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Environmental Art in Practice

Jennifer Dowdell describes her academic and professional experience integrating art in her work as an ecological landscape designer.

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Those of us in the profession of landscape architecture and ecological design draw on a rich history of envisioning the landscape as canvas, albeit one with a richly-hued plant palette and shapes and forms that reach beyond the traditional two-dimensional purview of the painter.  In practice, we have the good fortune to work with both artists and engineers, often driven by a specific functional need associated with ecological restoration, conservation or regeneration.  However there is an artistry and artistic theory that informs this work. My appreciation for the role of art in my work stems from both my graduate studies at the University of Michigan with landscape theorist, artist, and professor Beth Diamond, and my professional experiences collaborating with environmental artists.

In her research and teaching, Beth focused on the evolution of landscape design from the “pictorial” described by (noted landscape architect) Gina Crandell, where early landscape architecture took its cues from landscape painting, the flat representation of landscapes as scenic spaces confined to the frame, with a fixed viewpoint, to something much more vibrant and nuanced. Early on, according to Crandell, gardens were conceived as “repositories of images formulated by painters” (Crandell 1993).  Beth argued that “principles of cubism, involving new concepts of form, space and time are relevant to the contemporary practice of landscape architecture” (Diamond 2011). In her classes, Beth stressed the role that landscape architecture and installation art have in providing diverse viewpoints and multiple experiences, and in challenging or altering perceptions. Rather than the picturesque landscapes of yore, today we are indeed designing and planning for spaces that exhibit those tenets of cubism: simultaneity, transparency and permeable boundaries, multiple perspectives and equality of spaces- designing for participants in a space, not just onlookers.

Beth stressed to her students the importance of pushing boundaries and preconceptions while peeling back the many layers of history that define a landscape. Besides the requisite study of landscape design theory, a hallmark of Beth’s class was the landscape installation project. Broken down into teams of four or five students, we had to identify a theme, then consider the landscape context and space available, and then proposed the physical structure and organization of space. Our pieces were to be interactive and inviting, and they were to evoke a sense of place as well as some larger idea or question. Craftsmanship was of utmost importance, both in the modeling stage as well as the final product. As students in the School of Natural Resources and Environment we also needed to consider environmental health and stewardship, ideally challenging perceptions of the health of the environment and our role in its future sustainability.

My team explored the pressures exerted on native forests by globalization and climate change. We focused on the pests, disease, and invasive species that were wreaking havoc on the forest ecosystems of Michigan. Initially, we used only on natural materials, but with Beth’s guidance, we branched out –literally- supplementing the materials with paint and concrete to develop an arresting installation we called the “Shrine of the Once and Future Forest.” Using invasive buckthorn trees (Rhamnus cathartica) that had been cleared from the University’s Arboretum and stumps of ash trees felled by the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) (with their beautiful but fatal bore patterns on the interior of the bark) we devised an outdoor sanctuary space.

We painted the buckthorn using bright orange paint to heighten their visibility, and burned the names and dates of the various pests and diseases into the ash stumps as a temporal chronicle of their devastation. It was be a commentary on the effects of some of the most prominent and damaging species and diseases in our native forests, a call to action, and a eulogy to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. In the center, atop an altar of sorts, was a collection of native seeds, nuts and pine cones. Onlookers were invited to take these seeds home.

The installation project was, for many of us, our first built work, helping solidify the importance of scale, materiality, context, and aesthetics – creating a visual as well as physical experience for the onlooker. Other teams explored issues associated with wind energy, root systems of trees, and the chemical make-up of pesticides and herbicides. We each gained a much better sense of the power of the landscape as a space to explore and create functional, sensual, artistic and provocative experiences. Students and faculty alike visited the installation and chatted with us as we applied the finishing touches, although they were shy about taking the native seeds provided for broader dissemination. Local news coverage highlighted the “didactic edge” the installations brought to campus, describing students gathering to see the artwork and filling comment books left at some of the installation pieces.

At Biohabitats we occasionally have the opportunity to include artists on our design teams, which serves as a great reminder of the lessons Beth shared regarding the power of the landscape as canvas and work of art.  Our work often integrates these same tenets of environmental art and design, in considering the user experience, creating spaces of wonder, play, function and interpretation of patterns. Like a writer whose best work stems from an indulgence in reading the great works, so too does the designer gain inspiration from the world of art, a dialogue between artistic interpretation and impressionism, and the functionality and sustainability of a living landscape. Whether it is integrating stormwater treatment design on a college campus or a primary school playground, or restoring native habitat as part of a novel ecosystem in an urban locale we are often using familiar forms to invite users into a space to experience it anew, and witness renewed function as part of an ecological or hydrologic system.

In the case of Washington Avenue Green, a park along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, PA our award-winning design team included environmental artist Stacy Levy.

Rather than inviting Stacy to create a stand-alone sculptural art piece as part of the park design, we involved her in a series of design discussions and community meetings so that her contribution was more integrated into the design process, informing the park and the forms and patterns we explored in the creation of this new riverfront space.

Through a series of lively discussions on the flows and shapes of the water systems, the historic piping of streams that fed the Delaware, and the other effects of industry on shoreline ecology, the design team began to create forms and interventions in the space that would function as renewed habitat while also introducing new aesthetic experiences.

Stacy’s work with our landscape architects focused on a series of “dendritic decay gardens,” playing with the concept of the pocked paved landscape opening up in stream-like patterns to provide new areas for stormwater infiltration and habitat.

The dendritic plantings thus simultaneously told the story of the broader watershed relationships and the historic use of the river shoreline as industrial hub.The native meadow plants in these gardens would eventually root through the pavement, breaking it apart with the aid of the natural weathering processes.

As we sat in the studio diagramming and playing with patterns my colleague Adam and I began to see a renewed cycle of seeding and regeneration borne of out these patterns, which at once recognized the river’s industrial past and its future as a restored natural space for community members and resident wildlife.  This tiny speck of a park along the vast industrial waterfront of southern Philadelphia had begun to build relationships at multiple spatial and temporal scales, a dialogue of expression and function.

In the years since the park was completed, Washington Avenue Green has proven to be a popular spot for neighborhood residents. We will continue to look for opportunities to work with environmental artists like Stacy and hopefully our work can continue to be inspired by the cubist landscapes that Beth Diamond described, inviting the visitor “into the complex and fragmented reality of the space as a participant” (Diamond 2011).

PostScript – Beth Diamond passed away quite suddenly in late April of this year but her teaching has left an indelible mark on those who she taught. She leaves behind an incredibly rich legacy exploring the power of the designed landscape in creating unique, participatory, and democratic spaces; building community and questioning the status quo.

Resources for this article:

  • Crandell, Gina. 1993. Nature Pictorialized: the View in Landscape History. JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press, Baltimore and London.
  • Diamond, Beth. 2011. Landscape Cubism: parks that break the pictorial frame. Journal of Landscape Architecture. Autumn 2011. pp. 20-33.
  • Washington Avenue Green, Philadelphia, PA.
  • Klein, Andrew.  2006. Creative Landscape Art Graces Diag, Michigan Daily. Accessed June 9, 2013.
  • Design team for the “Shrine of the Once and FutureForest” – Dave LaClergue, Carrie Morris, Zhifang Wang, and Jennifer Dowdell. Spring 2006.

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