• Julian Raxworthy

BOOK REVIEW(S): The discourse of the digital in contemporary landscape architecture

Updated: Jul 20, 2019



This is a draft of my essay "The discourse of the digital in contemporary landscape architecture." published in the Journal of Landscape Architecture, (volume 12, no 2) in 2017.

Introduction

During the last 20 years a body of thought has emerged within the broad sphere of architectural design and its siblings that I have called “the process discourse”,[1] a switch in design emphasis from form to process characterizes the process discourse. In landscape architecture the most prominent process discourse has been “landscape urbanism”,[2] while in architecture it is the “parametric” which has become popularized by the work of Patrick Schumacher at Zaha Hadid Architects.[3] This 20 year transition in landscape architecture has been accompanied by a speculative mythology, starting with the mappings of McHarg, mowing onto the generation of the OMA design for Parc de la Villette. [4] A key part of this mythology has been the potential to treat the conventions of the map not as neutral or descriptive but speculative, changing the map from an object, as noun, to map as the result of process, as verb.[5] The computer, dislocating the self-consciousness implicit in representation, has naturalized the quasi-scientific process discourse, rendering representation to “work flow”, and site to “model” and “simulation”, nonetheless with some beautiful images in-between.


Reading the process discourse in landscape architecture via its inherent medium, the computer, is the basis of this “extended book review”, which examines the chronology and lineage of 7 books and journals over the last 5 years to reveal changes in digital discourse in landscape architecture. The sections in the review correspond to changes in this discourse, from Workflow which is about making of digital images, to Model which is about designing site inside the computer, to Simulation where the model dislocates site, ending in Aesthetics, where finally the image from the simulation has become naturalized. All the books share the common characteristic of using case studies or exemplar projects and images to make their points.[6]


Workflow

Cantrell, B. and W. Michaels (2014). Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design. New Jersey, Wiley.

Amoroso, N. (2015). Representing Landscapes: Digital. Abingdon, Routledge.


The first two books in this review are both concerned about representation in some form, specifically digital “drawing”. Cantrell and Michaels’ is the earliest book on digital landscape architecture from 2010,[7] aimed at translating existing conventions of drawing into the digital sphere by “pulling from the methods of analogue representation and applying these concepts to digital media”,[8] where digital drawing was still drawing nonetheless. That this book came before the others is not simply about chronology but also approach, since it is about how to “do” the digital in landscape architecture, rather than “ask about” it.


Cantrell & Michael’s book introduces the term “workflow” to describe the sequence of digital techniques to produce different types of drawing, while in her edited book Amoroso uses “workflow” as drawing type to organize the book. While Cantrell and Michael’s workflows emulate analogue drawing types, Amoroso’s book features relatively new types that have emerged “post-“Agency of Mapping””, like “Diagram”, “Axonometric” and “Mapping”, that are ubiquitous in the academy if not yet in practice.


In focusing on workflow as technique, Cantrell and Michaels’ generic software tool descriptions gain valuable applicability for landscape, with tips like how to use selection tools to work with blurry trees welcome. Nonetheless there are not enough of these discipline specific examples to distinguish Cantrell and Michaels book from a generic software manual illustrated with landscape.

Workflow as a category anticipates what will be done in design practice, potentially limiting it by subsuming the question “what is the right type of drawing for this idea?” to the proposition that the discipline is in fact defined by its workflow. That this early book with Cantrell as a co-author was constraining digital practice to the norms of the analogue seems positively nostalgic compared to what would follow in his book with Holzman, which I discuss later in “Simulation”.

In Amoroso’s edited book, one of the few in the review providing any critical commentary about representation, Kullman cautions “being absorbed in the machine risks adopting a myopic point of view and associated loss of context and scale”, advocating instead that the designer must remember to “lean in… to periodically step back, view the work as a whole, and recalibrate ones sense of scale”, an advantage, he argues, of “analogue representations [that] exist on the drawing board at the same immutable scale for the duration of their creation”.[9]

Discussing one of these newer types, Melson regards mapping as a way of “refining the site”, which generates a “relationship with place”, though he also notes that “the process of mapping must be understood in light of its fundamental selective and subjective process of formation”.[10] A contradiction here is his interest in “the first intuitive response to the site” as subjectivity and the objectivity inherent in the use of data in mapping. Site specificity is vital to landscape architecture, and while digital tools are increasingly accurate in capturing the landscape in geomatic terms, this accuracy can become a distancing mechanism from the site, as I shall discuss later in simulation.


