Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Experimental Landscape Architecture

Coverage of some of Alan Berger's work with P-REX on the Pontine Marshes has appeared on mammoth, the most refreshingly non-architectural of architecture blogs, borrowing a note from BLDGBLOG and Pruned in their fascination with the large-scale landscape infrastructural interventions that don't seem to make the pages of all but a few 'landscape architecture' media outlets.

The most interesting aspect of this project isn't necessarily the function of big-infrastructure or the ability to use plants to purify polluted waters. It's the re-framing of these projects from engineering-scale solutions to designed ecological solutions - which rarely seems to happen in typical practice. From MIT News: "The conventional way of tackling the problem would be to build a series of large water-treatment plants in the area, which covers about 300 square miles. But Alan Berger...has another idea. Because some plants absorb pollutants as water flows by them, carefully designed wetlands can clean up the countryside while preserving its natural feel and providing public park space."

This isn't new thinking, as there are plenty of innovative ideas using natural systems approaches for water purification from wastes and pollution at a variety of scales. The beauty is the shift from a engineering-led solution - i.e. thinking about this as an engineered product and using natural systems as machines, with landscape as container - to one of a design ecology solution - i.e. using landscape fields and incorporating natural elements and systems by adapting them to the inherent machinic function of nature with the inclusion of civil engineering expertise. They can inherently be design problems in need of a scientific and engineering back-up - which is a much more fruitful interdisciplinary strategy.

Make it a science or engineering solution - and rationalism will trump all.
While we do use natural engineering and have been for years, rarely do we take a landscape architectural approach to these projects by infusing cultural and form-making aspects intertwined with physical composition.

Landscape architects often get pushed to the side when dealing with complex engineering challenges, due to the idea of technological rigor lacking in professional practice. To be honest, this is probably one of our professional failings - and one that will take time to mend as we gain in knowledge, but more importantly increase credibility as technically proficient professionals from our scientific and engineering peers.

While the recent push-back from designers to become more fluent in systems thinking and engineering has led to some interesting hybridization of projects, there is still significant silos in real practice regimes - and big infrastructure is still typically 'designed' by big engineering. So, do we need to become engineers to gain the professional foothold in these projects, or will projects like Berger's work lead to an expansion of the professional breadth of practice? I sure hope so - but it's going to take a professional movement, not a few projects and designers to achieve this. We need to forget the tired art v. science dilemma that has held us back and embrace both aspects equally - maybe spending a bit more time on the science to play a bit of catchup.

In the case of the Pontine project, which has been covered many places over the past few years, the idea of scientific experimentation is at the heart of this recent post showing small scale models to test design strategies. While mockups and small scale modeling of formal qualities is still relatively common - how much of that is science-based in a way that informs design solutions?

:: image via mammoth

This is an obvious gap in landscape architecture practice in need of some serious- one of the ways we as a profession can proactively approach to the problems of science fused with design. The need to reframe practice as more close to the definition (engaging in an activity again and again, for the purpose of improving or mastering it) versus the idea of merely doing work, is necessary. But we also need to engage different partners such as research institutions and universities - much in the same way theory needs to inform practice, science also needs to inform, and be informed by design.

In the case of the experiments for Pontine, some
explanation on the plans from Berger that take advantage of the university setting to incorporate ways of testing before installation. Via mammoth: "Berger’s solution is to have the water move through an S-shaped course that slows it down to a speed well under one mile per hour. The Italian engineers of the 1930s built perfectly straight canals, since they were simply concerned with transporting water efficiently. But forcing water to meander through winding channels in a wetlands gives more water molecules the best chance of being purified. ”Inefficiency is how environmental systems work,” says Berger."

As mammoth points out, the experiments based on the above design goals allow for preemptive discourse about the final product. This is a different tack for landscape architecture, which either operates on a notion of applied scientific theory (use science to inform design) or on post-occupancy testing (use science to - but rarely doing scientific experimentation of actual design solutions - even those with high levels of ecological rigor: "This is an experimental landscape architecture. Not experimental in the usual sense within architectural disciplines — where it is more or less a synonym for radically avant-garde (though this is by no means a condemnation of such architecture) — but experimental in the scientific sense, rigorously testing the performance of various forms, to design a landscape which incrementally advances away from its predecessors. If we’re going to move beyond talking about designing post-natural ecologies towards actively constructing them, then developing modes of practice that incorporate experimentation will be essential. (Next: peer-reviewed landscape architecture.)"

I'd posit there is more of this going on than we know of, perhaps in the design/science firms that are blending landscape architects with ecologists and other scientists. But rarely if ever is the scientific inquiry part of the design process - and I love the idea of peer-reviewed project work where folks can interject into the success or failure of project components. Perhaps this is the new dimension of landscape architecture criticism.

Can we seriously undertake ecosystem design, even that which is based on existing science, without a methodology of experimentation to prove-out these new design solutions. Much of what we are designing and installing simply just doesn't work. We need to be better informed before and during design processes, and do a better job of incorporating scientific testing afterwords if we truly want to become leaders, and not reactive followers to engineers and ecologists, to the scientific dimensions of our profession.

Coverage of the project in more detail is found at MIT News, along with a link to a video of the installation:


  1. Thanks a lot. I've been reading your blog(s) for a few months now, and this kind of thing is exactly what I'm interested in. My dream is to someday work for/as a developer that does this type of thing in developments.
    Thanks again
    Carter (Windhoek, Namibia)

  2. This is a great article that has always frustrated me as a landscape architect. A typical engineer will use the boiler-plate solution which is most-often horribly land consuming and ecologically dreadful. I believe in order to get away from the stereotype that la's have we either need to become more effective in how we communicate the potential solutions or gain credibility with civil engineers on staff or on an affiliated basis. Great post!

  3. I didn't hear about this way water treatment... Very interesting article! Thank You!


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