All photos: Jenni Zell

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is their effects upon the way I see and experience the world. Last month I viewed the exhibition, “Robert Irwin: Site Determined” at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit focused on the artist’s luminous and arresting drawings and architectural models. In fact, I have never seen drafting as beautiful and precise as Irwin’s. It is not for want of looking. Last weekend I saw Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and a few of LeWitt’s wall drawings at SFMOMA. The works felt like formal and conceptual warm-up exercises to Irwin’s site determined works. Creating art that exists outside the domain of a frame and the walls of a gallery and instead in the perceptions of a viewer, is the legacy of Irwin’s body of work.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how his art continues to develop along a trajectory he set out for himself early in his career, one grounded in the philosophy of phenomenology. At 89, Irwin continues to create influential new works. His installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas was completed in 2015. At my ripening age his example motivates me to push myself – not toward some predetermined outcome or achievement, but to follow my own inquiry.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how it informs and guides my work as a landscape architect. Several years ago I had the good fortune to deep dive into Irwin’s body of work. I read the books, visited all the installations and exhibits, spent a week (wearing white cotton gloves) reading and looking through the Robert Irwin Papers at the Getty Research Institute. I have interviewed Irwin, and listened to and transcribed these conservations. He is a warm, approachable, and generous teacher.

One particular conservation with Irwin I transcribed took place at the University of Alabama on March 29, 2007 and remains particularly memorable and representative of what I like most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin:

“What I am trying to test, or the game I am playing doing a garden and being an architect and all that is … what I try and do in that situation is make what I do respond to all those things which are existing cues and I do not invent or design anything. I pay attention to those existing cues and finally assemble them… the thing I am really involved with is not just changing or making a garden, but changing the whole process of how we make it a garden, conceptually to make things different in the world, and that is where I am going.”

This visual preference survey presents a uniform layout, with images selected accurately to communicate each idea shade structure proposal.

Continuing from an earlier post last month investigating the origins and value of using visual preference surveys as design professionals, let us look at an inherent philosophical flaw capable of spoiling the entire exercise.

When integrating visual preference surveys into the process, developers and designers can choose to only suggest design trends pertinent to generic approaches. The suggestions of styles, materials, colors, etc. should be driven by the unique demographics of the site. Ideally, the facilitators would present a diversity of examples, each dissimilar from one another. It is also wise to include one or two options based on the initial research phases to appeal to users or stakeholders preferences. Once a particular fashion is narrowed down, a second round of images or a different activity can help hone small variations. For example, in the case of evaluating furniture styles, it would be more beneficial to show ten distinctly different styles – traditional, rococo, nouveau, brutalist, industrial, folklore, hi-tech, minimalistic, organic and one representing the community – rather than variations of a singular style.

There are so many factors worth consideration while designing and performing these activities; listing all of these reflections properly would require the length of a manual rather than a single internet article. However, some tips can be summarized into the following “do’s and don’ts”:

  • Do pay attention to group settings, the rating is meant to be individual. Sometimes individual preferences may be influenced by the “loudest” opinions from other community members. There needs to be plenty of space in the venue so users can spread throughout the room to avoid excessive interference. This does not mean brief conversations between the participants are to be discouraged; remember the larger benefit of this activity can transcend the goals of VPS. Sometimes community-building and internal bonding is more valuable and cherished than determining whether or not benches should be placed facing each other or in “L” shape.
  • Do create a random and simultaneous order of voting. The worst thing to do would be to start voting in a single category, on a one by one basis, and then moving to the next category in the same fashion. A growing number of votes in a determined option would influence the vote of those users who do not want to go against what the majority is choosing, while their vote is being visible to those who are waiting to vote.
  • Don’t permit the order of the presentation dictate an assumed preference. The layout of the images in the board should also be aleatory, without showing any sort of “progression” (e.g. rustic or old-fashioned furniture showing first and hi-tech, high-quality furniture showing last).
  • Do present and arrange pictures with the same ratio and at the same scale. The size of the images should be visible enough for all participants, considering those who might be visually-challenged.
  • Do not show furniture that is visibly wearied or presenting unique adaptations. Some backgrounds that deter the spectators are chain-link fences, metal fences, litter, poor-quality sidewalks, etc. Show the best image you can find about a product as long as it keeps a realistic look.
  • Do try representing the element in a setting that looks as close to the site as possible. And it is ideal to avoid the inclusion of the excessive influence of artificial lights. Objects in all-white background are sometimes the only way in which all the presented furniture types can be harmonized by following a same style. However, this would not be recommended for a VPS setting.
  • Do offer more than one options for rating. Don’t limit the activity to one sticker. Have a sticker for the most favorite option (+3), second most favorite option (+2) and perhaps a third favorite option (+1). It will be ultimately up to the facilitator to come up with an accurate, fair voting system. Consider that people may have a hard time making their mind when they are split between two or more different options that they really like.
  • Do arrange for staff to be ready to clarify the images and engage with welcoming conversation. Always be ready to listen to their concerns. If having multiple categories, have an accountability system that makes sure all participants voted in every category. If not enough space in the room or time, retrievable booklet formats happen to be quite successful as well, ensuring privacy and better control of the decision-making process.

