Posts by Cristhian Barajas

This intricate aboriginal art pattern may seem very inspiring, as a planting design, as an urban grid layout, as a fabric pattern for a dress… would it be harmful to incorporate it in a design without necessarily connecting it to its origin? Image: CC0 Public Domain

Cultural appropriation is the imbalanced adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of a dominant culture – an exchange where an aesthetic, a cultural practice, or even sensorial cues may be adopted or adapted without the input and context of its originating culture.

Simply wearing traditional clothing with intentions other than those of the culture of origin may result offensive for most people. The Victoria Secret Fashion Show in 2012 case is a great example, when a top model used a Native American-style feathered headdress to complement her lingerie outfit. Photo: CC0 Public Domain

While musicians, singers, models, restaurant chains, make-up artists, hair stylists and fashion designers have all been among those charged with cultural appropriation recently, the professions of architecture and landscape architecture have mostly remained on the sidelines in this charged discussion. At least so far.

Part of this is due the normalization of the cyclical adoption and renewal of geographically specific architectural currents. Meaning, people already got used to appropriation in some form in architecture since times of antiquity. This does not mean there haven’t been debates at all about cultural appropriation in our field of design – it just means these debates took place a long time ago, and under different social conditions.

Good reflections stem out of this controversy, however. The following lists arguments that resonate:

  • The mass production of items inspired in a minority culture may present a threat for those communities immediately adjacent in the local market, since they would have a lower production rate of the similar item. Most of the time this dynamic is unregulated because the intellectual properties are used by those versed in industry operations.
  • Unless a “justified” statement about such a move is made, the industry may not properly credit and celebrate the origin of the ideas – which could be taken as artistic plagiarism and a violation of a community’s intellectual property rights. However, this is tricky, since some communities are so small, dispersed, or even abstract it becomes difficult difficult for them to count with some sort of protection (e.g. patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade dress, indigenous intellectual property or geographic indications). The new legal concept of “collective intellectual property rights” may represent a solution for this issue.
  • A symbol or pattern may represent something within the community of its origin, but once appropriated and marketed, it can be abused in such a way it would normalize, defile, or even oppose its original meaning. For example, the symbol of an indigenous Caribbean tribe once representing purity was appropriated by a fashion designer and used to style scandalous swimsuits for vacationers. Another famous case involving a celebrity and an aboriginal group reveals how even respectful intent born of admiration can be perceived as a desecration.

However, some critics of cultural appropriation, like myself, look with suspicion upon some of the accusations associated with it. I have personally identified two factors fueling negative reactions towards borrowing industries: a great deal of anti-Western sentiment is wrongly intertwined with anti-imperialism (which I think everyone agrees is wrong), which is often tied with anti-corporatism sentiment.

Cases of cultural appropriation vary widely, but it is hard to classify them by nature, since the things carrying more weight are the potential damage and the public reactions. But I believe this ethical conversation offers an opportunity for designers to reflect upon how to navigate decisions related to our our inspirations in relation and response to culture.

In future follow-up posts I plan to lay out a valid criticism from a design and philosophical stance pertinent to our field about cultural appropriation, followed by a prediction of why the debate in architecture and landscape architecture may not have a strong of an impact in comparison to other industries.

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.

The visual preference survey (VPS) was originally developed as a public consultation tool by urban visionary, Anton Nelessen in the 70s. They’ve remained a ubiquitous tool used within the planning and design fields for evaluating individual components of future built environments. Though originated as an appraisal planning instrument for decision-making, VPS continues today as a participatory design and research tool with valuable applications, with some caveats.

Photo manipulation based survey comparing planting alternatives for a pocket park, conventional vegetation (left side) against xeriscaping (right side). All images:  Cristhian Barajas

We have all seen some form or derivation of these surveys. They use distinct photographs to illustrate and present different proposals, illustrating the options a project can take, while specifying individual design or program elements. Traditionally, there has been a distinction between the conventional approach using non-uniform sets of photographs and photo-manipulated VPS – academically, the latter receiving more praise for their more accurate representations.

Photo manipulation-based VPS are more suitable for academic research exercises, and for projects presenting a narrower spectrum of possibilities. The level of skill they take and the fee-consuming time associated with their production renders them not viable for ordinary practice. But when utilized using common photographs easily collected online, VPS remains a flexible tool offering endless applications, invaluable for projects requiring a component of public engagement.

A photograph-based visual preference survey comparing different types of benches using wood slats in many ways.

