Posts by Jessica Roberts

Summer has come to an end here in Los Angeles. Despite the unabated high temperatures, the days are becoming shorter. Gardeners are already planning the transition from the growing cycle of warm weather into the cooler autumn months in preparation to plant next year’s bounty. Vacation season has come to a close too, with students returning to school. In recognition of this seasonal transition, we’ll be focusing on a Back-to-School theme for September, specifically one from the perspective of the landscape architecture education and profession. We hope you’ll learn something from their lessons.

Looking back to my time in graduate school to today, one thing that sticks out in my development as a designer is the evolution of my thoughts about representation and landscape. The power of representation – collecting layers of a site’s history to tell a story – gives designers the tools to communicate, inform, and influence design in unexpected ways.

I took one studio during graduate school entitled, Stateline, a class that focused entirely on representing a site’s history in varying ways. We were to portray the Lower Wabash River between Illinois and Indiana with drawings, culminating with a group gallery exhibit of our work. There was an emphasis on digital media and hyper-narrative landscapes, and the studio was divided into different assignments that experimented with organizing a site’s history in numerous ways. The following is what unfolded:

All images: Jessica Roberts

For the montage assignment we were directed to ignore space and time. Instead, we were advised to layer moments of the landscape on top of one another – the extinct Carolina Parakeet, historic canals, railroad systems, whiskey barrel, and glacial movements – they were all stacked up with no respect to scale.

Conversely, for the narrative montage assignment we were told to compress time in space. Highways and historic canals were to exist at once, and abandoned trains and displaced buffalo returned to the present.

Click above for full image.

The timeline explored the site through a deep ecological perspective, visualizing the connections across the epochs. For example, glacial sand barrens and current melon production in the area that benefited from the sandy glacial deposits are shown sharing common ground.

These exercises taught me about the rich palimpsest of landscape and the importance of understanding a site’s histories, rather than glorifying only the new. Looking back at this studio helps me remember the strength that comes with storytelling, and the possible design opportunities that can only be unearthed in the process of creating a drawing.

Our back-to-school theme inspired me to revisit my graduate thesis, a document I haven’t looked at in quite awhile, but that I believe still influences my design thinking today. I started by skimming my references and remembering all of the essays that had inspired me while pulling together ideas.

I was taking an art theory class at the time entitled Art and Ecology, and some of the discussions we had really helped me articulate what I thought and felt about being an ecological designer. I remember re-reading one quote in particular, from Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought, which is both simple and overwhelming.

“…ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence.”

This quote and the discussion that followed inspired me to think more critically about empathy and affect in ecological thinking. It seemed to me that metrics and data often dominate ecological talk; I was curious about how I could begin to think about ecological design in a different way. My thesis title turned out to be Transparent Animism: A Framework for Participating in Ecological Design as Agonism. Animism became a way for me to talk about humans and nonhumans as subjects, and the political theory of agonism – a political theory that emphasizes the possibly positive aspects of certain forms of political conflict.

As I dug around and tried to better understand the political theories of agonism, a quote by Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe entirely changed the way I thought about ecology. Mouffe stated that, “the fetishization of consensus is an act of silencing”. I suddenly understood that a human idea of a harmonious nature was a fantasy. Rather than emphasizing consensus between humans and nonhumans as a goal, what was required was a platform for ecological design that allows for productive disagreement to take place.

I came up with four design criterias that I believed would help me work towards a more empathetic ecological design process, and I attempted to employ those criteria to four speculative projects. I’ll plug a link to my thesis here, because this ontological brainstorm took me close to a year to complete.

One of the projects, the video shown below, is something I recognize as a relational diagram. It was all about the challenge of exchanging perspectives. The construct is made of layered clear acrylic planes with laser cut holes that I then painted pink and blue. When staked the layers of colors create a visual field with a shifting organization of figure-ground. An understanding of existence as relational proposes that humans and nonhumans are in a continuous process of negotiation with one another.

As a landscape designer today I still feel it is necessary to be critical of and empathetic towards representations of nature and the ongoing discussion of what makes ecological design ecological.

In preparation of entertaining some guests soon, I put my roommates to work to clean up our neglected, yet promising, backyard over the past weekend. Much of the vegetation in our backyard view is borrowed (thanks neighbors!), but one particurly giant prickly pear cactus has been feeling very friendly of late, dropping its prickly paddles in heaps into our yard. I wondered if I had any right to stake claim to the cactus considering it had creeped over so far into our yard.

Photos by Jessica Roberts

Opuntia, the prickly pear cactus, has historically been used as a living fence to denote boundaries and to keep in livestock. But it turns out in California any encroachment across property lines permits ownership of any branches reaching onto your property , including fruits and nuts that might be on said branch. So in this case, this cactus isn’t dividing but uniting neighbors.

