Posts tagged back to school

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.

Photos: Katherine Montgomery

I returned to school as an adult while working full-time. I attended classes in the evenings and weekends, all with the purpose of earning a degree in landscape architecture. The program required a large amount of self-guided learning, and outside of class, I sought knowledge within the quiet aisles of bookstores.

More than any class or studio I took during school, books provided a multi-faceted depth to my understanding of the landscape. From field guides to novels, I’ve accumulated a library that now I can repeatedly dip into for inspiration and perspective. My own understanding of landscapes comes from logical, scientific, artistic, and emotional descriptions. I’ve divided some of my favorite books into these categories to share and recommend.

At the heart of my list is a very dog-eared copy of Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. This book resonated, evoking memories of my childhood love of nature. It was Louv’s words that inspired me to consider landscape architecture as a career. I’ve included this title in my stack of non-fiction “Landscape Analysis” books, which includes essays on natural systems and historic context. Each of these books touches upon a different angle of the human impact on landscapes. Another favorite, Trees in my Forest by Berndt Heinrich, describes the interconnectedness of trees with a scientific, yet personal perspective. John McPhee’s The Control of Nature thoroughly investigates a handful of landscapes, looking closely at how humans have attempted to impact them. Even more so, Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden proposes that nature has become just another human system. While I don’t necessarily agree with the outlook and opinions of these authors, they spark critical thoughts about how to interact with and design in our modern world.

In a similar category are the urban design books like Site Planning, Pattern Language, and Design with Nature – mainstays of landscape architecture school. I’ve kept these three books to refer to again and again when considering the built environment.

Taking a step back from analysis, my next stack is a series of field guides and indexes of birds, plants, wildlife, and how those systems function. I find comfort within the objective facts of science: a scrub jay is a scrub jay. I find studying bird guides and plant identification books extremely calming, but also helpful in navigating and integrating design with the natural world.

The final grouping of books in my library is based on subjective experiences of landscape. While a scrub jay is a scrub jay, everyone’s experience of its squawk is different. The novels, memoirs, essays, and poetry shown above all describe the human experience of a physical place. Willa Cather’s rugged Nebraska and Alice Munro’s descriptions of rural Canada help me understand the physical experience of place that influences the characters’ lives. Literary narratives can translate these visceral qualities in ways that blueprints cannot.

The ponds are uprisings from the water table, shallow and shape shifting as sand from the dunes blows into them, creating mass here, causing the water to spread in a generally southeast direction, away from the prevailing winter winds which day after day bite and rasp and shovel up the great weight of the sand. – Mary Oliver, Upstream

The most striking landscape narratives come from a combination of meditating on personal experience and an objective understanding of natural systems. There are so many varied perspectives to absorb and grasp, I love having them all mingling on my bedside table and bookshelves. I can only hope these books continue to guide my understanding of the world and design process.

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.

Photos: Wendy Chan

My entire perspective of the urban landscape changed one day while studying to become a landscape architect. I had decided to take a course titled, Plant Identification, with the hopes of improving my knowledge of everything growing around me. Before this class, I did not know the names of the plants and trees commonly found growing within the urban environment of Los Angeles. I came out with an entirely different view of the world.

Through the course of three quarters, we learned about the native origins, habits, scientific names, and characteristics of various plants and trees that thrive across several Southern California ecosystems. We also spent class sessions walking through campus with the purpose of identifying and discussing plants, with supplementary visits to botanical gardens, nurseries, and native habitats to strengthen our understanding of what, where, and how plants grow in urban environments. The Plant Identification course turned out to be my favorite class throughout my term as a student in the landscape architecture program. The tree that was once simply referred to as the “tree with pink flowers and spikes across its trunk” became Chorsia speciosa, aka the Floss Silk Tree; I now knew its South American origins and preferred habitat, alongside the protective nature of those spikes across its trunk evolved to “keep Amazonian animals, especially monkeys, from chewing on the trunks“. The class entirely changed my perspective and perception of the landscape.

During the span of this class I began to recognize my perception of the landscape was previously quite narrow. The only trees I could readily identify were those already associated with personal memories, those growing edible fruits, or ones connected with a spatial experience. The most easily identifiable trees were tied to childhood memories: the avocado tree, jujube tree, pomelo tree, and the mulberry tree. An avocado tree growing in my neighbor’s yard during my childhood would occasionally drop their creamy fruit over onto our yard, allowing us to make various recipes using the ripe fruit. The jujube trees were planted by our landlord; we would harvest them as snacks, drying some out to use later in soups. The leaves of the pomelo tree were gathered by my mother as she walked me to school; she would tie them in bunches to use in a bath – a traditional Chinese medicinal and spiritual practice believed to ward off evil spirits. The leaves of the mulberry tree were harvested for my science project, to feed my family of ravenous silkworm caterpillars.

