End of the year review: three future prospects for research through designing

'echo of emptiness' collage by Zuzana Jančovičová (see below) ‘echo of emptiness’ collage by Zuzana Jančovičová (see below)

Being a teacher means to be future oriented. Whatever I bring from the past to my students will always be transformed into something that cannot yet be foreseen. This is what renders teachers with an incredible stamina for uncovering the potential qualities within students and the tendencies within the subjects they teach. As one of the great minds on the principles of education, John Dewey (1929, 1933) explained the role of experience as a fundamental teaching method for discovery. The topic of experience is thus not only relevant to the field of landscape design, it appears crucial to the field of teaching. Landscape design, by experience as a currency, is related to the field of teaching and education.

Experience, according to Dewey, is not something that merely strikes a person, it enables the individuated discovery of the direction that ‘the thing is progressing towards’  (Gilmore 2002, 275). The liberating and empowering aspect within the method of discovery can, according to Dewey, be attributed to fore-consciousness. ‘To assert a tendency and to be fore-conscious of a possible terminus of movement are two names for the same fact’ (Dewey 1988, 279). Such a tool is needed to develop both a sensitivity for the tendencies of things and to criticise one’s own or others capacities to help and manifest such tendencies. The subject of experience hereby becomes a tool to imagine yet inconceivable future qualities. Implicitly this can be read as a critique on many current education systems that offer a mere platform for the explanation of the many rules that have accumulated concerning mathematics, linguistics, economics etc.. Alternatively, education should aim to develop personalised tools for future tendencies. This is the sort of experience driven provocation that enables to modify the deepest structures in nature, on either genetic levels or to digitally mirror the complexity of natural dynamics. This type of experience driven education is a future oriented tool.

There are three future tendencies I would like to share with you. I consider them part of the best graduation work of 2014, within our department, under my supervision. They reveal very different elements of landscape design and research and offer fresh insights on the relevance of research through designing (are there still persons that doubt such relevance? Raise a hand please >>> Yes, there is a hand, madam please state your question: ‘Well, I am kind of doubtful whether we are talking about the same type of landscape design. I mean, there are for instance many North-American universities that teach design on a much smaller scale than you seem to be writing about. I sense some awkward differences between your writings in this blog and the usual scale that most of us are working on. At times, it seems that you write about landscape design on a regional scale or even beyond a region, whereas I would consider that planning. So what type of research is related to what type of design?’ >>> thank you for your remark. I will address this after the introduction of these three future perspectives).

The first
A Play of Nature, designing techno-poetic interactions. Roel Theunissen.

Report available here.
How would technology look like if it would not be as obviously present as device-like-objects such as phones, glasses and automobiles? What if the landscape would become digitally smart and sensitive without any visible crank, nub or thread? Due to smaller and more capable computer technology, the opportunity has arisen to embed computing into our environments with the purpose of making these environments interactive, i.e. pervasive computing. With the island of Tiengemeten as a case study, a few prototypes have been designed to explore the various possibilities for the design of dynamic sensations: sensory perceptible features that change through an interaction between people and environment. The result is a theatrical experience within a landscape that serves the senses more intimate than without technology. For instance, as one stands alone in a particular raised part of the flat island, all sounds dim due to anti-sound technology. A deeply introvert but still wide view becomes perceivable. An asset that nears a deep meditative state of sensing. But if you make a sound, or more people share the spot, then this effect stops. All developed prototypes (eight in total) are responsive to the behaviour of the visitors and meteorological events. These dynamic aspects are treated as part of an algorithm to steer the effects of integrated technologies that are only perceivable by humans. THE RESEARCH focussed on [1] What are the aspects that landscape architects have to deal with when incorporating pervasive computing? [2] What is a method and sequence of steps to design for this type of interaction? [3] how would an interactive landscape look like and interact with both natural elements and human presence?

The second
On designing experienceable stories, in the unknown landscapes of the first world war. Jaap Dirk Tump.

Report available here.
Stretching from the Swiss alps to the Belgian coast is todays Westfront of the First World War with its cemeteries, memorials and museums. The sad ending of the story for millions, is that part of history which you encounter if you visit the old frontlines and former no-man’s land today: the dead collected in thousands of cemeteries; the names of those with no known grave are engraved on hundreds of monuments; ruined villages, cities and agricultural fields are reconstructed or their remains covered in forest. Here, there is a huge contradiction between the actual events which took place and what part of history is being told. In this research Jaap Dirk dared to get rid of the romantic aspects of plots and coherent stories that make sense afterwards. He focussed on the chaotic, incoherent and ambiguous experiences that may seem random, but are only random because we long for an ordered manner, as for instance game industry offers. As separate experiences they are more true to the original experiences of being a front soldier: isolated, blinded and in many ways illiterate; e.g. ‘reality is broken’ (e.g. McGonigal 2011). Now, as visitors we are awake and informed, and we should be able to create a multitude of storylines that allow to explore an equally multitude of sensations and memories of the actual events. Through the habits and actions of soldiers, a notion of identity and sense of place was derived via the practices of naming, narrating, valuing and fantasized places. Parts of their frontline and trenches associated with home, with danger, survival and navigation (Wilson, 2011). THE RESEARCH focussed on: [1] to map the current state of tourism and the objects and landscapes that are part of the landscapes of commemoration; [2] what is the state of the art theory on ‘experiences’ related to the design of (gaming) narratives within a landscape? [3] how to offer an alternative set of experiences that allow visitors to explore those facets of history that equal the phenomenal aspects of the first world war instead of the later theatricality of commemoration.

