Quick snapshot of an interesting immersive technology project Tree from MIT Media Lab, which blends technology and nature to provide a unique experience:
“Tree is a virtual experience that transforms you into a rainforest tree. With your arms as branches and body as the trunk, you experience the tree’s growth from a seedling into its fullest form and witness its fate firsthand. … With precisely controlled physical elements including vibration, heat, fan, and body haptics, the team created a fully immersive virtual reality storytelling tool, where the audience no longer watches but is transformed into a new identity, a giant tree in the Peruvian rainforest. “
The technology blurs the line between visualization and VR, with an interesting concept of haptic response driven through a variety of technologies. As mentioned on the site, “The body experience is crucial for establishing a body ownership illusion instead of restricting the experience to the visual world. We aim to have the audience not just see, but feel and believe “being” a tree.”
It’s fascinating to see the various components that create this experience. A breakdown below (I added links so you can link to some of the technology): “Our hyper-realistic whole body haptic experience used Subpac, a pair of customized vibration oversleeves with six local points and a vibrating floor powered by four based transducers. Technicolor’s Scott Gershin designed multi-track bass audio for each part of the body, so that the audience could feel the disturbance of a forest fire as well as a bird landing on a branch. There are also additional physical elements, including an air mover for a breath of wind and heaters as the final fire threat. The whole tactile experience is controlled by Max/MSP and Arduino, while communicating with the Unreal Engine through OSC. The physical experience was precisely synced with the visual experience inside the Oculus. We went through various iterations to match the virtual visual details with the intensity, texture, and timing of physical experience.”
The specialized technology means that it isn’t broadly available, but requires a specialized environment, so you need to be in place to get the full expeirence. The initial launch was done “In collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance, during the Sundance Film Festival, we gave each audience member a seed inside an envelop with a number on it. They can use their emails and that number to log in to the “participants” section of the Tree website to stay updated on the project. The team utilizes virtual, mixed, and actual reality to tap into positive social change and explore the human experience.”
For a less immersive taste, check out this video for some visuals of the project and process – Tree from Fluid Interfaces on Vimeo.
These are some amazing illustrations from Artist Matthew Rangel, that remind me both of old school map/diagrams from the 1800s, and the Taking Measures James Corner’s Map Landscapes. While much of the graphic conventions seem to hover around exploded axonometrics and collage photoshop, the ability of these sketchy images to depict landscapes in map and diagram offers inspiration for displaying complex systems.
“His digital and analogical prints communicate his thoughtful explorations of mountainous territories made through cross-country hikes, interviews and pictures. Rangel’s works reveal how human beings shape and experience landscape, showing the contrast between the segmentation of a territory in different properties and its natural features.
The practice also reflects on different ages in the relationship between art and landscape, from romanticism to land art. Rangel’s production mixes traditional cartographic features, mostly sections and plans, with annotations, photographs and other drawings to produce narrative-rich and multilayered documents.”
I don’t blog as much as I used to. Long time readers will notice that I had a time where i would write almost daily, which at the time was pretty fun, and in the first 3-4 years, had a consistent readership of 10s of thousands of viewers per month. The black and white and yellow scheme – above, was hosted on Blogspot, and achieved good notoriety, with some top blog lists, articles, republications, and really surprisingly, many people telling me they read it!
This was a time, as well, when there weren’t a lot of blogs, so it was good to position this in a particular time and place. There are many more great sources of landscape architecture and urban dialogue, and my interests evolved where blogging was less important. That said, I consume a lot less info on landscape architecture, and probably use Twitter to fill some of what the blog did in terms of saving snippets and other things for retrieval later. While I appreciated the readership and dialogue, and continue to do so, the goal was always to write and reflect on what I’m personally interested in.
So over the more recent years, I do a post occasionally, which are often book reviews or reflections on some writings on something I feel is worth exploring. Less posts but more focused, not on the day to day, but more generally. I switched to a new site a few years ago- which is now on WordPress and hosted on its own URL. Ebbs and flows of blogging are OK, and as I mentioned, there’s a lot of ways of writing, learning, and growing. Last year, for instance, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, so wrote a novel (which as you may guess, has elements of landscape and urbanism), and want to write more of those (and much better ones).
But with these ebbs and flows, the itch sometimes comes back. Sometimes its the same itch to just write, other times its a different itch in a different place. While some bloggers strive for more polished work (and many, many are much better writers than I) my blogging is often sparsely edited and often just my ‘notes’ on things. The blog is a notebook and while there’s sometimes narrative elements, I don’t spend a lot of time mapping out what i want to write. In some ways I’ve done shorter posts, other times delved deeper which maybe has some more structure, but not a lot of planning. I’ve done that planning in writing for academic pursuits (which is a very different style of course), but there’s a middle ground of accessible, interesting, and rigorous writing that I want to focus on.
