I recently embarked on a journey, one which took me back to review old studio projects from graduate school. It offered me an opportunity to take inventory of my past work, and identify how those early projects influenced my design philosophy today.
One common thread visible across all of these project was the attempt to understand complex systems beyond the confines of the site. Additionally, two consequential questions arose while working on these graduate school projects:
- How far out do you make a context map?
- What is context in the terms of the project?
Understanding complex site systems, diagramming them, and forming a coherent analysis of the site according to the diagram can be as difficult as the design itself. It is an exercise requiring the ability to recognize the scale of the complex web of systems intersecting at the site.
The practice of landscape architecture is inherently tied to site – a very spatial concept. It makes sense we investigate qualitative and quantitative information under the lens of a geographic location. Identifying the exchanges occurring at various scales is imperative to forming a complete understanding of a site. While we will never know everything there is to know, we should attempt to become experts about specific aspects of a site, while remaining a generalist in others. As designers, this context helps us efficiently develop a story.
While working on my thesis, I did a quick mapping about site exchanges based upon multiple mappings I had done. I started by ordering my investigation and analysis based on a multitude of scales: the human user, to the transects, or a conduit on which the site may lie on a greater landscape context. Next, according to the region or network, examining the scale well beyond political boundaries.
The diagram – still nascent in content – helped organize my thoughts about my thesis site. Listing and connecting scales of design with systems on the site was important in developing an understanding about which interventions could occur on the site, and what possible echoes and exchanges are impacted in a larger context. I began to layer my design concept on the diagram where I thought it could be scaled and represented.
In the process of developing this diagram it became apparent that while we may design or represent something at a particular scale, it is a system occurring and impacting across many scales. At first, my understanding of site systems and their overlap was limited to the scale where it was represented most legibly. For example: the scale of the design section (1:96), or the site plan (1:240).
I quickly realized designs share a transaction with multiple systems at multiple scales, creating an exponential combination of exchanges.
This realization impacted not just my thoughts about the diagram, but also how I perceived design as a whole. I began layering multiple scales of information in a logical and methodical manner. My designs were no longer limited within the confines of a specific mode of representation (section, plan and perspective), I was now designing a philosophy of greater urbanism. This urban system theory reified into a small site where I finally applied scaler constraints, developing something legible both in its design and representation. The “map” or “diagram” became a project – a scaled system of principles about urbanism – transforming from a source of investigation into a test of these theories, and also a physical manifestation of my philosophy at human scale.
The analysis phase became as enlightening as the exploration of design interventions. To this day, I reflect upon the lessons learned through this exercise, challenging myself to think through the impact all projects have across the multitude of contexts. In carving out my own methodology, and from experience, I recognize now there is no “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes the analysis of a site.