Posts by Jessica Roberts

I’ve been helping with some final coordination items and design details for Magic Johnson Park Phase 1 A – a project I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working on. It was one of the first projects I began working on here at AHBE, and being able to follow through across the project’s many stages has taught me so much. Following the process from early concept to construction documents has been a roller coaster full of ups and downs. The project has seen many iterations; I cannot wait to see the built reality.

We’ve sketched, re-sketched, created illustrative plans, renders, study models, technical details, and drawings. Now they’ve all been boiled down into one set. As I look back at the work we’ve done, I recognize something about my own design process: how sometimes the simplest sketch can both define and reveal possibilities within a project and site.


As a designer very interested in graphic representation, I am guilty of being seduced by a beautiful image. A montage with picturesque aesthetic technique can determine the value placed on a site design in ways that have little to do with the potential built reality. We all know this, but the attraction is still there. Much of it has to do with what works as a composition on a 2-dimensional plane. It’s something to master, and can help create an atmosphere, communicate a mood, and describe a sense of place. This is what gets people excited about the possibilities of a project. These images carry a lot of responsibility in selling a design intent, and it is easy to overvalue final beautiful presentation graphics.

There are different layers of concentration critical in the design process. With time, I hope to become more comfortable with the act of sketching – I’m talking quick and dirty, first impression, easy and loose sketching. Sketching this way is purely about discovery and experimentation, but the process is not easy. Looking back at the design process I created for Magic Johnson Park, I realize it was the quick and dirty sketches that allowed me to communicate my design ideas most successfully. Sometimes it is the first loose sketch that gets you somewhere…only to end up in the trash moments later.


All photos: Jessica Roberts

Last weekend I joined other Angelenos at March Forth!,  a fundraiser and block party sponsored by LA Walks in advocacy of safer walking for all across the city. This year’s block party was hosted in Historic Filipinotown, and included games, face painting, lessons for healthy cooking, bicycle riding, skateboarding, and environmental workshops for all ages.

The event truly prioritized pedestrians and non-vehicular modes of transit (unfortunately a rare occurrence in Los Angeles), going as far as to offer free valet bike parking for bicyclists such as myself, compliments of The Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition. It was exciting to see everyone occupy the block cordoned off from traffic, engaged by ideas to improve pedestrian life in our city.

I have to commend the energy of the volunteer organizations in attendance, as they each made the event a success. Although the focus was clearly on community health and promoting safe streets, everyone was there in unity to have some fun. Particularly memorable was a bicycle course developed to teach kids how to safely ride their bikes. I didn’t begin riding a bike in an urban environment until my early twenties, and I remember it required some adjustment, including gaining the confidence and learning the techniques to communicate with drivers sharing the streets. Ideally, one day the social agreement to share the road will be ingrained in our culture across pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers alike.

Another organization in attendance, Ours Did, displayed evocative signs that read, “Drive Like Your _ Died Here”, offering people who’ve lost a loved one an opportunity to personalize signs in hopes of creating a deeper and personal connection with street safety.

During the event I also learned about the Vision Zero campaign, founded to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and severe injuries by 2025. Los Angeles hosts the regional Vision Zero Alliance, a citywide coalition of community based and advocacy organizations brought together to promote pedestrian advocacy across the city. It was encouraging to see the momentum already in place.

As a professional in landscape architecture, it became obvious our discipline could become more involved with policy making, community engagement, and advocacy of a safer place to walk, run, ride, and also drive. One way design professionals can participate is by increasing meaningful civic engagement through visual tools. Urban policy and planning issues may affect our communities, but they’re often portrayed in unnecessarily intimidating ways. Many policies do not encourage community participation, and in turn meaningful change never materializes in the form of construction in their environments serving the people who live there.

Design professionals can and should aid in addressing complex spatial issues associated with cultural, racial, and ethnic inequality. Organizations at March Forth! showed how to effectively use visual tools like community polls to engage the public into providing feedback about how fast vehicular traffic should be set within their community, and interactive boards inviting individuals to create their own dream street revealed what the community wants from its community. Ultimately, the more people are given the tools to promote pedestrian safety and a voice to engage in meaningful exchanges, the larger and more informed the constituency becomes…and the safer the streets of Los Angeles become for all.

All photos: Jessica Roberts

It was a friend’s wedding responsible for my return to New York. I hadn’t been back since I moved away 2 years ago, and I was excited to revisit the places I once loved, including a place known as Pioneer Works, a cultural center in the community of Red Hook Brooklyn. It didn’t hurt one of my favorite bars is just around the corner.