My goal now is to focus on writing more polished work in an accessible manner and publish in various other sources (books, magazines, other sites) – opinion, interesting things, history, culture, landscape and urbanism. I want to write a book. And maybe a novel or two as well. Growing as a writer, as one would expect, involves writing, which I haven’t done as much of lately, while not in school and not blogging. And like any skills, they are in constant need of exercise. So I’m inspired to write more, and exercise those skills, so the blog is a natural place for some of this to happen.
While I’ve been feeling this, I looked at my blog and noticed that first, I was coming close to my 10 year anniversary of when i started blogging (late 2007). And second, I had published, a bit over 900 posts in this time. Thus my reconnection with wanting to write more and this serendipitous goal is something to inspire me to achieve, I have set a target to get to: 10 years and 1000 posts
Which i think is a respectable 100 posts per year and a decade of blogging. So my goal in the next year or so is to write around 100 more posts. I’m also going to try to write things in other places. If you’re used to a post a month, this will be a few more than you’re used to, but trust me, you’re gonna like it. After that, who knows…
On a related note, through some miracle of internet archiving, I managed to find the long-lost spin-off Vegitecture blog. Lost story, but my account was hacked in 2010, which corrupted a number of websites such as my Terra Fluxus site as well as vegitecture.net, the latter of which i didn’t have backed up. So although i searched around for remnants I thought it was lost forever. Earlier this summaer, i stumbled upon the brilliant and somewhat frightening Wayback Machine, an internet archiving project that probably has a lot of information we never knew was actually being backed up. I was able to piece together the entire collection that was published through 2009-2010, which totaled an additional 140 posts which includes thousands of images and over 50,000 words on vegetated architecture. You can access these through the site, and I’m also in the process of compiling the best in some form of publication.
Really like this experimental project (spotted on a post on Architects Newspaper) by Interactive Architecture Lab. Called Hortum machina, B it’s a “rolling ecological exoskeleton” in the shape of a geodesic dome, the “half garden, half machine” hybrid is able to move through the environment using plant electro-physiology to drive the machine. The idea of plant intelligence is worthy of a much more expansive post, but the execution here is quite brilliant.
“Electro-physiological sensing of the state of individual plants collectively and democratically controls decision-making of the orientation of the structure and its mobility. In the near future context of driverless cars, autonomous flying vehicles, and seemingly endless other forms of intelligent robotics co-habiting our built environment. Hortum machina B is a speculative urban cyber-gardener.”
You get a feel for the scale of it here, which is part of the beauty. The idea that these are larger than life, which gives them added presence.
There’s some more detailed ‘making of’ description, which delves into the prototyping, and further exploring the engineering and programming.
The controls are programmed using Arduino, a scalable and programmable platform for hardware and software to make interactive objects. Click on the screen capture below, and you can see the communication of ‘getting messages’ from the plant things like temperature, vibrations, humidity, lighting – and then being able to use that ‘intelligence’ for driving actions.
An interesting link via the A/N Blog on a game development from the Plethora Project called Block’Hood. Taking a cue from SimCity, this game explores simulation at a bit finer grain. From their site:
“Block’hood is a neighborhood-building simulator that celebrates the diversity and experimentation of cities. You will have full access to 90+ building blocks to combine and create unique neighborhoods, and discover the hidden inhabitants of each combination. The game will embark in a story of ecology, understanding how resources are needed to unlock new configurations and allow prosperous neighborhoods. You will need to avoid the decay of your city block by making sure each unit doesn’t run out of resources.”
As seen from the images, a modular system of building and site elements can be arrayed in a variety of configurations. Rather than just compositional, the inputs and outputs of each must be in alignment to create good relationships, as well as avoid negative interactions.
The complexity offers a glimpse into the delicate balance of urban ecology and systems in terms of optimization of resources… making it part ecology, part building systems science. As noted on the site: “Each Block you create has Inputs and Outputs. For Example, a tree might need water to create oxygen, and a shop might need consumers to create money. By understanding how each block is dependent on other blocks, you can create a productive network. Make sure to optimize your production and generate abundant resources. The game has 20+ resources that are specific to every block, so the amount of relations are enormous!”