Ever since this change in perspective, I can’t help but dissect the various layers of the landscape everywhere I go, with various layers of thought processes that lead me to asking: “What kind of tree is that? How does the landscape enhance the experience? Is it a habitat for animals? How often does it shed its bark?”

I now often find a desire to photograph plants and trees while hiking, walking around neighborhoods, or while traveling, all with the purpose of identifying them later. You never know when photos of the landscape can be used in a future project, or when they may again lead to a change in perspective about the landscape all around us.

San Francisco Civic Center, 1991. Image: Jenni Zell

I don’t remember my favorite class in undergraduate school, it was after all the late eighties and early nineties. What I do remember is my favorite period of development. During my junior year I began experimenting with representation, and simultaneously ideas. It was also the period of development when I received my first “D” grade on a mid-term assignment.

San Francisco Civic Center, detail. Image: Jenni Zell

I liked what I produced for the class, and it is the only school project that I have lugged around with me through my many moves up and down the California coast and across the country. It represents the time after I had begun to internalize the rules of landscape architecture and bend and break those rules in ways that interested me.

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.

Infographic: Designxel.com

Design isn’t easy to teach.

Great design requires both an intuitive sense and a fierce dedication to research and knowledge. A great landscape designer listens to the client and distills their wants and needs with the requirements of the site to create a harmonious whole. A designer might only get one chance during his or her entire career when circumstances align to create a perfect amalgam of client, budget, team, and know-how for the possibility of designing a classic, timeless project. As an instructor of design at a small arts college, my mission is to try and get my students ready for their moment. But is that what I should be doing?

Real design jobs are hard to find, and few and far between. In the architectural design industry, a primary designer must have proven experience to be entrusted with the direction of a multi-million dollar project. Even then, projects are usually team-driven, with only a “Starchitect” given the freedom to enact a singular vision. Yet, the majority of architectural and landscape architectural programs around the country teach us to be just that: a singular, primary designer.

The reality is most architects and landscape architects are job captains and project managers. We turn dreams into real world built projects, on time and on budget.  It is not what we got into the profession to do but it is what we end up doing. Yet, despite this, almost all college architectural and landscape architectural curriculums do not have mandatory classes in project management and development or business. We learn imperfectly through trial and error on the job. This system might have worked through an apprenticeship paradigm of 100 years ago, but in today’s job market of high expectations, impossible deadlines, and low fees, there’s no patience for on-the-job training.

Infographic: Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)

Recent graduates are expected to hit the ground running and be able to manage systems and projects after only two to three years on the job.  Couple this with relatively low wages for the amount of schooling required to become a landscape architect and is it any wonder that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) are both predicting a shortfall of trained professionals in the next decade?

Look, I fully recognize the counter-argument: as educators, we must teach to a higher bar. How can we expect to produce qualified designers if we don’t try and teach them design to the highest standard? Also, with building projects becoming as complex as living entities, there simply is not enough time to teach everything the students need to know for their first job. If we teach project management, would we be sacrificing design for practicality?

I believe there is plenty of room for compromise. If we are not teaching our professionals the job they are expected to do over the course of their careers, we are not doing our jobs. Good design is important, but so is good construction document practices and project management, both which make up the bulk of our profession’s work.

Adding a mandatory professional practice and business track to a five year program will not impede the next Frank Lloyd Wright. However, without teaching our students the business of our business today, we might never might see the Lloyd Wright of tomorrow.

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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.

It’s ‘Back to School’ season, an opportune time to upgrade and improve your computer workstation for optimal productivity and highest quality graphics and CAD documents. Which system should you purchase? That all depends upon three major factors: your discipline, your role, and your workflow.

The most important components worth considering:

GPU – Graphics/Video Card
CPU – Processor
RAM – Memory
HD – Hard Drive
Other ports

Storage Capacity: Solid State Disk (SSD) vs. Serial Advance Technology Attachment (SATA)
Let’s begin from the bottom to the top. Nowadays, when it comes to hard drives you can choose from two options: SSDs and SATAs. SSDs are the newer, faster, and better performing option. On the other hand, platter-based SATAs are the standard, cheaper and more commonly available. A 1TB SATA drive costs around $50, while a 1TB SSD may cost around $300. Obviously price is a major drawback with an SSD drive, but they’re also noticeably faster. Please note SSDs are only faster when it comes to reading files from the hard drive; they are not directly responsible in the execution of programs or rendering faster per se (though they will launch faster), since these tasks are handled by the CPU and the GPU. Therefore, the hard drive’s role in executing production tasks is only minor.

