Posts by Chuan Ding

Photo by Chuan Ding

Photos by Chuan Ding

Unlike a painting or novel, the physical experience of a landscape is all-enveloping, surrounding us spatially with light and atmosphere. Irreducible, the landscape controls our experience extensively, permeating our memories and consciousness.

“As such, each of us space the world around us. Through spacing, we orient ourselves and construct our geographical being.” – James Corner.


We are all surrounded by landscape – in the city, suburb, or village. Whether we work in a bustling metropolis or escaping to the wilderness, the landscape awaits. So when we discuss a “landscape”, it is not only those spaces carefully planned and designed by a landscape architect, carefully composed by an artist, or even a natural space, but also the more mundane paths and places existing between our destinations. I find it very interesting to look at these areas in between designated destinations that we often pass through quickly and without thought, and enjoy observing how people behave occupying these spaces.

Public Life Mapping

One of my recent class assignments was to design the Metro Purple Line Station at Wilshire and Fairfax. The research we did before starting our design included a public life survey done by Gehl Architects; the study’s purpose was to provide information about the existing station, mapping out observed uses and performance.

Public-Life-SurveyMy job was to “follow” the people exiting the station, map out their destinations, and record their behavior. The results were impressive and unexpected: people spend more time moving through landscaped spaces, and when they do so, they engaged and interacted with the space. I observed a woman walking back to her car located in the parking structure next to the station; she took several steps up to the retail level, then back down, finally returning back to the path back to her car. Other pedestrians would walk really close to the building edge seeking shade from the sun.

Philosopher Maurice Mzerleau-Ponty once noted, “Space is not the setting (real or logical) in which things are arranged, but the means whereby the positions of things become possible.”

Taking this observation about space into account, I propose we start to look at the places we experience every day – the streets we walked from the bus stop to the office, the plaza we hang out during our lunch break – and make an effort to observe, record, and appreciate the beauty of possibility surrounding us.

“From the detached and synoptical view of the bird, the modern paradox is graphically expressed in the constructions and traces that mark the ground. From above, the various relationships among physical dimensions, human activities, natural forces, and the cultural values can be seen to be orderly, productive and sophisticated as they are brutal and errant.” – Taking Measures Across the American Landscape by James Corner and Alex S. Maclean

Photo: Chuan Ding

Photo: Chuan Ding

I find it both interesting and surprising that a person can learn so much about the geography – and even the history – of a city without ever stepping foot there in person thanks to Google Maps and Google Earth. I enjoy using Google’s aerial views to research about the configurations and layouts of a city: its major traffic thoroughfares, notable points of interest, and public parks strewn across the city that I might otherwise miss while traveling at ground level. Using this online tool permits me to get a general idea of the city’s location, its general relation to other cities, and to see the “big picture”.


When I was in school we did a lot of mapping, diagramming the city by using a Google Map as a base then adding additional layers of information on top: topography, landscape use, demographic data, infrastructures, and so on. The exercise would allow us students to communicate a strong visual impression of our ideas and thoughts of a specific geographic location.

However, rather than solely relying upon visual description for designers, it is also important to provide the casual reader of any map with alternative perspectives of a city and its surrounding landscape. For instance, when viewed from a bird’s eye view of a city – raised to an elevation of 7,000 feet above – one is surprised to see the relationship between a city and its surrounding environment. This unusual alternative aerial view using the landscape as a geographical canvas is what I call the “hidden art of Google Maps”.


I find this new way of looking at a city so amazing, almost artistic. For example the aerial view of a freeway cutting through the mountains, or railroad tracks winding along the river bank and through an industrial zone, or stretches of water flowing from a glacier – all of these views from overhead are registered in a completely different context than from the ground level.

The artistry of satellite imagery is substantial and significant, allowing us to sense the ongoing influence of humans upon nature, and influence of nature upon humans, the passing of time, and in the process continually sparks my own thoughts about the future of landscape architecture design in the future.