Once in motion, the interplay between blocks starts to create synergies or begin to decay, so fine-tuning iterations and removing blocks before they create a chain reaction that influences the rest of the City. The scalability of the system lends itself to small experimentation and different game play modes allow for free play (Sandbox) or more structured challenges and puzzles.
While any game or simulation is a necessary abstraction of the true complexity of interactions, I’m struck by the simplicity of design with a lot of hidden web of interactions, plus the aesthetics of the game are engaging. I am looking forward to giving it a go and seeing how it works in action. Early access is available on Steam, and you can find out more info via this video:
A cool use of art to activate some overpasses in San Jose, California by Seattle based artist Dan Corson. The first is called ‘Sensing WATER‘ which projects lighting on the underpass based on weather conditions. From the site:
Sensing WATER is a weather-responding and interactive artwork utilizing light and paint to define a major downtown gateway in San Jose CA. The project is composed of 2 elements, the massive painted sloped wall that abstractly references flowing water, and the overhead evening lighting that illuminates with rippling patterns of light the underpass of I-87. The project uses real-time NOAA weather data to compose different patterns of light on the ceiling. (e.g.: 0-5mph winds vs thunderstorms). The projected light maintains a similar palate to the painted sloped wall, yet becomes dynamic depending on the weather.
The use of real time sensing to activate the space, which sits atop the Guadalupe River. Corson was “… curious to link both the awareness of water issues to the new focus of the high tech industry through the use of dynamic illumination.”
Another take on the underpass is ‘Sensing YOU‘, which is more interactive, allowing users to control the patterns with an app/game from their cellphones. The goal in this case, like above, is also to “link technology and nature in this urban landscape sitting over the Guadalupe River- at the heart of Silicon Valley.” Some more info:
“Sensing YOU is an interactive artwork utilizing light and paint to define a major downtown gateway in San Jose CA. The installation is defined by over 1000 painted circles and 81 individually controlled illuminated rings that play a variety of patterns and low-resolution mapped video over the ceiling surface of the I-87 highway underpass. The patterns are activated by pedestrians and bicyclists moving through the space- setting off pre-programmed sequences.”
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I have had an on-going interest in game design as a medium, but also in relation to the potential synergistic overlaps between the technology/techniques with landscape architecture and urbanism practice. The most obvious connection has to do with visual representation, as the ability to create engaging site and building environments is clearly , but there are some interesting opportunities for educational tools, user experience, ecological and urban modeling, scenario building, and iterative design.
Growing up with gaming, a trio of interactions early in college defined the concept and hooked me into the potential in an interesting way – even 20+ years ago. The first was a game my sister and i were obsessed with, Myst. Building on the word-based computer games from the 80’s like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, Myst came out in 1991 and provided a graphical environment (that at the time was incredible) along with a mystery and things that needed to be observed and unlocked.
The interactivity and lack of linear timeline, which included puzzles and problem solving was great for some obsessive teens, but showed that games didn’t have to be either violent or proscriptive. The follow-up Riven in 1997 had better graphics and another story.
The second was for a urban planning class, we were giving a quarter long Sim City game simulation and discussed progress in class, as a way to explore ideas. Those of the certain age will appreciate the 2D top down version of Sim City, as we were doing this initially in 1993:
The scenarios allowed us to employ principles of urban simulation, think through the concepts, and then starting the clock and see how things evolved, or more likely devolved. To use this for class was transformative. The graphics have come a long way, indeed, since then, as this recent Sim City graphic below shows, with the more prototypical 3D Axonometric we think of with the game.
The technology seems akin now to some of the less game and more GIS specific tools for scenario-building in programs like ESRI’s City Engine (more on that that and GeoDesign here). On the flip side of the Sim City was geeky kid favorite Doom, the immersive and ultraviolent 3D game that literally and figuratively blew away gamers at the time.
In addition to an addictive, networked game play, there was an added feature of a back end tool to create worlds Doom Builder – which paired a bit of Dungeons and Dragons graph paper mapping with rudimentary 3D graphic world creation. The difference of course is, once done with the creation, you could play your creation.
THE SOPHISTICATED BEAUTY OF GAMES
It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a medium for geek culture with little relevance to the lofty ambitions of the architecture/urbanism endeavor. But there’s a lot more to it that shooting thing and bloddy violence. As shown above, there’s potential for wonder and problem solving, urban planning education, world building, and yes, lots of bloody violence. Guess it’s a good metaphor for life, right?
But, the ubiquity and size of gaming culture goes beyond a few teen to twenty-somethings playing violent FPS games. The size of the industry is worth billions. And that revenue is diverse. The demographic for the prototypical first person shooter is probably more focused, but there are men & women, young and old, across races that participate in some what in gaming culture.
