mammoth // building nothing out of something

on landscape science

Places Journal (newly independent of Design Observer) recently published an argument by Brian Davis and Thomas Oles that landscape architecture should be renamed landscape science:

“Slowly — fitfully — landscape architecture is remaking itself. Its adherents are venturing from the confines of garden, park, and plaza into strange and difficult territory, where they face challenges of a greater order. How will our cities adapt to rising seas? How do we respond to the mass extinction of our fellow species? How can we build places that are more just? Such questions mock the very notion of disciplinary boundaries…

Say it again: landscape architecture. The words roll off the tongue as if their union were inevitable. But this is an arranged marriage…

We need a term that updates Olmsted’s strategy of professionalization for the modern age. A term that is both broader and more specific, a term that can help simultaneously expand and focus the field. And for that there is only one real candidate. We therefore propose that landscape architecture become landscape science.”

This is ridiculously interesting and important.

I agree that there is a shift in both the scope and methodology of landscape research and practice underway. (That might actually be the central concern of this blog.) Consequently, I think it is valuable to attempt to recognize that shift by naming and defining it. (The need for this shift is probably evident to any landscape architect of this emerging sensibility who has tried to explain their work to friends, colleagues, and family members who are not familiar with current trends in the discipline.) In the spirit of contributing to the effort to concretize that shift, then, I’ve named below three primary concerns that I have with the selection of landscape science as worked out by Davis and Oles. Two of this concerns deal with the selection of the term science, while the third (the middle one, by order presented) questions what the relationship between landscape architecture and landscape science is in their proposal, and what it should be.

1 One of the most problematic components of the way that science is treated is its claim to objectivity; to be value-neutral. (We know from the philosophy of science that this is not entirely accurate; but it is perceived to be accurate.) Whereas one of the strengths of landscape architecture relative to other disciplines that make landscapes (logistics, engineering) is precisely that it has practices for making explicit, interrogating, and evaluating values.

1.
I am wary of elevating science in this fashion. This is often a rhetorical move that serves to marginalize other ways of knowing. This is potentially particularly problematic because science often equals “Western science”, and is consequently accompanied by the marginalization of non-Western ways of knowing. (See: scientism, positivism1.)

I know that Davis and Oles have anticipated this objection: “Now we have opened a world of problems, not least that the word science brings its own conflicting associations… This has crowded out the original, more exciting definition.”

I’m not sure, though, that the likely effect of this (re)formulation of landscape science is to restore this earlier formulation of science, generally. It seems far more likely to me that the collective weight of the perception of “scientific inquiry as the cold pursuit of quantifiable phenomena and material effects” will define how landscape science is perceived than the opposite. (And, indeed, to some degree the argument hinges on this: that landscape will gain some of the prestige that is accorded to sciences, precisely because they are perceived in this fashion.)

It seems problematic that the argument hinges on shifting the understanding of a concept back to 19th century terms; how often does this happen? Moreover, how often does it happen when the lever is the self-conception of a relatively small discipline like landscape architecture?

2.
Quoting Davis and Oles:

“Perhaps practitioners of a certain temperament will hold fast to the title of landscape architect, and that specific tradition might be understood as one important pillar in an expanding field of landscape science. People who study landscape science might be known as landscape architects, but also landscape geographers, landscape engineers, and landscape anthropologists (just as they have already started to claim titles such as landscape ecologist, landscape archaeologist, and landscape urbanist), or they might call themselves, more generally, landscape scientists.”

There’s something rhetorically problematic happening here. Should landscape ecology be seen as a subset of landscape architecture? I think not, though the fields are clearly related, both historically, methodologically, and topically; and I doubt that Davis and Oles think so, either. But if not, is the argument here perhaps really for a new umbrella that includes landscape architecture, but isn’t a renaming of it?

2 It seems worthwhile here to also say: I am strongly in favor of Alan Jacobs’ argument for (among other things) “self-consciously distinctive missions” and “pockets of resistance”, which seems potentially applicable to an effort the answer these questions. (Unfortunately, I think that an effort to claim science might radically undermine an effort to be such a pocket of resistance, because of the concerns I outlined in my first point.)

