of tone. Capturing all these complex layers, Ward says, is made possible through black and white, which is best at isolating the effect of light on the landscape.
Color photography, Ward added, is “often treated at face value, like reality.” But all photography, color or black and white, is highly manipulated to achieve correct tones and sought-after representations. All of photography plays with the idea of what is real. “Photography is not quite a lie, but not quite the truth. There is a lot of abstraction.”
Leaving the heavy camera behind in favor of a Canon Mach 2, Ward today contemplates the challenges of digital photography. The old camera forced photographers to be very deliberate in setting up shots, but now with a digital camera, “most take dozens of photographs and figure one will come out well,” he laughed. “Digital photography may diminish your looking and framing.” It’s important, Ward said, to continue to apply “rigorous seeing and visualization” when using a digital camera.
As we wander over to the last room filled with the modern and contemporary landscapes, we reach the photographs that made Ward so well-known among landscape architects — his shots of Dan Kiley’s Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana. Because the garden wasn’t open to the public then, most designers only got to experience the site through Ward’s photographs. Seeing Ward’s consideration of the garden for the first time, I began to understand why so many contemporary landscape architects find the landscape so appealing. Kiley took traditional French garden forms, like allees of trees and rectilinear arrangement of hedges, and made them modern. But it’s Ward’s photographs of them, with his Modernist framing, that further “amplifies the design.”
Ward riffed on why photography can amplify the design in some landscapes and not others. He argued that Olmsted’s picturesque Central Park is so hard to shoot because the curved paths and vast meadows recede away from you, proving too elusive for the photographer to capture. The totality of the experience is somehow beyond representation. But modern landscape’s bold shapes and orthogonal forms seem to be only heightened by the framing of the photographer. “The bold use of geometry lends itself to powerful images.” Ward said that taking those photographs helped him understand what Kiley set out to achieve, and that understanding greatly influenced his own designs.
Piedmont-Palladino added later that one can see a great difference between architecture that predates photography and architecture from the era of photography, perhaps speaking to the influential role of photography in shaping our expectations of the built environment. Ward, who started out as an architecture student and first took photographs of buildings, said still to this day, the ideal architectural photograph shows sharp light cutting across a building facade — quite different from his “soft light” used to capture landscapes. Those shards of light are now often found in actual building designs; just look at Daniel Libeskind’s work.
One question the exhibition brought up: What is the role of fine black and white photography today? It can now be considered an ancient art form when compared with today’s iPhone and Instagram-generated ephemera. Piedmont-Palladino discussed the ubiquity of Apple’s new advertisements lauding the photographs taken with its latest iPhone, which make anonymous and interchangeable the person who actually made the image. She questioned whether the technology — the phone camera — mattered as much as the photographer, “the person with the great eye,” who makes the photograph possible. In the era of instant, throw-away photography, what happens to the appreciation of what Ward achieves?
And if black and white or even color photography doesn’t quite tell the truth, does another representational art form get us closer to the experience of a landscape? What about video, used more and more to convey both idealized and real landscapes? In the future, will we go to exhibitions of landscape video art, which can better capture landscape change and sound and may have new resonance in our multimedia world? Or will we continue to delve further into abstraction, with online collections of landscape Instagram or Vine works, just as there are now collections featuring animated GIFs from the 1990s?
The most reasonable conclusion may be that all media are “not quite the truth.” And, as Piedmont-Palladino said, “perhaps the truth isn’t what we are after.”
As we look forward to covering new stories on the built and natural environments this year, here’s a look back at the 10 most popular Dirt posts of 2015. The results of ASLA’s online survey, which asked landscape architects about their use of smartphone apps, were enduringly popular. On the technology front, readers also sought out an op-ed from Jordan Petersen, ASLA, on what drones will mean for planners and designers. (Speaking of which, The Dirt is always looking for original op-eds, particularly from member landscape architects, designers, and planners. If interested, please send us a note at email@example.com).
Also worth highlighting: The Dirt‘s readers were very interested in the latest research on the health benefits of landscape architecture. We’ll post more on this exciting field of discovery in the coming year.
1) DesignIntelligence 2015 Landscape Architecture Program Rankings Once again, Louisiana State University came in at the top of undergraduate landscape architecture programs. And for the 11th year, Harvard University came in as the best graduate program in the annual survey conducted by DesignIntelligence on behalf of the Design Futures Council.
3) What Dose of Nature Do We Need to Feel Better? There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.”
6) A New Map of the World’s Ecosystems
A new, free, web-based tool from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and ESRI allows us to gain a better understanding of the ecological character of any place in the world.
7) Do Urban Growth Boundaries Work?
Urban growth boundaries are held up as one of the most effective tools for limiting sprawl. But do they actually constrain unplanned development?
8) Drones Will Elevate Urban Design
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently released long-awaited guidelines for commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drones.
10) A Rare Look at the New U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters
This $646-million project is just the first in a series that will transform a mid-19th-century mental asylum, founded by social reformer Dorothea Dix, into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, of which the Coast Guard is a major piece.