Posts by Jessica Roberts

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”.



I recently finished Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, a collection of essays and maps describing a plethora of topics related to the City of Angels – from the gridding of the city, ugly buildings, and old cattle trails, to the various locations across LA that inspired famous songs throughout the city’s history. The editor’s excerpt cited below reminded me how much of Los Angeles I’ve imagined through its rich history of music.

Maps of cities usually include streets, freeways, neighborhoods, parks, and other landmarks. But what if the city – like Los Angeles in the dreams of essayist Josh Kun – is made of songs? Listen, figuratively, to Southern California mapped as a conurbation of songs that mirror accents, attitudes, and cultural styles of the people of the region. Only a tiny fraction of the songs written about LA are here, more than enough to get you from Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach to Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley” without getting lost.

As Sophie Arkette noted, music is capable of altering how we experience the city – the “phenomenological city, the corporeal, sensual, and psychological one we plan ourselves with the music we listen to and make”. Imagining a quick brainstorm of songs, one could guide themselves musically down the length of Sunset Blvd. down to Santa Monica Beach and Malibu, over to nearby Compton. The list of songs to locales stretches across our expansive metropolis.

Map graphic from “LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas” by Patricia Wakida; from the essay by Josh Kun, “Los Angeles is Singing”.

My original journey to Los Angeles began with a road trip to Chicago from New York City. I was joined by one of my best friends for the leg to LA; she had put together a playlist entitled, “I Love LA”, one that kicked off our journey with Randy Newman’s appropriately spirited, “I Love LA”. I had honestly never heard the song before then (I couldn’t help but laugh the first time I exited a Dodgers game serenaded by the city’s unofficial theme song). We listened to the playlist during our road trip, all the while imagining the places I’d eventually encounter once I became a resident of LA. I had only visited the city once before, and without consciously realizing it, I had already assigned numerous thoughts and opinions about places to these various places I had never been to, but had heard about in songs. From NWA to Joni Mitchel, MacArthur Park to Mulholland Drive, I had already created a musical map.


Music about Los Angeles imparts a weight to certain places. I remember spotting the mural portrait of Motorhead’s Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister  emblazoned across the wall of the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood – a bar, street, and neighborhood all referenced in countless songs throughout the city’s history.

I also remember skating at World on Wheels in Mid-City, a spot made famous by Snoop Dogg’s “The Way Life Used to Be”. The storied roller rink once served as the broadcast home for the legendary hip-hop station, KDAY. Rapper Nipsey Hussle referred to World on Wheels with fond reverence, describing it “like the Coliseum, the Forum, like Crenshaw High School, like the Hollywood Sign, you know what I mean?”.

During my first CicLAvia, I remember cruising down Wilshire Blvd. and witnessing a man with an impressively decked out ride blasting Ronnie Hudson and The Street People’s 1982 jam, “West Coast Poplock“. At that moment I knew I liked it here. A song can connect a person to a place, just as effectively as any building or the landscape itself. Music saturates and paints our emotional memories often without us ever realizing it, affecting how we experience a city and forever remember it.

Which songs would you say represent your experiences of the people and places of Los Angeles?

Out on the Weekend – Neil Young
Think I’ll pack it in
and buy a pick-up
Take it down to L.A.
Find a place to call my own
and try to fix up.
Start a brand new day.


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?