Materials & Methods at MacDowell

The prestigious residential fellowship welcomes a new group of landscape architecture professors.

By Zach Mortice

Detail, paving, and construction of cable car line on Broadway, 1891. Photograph by C. C. Langill and William Gray. (Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations).

The MacDowell Colony, which grants artists across different disciplines residential fellowships to pursue their craft, is welcoming four landscape architecture educators into the program for its Spring 2019 residencies. The duo of Present Practice (Parker Sutton and Katherine Jenkins), who teach landscape architecture at the Ohio State University; the Harvard Graduate School of Design landscape architecture professor Robert Pietrusko; and Jane Hutton, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, will all spend up to eight weeks through May in Peterborough, New Hampshire, working in scholarly isolation. Now in its 112th year, MacDowell provides a private studio, as well as meals, accommodations, and some stipends.

This spring term’s fellows are architects and landscape architects, composers, filmmakers, interdisciplinary artists, theater artists, visual artists, poets, nonfiction writers, and fiction writers. Each crop of fellows is selected by a panel of subject matter experts.

Present Practice is developing a set of manual hand tools for representing landscapes. Courtesy Present Practice.
These manual drawing tools will demonstrate the “strengths of digital technology—its precision, speed, and replicability—while reclaiming the benefits of analog drawing as they pertain to landscape architecture—namely, its haptic, imperfect, and responsive aspects.” Courtesy Present Practice. 

During Present Practice’s time at the MacDowell Colony, they’ll be focused on creating new tools for landscape representation that accommodate the discipline’s organically irregular and tactile materials. They will “employ the use of a personal 3-D printer in combination with digital architectural software to design and create custom, manual drawing tools that leverage the strengths of digital technology—its precision, speed, and replicability—while reclaiming the benefits of analog drawing as they pertain to landscape architecture—namely, its haptic, imperfect, and responsive aspects,” Sutton writes. These tools consist of a “3-D-printed handle and a nested, cast-rubber stamp that mimics the conventional symbols and annotations used in digital landscape architectural drawings—circles, dashes, and crosses, among others—that typically denote landscape systems including vegetation, hardscape, and topography.” These abstracted symbols, rendered with printmaking imperfections, take on a bit more of the life and variation of the planted and grown world, and an intuitive next step for this research might be to see how representing landscapes differently affects their built form.

Robert Pietrusko’s “data sonification” project translates imagery into recorded sound. Courtesy Robert Gerard Pietrusko.

Pietrusko will use his time at MacDowell to pursue a “data sonification” project that translates satellite topographic imagery into sound. Modeling the Bucks Lake region of Northern California, Pietrusko is creating a series of 3-D-printed jewel cases in the form of the area’s topography, broken into a matrix of cells that fit together to map the entire site. The satellite signal used to create imagery of this landscape is translated into sound, recorded on compact discs, and placed in the corresponding jewel box. “No musical intuition or specific aesthetic criteria is used for making this translation,” Pietrusko writes. “It is merely meant to render the satellite data in a different sensory mode.”

Hutton spent her time in New Hampshire completing a book, Reciprocal Landscapes: Cases in Material Movement, to be published by Routledge later this year. Each chapter of this book will follow the harvesting and movement of a landscape architecture material installed in a New York City public space back to its origin point.

Tying public landscapes to the whirl of logistical worldwide economic systems, the book will chart how fertilizer from Peru (bat guano) was brought to Central Park in the 1860s, and how granite quarried in Maine paved Broadway 30 years later. Other chapters will source steel from Pittsburgh, installed at Riverside Park in the 1930s, and London plane trees grown on Rikers Island by inmates, planted on Seventh Avenue. Finally, the book will examine how ipe wood from Brazil came to adorn the High Line today.

Hutton selected materials that are particularly resonant within the political and economic trends of the day, situations where “what’s happening in landscape architecture is reflecting on what’s happening in the world,” she says. Steel’s role in the Great Depression-era burst of infrastructure development and public works is a prime example. “It’s a material that is tied up with the country’s economy and labor,” Hutton says.

For materials that are subject to higher levels of processing and refinement like steel, Hutton traces the origins of their component parts (coke and iron ore) as well. This approach shifts the narrative of public landscapes from viewing the opening day ribbon-cutting as the beginning of the story, to viewing it as something much closer to the end. Throughout the book, Hutton hopes to encourage people to think of landscape elements not as products, but as “physical fragments of other places,” she says. “They all come from landscapes: pieces of a forest, pieces of a quarry.”

 Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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