The term “workflow” would once have been called “design”, and workflow hints at the increasing scientism in the process discourse, demonstrated in Hansen’s suggestion from Amoroso’s volume that “both maps and diagrams are after simply one thing: the mapping of information to visuals”.[11] Describing the production of representations as “visualizing” data provides a scientific certainty that is elevated by the use of the computer, apparently an objective instrument. Representation on the other hand suggests a critical, subjective distance between the idea and its presentation, through the “re” in its title.

Model

Walliss, J. and H. Rahmann (2016). Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies. London, Routledge.


Of all the titles discussed in this review Walliss and Rahmann’s is the most significant because it demonstrates a transition that the essays in Amoroso’s volume hinted at: digital landscape architecture as a new practicing landscape architecture, rather than as a novelty. Moving beyond representation, indeed consciously rejecting it, the six sections of Walliss and Rahman’s book change the emphasis from the digital emulation of “conventional” (a word they use pejoratively throughout) drawn practice that characterized “workflow”, to one where the drawing is a by-product (if there even is one) of an otherwise autonomous and entirely digital process internal to the computer.


While BIM (Building Information Modelling, covered in chapter 5 on “collaboration”) has the digital model at its heart, the idea of the “model” is the core any digital practice after “workflow”, both in this book as well as for the remaining books in this review. While Wallis and Rahmann’s book is not organized chronologically, Chapter 1, “Topographic Surface” recognises that topographic modelling has had the longest running use of digital technology in landscape architecture, since it was a mechanism of dealing with the non-Euclidian nature of landscape surface.[12] The history of the digital in architecture is beautifully represented at the start book in a diagram that shows the evolution of digital thinking, practice, practitioners and a range of other indices as a history of the recent past, discussed at the start of each chapter, and comprises some of the most interesting research in the book.


Chapter 2, “Performative Systems”, demonstrates the change in approach to the model allowed through a transformation from representing a design to visualising a process of generation. Called “parametric”, the Grasshopper plug into the NURB (Non-Uniform-Rational-B-Spline) modeling application Rhinoceros allows a model to be generated through parameters, modified through changes in those parameters and the calibration of inputs.[13] This fundamental change in modelling has allowed the digital modeller to avoid having to make and remake meshes, working instead dynamically with form. Like the scientism I have already mentioned, the term “performative” converges the identification of constraints with the production of form.[14] This criticism does not denigrate the fundamental change in to the landscape design process, allowing greater precision and, yes, “performance”, but rather acknowledges the Modernist roots of such claims.


Moving from physical “terrain” to the ephemeral, chapter 3 “Simulating Systems”, discusses landscape processes that both affect and affected by the physical. Since the Gaia hypothesis and its proof – climate change – the interaction between previously separated spheres of science has become evident, and over the same period, idea of landscape too has changed the physical or aesthetic to one where the landscape is seen as shaped by systems and landscape architecture as the shaper of those systems. Such systems are difficult to represent and the virtual world of the computer has given them a tangibility they can never really have, parametric tools like Grasshopper allowing for a modelling of the invisible. As I will argue in the next section though, there is fine line that must be treaded carefully, a balance determined by the role of the model, either as either a simulation of the world, but ultimately a world in itself, or as a real time representation of the world and tool to interact with it. In chapter 3 I found the case study project by Mosbach which focussed on atmosphere and microclimate the most exciting demonstration of the potential of these approaches because it treated the technology that created effects as a feature to be understood in design terms, not simply as ambiance.


While the model remains at the core, the rest of the book is explicitly engaged with professional practice, the final two chapters, on fabrication and project delivery respectively are very important because they move the discourse of the digital away from rhetorical claims about the “naturalness” of the digital, to ones where its practicality is most clear, ensuring the book a relevance both academically and in practice. While some of the claims in chapter 4 “Materiality and Fabrication” about the possibility to work with the “nature” of materials parametrically seem speculative at the moment (though interesting), digital fabrication is a reality that has become more and more accessible and mainstream as fabrication devices have become cheaper and more ubiquitous.[15] The ability to create one-off items for construction using first laser cutters, then CNC routers, 3D printers and now robots has been increasing over the last 20 years, a feature of what Spencer calls the “disavowal” of labour during neoliberalism where “everything is productive but nothing is laboured”.[16] Digital fabrication is the “promise” of the model: a unique, specific one off item, unconstrained by conventional commercial modules.


