Landscape is a Verb.

The Centre for Designed Ecology at the Department of Landscape supports a Reading Group that explores the multi-disciplinarity of designed ecology as a concept and a practice.
The group meets once a month from May to August in the Arts Tower, University of Sheffield to discuss a piece of writing, art, music, or design from the perspective of how ideas and understanding that may seem abstract can shape our thinking about what Landscape means, and how it engages in space; materially and emotionally.

When we consider Landscape as a verb as well as a noun, we see how many influences from art, science and sociology contribute to our creative experience.

In the first of our Centre for Designed Ecology reading group sessions we watched a lecture given by Jessica Rosenkrantz, of Nervous System (a group of designers based in Massachusetts). Her work has strong parallels with the work profiled by CfDE, but instead of working with plant communities, she uses computational design to mimic the way that nature builds, and creates products such as jewellery, footwear, and puzzles. For her, the process of dendritic growth in crystals is not just an opportunity to mimic the forms that she sees, but to actually study how simple organic forms can have dynamic properties and functions over time.

All images shown here are examples and illustrations of the work of Nervous System.

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 08.29.08

Whilst Jessica’s work opens exciting opportunities, it was interesting to learn that the processes of computational design and 3D printing that she is developing often need to tread a line between the hype and the reality: on the one hand, the processes allow for increased complexity and lower the barriers to creation, but on the other, Jessica recognises that the software and hardware needed to design this way are expensive to buy and difficult to use. In this way, one of the missions of her work is to think about how she can democratise design by making it accessible to a wider audience. One interesting way of doing this is to use her research not simply as an academic endeavour (alongside her work with Nervous System, she teaches at MIT), but to create products into which the public can input ideas or data, and then purchase these individual items. This provokes the question for landscape architects and ecological designers: how can we democratise our work? Architects such as Bauman Lyons Associates are developing systems such as Mass Bespoke , and plant nurseries offer seed mixes for pictorial meadows that can be tailored for specific site constraints.

And so it is time for landscape architects to ask an important question: what more can we do to involve people and communities in the places that we create and construct?

Throughout Jessica’s design work, a number of themes emerge, and foremost amongst these is her understanding of form as a process, seeing herself as a digital gardener.

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 08.28.35Instead of growing plants, however, she grows algorithms, and her work shows us how a simple idea in biology (such as phototropism in plants) can lead to complex ideas. Driving this process is her creative manipulation of systems, and subtle introductions of rules or constraints that result in the designed forms of her products, whether it is a kinematic dress, furniture or trainers.

This idea of undifferentiated growth leading to chaos has strong parallels with the ideas in Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s book, Planting in a post-wild world, where they describe stress as an asset: it is the stresses and constraints in an ecological system that lead to niche development, species richness, and beauty. For designers, this approach to working with dynamic systems offers many opportunities – but perhaps one barrier that we will have to acknowledge is this:  whether we are designing jewellery or landscapes, this richness and variety results in unexpected forms: our job may be to create parameters for variation but nonetheless, a leap of faith is required by both the client and the designer: we never know exactly what will result from our designs.

The next session considers the philosophy and influence of Brian Eno on art, design, and culture. Brian Eno on the Ecology of Culture 


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