Even without knowing which exhibitions would be on display this particular day, I dropped by Pioneer Works to stumble upon an incredibly inspiring collection of work by artist, Anthony McCall. Solid Light Works blocks out over thirty feet of vertical clearance, filling multiple rooms with haze and light installations.

A seminal figure of Expanded Cinema, McCall is well known for his “solid-light works”, a series he began in 1973 with the 16mm film, Line Describing a Cone. A volumetric form composed of a beam of projected light slowly evolves in real, three-dimensional space. McCall regards these works as occupying a place somewhere between sculpture, cinema, and drawing. Sculpture, because the projected volumes must be occupied and explored by a moving spectator. Cinema, because these large-scale objects are not static, but structured to progressively shift and change over time. And drawing, because the genesis of each installation is a two-dimensional line-drawing.

As a landscape designer I was struck by the simplicity of the forms and how successful they defined space. Some areas of the installations defined more intimate spaces. Participants laid on the ground within the projected confines of the light, some taking photos, while others just stared up in contemplation. Other areas were more open and horizontal in their projections. These became more social spaces where participants moved their hands in and out of the light. The installation focusing viewers on the interruption of the figure within space defined only by the projection of light.


Image: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Robin Holland.

Maintenance is perpetually on my mind while thinking about design and the landscape practice. Not necessarily in the ways one might imagine initially, like the performative aspects of a landscape. Instead, I often think about the ways design and the labor of maintenance are divided. This division has a long chronic history, and informs how we design and what we value in work.

My Working Will be the Work:” Maintenance Art and Technologies of Change by Anna Reser recently inspired contemplation about some of the underpinning systems supporting this division in contemporary culture. It argues there is a prevailing preoccupation with innovation, a cultural obsession which leaves preservation and the hands that labor in service of maintenance in the shadows.

“Maintenance has been long overlooked in favor of a focus on innovation and design practices; the very beginnings of technology have always been more appealing than their often messy or disappointing longer lives.” -Anna Reser

The article focuses on subversive art practices that reveal the invisible labor of marginalized people whose efforts allow privileged – historically “white able-bodied men” – to focus on fetishized “sexy” innovation (my favorite adjective in the design world).

Mierle Laderman Ukles’s “Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object” involved performing the duties of a museum janitor; her decision to call the tools of the trade “Maintenance Art Works” made visible the hidden labor required to maintain the various indispensable urban systems we often take for granted. This disruption was political.

“One important aspect of this ‘turn’ to maintenance histories is that the un-and-underpaid labor of women and marginalized people, who are disproportionately relegated to maintenance work, has again become an important site for articulating the history of technology.”

This discourse investigates maintenance and other forms of hidden labor, which I believe could influence and inform a more sensitive, responsive, and empathetic design practice. What kind of design culture will drive solutions to improve our planet? Perhaps, with enough time, a culture with a deep affection for practices continually shaping, sustaining, and fundamentally changing our design objects, sites, and systems.

What would our practice look like as a culture of maintenance rather than a culture of innovation technology? Reser explains the radical nature of Ukles’ art practice, bringing attention to “this invisible work of cleaning, repairing, cooking, and mending Maintenance Art”, forcing our attention into “spaces that had always privileged the result, not the work that sustains it”. I would add that beyond privileging the result over the work that sustains it, a culture of innovation cannot perform as opportunistically in real time. It does not prioritize the response and actual needs of unforeseen forces in a design’s use and performance over time.

Reser’s critique ultimately invites discussion about the design process and social justice. Who innovates? Who maintains? And what actions will promote positive change, as well as preserve it? It’s all up for negotiation. The potential for influence in technologies and labors of maintenance is as much about change as it is about preservation, whether we chose to value it or not.


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.

After looking back at our vast collection of posts from this year, it was this photo from Katherine Montgomery’s Rabbit Routes: A Photo Essay that stuck most in my mind. Something about the simplicity of the image and its sensitivity to perspective speaks so poignantly to the kind of empathy I believe is needed to help define and expand ecological thinking.

Not only does this image reinforce how important our urban parks are for animal habitat, but also how important they are for humans in an urban context to form relationships with nonhumans. Katherine’s photograph reminds me to leave room when defining space for others, and inspires me to be sensitive while spending time in the wild in the city. These images help me shift focus when thinking about how to instigate change in how we define ecological design by engaging with, and relating to, existing communities.

The original post here: Rabbit Routes: A Photo Essay