The few recent games that have blown me away recently provide some context. First, the simplicity and beauty of Monument Valley – as probably first seen on House of Cards, which in addition to fictional presidents, appeals to designers and architects (especially those with a fondness for Escher), with atmospheric graphics and more literally puzzles to solve. The games are challenging enough to engage but not so hard as to frustrate. It’s a lot of magic.
Shifting gears to more modern FPS games, one of the first games i discovered in recent years was Bioshock Infinite, a much hyped and controversial game that wove through a fictional universe of a floating city of Columbia on a quest of sorts. Atmospheric and with a great, detailed backstory, the legend that the game exists within is compelling. The graphics complements the narrative with quasi-realism and a fuzzy, dream like quality.
The predecessor Bioshock also had an amazingly creative environment, which in converse to Columbia City was the underwater city of Rapture lending to a more moody and claustrophobic emotional state.
Both of the Bioshock games are, as well, incredibly violent, which takes away somewhat from the exploration and appreciation of scenery, but makes for some excitement.
A beautiful game in terms of the subtle environment is the graphic but non-shooting murder mystery, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The player wanders through a landscape and abandoned town to find clues and unlock the secret of what happened. It’s emotional and you feel it, the scenery and soundscape lending to the drama.
As images, these don’t do justice to the feeling you get from these environments, which have subtle motion and great mixing of ambient sounds. For anyone new or interested in gaming, who wants to experience what a well crafted, non-shooter, modern game can be, this would be a good one. I included a video so you can see the experience:
For me it’s not a stretch to jump from these narrative stories to having the ability to explore a project site or potential design. I see the above image of the rail tracks, and immediately it evokes a simulation of exploring the High Line, both before and after construction. And not just exploring, but interacting, seeing motion and complexity. With simple visual cues This game evokes that feeling.
Finally, a more recent game released in installments is Life is Strange, which follows a third person graphic adventure of a teenage girl in an odd Oregon town. She is able to unlock events by rewinding time, which allows you to make different decisions and see how that impacts outcomes.
Check out here for more on the plotline, but the graphics again reinforce the mood. It also offers a slighly different game interaction, with a sketchy white line graphic that appears when something is of note either on the object or as subtle cues. I also love in this case there’s a proto-realism – it’s got a tinge of cartoon to it, but is also brilliant at capturing mood and the mundane.
The sophistication of these games in terms of environments, aesthetics, and narrative draw you in. There’s not a feeling of immersion, although i’d love to see some of the graphics in a VR rig, but your are 100% immersed in both the story, and, when it doesn’t get in the way, the graphical interface, also known as the HUD, or human user interface. It’s a big deal, this interface, and millions have probably been spent on making it seamless. While specialized controls and rigs are used, they are available to a few. For most, there’s simple touch or mouse input, whereas the line between the user and environment is very distinct.
A game, of course, is a constructed world with a narrative already baked in. And there are likely many more examples out there that make the point that games can be both defined broadly and offer a very close connection to the world building of landscape architecture and urbanism. While it’s possible to offer free movement and discovery in these games, in the end there’s a series of tasks, events, actions required to move from start to finish. It’d be a dull game indeed where you just walked around in an environment with no purpose.
That said, the approach may be different, and the way the environments are used may also vary, but the fact is that these games give visual examples 1) constructed worlds, 2) the ability to freely explore these worlds, 3) animated objects that also exist in these worlds, and 4) a measure of emotion and mood that is derived from real environments and landscapes. In this way, they become similar to visualization in a design medium. Thinking of this less as a narrative
There are many tools out there focused on game development, all of which blend tools for creating environments, coding behaviors, and developing user interface. The one I’ve spent the most amount of time working with is Unreal Engine, which is amazingly, now a free to use suite of tools (with a royalty structure set up to capture revenue). An example of the tool in an architectural setting, is the Unreal Paris, a video tour that came out a year ago, showing a highly photorealistic scene done in Unreal Engine, which shows the level of detail that is typically available in static rendering now being employed in a space that is both fully 3d and fully interactive.
It’s a bigger stretch to expand this beyond the enclosed architectural space, and delve into the landscape. The complexity of materials and motions in the entire apartment is probably less than a single tree, thus, to me, this is the holy grail. The seemingly large gap between architectural rendering and landscape is immense. However, this is changing. To see the potential of the technology, Epic Games did a very impressive video on their ‘Kite Demo’ seen below.