The final chapter entitled “Collaboration”, ostensibly deals with BIM, though its title reflects a tension in the landscape industry concerning the “B” in BIM: does it really work for landscape? After the Landscape Institute in the UK chose to discuss BIM in terms of its conceptual and delivery potentials and protocols rather than focussing on a specific software, such as Revit for example, BIM for landscape architecture has remained ambiguous both for landscape architecture and in this book. Seen in terms of collaboration, with a model shared by multiple consultants at the centre of the project, BIM does not seem that radically different to “X-REF-ing” in AutoCAD, from which it seems a natural evolution. While Vectorworks and others are also instituting BIM, talking about Revit directly would have allowed for an unpacking of the tool that would have been valuable and deeper for landscape architecture. Taking an family or type based approach, being prompted to think about levels and connections, how things are made is as revolutionary for landscape as it is for architecture, regardless of Revit to deal with plants. But perhaps most importantly, even subversively in support of my critique about the move away from representation, Revit renews the value of drawing conventions because it reveals them as vital to understand the digital model. We don’t draw sections just because we like drawing them: they tell us about level relations.


The arrival of Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies at this point in time is highly significant and useful because it is a statement of landscape architecture as “digital landscape architecture”, despite the books dislike of conventionality. However, for the same reasons, it will also be the most ephemeral because it is tied to a point in time – now – and will be replaced by later books that will be about “then”, like old software manuals. Nonetheless, for me as an antique digital user, it pulled together disparate strands that have re-energised my interest in the digital.


Response

Cantrell, B. and J. Holzman (2016). Responsive Landscapes: Strategies for Responsive Technologies in Landscape Architecture. London, Routledge.


After Wallis & Rachmann have established the digital as the “new normal” of landscape architecture, the remaining titles uncritically (though valuably) assume the model and operate within this normalized digital space as a body of theory, research and practice, though much is un-built, a factor which gives Landscape Architecture and Digital Technologies, with its focus on “real” projects, an edge of credibility.


Both Cantrell and Holzman’s Responsive Landscapes: Strategies for Responsive Technologies in Landscape Architecture and the edition of LA+ entitled “Simulations”, guest edited by Karen McLoskey and Keith VanDerSys use simulations of landscapes through models at their core, though in significantly different ways, which come down to the relationship between the “real” site and the “simulated” site. For the former (Cantrell & Holzman) the simulation is a part of the feedback process, an intermediate constantly tested against the real conditions in an action-reaction recursive loop, while for the latter (McLoskey and VanDerSys) discussing simulation autonomously is the question, which is why I discuss them in the next section, together with Innovations and Kerb 23.


The key quality that Cantrell and Holzman are searching for is a feedback cycle, or “responsiveness”, between the world and the model, where one affects the other in an endless loop. The recursive nature of this cycle demonstrates why the process discourse holds the work of the cybernetician Gregory Bateson in such high esteem.[17] Because the model is always being informed by the world through sensing and the simulation improved by reincorporating the results of the last actions, a process that will only improve as machine learning increases, the relationship with site (the REAL, or the “non-model”) is maintained.


Since both landscape processes and the computer operates in time, the model is a logical and exciting tool for investigating landscape, unlike, it must be acknowledged, the drawing. However the different speeds of the two (the landscape and the computer) make seductive action reaction model that Cantrell and Holzman are proposing practically difficult: while models and sensors in the computer operate in nano-seconds, and natural materials over 10’s of years for plants or millions for geology, human perception is in seconds, minutes, and if one is concentrating, hours. Creating a response from a model that is an not inanimate object being moved by a mechanism is difficult. This is a key reason why the case study projects in Cantrell and Holzman are effectively art installations. Creating a truly “responsive landscape” with normative landscape materials remains a challenge, even after Cantrell and Holzman’s valiant attempt. So long as the model is able to maintain a relationship with the world in real time, or close to it, these simulations bring a level of defensibility to decision making in landscape architecture that has never existed before, and mean that landscape architectural researchers ignore this technology at their peril. Cantrell’s work using simulations to test the potential effects of operations at the catchment level in disaster landscapes is an example of this.


Simulation

LA+ Simulation, Issue 4, 2016.

Kerb Digital Landscapes, Issue 23, 2015


While Cantrell and Holzman were committed to “closing the gap” between the simulation and the world, in the remaining titles, the model as simulation has been naturalized and is itself the focus. Nontheless, McLoskey and VanDerSys’s edition of LA+ includes writing by a series of writers who raise relevant questions about the relationship of simulations to the world even as they use simulations. The specificity of site must remain a key question in relation to site, so unsurprisingly, Christophe Girot, author of the seminal essay on site engagement “Four Trace Concepts of Landscape Architecture”,[18] cautions, with his co-author Philip Urech in their essay, that “as with any form of representation, mimesis through digital simulation will always remain a false show of sorts, far removed from the true depth, scope and physical substance of landscape in its entirety”.[19] However, despite their earlier clarification, Girot and Urech are ambiguous about where they sit on this tension, where the model can fluctuates between being a proxy for the world, where “the real [challenge] is the designers ability to frame reality within a model that can mimic a situation and be tested relative to specific simulation goals”,[20] or where the model or simulation “has gradually moved from mimicking reality toward an objective expression of reality”,[21] a world unto itself.


