Daylighting Ancestral Movements

by Emma DeCamp, Research Associate

“What if architects, instead of endlessly recombining elements from a stock vocabulary of building forms…actually designed from our ideas about space [and] our histories in space?” [1]

This is the question that Leon van Schaik poses in his book Spatial Intelligence. The book is a plea to architects to ground their work in spatial intelligence — an awareness of the surrounding natural environment and culture.

Schaik, a Professor of Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, makes the case that the field of architecture has commingled too closely with the logical-mathematical mind, veering away from the spatial mind. Architecture has evolved into a competition between feats of engineering: support the loftiest dome, build the tallest skyscraper, balance uneven structures.

Instead of drawing from the natural and cultural landscape, architects draw from a glossary of accepted and esteemed forms, resulting in dislocated appropriation, such as Greek columns supporting the porticos of plantation manors in the antebellum South.[2]

Schaik presents a vision for an approach to architectural design that is aware of the people who inhabit it, the culture that surrounds it, and the natural setting that serves as its host.

This idea came alive for me when I discovered the work of landscape architect Thomas Woltz (thanks to my boyfriend’s mother, a devoted member of the Garden Club of America). Woltz’s projects are keenly aware of the biological systems and human culture they interact with.

In 2013 his firm initiated the master plan for Nashville’s Centennial Park, which proposed a vision to reinvigorate the geology, hydrology, ecology, and human history of the parkland.

Nashville’s historic turnpikes and railroad tracks follow the paths of least resistance first traveled by bison and the natives who hunted them.[3] Now a parkway, the Old Natchez Trace was once an historic travel corridor followed by Native Americans, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and presidents.[4] The Natchez Trace dead ends at Cockrill Spring, where Centennial Park sits today. The spring was named after one of Nashville’s first settlers, Anne Cockrill.

Cockrill arrived in Nashville after her brother John Robertson founded the city in 1779. Cockrill received a land grant for much of the land that occupies Centennial Park today, making her the first female landowner in Tennessee. Cockrill farmed the land, which became known for its spring, later named in her honor. In the late 20th century, the spring was buried, diverted into a pipe and drained into the city’s sewage plant.

Woltz and his team decided to daylight[5] Cockrill Spring to tell the story of Anne Cockrill and her role in the founding of Nashville. Woltz framed the spring’s meanderings with limestone, the bedrock of Nashville, which gave the spring a modern touch, and at the same time, uncovered the city’s geologic history.

In bringing the spring to the surface, Woltz intentionally designed a metaphor for uncovering previously untold stories about the role of women and minorities in the founding of our nation and their subsequent disenfranchisement.[6]

The daylighting of the stream is also a symbolic reawakening of ecological equal rights and the notion that we are stewards of the natural waters that flow through our cities.[7] Now, some of the natural spring water is captured to irrigate the park and the rest flows to Lake Wataga to keep the lake clean. In the near future, Woltz and his team aspire to stop using treated drinking water for irrigation all together.

Woltz designed Centennial Park specifically for Nashville by unearthing the geologic and hydrological elements that historically defined the city. His work equally incorporates the collective spatial history of the city’s forbearers; tracing how they moved through, interacted with, and understood the landscape. The Park’s orientation is inspired by the history of the people who navigated its hills, hunted its animals, welled its spring, and farmed its soil.

[1] Spatial Intelligence, Leon van Schaik




[5] Daylighting is, “the process of removing obstructions (such as concrete or pavement) which are covering a river, creek, or drainage way and restoring them to their previous condition.”


[7] Ibid

(MK)Think Pieces

Publication on data-driven spatial intelligence through architecture, design, innovation, strategy

Emma DeCamp

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(MK)Think Pieces

Publication on data-driven spatial intelligence through architecture, design, innovation, strategy