And if so: is that umbrella really a discipline? Or is a mode of operation? A shifting set of tactical alliances between fields that share interests, methodologies, and terrain? Something closer to transdisciplinarity than to a new discipline? If so, are we left in the same place that we started: needing a way to describe the operations (scope, methodology) of the set of researchers and practitioners that Davis and Oles mention (and others who have similar approaches)? Are we saying effectively that these people — as opposed to, say, the practitioners of landscape architecture who are primarily garden designers, or the plaza-makers who are outside architects — are the only ones who are landscape scientists? If so, why not generate another splinter discipline like landscape urbanism: between multiple disciplines, adopted by some practitioners, but not attempting to rename the whole discipline of landscape architecture? Isn’t this a more modest and practicable goal?2

3 Moreover: to return to my first contention, I think it is precisely the quality of landscape architecture as making that positions the discipline as a useful alternative and/or augment (depending on the specifics of place and situation) to more positivistic ways of constructing landscapes, including engineering and logistics.

I find myself continually returning to Dan Hill’s formulation about the value of design in Dark Matter and Trojan Horses:

“the idea that policy and governance can be convincing through mere presentation of fact supported by clear analysis is also being directly challenged. In-depth analytical approaches can no longer stretch across these interconnected and bound-less problems, where synthesis is perhaps more relevant than analysis.

‘The problem is that transparent, unmediated, undisputable facts have recently become rarer and rarer. To provide complete undisputable proof has become a rather messy, pesky, risky business.

Design produces proof, yet as ‘cultural invention’ it is also comfortable with ambiguity, subjectivity, and the qualitative as much as the quantitative. Design is also oriented towards a course of action — it researches and produces systems that can learn from failure, but always with intent. In strategic design, synthesis suggests resolving into a course of action, whereas analysis suggests a presentation of data. Analysis tells you how things are, at least in theory, whereas synthesis suggests how things could be.”

“[design’s] core value… is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being”.

This also raises the point that “design” is perhaps being unhelpfully marginalized.

4 I think Davis and Oles acknowledge this, or at least are attempting to acknowledge it (I don’t think they explicitly say they are, so I may be misinterpreting), with the description of “what might its practitioners be called”? But the argument initially hinged on looking at the examples of radical practitioners, and whatever landscape architecture might be or might not be, certainly one of its strengths is that it is a practice. Renaming it in a way that requires a separate new term for the practice of it seems… inadequate. Which leads back to my second contention, about the proposed relationship between landscape architecture and landscape science.

5 This also refers to a point that geologist Brian Romans made in reply to Brian Davis on twitter: that geomorphology might be the most fundamental of all landscape sciences.

It seems there are three possibilities inherent in a formulation of a landscape science: first, that landscape architecture becomes landscape science; second, that landscape architecture (as a whole) becomes a component of a new, broader discipline known as landscape science; third, that some components of landscape architecture (and other disciplines!) enter into a new set of alliances and develop a new set of practices-between-disciplines that might collectively be referred to as landscape science. It seems to me that the first is what Davis and Oles claim to be arguing for (“we therefore propose that landscape architecture become landscape science”), but the last is what they are describing. (Not that I find that problematic! I actually find the last of these options most promising and most exciting.)

3.
My final objection concerns the centrality of making to landscape architecture. Recall the definition of science that Davis and Oles claim:

“a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws; knowledge gained by systematic study.”

Science, even defined in this earlier way that does not make exclusive reference to the natural sciences or to the scientific method as a mode of knowledge production, is nonetheless an enterprise focused on knowing. By contrast, landscape architecture is, at least in my opinion, not only a profession of making, but also a discipline whose core depends on making. While making and knowing should not be perceived as being purely exclusive (in fact, I would argue that making can be a way of knowing — this is central to the notion of design as research), their overlap is far from entire. And the practitioners that landscape science would claim (Orff, Cowles, Bargmann, to use Davis and Oles three examples) are clearly makers.

In the middle of their argument, Davis and Oles recommend that:

“…we should establish our own integrated science, with its own specific methods, concepts, and techniques. We can adapt tools from the many fields that already work with landscape as a primary object of inquiry, including archaeology, ecology, environmental studies, history, planning, psychology and sociology.”

But which of those methods does landscape architecture contribute to landscape science? It seems to me that one of the most obvious answers is: landscape architecture, unlike archaeology, ecology, environmental studies, history, psychology and sociology (I leave out planning, whose operations are more ambiguous and variable), makes, builds, fights matter battles. If making is so essential to landscape architecture that it might be the discipline’s primary contribution to landscape science, then is it inadequate to choose a new name that does not acknowledge this3?

I’m not sure that Davis and Oles further definition of landscape science as a normative science (“[according to Peirce], normative science ‘distinguishes what ought to be from what ought not to be‘”) answers this objection. There’s a significant gap between ought and make4. (Do we really think that a maintenance worker is a landscape scientist? This seems to stretch the term terribly far.) Of course, we have a term for someone who applies science to make: a technician. Landscape technics is an interesting alternative, not far removed from Patrick Geddes and Benton MacKaye’s geotechnics5.

Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of technics is that the word is out of fashion, in much the same sense that science is in fashion.

4.
Having detailed these three concerns, it would be right of me to also list the things that I appreciate, because there is a great deal that I appreciate in Davis and Oles’ argument. I don’t know that it is necessary for me to go on in such detail about them, though, so I will simply say: that the array of benefits listed under section III is extremely desirable; that I agree that there is a great deal to be gained by not “privileging… architectural terms and concepts over those of soil science, anthropology, and civil engineering”; and that I agree that there should be an increased focus on experimentation and testing within landscape architecture (I’ve been arguing that for years).

I hope this discussion continues.

sea ice small multiples

nasa_sea-ice
[Small multiples of the extent of North Pole sea ice, 1979-2014; via NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio.]

the dredge underground

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
[The DredgeFest Louisiana tour enters the Morganza Spillway; I am pretty sure that Tim took these pictures.]

In the recent August issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, Jennifer Reut wrote a generous profile of the Dredge Research Collaborative and DredgeFest:

It seems almost inevitable, after two successful DredgeFests and several massive coastal floods, that this group of people would have gravitated to this subject at this moment in time. The practice of dredging the coastal waters and rivers in the United States has reached a critical moment. Anxieties about sea-level rise and vulnerable coastlines as well as those from the pressures of a globalized economy on U.S. shipping and transportation sectors can be tied back to dredging. It’s a kind of covert force with impacts that hopscotch across national, geographic, and cultural borders. Five years in, the DRC can now talk with great agility about dredging in a variety of local and global contexts—particularly about the ways in which the practice of dredging rivers and coasts has consequences that can seemingly be solved only by more dredging. This is what the DRC has termed “the dredge cycle”, and discovering how it works in different places is a large part of why DredgeFest exists.

Reut’s article, “The Dredge Underground”, is now available in full for download at Landscape Architecture‘s website.

[Two DredgeFests so far; two more are in differing stages of planning, with DredgeFest Great Lakes up next in Minnesota in August 2015. You can subscribe to a newsletter here that will keep you updated on planning for DredgeFest Great Lakes.]

the five thousand pound life: land

arch5kl_panama canal
[Hauling earth during the expansion of the Panama Canal; AP Photo]

A quick and rather late notice, of particular relevance to readers in NYC: I’ll be on a panel this Friday, September 26, for The Five Thousand Pound Life’s “Land” symposium, which is co-sponsored by the Architectural League of New York and the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design.

["Land"] addresses the need to consider settlement patterns and  competing land uses in new ways given the reality of climate change. The value assigned to various forms of land use, and various attitudes  towards land as a resource, must be understood in terms of ecological services and impacts, rather than narrowly-defined economic imperatives.

In sessions on “Nature and the City,” “Spatial Logistics,” and “Density,” speakers will consider American approaches to development, attitudes toward nature, and whether the current dominant narrative of the environmental superiority of concentrated high density development might be challenged by a counter-narrative of lower density land-use that takes advantage of distributed energy production and localized treatment of waste.

There are some great participants including Rebecca Solnit, Charles Waldheim, Eric Sanderson, Jesse LeCavalier, and more.

I’ll be a part of “Spatial Logistics”, talking about the expansion of the Panama Canal, dredging (Mud Dump Site!), and the limits of logistics.

The symposium will be in the afternoon (2:00-6:30 pm) in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union (7 East 7th Street). Tickets are free for students and members of the Architectural League; non-members will need to pay $20. Click here for more details.

suburban futures

At Next City, Amanda Kolson Hurley reports on two examples of contemporary suburban growth, Montgomery County in Maryland and the York region of Ontario, and ties those two examples into broader questions regarding the future viability of suburbanism:

Dead malls. Zombie subdivisions. Metastasizing sprawl. Not a horror movie, but the suburbs circa 2014, or at least the media version of them. We’ve all seen the “suburban wasteland” photos from the Great Recession, the parched streets out West, foreclosure signs swinging in their yards. We’ve read about The End of the Suburbs. No wonder the young and the affluent have flocked back to cities: Suburbia’s demise seems imminent, and assured.

Except that it’s not. More than half of Americans live in suburbs, and about 75 percent of postwar construction has happened in the suburbs. That is a lot of people, and a lot of built environment, for urbanists to just wish away. One hundred and fifty million or so suburbanites have to live somewhere, and preferably not too far from their places of work, which are mostly in the ’burbs, too: More than three-quarters of jobs in U.S. metropolitan areas are located outside the urban core, and 43 percent are at least 10 miles away. (City living doesn’t look like such an environmental slam-dunk when you consider the number of jobs that require a long commute from downtown.) In Canada, two-thirds of the population lives in suburbs, according to a new study, and five times as many people are settling on the edges of major cities as they are in their cores.