The third
Sublime flooding of the Maniny brownfield, awaking a sublime sensation by sustainable brownfield re-development. Zuzana Jančovičová.

Report available here
Water plays an important role in our existence. Our desire to live adjacent to water does not reflect only our physiological needs, but as well our cultural heritage and historic settlement patterns; and we keep building on the floodplains and the flood-prone areas. Because our climate is changing, we live in the constant risk of even greater floods. The communistically marked Prague (Czech Republic) is a city that is marked by flooding as the primary sculpting natural force that changed the program and identity of the city many times. In the theoretical history of landscape architecture, the sublime is a most relevant theme to both describe the danger and fascination of a flood-prone landscape. The problem assertion underlying this thesis work relates to the sustainability discourse and its need for expanding beyond the ecological realm into the cultural sphere. Elisabeth Meyer (2008) suggests that this combination is necessary for landscapes to be truly sustainable. The aesthetics, as a philosophy of human sensations and culture at the individual level, is rarely discussed within the sustainability discourse. Next to the neglect of the potentially negative forms of the aesthetic value (Brady, 2013), a future oriented performance of appearance (Meyer, 2008) is seldom regarded within the debate about cultural landscapes today. This means that a contemporary landscape architectural practice pays rather little attention to what design can contribute to one’s future consciousness. In other words, the relationship between the physical properties (in this case: brownfield aspects) of landscape and its currently perceived experimental qualities are bound by historic references instead of future capacities. Literature suggests that aesthetics and embodied landscape experience are important in the sustainability discourse, it does however, not address how and what should be designed to ensure such landscape development. THE RESEARCH focussed on: [1] what is the definition and method to refer to a contemporary sublime that can be relevant to the design of dynamic interrelationship between the city of Prague and its river Vltava? [2] what specific analysis and explorative method is needed to derive the sublime aspects within the project area? [3] how to design both a more flood-proof and more flood experienceable masterplan by including a brown field re-development?

These three examples all share three simple questions to align research and design by a canon of: ‘what, what and how’. The first two researchable questions are ‘what’ questions, to seek out the current state of affairs and to gather relevant theoretical clues. Either the first or second ‘what’ relates to theory, the second ‘what’ then relates to mapping relevant aspects of the project area. This is the main theoretical and methodological body of the research and focusses on describing the tendencies of theory and precedents in practice. Only the last question is related to a design question that is near-future oriented: ‘how to work with the findings of the what-questions in a designated project?’. Stated as abstract as this, all scale problems in landscape design can be handled. Nevertheless, I do sense a difference within the global field of landscape architecture and this difference is scale related. The topics that are discussed here, are  large and integrating nature development, engineering and cultural heritage, because we (in the Netherlands), feel comfortable with regional design and a fairly healthy nature/culture developing policy backdrop. Our theoretical interests have grown to be sweepingly large because we imagine our interventions to be large and fundamental as well. It is only after the ‘Rebuild by Design Competition’ in 2014, in the state of New York, that I have become aware of the fact that such a Dutch comfort, is now developing around the globe. In this competition, the next level of co-operative design and research has suddenly sprung into being. Large groups of interdisciplinary researchers, designers and financial experts shared the future optimism for new landscapes!

The three introduced thesis works that I described above are truly amazing. They contain an intimacy with the subject and the still developing profession of the landscape architect that resonates with the breadth and sincerity of Ian Mc Harg’s ‘Design with Nature’ (1969). Please be aware that a new generation of landscape architect has arrived that knows how to do research on those topics that count: aesthetics, smart engineering, social impact and storytelling (and by the way: hire them, they are still looking for a position, find them on linkedin).
Happy New Year!

Brady, Emily. 2013. The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature: Cambridge University Press.
Dewey, John. 1929. Experience and Nature. London: George Allen And Unwin, Limited.
Dewey, John. 1933. How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educatiive process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company.
Dewey, John. 1988. The later works of John Dewey 1925-53. Edited by Ann Boydston. Vol. I: 1925. Corbondale: Southern Illinois UP.
Gilmore, R.A. 2002. “Dewey’s experience and nature as a treatside on the Sublime.”  The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New Series 16 (4):273-285.
Mc Harg, Ian L. 1969. Design with Nature. New York: The Natural History Press. Original edition, 1969.
McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press.
Meyer, Elizabeth K. 2008. “Sustaining beauty – the performance of appearance: Can landscape architects insert aesthetics into our discussions of sustainability?”  Journal of Landscape Architecture 98 (10):6-23.
Wilson, R. J. (2011). “‘Tommifying’ the Western Front, 1914e1918.” Journal of Historical Geography 37: 338-347.