Digital Dividends

Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies: Re-Conceptualising Designing and Making 

Reviewed by Gale Fulton, ASLA

Image courtesy of Hélène Binet.

Warning: possible confirmation bias ahead.

One of the most perplexing aspects of landscape architecture education and practice that I’ve encountered is what I’ll grossly refer to here as representation. In the nearly two decades that I’ve been a student, professional, or involved in some capacity with teaching at the university level, I can think of no other domain as consistently polarizing than the critically important area of how landscape architects generate and communicate their ideas. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this issue is the ongoing divide between digital and analog processes—using the computer versus hand drawing. At first glance, one may likely assume this issue to simply be generational—older generations of designers were not educated in the use of the computer and so are less accepting of it than of those techniques and media with which they were trained. But, surprisingly, there seems to be a continued skepticism or distancing from advanced computational processes even by those of the postdigital generations, which is much more troubling given that these will be the future leaders of the discipline, and, as the authors of this book so effectively demonstrate, not embracing the digital in a robust way at this point significantly reduces the potential of the discipline to have the type of impact it aspires to have.

Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies: Re-Conceptualising Design and Making, by Jillian Walliss and Heike Rahmann, both academics based in Australia, is a well-reasoned, well-written, and at times polemical book. It critiques landscape architecture’s failure to more fully embrace the potentials of digital media. It educates readers about the ways designers are using sophisticated digital processes right now in very real professional and academic projects and research. And it aspires for landscape architecture to leverage digital technology to live up more fully to its often lofty rhetoric as a discipline capable of tackling some of our most pressing social and environmental issues such as coastal flooding, migrating populations, and even stormwater management. Through this multilayered approach, the book forces digital doubters to advance (or, one hopes, abandon) what has remained a thinly argued case for continued reliance on outdated methods. The book is also a reminder to those of us who may consider ourselves to be early adopters or proponents of the digital that we must continuously update our knowledge of this realm to capitalize on its many opportunities.

The authors remind us at the book’s outset of landscape architecture’s 50-year connection to digital technologies through Harvard’s Laboratory of Computer Graphics, the work of which eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). But despite an initial uptake of GIS in the 1980s and 1990s, landscape architects have failed to pursue a wider suite of digital investigations and applications aggressively. The authors suggest that this failure to embrace the digital is in part owing to a widespread (academic and professional) difficulty in “conceptualising digital technology as a creative medium,” and they list three reasons for this lapse: “the conceptualisation of creativity as a human endeavor; the assumption that an unmediated connection between hand and the brain evident in the act of drawing provides the most valuable insights for design; and that technology distances the designer from the real world.”

This assessment resonates with my own experiences in the academy and in practice. Had anyone told me back in 1998 or 1999 when I was grudgingly sitting at my desk for a full period (three to four hours) of a “technology” course practicing the already obsolete skill of hand lettering that I would still be having conversations about its importance in 2016, I’d have likely launched into an admittedly naive but optimistic tirade about how out of step that seems with the rhetoric of landscape architecture as the discipline best positioned to engage with design at multiple scales, the complexity of socioecological systems, and new kinds of urbanism—in short, all sorts of bigger fish to fry. But, alas, for a generation educated in this time-consuming technique, the ability to hand letter (or by extension draft) signals an attention to detail, a necessary step on one’s way to being able to craft other aspects of a project. This faith appears to be related to what Malcolm McCullough, in his book Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand, discusses as oxymoronic to many people—the idea of “virtual craft.” Indeed, for those who equate analog to artisan, craft must remain a real, physical thing, without mediation, and so (some) students are still asked or expected to hand letter and draft (by professors and practitioners, respectively, despite such activities being all but extinct in professional practice) because that same level of craft is thought to be absent from AutoCAD or Rhino or Photoshop, for that matter. But craft should be treated independent of media—more sensibility than skill. I am in no way arguing against a need for attention to craft and detail in the education of landscape architects, but I am arguing against the ideology of the analog, which too often does little but take up valuable time that students could spend learning the craft of computational techniques that enable them to engage landscape and design issues in the more flexible and adaptive ways the digital makes possible.

Similarly perplexing is that year after year I see students who seem to be quickly drawn to the siren song of the sketch. They want to have sketch clubs, workshops, and “sketch outs” to learn to draw more beautifully. And I have no problem with students developing greater facility in generating ideas, or even analysis, via sketching. My own belief is that there is no either–or, right–wrong medium today. Representation is by now a fluid space with a staggering array of options for generating and communicating ideas. But commonly this attraction to sketching results only in a drawing we’ve all seen, one-point perspectives (good two-point perspectives are much harder), or an elevation (typically of architecture because it’s far easier to draw than a landscape or landscape process that has no cornice lines or easily established vanishing points), and almost always of an existing situation. Design ideas and scenarios are foreclosed upon rather than projected or opened up. And although the digital in no way guarantees projection, its ability to aid designers with the management of complexity—to keep many possibilities open during the design process—creates a possible space difficult to re-create with analog means.

