A Garden Of Contrasts: Vocabulary Lessons

In her essay “Designing as Working Knowledge”, Helga Nowotny describes creating as “…hand and head work at the same time, a hybrid working knowledge, which indissolubly connects the two.”  The latest studio project that I’ve been working on has certainly made me use both my head and my hands in the process of creation.

Our problem– as they refer to projects in design school– began with several very elegant designs highlighted in Francis D. K. Ching’s Architecture– Form, Space, And Order.  We were told to choose one diagram from two lists so that we would each have two plan-view diagrams to work from.  One could have chosen the line drawings of Mies van der Rohe’s “Country House in Brick” and Vincenzo Scamozzi’s “Plan for an Ideal City” or Andrea Palladio’s “Villa Capra” and the Plan of Taiyu Precinct of the Toshogu Shrine from 17th Century Japan.  The possibilities were plenty but the problem was obscured.  Eventually, I chose to work with John Hejduk’s 1966 project for “One-half House” and Louis Kahn’s 1959-1965 project for a meeting house at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies.

The next few hours with these diagrams involved extracting the basic elements. Remember that before this project our studio has concentrated only on rectilinear forms.  Now- finally- we were being given opportunity to explore the greater world.  We were instructed to look at the diagrams as simply two dimensional designs.  Try not to think about them yet as spaces, only as compositions.  Both of my images had complete circles, half circles, curves, and repeating sections of dots– representing in one case columns and in the other a field.  I made scans of the images and then printed them at various scales from 4×6 inches to 11×17.  I then employed several sheets of tracing paper to make single diagrams to extract only the salient characteristics of different elements: Only the horizontal lines.  Only the outside perimeters.  Only the right angle intersections.  Only the non-linear forms.  Only the linear forms.  Only the negative spaces.

Restricted by limitations, how might these compositions engage me?  Once the possibilities were (seemingly) exhausted, I began to overlay the traces to find new patterns, new shapes, new directions.  What would the intersections look like?  How would positive lines create negative spaces?  What would happen if I lined-up the circles with the directionals and then placed a few right angles? Would spaces emerge?

As I continued to work with the traces, I wasn’t entirely happy with my choices.  I was tempted to switch to another of the diagrams from the Ching book.  I found the arrow shape of One-half House to be too directive, too programmed.  The multiple rooms of the Salk Institute were restrictive, the lines too parallel. I thumbed through the other 30 options but then realized that changing would only complicate things.  I had to make something from my original starting point.  Design is about working within boundaries to make something new, not about changing the problem to make a solution fit.

Eventually I came upon a 2-D composition that was satisfactory if not pleasing.  It was simple.  It had contrast.  It utilized elements of both diagrams yet seemed somehow of its own.  There was a sense of movement but also a space of pause.

Upon settling on the 2-D concept, we would next do 3-D studies in the various vocabularies of landscape architecture.  The three primary expressions that we would explore consist of structure, landform, and vegetation.  I’ve already become familiar with the structural vocabulary through the Esmeralda project that I worked on using foam core and mat board.  Again, this project would utilize those materials and I was urged to examine the concept of contrast in this expression.  How might those five circles be seen in structure?  The radial fins?  From the 2-D concept, it appeared that three circles were on a flat semi-rectilinear surface suspended somewhere above the ground plane, that the fins were massive structures, and that the linear lines might be walls directing the flow of movement.  I rapidly pinned a few scraps to a board, eliminated a few, re-positioned others.  Several quick study models were done in fewer than 60 minutes to start to tease out some of the details.

Eventually I  settled on a rather literal translation of the original diagram with the circles becoming pools, the fins becoming light yet solid dynamic superstructures, and the space assuming two levels.  I imagined several people 3/4 inches tall moving through this garden.  There would be places to pause and contemplate and there would be others that would encourage momentum and transition.  If the structure were oriented as shown in the photograph with north being up, the sun would cast interesting shadows as it passed above the radial fins that would compliment the linear expressions that the walls conveyed.  If one were to climb the stairs to the second level, he would be greeted with a view that placed him in the center with the radiating structures casting him back out into the landscape.

Once the structural model was set aside, my next task was to view this space from the standpoint of landform.  I’m only beginning to know the complexities of site engineering through my grading class.  There, we use formulas and maps and engineering concepts to think about moving contours around a landscape.  For this studio though, we would use modeling clay to build the space based upon our diagrams.  This was our first time working with Roma Plastilina Modeling Clay.  One can’t help but really get into the work when using clay.  Unlike foam core, it creeps up your nostrils, buries itself under your fingernails, and smears everywhere.  It is palpable and tactile and strange. You have to really work at it just to make it smooth and flat. Using scrapers, wires, and wooden instruments landforms are carved, pinched, and molded slowly and conscientiously.

Due to the complexities of landform (angles of repose, responses to erosion and gravity, scale of elements), I was forced to be more liberal in my interpretation.  With my mind on contrasts, I decided to make some of the elements positive and others negative.  I thought about mirroring the circles with the long radiating fins.  This translated into landform as shallow depressions (pools perhaps) and long, raised hills (drumlins maybe.) Instead of a raised platform, I carved a shallow place that one might enter and then climb the dome for a sort of prospect across the landscape.  The drumlins could also afford the visitor with views; children might climb them and then roll down the gracefully curved slopes.  I drew inspiration from the familiar sand dunes of Colorado and New Mexico.

The third study for this garden involved constructing a vegetation model.  Again, this vocabulary is new to me.  A trip to a few local hardwares and art supply stores provided me with coils of wire, carpet samples, steel wool, and fibrous ropes that could be twisted, glued, and hacked at to make trees, grasses, and hedges.  It takes a lot of experimentation and practice to make a piece of wire look like a tree.  Do I want to represent a cottonwood or an arbor vitae?  An amur maple or a douglas fir? And can I make a blade of grass at 1/8 inch equals one foot using rope?

The vegetation study again modified the way I could see my original design.  To imagine different levels for instance, tree canopies would become the ceiling plane.  Instead of immovable radiating fins, small trees would create a semi-penetrable barrier.  My favorite interpretation of the design in this study was the use of very tall grasses planted in an un-closed circle that the visitor could walk into.  This created a “go-to” space among the “go-through” spaces.  The hedge rows would direct lateral navigation and, again, the radiating lines of trees would throw interesting shadows as time passed in the garden.

Working like this from start to finish has been a tedious and frustrating– though enjoyable– process.  This truly is the work of the head as well as the hand and one would be very callow to think that good designs just happen without experimentation, hard work, and re-starts.  There were many times through this project when I would simply sit and stare at whatever I was working on and think that it might never come together.  The stacks of tracing paper, the globs of clay, and the tangles of wire were sometimes intimidating.  But as I continued to work with each vocabulary, I would see new ways to interpret the design.  Could I have ever come up with this selection if I hadn’t begun initially the way I did?  If I hadn’t continued to work through different iterations?  If I hadn’t been forced to think outside of whatever box I found myself in?  If I hadn’t studied the design work of others?  This project has taken about two weeks.  Most projects in real-world design wouldn’t even have begun in that amount of time.  The next step for this Garden of Contrasts is to synthesize these vocabularies into a coherent project that uses each appropriately to convey the idea of the design.  And the process of creating landscape spaces is not unlike being in one: Exploration, transition, and discovery.

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About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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