Two weeks into the second semester. It is amazing how different it is compared to the first semester. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I feel that way. Classes are, for the most part, very similar. Instead of learning how to engineer landforms, I’m studying ecological principles about landscapes. Instead of learning Adobe Creative Suite, I’m studying AutoCAD. Instead of learning how to sketch what is in front of me, I’m studying the sketches of landscape architects who’ve already mastered the technique. Same thing but different.
One exception to the similarities: Reading. Last semester, I don’t think I read more than a few pages of a text a week because so much of my work was design-based. This semester involves a lot of book-learning and essay writing.
My Landscape History class is a great example. There are three heavy tomes that are full of dates and theories and historical background on some of the most important landscapes in the world. Of course, we are starting at the beginning so I am cramming my head full of Egyptian pyramids, Greek agoras, and Chacoan outliers. Beyond keeping straight the differences between what was happening in Europe (Stonehenge) and the Americas (Woodhenge), we have to interpret the cultural parallels and universal patterns that underlie landscape design. Form, function, cosmology. But it isn’t enough to memorize dates and to know the difference between hestia, diazoma, and temenos. The real work comes with the acknowledgement that there are direct corollaries between the Sanctuary of Delphi (monumental landscape design that deals with time and movement and the prophetic Delphic Sibyl around 400 B.C.E.) and the video installation work of Sam Easterson (individual interpretations of landscape from the point of view of plants, animals, and the landscape itself circa now). Beyond reading about landscape, we are required to keep sketchbooks of our own interpretations of these important places. Our instructor (Dean of the Department of Landscape Architecture) advises us that one of the best ways to really understand these landscapes is to draw them because it manifests a studied concentration of the intricacies. Of course, there are also term papers and exams to be prepared for.
My studio, Ecological Dimensions of Making Landscape Space, is the same thing but different when compared to my studio class last semester. One difference is that this course is more about applying real ecological principle to our designs. While last semester we were encouraged to manufacture designs of imaginary places such as Esmeralda while freely exploring our new vocabulary of placemaking, this semester we will work on designing spaces that are environmentally appropriate. Last semester of course was extremely necessary. One must learn to crawl before he can run. By the end of last semester’s studio, we were walking through a real site. Now I am mucking my way through the first assignment of this new semester.
We began by selecting from a list of biomes typical of Minnesota. I chose to research the peatlands for a number of reasons. While it is true that all ecosystems are important and inter-related, Minnesota’s mire complex is one that fascinates me on a number of levels. The peatlands are considered some of the most intact ecosystems– and the most fragile. They are places unlike any other. And, most importantly, they speak to me in reference to the second part of the assignment. Once our design brief has been prepared, we should utilize metaphor to create a “wilderness garden” that involves our chosen biome. The peatlands function as an obvious metaphor: Who among us hasn’t been “bogged-down” in some other or another sticky quagmire?
To progress on this project, we were instructed to create three visual representations of our chosen biome and to write a brief paragraph about each. My first drawings were sketches of raised bogs with black spruces and tamaracks growing out of them. I am discovering that my training as a photographer- and I guess also as an anthropologist– has me bogged down as a designer. What I mean is that I’ve learned to be as literal and exact in my representations as possible. Anthropology is about recording (as objectively as possible) exactly what one observes. Photography, while more artistic and therefore less restrictive, is still about capturing the world as I see it. Sure- with exposure, depth of field, and developing choices- the photographer becomes an artist and can use abstraction to create something totally different. But unlike the sketch artist, sculptor, or painter, the photographer always begins by capturing something that actually exists. This same principle will impede a designer from doing anything other than mere mimicry.
In 2001, John Motloch wrote “The designer understands that the purpose of art is not to represent, but rather to associate the experienced landscape with the potential of the mind. The landscape designer seeks to focus attention so as to raise awareness of characteristics that concentrate and intensify meaning. Through abstraction, the designer eliminates from consideration some of the attributes of the physical world to concentrate on other aspects, and reconstructs these aspects in a manner that connects with cognitive images and stimulates the imagination. In so doing, landscape design becomes symbolic as well as representational.”
Leaving behind the more literal translations of “bog”, I began to explore the emotional and physical sensations of being in a bog through a few drawings and study models. I tried to represent the contours, the relief, and the confused meanderings I remembered from my journey to the coniferous bog at Itasca State Park. The challenge now- for the last part of the assignment- lies in transforming the emotions of a mire complex into a garden. While the metaphors are easy, making a garden-bog that people can visit without losing their shoes to the soggy peat will inevitably be the true challenge.
Finally, something about this design-training that I’m undergoing at the University of Minnesota that hasn’t changed: My angst as an artist. As cliche’ as it sounds, I struggle as a student not to be a good designer but to be a designer at all. Sometimes the existential quagmire I find myself stuck in is as frustrating as anything I’ve ever experienced.