The collision of art and engineering–perhaps embodied in the fundamental nature of being human–creates a struggle between the precise and the imprecise that is exemplified in architecture and landscape architecture on many levels. Coming from the engineering world, I see this struggle at the lowest level when computers attempt to deal with humans (or other organic phenomena), or when humans attempt to tell computers how to deal with such things. One approach is called fuzzy logic, which is a computational way of describing the approximate, allowing for processes that blur along the edges or that change over time. I believe that term applies to the design field just as well in the sense that an effective process depends on resisting the concrete in order to explore the possible. Landscape architecture emphasizes the temporal aspect to a greater degree than architecture generally does (perhaps to its loss), but both fields can benefit from the fuzzy logic that resists exactitude and embraces the as yet undefined. This post explores how this tension plays out in the context of a few design projects by UK design firm Optimised Environments (OPEN) and the associated visual process artifacts they generated.
The first thing that struck me about the visualizations produced by OPEN was how much was left out while still creating a clear sense and feel for a place. For example, for the New Shore Park Design Competition project, the graphics are incredibly simple, including the minimum elements required to convey the design intent. Diagrams analyze individual aspects of the site, identifying circulation, nodes, and views. In the photo-montage graphics, the only background elements are those that provide scale and basic architectural context–and these are presented abstractly, desaturated and without detail. Elements presented in color and realistically are those that indicate specific interventions and that populate the scene. This follows the philosophy expressed by Robert Rovira in Representing Landscapes: “In all cases, emphasis is placed on saying the most with least… This economy of means is stressed as critical not only to to convey essential information in typically complex sites, but also as a way to understand them better, given that it is only through an in-depth investigation of ideas that the more important attributes can be distilled into the fewest strokes” (Amoroso 2012).
Another project that caught my eye was the masterplan and landscape design for the Scotlands National Showground near Edinburgh. Aside from larger scale birds-eye views of the site, the design representations continue the sparse approach OPEN took in the New Short Park design. The montages here, however incorporate higher degree of abstraction when it comes to the contextual architecture–rather than depicting an opaque yet recognizable form, the buildings are transparent stacks of floating slabs. This continues to place the emphasis on the landscape, but also makes it clear that there is plenty of human activity within the surrounding buildings. To further abstract this representation and yet still convey function, they use text oriented to the face of the buildings, adding a diagrammatic touch to the visualization.
These examples, while leaving plenty of space for the imagination still have a fairly finished feel and do little to express an emotional impact or the variation that is brought about by changes in season and weather. In contrast, the Stoneywood Estate project in Aberdeen presents a series of views that capture a sense of time and mystery. A series of hand-drawn renderings give way to striking photo montages, in particular one depicting the new development atop a hill beyond a darkened wood. It is clear from this impressionistic representation that there is a romance to the site that begs to be explored. Further imagery expresses a future seasonal nostalgia associated with fall leaves on the ground and the community that develops in such a place. This combination of elements led to this project being “Highly Commended” in the Urban Design and Masterplanning category at the Landscape Institute Awards 2012.
This and other projects in OPEN’s portfolio also do a good job of what Steenberger describes as effective composition:
The composition makes the link between the architectonic and the architectural, but has its own dynamic… From this it emerges that the composition is not primarily determined by programmatic, physical, technical or constructional qualities. It is precisely the opposite: the composition must integrate and activate all these apsects into a structure or form that permits reading and interpretation, over and above the boundaries imposed by the programme or the construction. In this way a form or presentation can arise that is not strictly logical and practical, but is certainly “conceivable” (Steenbergen 2008).
A less-than-practical but conceivable composition is presented in OPEN’s Hexingdao project in China. In these montages nothing concrete is presented, only ideas and impressions. Trees are both realistic and abstract, benches are suggestions, buildings are all around but anonymous, and the people are fleeting. Together, however, these elements convey a scene that is full of energy and life–reflective of today’s China and the “important economic, transportation and communication centre” in which Hexindao is located–one that is pleasantly occupiable as the light and shadows move across the space. It is most definitely conceivable.
These projects developed by OPEN represent a good starting point as I seek to blur the edges in both design process and representation.
Amoroso, N. (2012). Representing landscapes: A visual collection of landscape architectural drawings. London: Routledge.
Steenbergen, C. M. (2008). Composing landscapes: Analysis, typology and experiments for design. Basel: Birkhäuser.