Hayes Valley Redesign Project, UC Berkeley(2013)

On Approaching Design Education (the landscape architecture edition)

What I wish I knew when I started school

This year, I finished four years of design education at the University of California, Berkeley. I emerged with a B.A. in Landscape architecture and plan on practicing in my field of study for a few years before returning to graduate school for City Planning and Urban Design.

These statements seem so simple and yet, with diploma in hand, I was and still am in constant turmoil over what it means to be practicing landscape architecture.

“What is landscape architecture?” Wikipedia sums it up as “the design of outdoor public areas, landmarks, and structures to achieve environmental, social-behavioral, or aesthetic outcomes.” To put it even more concretely, we deal with everything outside of the building — including site planning, environmental restoration, resource management, and park design — in order to better a place for the environment and for people.

In reality, what I have just listed does not even begin to touch on the complexity of what landscape architects or designers do. It is a practice that involves aesthetics, engineering, environmental consciousness, and an acute knowledge of how to put all those things together in a way that will facilitate use by humans or animals. It seemed much more simple in school.

The Design Program Experience

What it is and what it does

So what is it like being in a design program? Or more accurately, what was my experience at UC Berkeley’s landscape architecture program like?

All the design studios I took could be summed as a series of design assignments. We would receive an open-ended prompt, such as: design a park on this plot of existing land in Hayes Valley. We would also receive a list of suggested park facilities and a timeline within which we were suggested to work.

We were allowed to run wild with our ideas. If we chose, we could have put in a Ferris wheel or replaced the existing land with pools of varying sizes if it suited the narrative we were trying to build.

Design school is all about “selling” your idea — no matter how bad in reality it actually would be. I have seen some gorgeous renderings that would never work for the specific time and place it is designed for due to irrevocable history and sometimes due to the physics of the earth. No big deal, really.

So why did students in design school create these marketable but unrealistic buildings when their job was to design objects and places that would hopefully be built someday? I attributed this disease to the current state of design studio culture.

Studio Culture

The term “architorture” isn’t just a silly, made-up term to describe architecture school. It and all those .gifs on Tumblr do reflect how I felt as a student in landscape architecture. As a student, especially in my first two years, I sometimes spent more time working on a project than on getting rest or eating. The “need” to produce encourages students to hole up in their studio for days on end until the final product is delivered. There is an unhealthy belief that the more hours one spends in studio, the better their work will be (even though this is in no way remotely true). Even in the comparatively lax environment of the landscape studios, it was common to not leave the building between 9am-10pm. It was incredibly unhealthy for us students and also contributed to a myth of “knowing place.”

What is this myth? It is a belief that someone would know a place well enough to design something for it after one or two site visits and light online research. We subscribe to this idea because we would rather be in studio working on our designs rather than being outside, observing and interacting with potential users. This belief that we students can understand a people and a place by skimming contributes to gaudy, unhealthy design by allowing us to project our own visions and ideals onto a place while justifying it with shallow reasons. Miyazaki Hayao, a well-known Japanese animator, described this best in an interview criticizing an aspect of current anime (Japanese animation) culture:

“If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.

and

“It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.”

I thought his critiques applied just as well to what I saw in my design program. After all, landscape design is supposed to reflect and contribute to reality.

My wildly unproportional design for Sutro Baths, UC Berkeley (2013)

How can we know a place and its users through a screen? We can’t, and it is why the things we design, if put in reality, are people-adverse. Sure, they may look beautiful, but they can only exist within the computer. Instead of encouraging students to understand how to create spaces for people, design studio culture locks students inside and away from interacting with people unlike themselves.

This turning inward has also tipped the balance of (what I believe to be) the core tenants of the field: environmentalism, social justice, and beauty.

Slope Analysis for Sutro Baths(2013)

Education’s Bias

It wasn’t just studio that contributed to the imbalance, but the choice of classes required by the college as well.

At UC Berkeley, landscape architecture is taught with a heavy emphasis on learning drawing techniques to express ideas rather than learning how to develop said ideas. In fact, we are not required to take any classes that delve deeply into interpreting ecological or social signs and patterns and yet we are required to take four drawing classes before we take our first real, upper division studio. After that, we have to take another five drawing classes before we graduate. Considering we only have three upper division studios available to undergraduates, the curriculum is heavily in favour of beautiful over functional design.

What happens when the class choices are so heavily skewed? Students create beautiful but useless designs because in critiques, a bad idea can be given praise if the rendering is convincing. A high level of skill in presentation is certainly necessary (and is an important part of being a designer), but when that becomes the most important component of a project, students do not learn to place importance on feasibility and the actual implementation of a project. Perhaps that is just one of the natural pitfalls of studying landscape architecture. The final product will always be the beautiful posters and meticulous models instead of an actual project to be built.