The idea that the digital is a world in itself is now unfashionable even as it is more pervasive than ever due to the naturalization that I am speaking of. During the 1990’s the Deleuzian scholar Brian Massumi made what I felt was a convincing argument that the virtual spaces created by the computer should not be treated as terrestrial, since the limits put on virtual models were a pretense, arguing that virtual worlds had different physics to Earth, rendering concepts like gravity meaningless.[22] This seemed like an exciting possibility for the antiquated period of “cyberspace” that has never materialized, platforms like Second Life (re-launching soon) simply mimicking the world, never getting to the kind of spaces that William Gibson described so vividly. Though always seeming interiors, cyberspace seemed to me a landscape.


Most simulation models utilized in the body of thinking in LA+Simulation and by the authors of Innovations and Kerb assume ideas from complexity theory, where pattern is “emergent” at a global scale from seemingly random data and interactions at a local level began to seem ordered at a global scale. This assumption produces a data aesthetic that would feature in the work of Gibson, or from Matrix. Rather than being seen as an aesthetic however, such flocking information displays are re-presenting nature to the degree that our idea of what nature looks like is changing. Davis, in Kerb 23 argues, that despite “the lure of a single computational environment for revealing and generating alternative landscape futures has never been stronger”, some caution with the certainty of this information is required because, in the language of Graham Harman of whom he is a fan “landscapes are not architecture, ships or music… [but are really] heterogeneous and unruly objects defined by conflict, change and difference, more than seamlessness”.[23] Davis is reminding us that while in the anthropocene all nature is effectively artificial and therefore the simulation has elevated value, the world, the original “hyper object”, in uncaring about them. Geoengineering is an example of the dangers of trusting a model, a simulation too much.


Conclusion

Anderson, J. R. and D. H. Ortega, Eds. (2016). Innovations in Landscape Architecture New York, Routledge.

Amoroso, N., Ed. (2016). Representing Landscapes: Hybrid. London, Routledge.

M'Closkey, K. and K. VanDerSys (2017). Dynamic Patterns: Visualizing Landscapes in a Digital Age. London, Routledge.


A comprehensive review of a topic like this book review has aimed to be requires some statement, or prediction of a way forward. Most obviously, and thankfully, the technology inclined researchers and designers will continue to develop ever more sophisticated and innovative tools and techniques, which is the welcome space offered both by Innovations in Landscape Architecture, and the ongoing series of Digital Landscape Architecture conferences, which have preceded much of the American writing that dominates this review.[24] The acknowledgement that contemporary digital landscape architecture has evolved from long running, if unsexy, GIS or Geodesign culture and research is absent from most of the volumes.


Apart from this significant research, the other area that I think needs to develop is reflexive critique and a theorization of implications and aesthetics that must accompany the maturation of digital landscape architecture. Having both shared an interest in change with the process discourse as well as being a critic of it in terms of ideas about representation and aesthetics, it is unsurprising that my suggestion and hope lies in this realm. Over the duration of the process discourse, representation has become passé as the qualities of simulations have come to be seen as empirical rather than aesthetic.


However, in reviewing these titles and developing the digital curricula of my home institution at the same time, my earlier interest in the digital has been renewed because I sense that the naturalism of the tool, that I have otherwise been critical of, now offers the potential for a less “partisan” use of these tools in different contexts. The deepening debate in LA+Simulation and in essay’s such as Davis’ in Kerb 23 show a desire to develop this critical dimension. Building on her essay on the topic in JoLA,[25] Karen McKlosky’s recently published book with her LA+ and PEG collaborator Keith VanDerSys Dynamic Patterns positions pattern as the rapprochement or pivot that can negotiate between empirical description of systems and aesthetics, an exciting proposition. Indeed, in architecture Sam Jacobs argues convincingly for a post-digital practice with an easier blend between analogue and digital technologies,[26] like Amoroso’s recent title of the same name.


Nonetheless, there has never been a reason to manufacture a breach between the subjective aspects of landscape tied to aesthetics and its objective description in science since a landscape project “comes from both directions” as Mosbach and Claramunt reminded us 20 years ago.[27] That landscape architecture has become digital landscape architecture is therefore to be welcomed, where digital tools allow us a better means to understand and work with the changing landscapes, now liberating our imaginations, rather than constraining them.