As a landscape designer, I believe VPS are an excellent public assessment tool that positions the designer in a privileged situation when done correctly. A professional expert who provides a comprehensive repertoire of tastes, trends, and recommendations to the public opens the doors to new possibilities linked to quality design. But the designer must also assume a subordinate role of community facilitator, one who cares to place the interests of the community over their own, and is willing to grant control of the decision-making process to the real experts: the locals who will eventually be the beneficiaries of the future project. I believe this is where community service and creative expertise meet in balanced harmony to achieve thoughtful, meaningful results.

Modern Hiker at the L.A. Breakfast Club
Modern Hiker’s Casey Schreiner is VERY happy to be speaking at the famous The Los Angeles Breakfast Club on April 25th, delivering a lecture on some of the best hikes all around Los Angeles. If you haven’t been before, you are in for a treat — the meetings are full of wonderful people who are into all sorts of history, the Club’s weekly meetings feature a variety of L.A. historians and enthusiasts, you get a tasty breakfast, AND you’ll be a part of one of the most interesting pieces of Los Angeles history that’s still active!
When: April 25th, 7 AM – 9 AM
Where: The Los Angeles Breakfast Club, 3201 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles 90027

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Writer and artist Michael Benson speaks in conjunction with the publication of his new book chronicling the creation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the initial conception and brainstorming between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in New York through production and postproduction in the United Kingdom and continuing with the film’s rocky release. The talk includes many behind-the-scenes images and clips from the film. In reviewing the book, filmmaker Martin Scorsese noted, “Michael Benson’s lively, exciting and exhaustively researched book expands our understanding of what is truly one of the greatest films ever made.” Benson’s last book, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (Abrams, 2014) was short-listed for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Science and Technology category.
When: April 23rd, 7:30pm
Where: LACMA l Bing Theater

Every Picture Tells A Story
Every picture tells a story; and while a photograph may be worth a thousand words, often it also demands them. A history of California can be told, not only from historical images, but from modern landscape views. Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and the Rogers Distinguished Fellow at The Huntington, uses images shot by landscape photographer Jesse White to explore California’s story. Free; no reservations required.
When: April 25th, 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Huntington, Rothenberg Hall

Downtown Modernism
Modernica‘s biannual Downtown Modernism market for vintage modern design will be returning to Los Angeles on Sunday, April 29th. Collectors, connoisseurs, and treasure hunters will once again have the chance to peruse countless mid-century, modernist, and vintage artifacts from Modernica’s hand-picked group of modern dealers. Adults $8, Children 12 and under Free, pet friendly
When: April 295th, 8am-2pm
Where: 2901 Saco Street Los Angeles, CA 90058

Conserving Biodiversity and Bird Habitat When Land Is Developed
Opportunities exist to conserve biodiversity in cities and neighborhoods. This workshop introduces participants to the key principles and practices required to conserve biodiversity across cities, both for green infrastructure development and retrofitting areas. Participants will also learn about an online evaluation tool, called “Building for Birds.” This tool allows decision makers to manipulate amounts of forest fragments (urban/rural) and tree canopy (in residential areas) and determine the best designs for conserving bird habitat. In addition, participants will learn about strategies to protect birds from collisions with glass, trends in urban forest canopy in Los Angeles, and resources to understand patterns of bird diversity across the City.
When: April 25th, 12:00 PM – 4:30 PM
Where: Los Angeles Environmental Learning Center at Hyperion, 12000 Vista Del Mar, Gate C, 90293

Can Dirt Save the Earth?: “But the newer model stressed the importance of living plants. Their rootlets are constantly dying, depositing carbon underground, where it’s less likely to go airborne. And perhaps more important, as plants pull carbon from the air, their roots inject some of it into the soil, feeding microorganisms and fungi called mycorrhiza. An estimated 12,000 miles of hyphae, or fungal filaments, are found beneath every square meter of healthy soil. Some researchers refer to this tangled, living matrix as the “world wood web.” Living plants increase soil carbon by directly nourishing soil ecosystems.”