Contributing to this are the professors that tell students that because “it’s only for school,” it is perfectly acceptable to go wild with their ideas without understanding how it would work in the real world. Worse yet, because students produce for school alone, they seek to gain the approval of those critiquing them without any second throught as to why they do the things that they do. Ask a student why they decided to render something the way they did, and their answer will usually be along the lines of “because it looks good” instead of “because the foliage will be this colour in the fall.”

Design studio culture has bred complacency — the inability to question the way we look at people and sites, the way we represent our ideas, and the long-term effects of our proposed designs

So What Did I Learn?

After four years in a design education, I uncovered many negative aspects as to how my particular design program is run but also (with the help of a few working experiences and long conversations with professors), I have also found many positives and arguments against my own complaints.

Studio Exists for a Reason

As much as I blasted studio culture for breeding complacency, the set-up also fosters creativity. What do you get when you place a group of artistic people who care about and have grown up around nature in a confined space for hours at a time? You get a cross-pollination of ideas that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. You also get a mix of energy from the young undergraduates and the varied knowledge of the graduate students. It has always contributed to a maturation of craft as well as the kind of mental and physical support that one needs as a student. It really does work, but we just have to be careful about using it in moderation.

Instead of enforcing the idea that in order to be a good designer, we have to spend all day in the studio, we should encourage the idea of learning through experiencing the outside world. It’s a concept that I struggled with all through my school career, but as I adventure more and more away from the studio, I find that by experiencing different kinds of spaces, I am enforcing and building upon what I have learned in the classroom.

Theoretical Education is Important

I had always blasted the theoretical approach to learning landscape architecture for encouraging unrealistic designs.

During my internship, I lamented to my boss, Professor John Northmore Roberts, what I saw as a failure on the part of UC Berkeley’s landscape architecture program. I complained about how we weren’t really taught to build things in the real world because our classes weren’t focused on practical skills (we only had one, ineffective construction drawing class) or failed to put into practice what we were required to learn (a planting design class that had no practical portion).

In reply, John reminded me that I was in a design program, learning to be a designer and not a construction worker or a landscaper. Sure, having knowledge and practical experience of those skills are useful, but it is not a landscape architect’s main job. By keeping the landscape architecture education more theoretical than practical, it readies us to be designers that can provide the framework for a project. Knowing the name of a specific bolt is useful but not necessary. In a real design project, a team will comprise of professionals with specifics fields of study. It is necessary for the landscape architect to have an healthy understanding of related fields, but it would be redundant to learn every practical aspect of them.

In defense of theoretical education, John also pointed out to me that another reason professors encourage their students to go wild with their ideas is that creativity is important in the field. A designer that only focuses on the practical will be afraid to innovate, and without innovation, there will be no progress. There is no reason to focus on the practical constraints of landscape design in school, because designers will naturally adjust their designs in practice if they want to see their project built.

Agree to Disagree

Even with what your professor says

Every designer has sat through a critique (crit). At every crit, a reviewer will say you should have made the stairs wider and right after that reviewer has spoken, someone else will suggest that it is better narrower. Your professor will then agree with one side even though he said it was fine as it is a day ago. The truth is, everyone has their own opinions. Some are more valid than others, but as I have learned, you know your design better than anyone. You (hopefully) did your research and decided on that width of stairs for a reason. If someone reviewing you has a different opinion, it is perfectly fine to disagree if you believe their justification is not as strong as yours. Seniority does not equate to “being right.” Even professors and reviewers learn something new every day.

Find Beauty and Happiness in Everything

Even stuff unrelated to landscape architecture

As I’ve mentioned before, there is a life beyond design studio, and it’s important to take part in it. Interacting with humans and animals, reading books, engaging in philosophical discussions, and taking dance classes all make us better designers, because they connect us and our designs to the real world. Undertaking a variety of activities also opens up our minds creatively. I can’t cite any studies, but some of the best designers I know have many interests outside of design that they bring into their work. It makes them passionate about what they do and gives them a kind of speciality on the subject at hand.

We don’t exist in a bubble, and neither should what we design!

Growing with Landscape Architecture

This has been my relationship with landscape architecture thus far — questions, contemplation, and a vague understanding of what I should be doing to further my craft. As a result of all those struggles, I am now traveling in a foreign country (South Korea). I just spent two months working on farms throughout the northern countryside and am now interning at a landscape architecture office in Seoul (I don’t even speak Korean).

Landscape architecture is not simply designing for the built environment, but a new lens with which to see the world. I am beginning to see that everything that exists in the landscape is a result of man’s dialogue with nature. The experiences I continue to gather give me insights into these interactions, and I understand the world a little better because of how my design education has opened up my mind.

It has shaped me, and now I hope I can grow with it.


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