Detail of Teardrop Park; Creative Commons photo by: PROSalim Virji (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lately, I’ve been looking to re-immerse myself back into the ideas, places, and people that have inspired me in the past.

Being a designer can mean a lot of things. It’s a bit of a roller coaster. Sometimes it’s a large idea that drives my motivation to create. Other times, it might be a tiny detail of where two materials meet one another that inspires me. As convenient and concise as an elevator pitch might be to describe my voice as a designer, my perspective is admittedly rather shifty and loose. My hope is to gain an understanding about how I might shape and translate this looseness without losing the benefits attributed to it in a way that can inform my designs and guide my overall approach.

An essay that helped me understand this urge to create is Warren Seelig’s, “Discovery through Materials” [Seelig, Warren, January 2000, Surface Design Journal;Winter2000, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p22, Trade Publication, Article]. The article focuses on the definition of constructing surface, specifically within the context of contemporary fiber and textile art. Seelig speaks of “artists who construct surface out of a profound need to materialize, to build and to fabricate a visual and psychological field or atmosphere which is tangible and sensational”. The essay focuses on making surfaces by hand, something that ultimately brings a landscape architect’s ideas to life, but through the hands of others. When it comes down to it, we are creating a set of documents choreographing how materials and life are to be shaped. How our ideas emerge during the in-between state is the pursuit.

Seelig writes about how “the most convincing form which comes to us through constructed surface is not related to rendering a picture or three-dimensional form based on a conscious idea.” For Seelig, and perhaps also myself, “it is a more direct expression , where the intellect is short circuited in favor of allowing instinctive behavior rather than rationality to influence decision making”. When you experience a place it is the materiality that you engage with, and it is the expressiveness of that materiality that makes the place memorable and rich.

“It is a phenomenon by which we are drawn to work in reaction to a culture submerged in a glut of text and images, and to an existence where our use of technology (not technology itself) is further distancing us from materiality, from the physical and the sensual”.

Taking cues from art theory can get sticky. Seelig notes that artists can be criticized or be at risk when making something beautiful or emotionally expressive. I would argue that while designers are expected to make something beautiful, the emotionally expressive can be borderline scary, and an endeavor best left to the world of art.  This challenge and expectation complicates the goals of meeting a client and end user’s needs. Seelig’s inclination that “meaning comes through the potency of the materialized surface” strikes me as true, and evokes a plethora of exemplary landscape architecture works that managed to articulate emotions through materiality.

Creative Commons photo: sharon_k (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A project that comes to mind is Michael Van Valkenburg’s Teardrop Park in New York City. The weight given to the materiality of the stone and the desire to bring rural upstate New York into the city enriches the space in ways that only a sensitivity to materials can.

The most successful projects allow for expression to emerge. Constructed surface and form reveals the idea we’ve promised and hope to deliver – not only as a way to indulge our own desire to create, but to create meaningful and impactful spaces for people to experience. In a way, Seelig describes a way for looseness to guide me as a designer: “It is a survival mode, absolutely necessary in that it allows us to remain in touch with the mystery inherent in the world of the physical”.




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