Notes

[1] I coined this term in my PhD dissertation Julian Raxworthy, "Novelty in the Entropic Landscape: Landscape Architecture, Gardening and Change" (University of Queensland, 2013).


[2] In particular here I am referring to landscape urbanism as taught by the Architectural Association in London, articulated in Mohsen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle, eds., Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape (London: AA Publications, 2003)., which I critiqued in depth in my book review when it was published (not my title…): Julian Raxworthy, "Landspace Landscapism," Architectural Review Australia, no. 088 (2004).

[3] Schumacher has created an entire theory of architecture out of his approach: Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2011).

[4] Corner used this lineage in James Corner, "The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention," in Mappings, ed. Denis E Cosgrove (London: Reaktion Books, 1999). Waldheim used approximately the same narrative 20 years later: Charles Waldheim, Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory (New Jersey: Princeton Architectural Prerss, 2016).

[5] I argue in my dissertation that it was post-modernism that allowed for this “opening up” of the map because of post-modernism’s self-conscious interest in representation, a self-consciousness which in turn I would argue has been lost since.

[6] Considering their use of the case study, one could argue that these titles should be more critical and self-conscious about their methodologies for the use of case study since they base the validity of their arguments on them.

[7] Bradley Cantrell and Wes Michaels, Digital Drawing for Landscape Architecture: Contemporary Techniques and Tools for Digital Representation in Site Design (New Jersey: Wiley, 2014). Now in its second edition, this book results from Cantrell and Michaels time at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where Cantrell’s later co-author Holzmann was their student. I am convinced that this period at LSU, under the leadership of Elizabeth Mossop, will be later regarded as very significant for the history of digital landscape architecture

[8] Ibid., 2.

[9] Karl Kullman, "Aerial Visions/Ground Control: The Art of Illustrative Plans and Bird's-Eye Views," in Representing Landscapes: Digital, ed. Nadia Amoroso (London: Routledge, 2015), 84.

[10] James Melsom, "Mapping and Refining the Site," ibid., 48.

[11] Andrea Hansen, "Datascapes: Maps and Diagrams as Landscape Agents," ibid. (Abingdon).

[12] For example, I taught AutoCAD release 12 and 3D Studio from 1994 at RMIT specifically for its opportunities to model topography, and it was because of its topological but artificial nature that Foreign Office Architects Yolohama Port Terminal competition inspired myself and many other early users of computer modeling applications in landscape architecture.

[13] Rhino in its beta state was originally a pull down menu in AutoCAD release 12 when I first used it.

[14] For example, I may choose to preference a particular parameter that may be related to a constraint or a landscape system, but that is still a choice amongst the myriad of OTHER factors that make up the landscape which may not be empirical but have just as much effect on landscape form. As we know from post-structuralist readings, to choose one thing is to ignore another.

[15] My first exposure to digital fabrication was working with the artist Peter Cole in 1994, when I interpolated his drawings into profiles in CAD that were used to drive a 2 axis laser cutter, which demonstrates how long digital fabrication has taken to become a mainstream technology.

[16] Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 76. Blooms

[17] Despite the esteem that Bateson is held by the process discourse, I am convinced that there are fundamental misunderstandings of him that mean that his work is celebrated for the very types of thinking that he was critical of in Gregory Bateson, Man and Nature: A Necessary Unity (London: Fontana, 1979). or what he wanted to call “Every Schoolboy Knows”.

[18] Christophe Girot, "Four Trace Concepts of Landscape Architecture," in Recovering Landscape : Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, ed. James Corner (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

[19] Christophe Girot and Philipp R.W. Urech, "Simulation as Model," LA+ Simulation, no. 4 (2016): 54.

[20] Ibid., 51.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002).

[23] Brian Davis, "Landscapes of Math," Kerb Digital Landscapes, no. 23 (2015): 43.

[24] A fantastic example of how exciting this research is can be seen in this paper: Ilmar Hurkxkens and Georg Munkel, "Speculative Precision: Combining Haptic Terrain Modelling with Real-Time Digital Analysis for Landscape Design" (paper presented at the Digital Landscape Architecture, ETH Zurich, 2014).

[25] Karen M'Closkey, "Synthetic Patterns: Fabricating Landscapes in the Age of 'Green'," Journal of Landscape Architecture 8, no. 1 (2013).

[26] Sam Jacob, "Architecture Enters the Age of Post-Digital Drawing," Metropolis, http://www.metropolismag.com/architecture/architecture-enters-age-post-digital-drawing/.

[27] Marc Claramunt and Catherine Mosbach, "Nature of a Landscape Project," Pages Paysages, no. 7 (1999).

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