Image courtesy of Jing Guo.

Maybe the most perplexing element of this category—perhaps needing to be further investigated by a budding PhD student interested in the psychology of landscape architects—is why more students don’t seem to aspire to the creation of digital representations such as the exquisite montages by James Corner Field Operations for Downsview Park (remember the one with the coyote?), the surreal hyperrealism of Mir, the elegant complexity of a Dredge Research Collaborative diagram, or even the graphic shock and awe of graphic novels (or films) such as Sin City or DMZ. Could there also be script-ins and digital modeling clubs? What drives this continued preference for the analog? Is it because we believe that hand representations are in some way more authentic? More true? More representative of the “good” landscape? Along these lines, the authors cite a 2003 survey of ASLA members that reported “the predominant response was that computers were not intuitive and design is intuitive.” And though that study’s age might be questioned, another survey from 2013 reported beliefs that “technology negatively influences creativity” and that design requires “human creativity” and “human spontaneity.”

Although much of the above discussion is focused on the image-oriented or “representational” practices of the discipline, Walliss and Rahmann actually have their sights set on moving the discipline well beyond the merely representational. They argue for a much greater disciplinary impact through use of digital technologies for more generative and possibly instrumental techniques, but believe that multiple aspects of the discipline continue to slow advances in this direction. In this regard, they point toward a body of landscape literature that frequently relies on the projected final image of a project as opposed to the diagrams, models, and simulations necessary for the project to be realized; they are rightly critical of an academy resistant to change that will need to find ways to better incorporate the latest and best software into its curriculum but will need also to “embed a stronger engagement with data” into its coursework as well as work in the “theoretical subjects that encourage a critical engagement with digital design theory, technological developments, and data in design, construction, and society more generally.” Professional practice is also complicit in the slow advance of the digital in landscape architecture. Whether for reasons of perceived irrelevance (not needed for what a particular office does) or economics (too expensive to incorporate), many firms have generally lagged behind architecture in their willingness to embrace new technologies or organizational structures to advance an office’s digital culture. As a progressive example of the latter they cite OLIN’s dedicated director of technology who is “responsible for evaluating and implementing emergent technologies into office and design processes.”

Image courtesy of Snøhetta.

Between an excellent introduction and final section on “Future Directions,” the book is structured around five chapters that cover topics of great relevance to the contemporary concerns of the discipline either in the academy or professional practice. Chapter titles such as “Topographic Surface,” “Performative Systems,” “Simulating Systems,” “Materiality and Fabrication,” and “Collaboration” demonstrate the authors’ solid footing in real-world issues. The authors are smart to rely heavily on built works to show the ways advanced digital technologies are currently being used in landscape architecture. This approach is significant because it makes dismissal of their arguments all the more difficult by those who argue the digital continues to be either a theoretical domain or one that creates digital representations as opposed to being more instrumental to the ideation and ultimate realization of sophisticated built works of landscape architecture.

Each chapter provides in-depth explanations of multiple projects and covers a wide range of contemporary digital technologies and processes, from scripting to building information modeling. In keeping with a desire to move beyond the representational, projects such as Snøhetta’s MAX Lab IV are leveraged to show the final physical form, but also to demonstrate how an engagement with parametric modeling altered the very process of design for the firm. Elsewhere, PEG’s use of parametric tools such as Grasshopper on built works such as their Not Garden project in Philadelphia as well as in more exploratory contexts such as the Miami Vice studio at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrate how these tools can be used across a wide range of scales, engaging complex “processes of formation” as well as for the generation of intricate patterns used to “articulate site functions such as water flow or plant growth.” A chapter on materiality and fabrication details the design and fabrication of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial by Gustafson Porter—a project where complexity and timeline forced the designers to forge new interdisciplinary collaborations and also compelled some of those collaborators to create new methods of fabrication to see the project realized. One can only hope that the plethora of well-illustrated, well-described projects presented throughout the book inspires new approaches in the studios of academia and practice.

Woven through each chapter’s coverage of projects is discussion of the theoretical drivers of the projects or the larger chapter subjects. The authors believe that landscape architecture currently “operates within a weak theoretical discourse of making, which contributes to difficulties in conceptualising a role for technology.” They argue for what might be thought of as a more integrated approach to theory in design curricula. This might be most significant in areas typically labeled “construction” or “technology,” given that this area of the curriculum often takes on an overly practical flavor driven by passing the licensing exam or preparing students for building in the field. What many of the projects throughout this book suggest is that the old ways are quickly becoming obsolete, and that designers who don’t also learn how to advance a critical, creative, and theoretically informed approach to all scales and scopes of landscape architecture may well be outcompeted by those able to adopt more intelligent and agile ways of working.

Gale Fulton, ASLA, is director of the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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