It’s a really nice animation, akin to a Pixar movie, with some stunning visuals. The part that’s not evident is that this environment is a fully realized world, which you could right now, dive into and be able to explore every square inch, through multiple platforms from game systems and virtual reality rigs. The concept that it’s not just a static, linear progression, but an actual, virtual world, is the wow moment. Because, as a landscape, while not perfect, it’s head and shoulders about anything i’ve seen in 3D landscape architectural visualization. The level of detail and size of this world gives you a taste of the potential for landscape to be transformed by these tools.
While the demo itself is impressive, if you want to dig into the specifics, there’s a longer demo from GDC 2015 that goes in-depth in some of the technology uses to create the demo assets and put them all together. It’s geeky, it’s technical, and it’s amazing.
As shown, there’s a strong visual component to this type of work that fits nicely into landscape architecture production, but it’s interesting to think of some uses that expand the notion and potential for exploration and movement. The potential for specificity, as you see with the second more detailed video, isn’t relegated to a generic library of materials, but can be augmented with a range of scanning and capture tools, such as detailed photogrammetry that yields highly realistic assets.
There’s a healthy competition between game engines, with Unity competing with Unreal Engine for pros and amateurs alike, with companies adapting or creating their own engines to fit, and a range of other free and adaptable tools based on what you like and your goals. As i mentioned, i spent time with Unreal Engine mostly, but all of them have pros and cons (in terms of horsepower, learning curves, etc) – and technology is vital to this as i found out, as i could do some basic world creation and programming, but soon found my older desktop puttering with the high graphic demands. Be forewarned, this doesn’t just open up on your current machine and go, there’s potentially an investment of time (in training) and resources (in techology) to fully unlock the potential.
The beauty of all of these systems (which are all similar in features with some variations) isn’t just the end result. The high graphic quality and immersive end result that is nimble enough to run in real time is seen in the game examples above. The tools are very sophisticated, with the ability to import and manipulate 3d assets from other worlds, create new assets, locate and building ‘levels’ in game parlance. With libraries of elements and compatibility with other programs like Maya, Mudbox, etc. (SketchUp is pretty tough to get to work though).
The back-end is where there’s a lot of beauty, with the scripting language and programming adding the dimension of interactivity to the environments. As you see below, the Unreal Engine uses a feature called Blueprint, which is a scripting environment that is based on automation of the C++ code, and is useful for non-programmers to be able to literally connect the dots on to create triggers, interactions, events, and other ‘life’ to the scenes. At a simplest level, you can take an object and give it action, such as the ability to turn on a light when a character gets within a certain distance, or to trigger sounds, or have other character’s act. Any action can be scripted in a non-linear, interactive way to create sophisticated environments.
And the specific elements for rigging characters, which can be added as main characters, either people that you can interact with, or imbuing more lively entourage into a scene.
Admittedly there’s some lag in the quality of these, as we’re far from life-life, but they are much improved. Call it more Pixar than reality but with a lot of interesting gestures, facial controls, and the ability for lifelike actions.
In relation to landscape, another worth discussing is Speedtree, who creates cross platform vegetation for gaming as well as film (hell, they just won an Oscar!). The tools allow customization of every aspect of trees, both in off the shelf libraries (which i’ve used) and a custom editor to create any type of vegetation (which I haven’t used, but is compelling). Gone are the days of cartoony vegetation, and the sophistication of the algorithms allow these to render in high quality and even incorporate wind, lead drop, and more w/o draining graphic resources (as also discussed above in the Unreal GDC video), something that high poly count vegetation seems to persistently be problematic.
Jumping out a scale to the overall terrain, the ability to create specific context is key to creation of these realistic environments. One that i used a bit is World Machine, a terrain modelling program that allows you to import topography from existing digital elevation models (DEMs) as well as to create custom features, and integrate geologic phenomena such as slides, erosion from wind and water, and other features.
These help by providing distant terrain that interacts with the other more close up assets along with sophisticated ‘level of detail’ or LOD settings that provide realistic close up information, including motion, then slowly stepping down resolution in levels, as the view gets further away. The addition of atmosphere and really amazing lighting tools, adds to the perspective focusing and gives depth as well as life to scenes. This allows for efficient use of computing resources to but the action where its most needed. The results are simple but stunning.
Another one i that i learned about more recently is Lumion, which we use at my office. I’ve seen some of the renderings but haven’t dove into using it myself, but it seems to integrate with much of what other game engines do, and perhaps more seamlessly. It is based on game engine technology, but has the added advantage of being focused on architectural visualization with tools to integrate directly with industry standard Revit.