Gardening as a Kid Indicates that You’ll Eat Fruits and Veggies as a College Student: “A new study performed at the University of Florida sought to understand the connection between gardening as a kid and habits later in life—specifically, during the part of life when kids are most likely to eat gigantic plates of bad fried food while drunk, i.e. at college. The study was part of an initiative from eight American universities with the frankly bizarre name of Get Fruved, which apparently stands for fruits and vegetables.”

What You’re Getting Wrong About Inclusive Design: “Take the curb cut. It’s a great example of inclusive design that wasn’t universal. In the early version of those curb cuts, there was no indicator for someone who was blind that they were coming to the street corner. It was really bad! They had no indicator they were walking into the street. The tension with universal design is how you design something that works for everyone in all scenarios, with every contingency. That’s one of the challenges of understanding inclusive design when we look at the object, saying, “This design is inclusive design.” In those cases, often what we mean is universal design.”

Computational Ecosystems: As argued in his March 13 LAM Lecture (and in his recent book Responsive Landscapes, written with Justine Holzman, ASLA), the future of landscape architecture is one of designing protocols for how natural systems behave, and tuning these algorithms and eventually the land itself, thus loosening the stranglehold static and monofunctional infrastructure has on the planet. “It’s not about us controlling every aspect,” he says. “It’s about us setting a range of ways those behaviors can act within.”

What the Meadow Teaches Us: “Such an experience of the harmony between a landscape and its lifeforms is probably not the result of objective analysis. But this is precisely the point: If you let the calyxes and grasses slide through your hands amid the firefly flurries, celebrating the coming summer, you don’t just perceive a multitude of other beings—the hundred or so species of plants and countless insects that make up the meadow’s ecosystem. You also experience yourself as a part of this scene. And this is probably the most powerful effect of experiences in the natural world. When you immerse yourself in the natural world, you wander a little through the landscape of your soul.”

Still from the 20-minute documentary, “The New Landscape Declaration“, a critical, provocative, and inspirational examination of the role of landscape architecture and the design of public space.

What defines “good design”? It’s a question that eventually led me to two sources, including AHBE’s own website. There, I reviewed the following firm statement:

“The pursuit of the greater good drives AHBE Landscape Architects. We begin each project as an exploration about how the site is ecologically connected to the larger network of natural lands, open spaces and other landscapes.
Seeing landscapes through the lens of infrastructure, we take a holistic approach to solving design problems. Our commitment to sustainable design guides us to ask questions, explore new ideas and think innovatively. Out of this process, beauty and performance emerge from the landscape.

AHBE is an award-winning professional service corporation. Collectively, we have extensive experience in the technical development of design aesthetics and constructability that are hallmarks of our work.”

The language above suggests a list of values and goals important to our practice and profession:

  • a healthy environment
  • a beautiful environment
  • contribute to “the greater good”
  • connect with site’s context (ecological, networks, etc.)
  • facilitate polyfunctional networks (this is my assumption of what it means to view landscape “through the lens of infrastructure”)
  • incorporate sustainable design methodologies and systems
  • explore new ideas
  • innovation
  • performance

To further understand how our firm’s mission statement relates to our profession’s vision for itself in the first half of the 21st Century, I looked to the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 2016 Declaration of Concern issued on June 10-11 2016. The Landscape Declaration manifesto is a synthesis of the values, discussions, and ideas expressed by a diverse group of the world’s leading thought leaders in the field of landscape architecture, one representing a vision for the evolution of the profession for the next half-century. It asserts the essential role of landscape architecture in solving issues such as climate change, species extinction, rapid urbanization, and inequity. The recommendations are relevant to all designers, underscoring the need to diversify, innovate, and create a bold culture of inclusive leadership, advocacy, and activism.

The Landscape Declaration’s aspirational vision for the profession can serve as a basis for fleshing-out our own design values and goals. There is significant alignment of the vision expressed in our firm statement and the Landscape Declaration, leading me to believe our values are sound and relevant for the 21st Century. The intent of our values requires further clarification if we want to determine how a design measures up to our stated values and goals. What do we mean when we say we value, or aim to create, healthy and beautiful environments, or contribute to the greater good, or think innovatively etc.?