Cloud-oriented users (e.g. Google Photos, Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.) may not even need a large capacity hard drive; with constant and reliable connection via wi-fi or Ethernet, the extra local storage space may be actually unnecessary. If your workflow relies upon cloud storage, a moderate capacity SSD somewhere in the range of 256 GB minimum and 500 GB might be more than sufficient. Even if you prefer to carry most of your stuff on a separate portable HD – let’s say a 1 TB USB 3.0 external hard drive – you may want to stick to a moderate capacity SSD.

It’s a different story if you work from a desktop workstation, where files are primarily kept locally, with little or no cloud integration (sometimes necessary for security purposes). In this case I’d recommend at least 1 TB of storage. The choice between a SATA or SSD drive may be determined by your budget, but upgrading capacity on a desktop is much easier than with a laptop. And this doesn’t mean that you have to dispense the use of cloud or external hard drives if the option is open; you can still use these online-accessible services to sync files remotely. It’s the best of both worlds and helps in practicing the recommended habit of backing up files.

Modern desktop machines like the Alienware Area-51 are outfitted with Gigabit Ethernet Ports, USB 3.1, and media card readers.

Other things to consider
Depending upon your workflow and work environment, there’s a multitude of options worth considering when purchasing a computer: a fast network network card, Ethernet port, USB ports (3.0+ preferably), Bluetooth, HDMI port, CD/DVD optical drive, audio/mic jacks, SD card, and a 3½-inch floppy drive (just kidding!).

Apple Mac users might also require a Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP) and Thunderbolt ports. But if you’re like me – terrible with Apple products – you won’t likely need to worry about either. In my next follow-up I’ll explore further details about Mac-oriented workflows and solutions.

How much RAM do I need?
As a rule of thumb, your system should have at least 8 GB. Minimum. Adobe Photoshop and Sketchup recommend 8 GB, but in reality I’d recommend 12 GB as a starting off point for serious work. If your work revolves around graphic production tasks, bump up to 16 GB of system memory. Computers use RAM to buffer files into the software, so it plays a central part in handling large files, whether they’re 2D or 3D. However, the role of RAM memory in conventional projects is relatively less important than the CPU and the GPU. Nonetheless, let’s not underestimate RAM’s role. Because you can have the best CPU available and the most killer graphic card in the entire world, but if you are trying to open a 300MB, high-poly 3D model of Downtown Manhattan with only 1 GB of RAM, your system will crash before even opening the file.

Which processor should I get?
This is where things start to get tricky. Some programs operate noticeably better with specific CPUs, while other programs simply aren’t as affected. That said, if graphic design is a large component of the workflow, the Intel Core i7 processor is highly recommended. But recommending the Intel Core i7 processor isn’t really specific enough, as there are numerous iterations of this CPU with the “i7” moniker available today. That said, I’d recommend an Intel i7 processor at 3.0 GHz+ or the AMD equivalent; go Xeon if your workflow requires it (a topic we’ll go into detail in a future follow-up).

The ASUS ROG Rampage IV Black Edition X79 Motherboard

A note about upgrading: it’s worth spending the time to research about hardware compatibility. I’ll share a little story illustrating this point. I recently upgraded my Alienware Area-51’s motherboard to an Asus Rampage IV Black Edition. The system was originally powered by a factory-installed Intel Core 980x processor (pretty decent at the time when I purchased the machine). Only while attempting to install the new CPU onto the new motherboard did I realize they weren’t compatible! I had to buy a newer CPU (an Intel i7-3960x) to fit onto the new X79 motherboard’s socket (LGA Intel 2011). The moral of this story is parts evolve and change. The killer CPU of today may be an incompatible part for the computer of tomorrow. So be sure to invest in relatively recent components that can be easily replaced and repaired, if necessary.

In next month’s follow-up, I’ll investigate the topic of choosing the right processor and video card, and answer questions like, “When to choose a Xeon CPU over i7?”, “What’s multi-core and hyper-threading?”, “NVIDIA or ATI?”, “Quadro or GeForce?”, “What about Mac workflows?”, and the best workstations optimized for specific software. Stay tuned!