How VPS Benefit Projects and the Public

VPS is most valuable when establishing a system of criteria to filter the public’s likes and preferences, and also to shape design decisions operating under a common language between project participants. Factors evaluated may include: materials, colors, shapes, sizes, layouts, styles and functions. Theoretically, the surveys are meant to democratically represent what the stakeholders and users want. However, there are some inherent flaws capable of jeopardizing the public’s objective perception.

Criticisms associated with VPS include their ability to be used as a manipulation tool, alongside their use in engaging in disinformation. Manipulation refers to designers and/or developers who purposely enhance or position design preferences from a favored vantage point over and above the rest of other options. Disinformation refers to biased activity shaped by inaccurately presented options or through the use of higher-quality images to promote favored results.

All photographs are subject to factors like lighting, weather, composition, context, angle, zoom and resolution – each a powerful determinant with the potential to shift the viewer’s reaction toward either a negative or positive rating.

The visual preference survey above does not present consistently sized photographs, strongly favoring those with a higher hierarchy. Similarly, images of some water features may be deemed less appealing due to the captured angle, lighting, or context present.

In the second part of What Are Visual Preference Surveys and Why They Matter, I’ll explore another pitfall related to the use of visual preference surveys, and recommend several do’s and don’ts when utilizing this valuable public assessment tool.


I realize I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable when commercial and institutional projects describe themselves as an ‘ecosystem restoration’ project. Such undertakings often emphasize the importance of native flora, while attempting to control the overall flow of its fauna because it might endanger the public and also drive their maintenance staff crazy.

Human interests have long been a hindrance to the cycles of nature. Even the resilient design mantra “working with nature” suggests we choose which aspects of nature to collaborate with and which should be controlled for our own purposes and interests.

Though I don’t agree with most of his worldview, the late 90s comedian George Carlin found an effective way of criticizing and exposing cultural mindsets harmful to the environment. Carlin’s humor used exaggeration to fashion crude, yet eloquent stories criticizing irrational human behavior.

Inspired by Carlin, the following is my take about stereotypical speciesism:

“I love taking a walk around the neighborhood with Pesky, my wolfdog; quite a beautiful dog but sometimes he misbehaves. That has changed since he’s now wearing a shock collar during the day. He’s great protecting the new barn from foxes and coyotes, though I can’t say much about chasing rabbits…those creatures.They creep under the bear fence just to eat from my garden – good thing I’m switching now to rabbit and deer-resistant plants. Oh, and mosquito-repellent plants, of course!

That’s another ordeal: bugs. I had to install those bulb-like refracting spheres to scare the flies away from the premises. Looks pretty when they catch the light, but it’s a pain when they fall and break. [Dog barking in the background]

I guess spraying pesticides isn’t enough nowadays, they’re growing more and more resilient every time. I have about three different sprays just for june bugs, bees, and mosquitos. Butterflies are fine, I guess, since I am protecting most of plants with netting. But moths are a different story. I’ve been hoping that some birds would just land on my property to get rid of them, but birds represent an even more troublesome deal! I had to install bird spikes all over my house because it seems to me those doves love nesting around here. [Dog barking in the background]

I’m afraid I will have to get rid of my collection of Purple Martins too, those Starling-Resistant Entrance Holes did work for a while, but now I just don’t want any kind of bird around my house – I’m sick of them. Good thing my friend Rob got me that sweet solar-powered sonic bird repeller, since the bird reflector mirrors were not doing much about it, so we’ll see. [Dog barking in the background. Rob uses dog dazer to stop Pesky’s barking] All my neighbors are doing the same, that’s what I like about it here: we’re all on the same page.»

All I want to do is to raise the question: When, how much, and to what extent should we keep denying the fauna of a place for refuge in our future developments?

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

Photography that reconciles poetry and minimalism with the natural landscape is unusual. Calvin’s exploration of the snowy Japanese landscape of Biei captures what happens when you successfully compose with these concepts in mind – stunning photographs reminding us the landscape does not always need to be fully grown, alive, colorful, nor complex to visually trigger catharsis.

The photographs are a visual documentation of life struggling in harsh conditions, each photograph of the beautiful landscape carrying a weight and deeper layer of meaning, evoking hope and perseverance. I believe everyone – perhaps unconsciously – can grasp and identify with this feeling: no matter how cold or difficult the situation around us, we can still aspire toward simplicity and beauty.

The original post here: Biei – “A Silent Landscape”