Lessons learned from two decades of teaching landscape design

by paulroncken

Teaching young people how to design a landscape is more an initiation than making them jump the hoops filled with tricks and skills. At times, it even feels like this initiation has much in common with a religious practice. Perhaps this is even more the case in the Netherlands, since creating land, sharing land ownership and applying a great deal of engineering is so much part of our everyday culture (e.g. the poldermodel of negotiation). I can imagine that creating landscapes in the USA is similarly influenced by crossing vast plains and moving westwards, dreaming of better ways to cover great distances (e.g. trains and automobiles) and faster ways to create homely settlements (e.g. home mobiles); as is also argued by JB Jackson while making a distinction between territorial space and vernacular space (1996, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time: Yale University Press). And again different in the Baltic countries that have known waves of foreign occupation, throwing them in deeply subservient agrarian positions. Now that for instance Estonia is no longer a Soviet Socialist Republic (since 1991), inhabitants have fled their agrarian homesteads (i.e. Kolkhozes) and instead settled in the density of cities, embracing technology and the digital age more than any other country in Europe. A similar phenomenon has influenced the Japanese sense for landscapes. These have been influenced by Shintoism (i.e. making shrines and offerings for all living elements that can be known according to their typical ‘soul’) and also through Buddhism and particularly Zen poetry and painting and tea ceremonies (e.g. Wabi Sabi, see Juniper, Andrew. 2003. Wabi sabi: the Japanese art of impermanence. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.). At the same time the defeat in the second world war brought the Japanese in such a humbling position, never to initiate warfare again, that they have found a new and positive direction in developing technology that can address the human spirit and heart (e.g. robotics and gaming devices, see Schodt, F.L. 2007. The Astro Boy Essays. Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom and the Manga/Anime Revolution. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press.).

So how to teach landscape design, if the creation of land is so much manifested in terms of culture, identify and technological transformation?

step 1: landscapes raise morality
An assignment to design a waterretention is not merely an engineering problem, although the design should meet the high standards of such an influential mechanical asset in the landscape. Should we first teach students what technical demands have accumulated and next teach them to shape this technical moloch into a cultural product? Even though this is the way most curricula are structured I have experienced that even the most obvious and clearcut assignment, such as technical engineering blueprints, must be scrutinised and decomposed. If only techies understand why a pump or drainage system is needed and how it should be devised, then the experience of landscape will inevitably distance itself from the everyday lives and like zombi state, will seek other means to develop a sense of place. The fact that so many people find refuge in digital alternatives to provide them with a sense of place is an alarming state.
As a consequence, today’s students in landscape design should not accept the low hanging fruits of digitally boosted landscape experiences and should become very weary of the increase of shallow and misleading visualisation as the prime means to do your job well. In the same line, they should grap the opportunity to challenge proven technologies that so easily occupy stretches of land (e.g. solar farms, wind mill line ups, flood defence systems and industrialized food production facilities). Technology should be designed and not taken as deus ex machine that nobody really understands and therefore must submit to. At the same level, culture should not be taken as an unbudgeable token of identity that you will have to submit to, although most landscaping appears to be made by so many and so strongly imprinted cliches. On the contrary, landscapes are what condition technology and culture. Let students conceptualise towards what ‘we’ want to condition technology and culture? Landscape design, at its best, can initiate future technology and future culture. Such grand themes correspond clearly to religious practices, moral explicitness and ideological movements. Landscape design is positively attuned to raising morality.

step 2: rhythmic differentiation
The complexity to deal with all the facets that a landscape can condition must be simplified to match an educative purpose. One cannot expect a 17 year old students to construct another depth of complexity than can be matched by his or her own present state. This has mostly lead to the premisse that every design curriculum should start with low complexity and small scale interventions and gradually scale upward. Another educative principle is presented by the 4C-ID model by van Merriënboer and others. Four components, one complex task. The gradual increase of complexity is not found in lower scale or lesser amounts of components to juggle, but in the amount of information that is available or devilered just-in-time (JIT). Although of course, this sentence does not cover the whole of this method, please read more about it if you are interested. See here.
My own teaching experiences have gradually evolved towards a certain rhythmic offering of learning modes. I have found that these are very effective, although I have not yet mastered the most successful rhythm yet. By rhythmic I mean a chain of educative parts that are either demanding fast and slow deadlines, group and individual work, conceptual and blueprint challenges and multiple scale (1:25.000 to 1:100) or singular scale (1:100) orientation. The key to organise this is to offer within one longer course various smaller workshops that allow students to deliver in short time a proud making product. I have noticed that it is not lack of life experience that has a negative influence on the quality of depth in the final works of students; it is a yet fluctuative presence of depth and fluctuative capacity to master complexity. Young students have their good moments and can resonate at rather unexpected stimuli (as can life-long learners who must learn to bypass their habits). Offer stimuli according to the various rhythmic differences as mentioned above and see what miracles happen in your classroom! Respond to those offerings and be flexible in what will be assessed in the end. Make your students familiar with their own, differentiated and rhythmic performance and let them be proud at least two times during one course. They will learn to deal with their mistakes and lack of competences better. This method cannot yet dissolve into the strict European standards of review but this could also indicate that the educative system must be adjusted to match such a rhythmic differentiation.

step 3: extra curricular nesting
A last lesson that I have learned is that design education is indeed experiential, as forecasted by for example Donald Schön (1983. The Reflective Practicioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books) and John Dewey (1933. How We Think, a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educatiive process. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and company. Inc.). Yet what does that require? It requires to learn with hindsight (in Dutch: terugwerkende kracht). What can you effectively learn by a sequence of desperate moments, balancing all those qualities that you must master as a design student (drawing, creative thinking, entrepeneurial smartness, technical validity, on-the-go species indication and soil and water logistics, etc.)? You can only act and deliver in the moment. Only years later you will notice how much this has changed your perception and habits. Such is the way a design culture with equal minded people is created and remains distinguishable. I can recognise a designstudent from different schools even if they have only been there for two years. They might not know that they bear the signature of that school and teacher, but they do. Such imprint is made only once and can rarely be matched by later imprints. The first imprint is fostered by all those extracurricular activities that pervade a students life: books, documentaries, new projects, competitions, they way to dress, the way to talk, the way to sketch, what to like. Only when you have left the place, you begin to recognise what you have become. Or what you have failed to become, because this system of extra curricular learning also causes collateral damage by means of frustrated ex-students.
This is why a studio environment is so important and also the amount of role-model people regularly influencing this environment. This is also why informal networks are important and blogs :). Landscape design environments need to be nesting grounds for extra curricular activities, pseudo family cuddle and competition. This nest has to be placed in an environment that is a landscape. With so many new landscape design schools in urban environments, it is only logical that this will cause urban landscaping to increase. Is that what is needed? Yes and no. I would opt for wilderness education environments and immersive biotope orientation if we want to effectuate the kind of green-olution that is sought after.

See you in the sunshine! Today, in the Netherlands, you can wear sunglasses and skirts all day for the first time this year.