A short video shows how it works.
And some of the results:
So as you seen, even in this short snapshot, there are a ton of resources, and many more i don’t know about of haven’t covered. This brain dump of a lot of ideas that definitely could use more exploration, but i wanted to close out the thought by giving some context on why i think all this, geekery aside, matters. The takeaway is that there is a ton of potential to disrupt and expand practice, if we can expand methods of visualization and adopt some of these techniques. On that note, a few thoughts that are worth further exploration:
Immersive technology, utilizing controller and VR rigs to allow clients and users to experience the design in a number of ways, while also allowing designers opportunities to fine-tune spatial relationships and test environments.
Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
Topical games to create better understanding of system interactions and engage larger populations, such as stormwater, infrastructure, climate change.
Have thoughts and other examples and stories, or know of folks in the industry working and using these tools? Let me know.
A fine addition to the ranks of landscape architecture journals that recently emerged is LA+, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, from the Penn. From the website, the journal is billed as the “…the first truly interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. Within its pages you will hear not only from designers, but also from historians, artists, lawyers, psychologists, ecologists, planners, scientists, philosophers, and many more besides. Our aim at LA+ is to reveal connections and build collaborations between landscape architecture and other disciplines by exploring each issue’s theme from multiple perspectives.”
Interest piqued. And they were nice enough to send me a copy of their inaugural issue, WILD which “…explores the concept of WILD and its role in design, large-scale habitat and species conservation, scientific research, the human psyche, and aesthetics.”
Impressively curated and designed, this is a journal you keep around in your library long-term, for a follow-up read or to peruse the beautiful imagery. As an introduction on the website, a short thesis on issue one:
“Wildness has long occupied a romantic and somewhat dormant position in the discussion of landscape theory and practice. However, current initiatives aiming to “rewild” rural, urban, and suburban environments attest to its renewed significance. It is no longer just a question of saving or protecting wilderness, but one of how we can design novel ecosystems that stimulate the emergence of new forms of biological and cultural diversity.”
The list of contributors is massive, and the breadth of topics ranges from the general, such as Mick Abbott’s ‘Practice of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture’, to the global, such as Richard Weller’s ‘World P-ark’, to the site-specific, like Mousseau & Moller’s ‘Landscape-Scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters.” I offered to do a review of the issue, and realized quickly that it was no simple task due to the amount of material contained within (which alas, i’m still reading with much enjoyment).
Thus, it is far more that can be elaborated on in terms of full reporting on every essay. For that, order a copy and enjoy the density of information. Here’s a few snippets and thoughts of my own, in relation to landscape architecture practice and how the explorations of this concept seen through the interdisciplinary lens.
The concept of the wild is present in our conception of landscape architecture practice at many scales. The vision of a global park (or Ark) as Richard Weller discusses, provides the context for connected ecological corridors that connect globally across countries and continents, providing a shared concept of our earth that hopefully transcends borders. As mentioned, a north/south and east/west route “… could catalyze global cooperation and environmental investment to help augment connections between fragments along the way.” (16)
To look at the controversial and compelling issue of rewilding, as Adela Park does, is to investigate our core relationships about native-ness, genetic engineering, and our role in not just preserving, and enhancing but in recreating extinct systems as well as creating new natural systems. The ability to connect or open up large swaths of land as wild spaces are tame in comparison to global examples like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and the Pleistocene Park in Siberia, both of which plan the creation of lost landscapes left in a state of unmanagement. As mentioned, “…landscapes such as Oostvaardersplassen – created almost entirely by scientists – embody the very indeterminacy and self-organizational potential that has been so much a part of recent landscape architecture discourse. “ (8)
The topic of wildlife and habitat is at play throughout, with the synergistic and conflicted relationships between humans and animals accentuated in multiple ways. We want interaction with nature at a distance, such as the artistic wildlife viewing structure, the Reindeer Pavilion covered in Claire Fellman in ‘Watching Wild’. We also want interaction through consumption as investigated in ‘The Taste of the New Wild’ by Orkan Telhan.
A popular strategy to engage the wild is through provision of wildlife crossings of busy roadways . as outlined by Nina-Marie Lister in ‘Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity,’ a movement growing in popularity worldwide and the knowledge of interdisciplinary approaches to what works is shaping the design of these systems.