Later that day while shopping at an Armenian grocery store nearby, I noticed a few women stocking up on prickly pear fruit. Although widely spread to many areas of the arid Western United States, I realized I didn’t know very much about the traditional uses of the plant. I learned the fruit is edible, but you must be careful to remove the spines on the skin or risk painful irritation. The young stems can also be eaten and are called nopales in Mexico. A fermented cactus beverage known as bebida de tibicos (also known as water kefir) can be made with the prickly pear fruit, the fermentation process kickstarted by the microorganism culture found on the tibicos granillos, or hard granules, growing on the cactus paddles and fruits.

My guests don’t know what they are in for! I’m just kidding…I won’t be serving any fermented experiments just yet.

Water kefir photos from Wild Drinks & Cocktails by Emily Han and Gregory Han. Courtesy of Fair Winds Press

Living in California has made way for a plethora of edibles to forage in the urban environment, some more obvious than others. Back in grad school one of my roommates created a resource called the C-U Fruit Map which mapped edible fruits and nuts in the public right of way in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Clicking on the geotagged icons across the map gives names and descriptions of each mapped edible, presenting a whole new way to navigate and experience the city.

But remember to forage responsibly! It is always important to consider the effects of your foraging habits, being aware not to deplete the local food sources of wildlife that may depend on fruits and leaves throughout the year. Which also reminds me of another guy who had collected the fruits of the invasive Elaeagnus umbellata – aka the autumn olive – to make fruit leather using its tart, brightly colored, and highly nutritious berries (with 7-17x higher amount of  lycopene than tomatoes!). He had made a nutritious snack while also culling the spread of an aggressive shrub.

Hmmm…I wonder what other problem plants can be put to use in Los Angeles?


All photos: Jessica Roberts

It is always eye opening to play tourist in the city you call home. My mom – a long-time lover of all things Art Deco  – came to town and signed us up for an architectural Art Deco walking tour of Downtown organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although I work Downtown, time for exploration and lingering to take in views can be limited, so the opportunity to play urban tourist with my mom was a welcome occasion.

From a landscape designer’s perspective the tour was a lot of looking up at object-oriented architecture. During the 20s and 30s architectural styles were changing in the United States, transitioning from the favored Beaux-Arts neoclassical style to what was then considered a more modern style, Art Deco, a pastiche of many styles from all over the world. Our tour began in Pershing Square, a place of controversial style in and of itself. The historic Biltmore Hotel across the street was used as a Beaux-Art foil to the more modern styles of the surrounding Art Deco buildings.

The former headquarters of the Southern California Edison building is an interesting example of the evolving urban environment. As we stepped in to view its beauty you could tell the workers there took pride in the architecture. Our tour guide showed our group an image of the Victorian homes that once inhabited Bunker Hill, all eventually torn down. Bunker Hill itself had been slightly leveled to accommodate new construction. In the 1980s the interior of the Edison building was “modernized” with drop ceilings and carpets, covering up the ornate details original to the building. Thankfully the current owners are now removing those alterations and taking steps to restore the building to its original glory.

As we continued on our walk, we looked up at the towers that had replaced the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco landmark of 1929 that was demolished in 1969 to make room for the construction of newer and more modern construction. It was interesting to see such strong opinions of style come from the tour group. One woman shouted “What a shame!”.

Other buildings were described as “Disco”. I couldn’t tell if the group reaction was favorable or not. Our tour guide mentioned that she saw some public opinions starting to shift in favor of Disco Era architecture. I myself couldn’t help but feel a certain affection for them.

Some buildings represented a transition in style, such as the Los Angeles Public Library. To get the full story you’ll have to go on the tour, but my favorite takeaway was that architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had allegedly switched out the neoclassical dome he depicted in his drawings – a style he knew would sell – for the Egyptian-inspired pyramid you see today. Apparently the cultural influence that led to this switch was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

We all struggle to understand the world around us, and these struggles often manifest in what we create. Style is political, personal, reactionary, and unpredictable. Style reveals priorities, views on nature, and technology, and is far from passive or innocent. When we got back to Pershing Square I couldn’t help but feel a certain empathy for the park, with its funky and seemingly outdated style, and wondered how opinions of it might change after it’s gone.

A city could be imagined as the sum of its various architectural pasts. If so, then our city’s historical and evolving urban environment are inherently the roadmap to Los Angeles’ future.

Depicting the character of a place is an ongoing process for me. I have fallen into the habit of taking many pictures of static details: paving, benches, specific plant varieties. But what about the movement and more ephemeral qualities of space making?

All images by Jessica Roberts

The images and GIFs below are an exercise in experimenting with both digital sketching and motion in drawing. As I continue to develop tactics to address this investigation, new tools give ways to experiment and sketch quickly, wherever you are.