The ability to predict and proactively engage with the ‘wild’ in this context, offers a new area of interest for designers and integrated teams. As Lister mentions:
“By redesigning the road for two clients – animal and human – wildlife crossing infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to communicate both the problem and the solution to the public. In this endeavor, landscape architecture has a significant new niche and a potent role role in designing safer roads with new infrastructures that are visible and legible, even beautiful. Widespread deployment of this new typology of landscape infrastructure may ultimately change the way we move and live, and with this, reconnect landscapes and habitats through inspired design.” (50)
A specific topic of interest in our northwest fire season, it was interesting to read Steve Pyne’s essay ‘Firescaping’, which provides a meditation on fire as part of our ongoing landscape, and how to think differently about our relationship to fire, and the implications and opportunities of this in the context of global climate change.
As he mentions, “We can protect our built landscape where it abuts the wild… After all, our cities used to burn as often as their surroundings; now they don’t. The same methods, adapted, can work along the fractal frontier of exurban settlement.” (97) With much of the west currently burning, the concept of wild does hit home with multiple meanings – directly related to design and management of landscapes.
As I mentioned, lots more content to devour, thus a full accounting of the contents of the first issue of LA+ would occupy multiple posts. Look out for some follow-up on some topics of interest expanding upon these and other themes, and if you’re interested, submit your work in their most recent call for papers.
And highly recommended to get a subscription to this to journal for topical, integrated ideas that shape the fabric of landscape architecture and urbanism.
“Nature” or nature? Does natural geography still mater much to today’s city? What is the current relationship between our conception of nature and its role in urban life? Which nature is dominating now; the pure or the second one_- man made nature? During my current stay in Rotterdam, I have heard these questions widely discussed at the 6th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), examining the theme “Urban by Nature“. I found a lot of answers to them in the most recent issue of the Rotterdam- based magazine MONU: #20 – “Geographical Urbanism”
The first answer appeared to me as soon as I looked at the magazine’s cover. I got the impression that the visual representation of the issue was picked out deliberately by the magazine’s editors with the purpose of introducing the topic of “Geographical Urbanism”. The picture from the contribution entitled “Seduction and Fear” of the photographer Edward Burtynsky obviously represents the dialogue between human and nature (natural geography and human made geography). On one hand I understood the repetitive military planes with their covered windscreens as a metaphor of the uncountable faceless buildings that urbanize nature all over the planet while, on the other hand, that the natural geography of our world is manipulated dramatically by the brutal invasion of humans.
If we look at the topic from an historical perspective, first I would highlight the article entitled “The Geography of Geology” by Sean Burkholder and Bradford Watson. This particular story explains how the city of Buttle in Montana was formed by geology (mining claims), and reminds us about the traditional dependency between cities and natural geography. However, Nikos Katsikis shows in his article “On the Geographical Organization of World Urbanization” how the meaning of physical geography has been almost completely reversed since the early 19th Century. As an example of this, in his article “Niagara waterfall” Kees Lokman introduces man made geography as a significant success: artificial geography becomes a mass tourism attraction point which is as well known as the Seven World Wonders are.
While I continued reading the magazine I tried to find out what natural geography can still mean today to cities in a globalized world, in which they are becoming more and more influenced by networks. I noticed that some articles in the magazine complemented each other on this topic, and it intrigued me even more to read further. One contribution entitled “Urbanism after Geography: The Network is Context” that was written by Clarle Lyster shows, for example, that cities can no longer be understood merely as locations at particular places. After the network has become the context, replacing natural geography, global networks (from social media to fast track shipping, from fiber-optic communication to high speed travel) have become responsible for the shift in the longstanding relationship between geography and urban development. Such a network is, for example, created by the low cost airline Ryan Air and its airports within 100km distance of major cities. Places no longer seem to be defined by geographic coordinates, but more by communicational axes that are made possible through the network.
In relation to this, I found a completely different opinion from the Dutch architectural historian, critic and curator Bart Lootsma, in his interview entitled “Beyond Branding”, in which he emphasizes about the fact that due to the growing opportunities to work from home thanks to the Internet, and people’s increasing independency to choose their living locations in relation to particular geographical aspects, such as localization or climate conditions, natural geography is actually becoming more important.
These were only a few aspects from MONU magazine’s new issue. While reading it I felt like traveling, such as Edward Burtynsky does while taking photographs of urban phenomena: from Honolulu to Paris; Mexico or Qinto; from Sydney to the “unknown” Charleroi; or even to Innsbruck’s famous panorama of the Nordkette mountains. I could continue listing up things that you can find in the magazine forever, because it seems endless and full of serious analytical essays and researches that invite you to the world of urbanism. MONU has showed once again to be a great platform to provide fresh ideas and answers to challenging topics.
Gabriele Baleisyte is a student of Architecture Theory and History. Focus on new urban theories, strategies and research methods in both analytical and experimental ways. Currently she is doing an internship in a Rotterdam- based architecture office.
Who better to invoke with this discussion than William H. Whyte, the nerd’s nerd of urbanism research whose books have influenced designers and planners for decades. By using direct observation methods, and as showcased in his writings and films, video of these spaces, he was able to provide specific research, with a direct connection to practice. “Whyte’s research programme, conducted with stopwatches, time-lapse videography, and lots of simple paper charts, was a spectacular success. Based on his findings, he made a series of simple and easily implemented recommendations that the city soon codified into its municipal construction codes.”
It’s interesting with the technology and ubiquity of video in our lives that there aren’t more modern adaptations of Whyte’s work (although Jan Gehl is probably most visible in this realm). As mentioned, “Whyte’s epiphany was that the way to answer important questions about how to build a commodious and psychologically healthy city lay in careful observation, collection of data and the creative ability to lay aside preconceptions and view a streetscape with a “beginner mind”.
“What has changed dramatically is the set of tools that are available to those who would understand the detailed workings of the urban realm. Now we can go well beyond simple observations of the overt behaviour of city dwellers. We can look inside the bodies and minds of those who inhabit urban spaces. We can measure their gaze, their beating hearts, and the state of their autonomic nervous systems as they react to arousing and stressful events.
The use of physical data rather than speculation is key, and with GPS tracking, sophisticated modeling, portable biofeedback, video, audio and spatial imaging, 3D scanning and other data-driven urban solutions seeming all the rage, through universities and large corporations and focus on urbanization. Tie this to 3D GIS and simulations of city spaces or districts, and it would allow us to develop some pretty sophisticated models of actual behavior and test virtual spaces and conditions. Using Whyte’s baseline methodology with an infusion of technology, we could provide amazing insights on space configuration, wayfinding, urban form, public health, security, and much more. As Colin Ellard mentions in the artcle:
“We also need theory and experiment. For a truly scientific approach to the problem of the city, we need to be able to test hypotheses, and compare alternative urban realities. But how can we do this when our subject matter consists of vast constructions of concrete, glass and metal? We can’t tear down and rearrange city blocks to see what works. In tandem with our arsenal of tools for measurements, we need a way to build hypothetical city spaces. How do we develop an experimental science of urban design?”
His example from folks at research laboratory for immersive virtual environments (Relive) at the University of Waterloo provide examples of new technologies in use. “Participants are placed into highly immersive simulations of city spaces using sophisticated head-mounted displays and precise motion tracking. They are able to walk freely through photo-realistic simulations of urban spaces that are replete with depth, colour, and motion.” The full video here shows some quick renders of a potential study, using immersive technology (Virtual Reality) people can interact with in simulation of a range of environments. One example shows a somewhat monotonous cityscape/street pattern.
Or a vegetated forest area, both of which have sort of a video-game quality of First-Person Shooters or the ethereal wanderings of the old Myst series, but could also allow for rapid prototyping of parks, open spaces, nature trails, and urban plazas. As mentioned this sort of 3D visualization isn’t new, but perhaps its use in urban space analysis is a new avenue for technologies.
“What is new is the capability and will to explore our reactions to such simulations at a fine-grained level of analysis using sophisticated methods of data collection and analysis. Using such methods, we can explore the behaviour of a visitor to a virtual urban setting whose design, because it is built only of pixels, is entirely under our control and can be arranged and rearranged with a few keystrokes on a computer.
There’s also the ability to simulate already existing real world spaces, such as Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing (below), “one of the busiest and most chaotic pedestrian junctions in the world.” The combination of real space in an experimental setting allows us to control conditions and focus on specific brain/space interactions.
The question of course, is, how closely the data or simulation need to match the real conditions in order to get good feedback from users? But does the rendering of a barren, depopulated Shibuya station really simulate the conditions of this crowded shopping street.
How much wayfining is the physical environmental cues, versus going with the flow of the other pedestrians, being carried along with the masses of urbanity at work. I’m curious if these videos do have a sort of interactive quality (activated with traffic, pedestrians, bicycles, sounds (or even smell and tactile jostling) – and whether some of the aforementioned video- game technology could be applied to urbanism.
Either way, there are a lot of new options, using tried and true techniques of observation, augmented with technology, to provide data on existing spaces, prototype and test new spaces or changes, and to increase our understanding of how to design cities for multiple uses with lots of density. The prospects are exciting.