Read the full article at Next City.

pilot projects

In an article for the recently-launched ARPA Journal, Kate Orff describes a pair of SCAPE pilot projects in New York Harbor, both testing the viability of ecological design concepts for specific harbor-dwelling species along the edge of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

scape_pp_1
[The blue mussel pilot project; image by SCAPE via ARPA Journal.]

The first, located near the outlet of the Gowanus Canal, adapts “fuzzy rope”, a simple material already utilized in aquaculture, to form a set of thirteen panels that retrofit a working pier as blue mussel habitat and, crucially, provide an opportunity to study the effectiveness of various retrofit possibilities in mussel recruitment.

scape_pp_2
[The Eel Grass pilot project; image by SCAPE via ARPA Journal.]

The second, sited slightly further south along the Brooklyn waterfront, builds on a collapsed concrete pier which has “accidentally created intertidal habitat” and an eal grass pilot plot to propose a “deconstructed salt marsh”, which would both incorporate additional pilot plots for a range of typical salt marsh species and serve as a “learning landscape” for the local community.

One of the exciting things about both of these projects is the emphasis on testing, monitoring, and obtaining reliable feedback. In an essay adapted from the introductory chapter of their recent edited collection Projective Ecologies, Nina-Marie Lister and Chris Reed discuss the potential convergence of strains of ecological thought they identify in three divergent domains, natural sciences, the humanities, and design:

…few designers have yet ventured beyond the metaphors and mechanics supplied by these ecological models to design effectively for adaptation to change, or to incorporate learned feedback into the designs, or to work in transdisciplinary modes of practice that open new apertures for the exploration of new systems, synergies and wholly collaborative work. This is the project ahead: leading the sciences, humanities, and design culture toward a more rigorous, robust and relevant engagement across the domains of ecology and design.

For that effort to be successful, more pilot projects will be needed.

[Previously on mammoth: experimental landscape architecture.]

landmarks

odell_landmarks_2

odell_landmarks_3

[Two images from artist Jenny Odell's series Landmarks, which traces "inadvertent monuments" produced by remote infrastructural operations, such as the Athabasca Oil Sands (top) and a network of "unknown detonation sites" (above) at the Nevada Test Site. The images can be seen in larger and much larger versions on Odell's website.]

territorial reclamation

spratly_1
[The Spratly Islands]

A series of reports from the Philippine government recently emerged and came to the attention of the international press, describing a series of semi-clandestine island-building operations undertaken by the Chinese government in the South China Sea. (To quote a local fishing contractor who works in the vicinity: “there was this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other side using a tube”.) These acts of territorial reclamation are being undertaken with the intent of enforcing Chinese claims to the vigorously disputed — and likely resource-rich — waters in and around the set of low-lying islands, reefs, and atolls known internationally as the Spratly Islands, as the New York Times reports:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scolded China for “land reclamation activities at multiple locations” in the South China Sea at a contentious security conference in Singapore in late May.

Critics say the islands will allow China to install better surveillance technology and resupply stations for government vessels. Some analysts say the Chinese military is eyeing a perch in the Spratlys as part of a long-term strategy of power projection across the Western Pacific.

Perhaps just as important, the new islands could allow China to claim it has an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles of each island, which is defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Philippines has argued at an international tribunal that China occupies only rocks and reefs and not true islands that qualify for economic zones.

“By creating the appearance of an island, China may be seeking to strengthen the merits of its claims,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

spratly_2
[A portion of a map of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea produced by Derek Watkins for the New York Times; view the full map here.]

Maasvlakte 2
[The Utrecht, one of Dutch dredging conglomerate Van Oord's fleet.]

1 Take Parag Khanna’s argument here about cities, and rewrite it instead with transnational corporations as its primary actors.

Take as background both this example of the aggressive assertion of territorial influence by a nation-state through dredging and the general anticipation of the increasing economic importance of seabed mining, offshore drilling, and other economic exploitations of oceanic territories. It is not difficult to envision dredge developed as a new frontier in international conflict, where oceanic international borders are rapidly re-shaped by the construction and counter-construction of island chains and atoll formations, all strategically deployed to extend and compress bands of territorial waters, in a game of Go played by foreign ministers releasing escalating and conflicting bids to dredging contractors. (China offers Boskalis $600 million; Vietnam counters with $700; the Philippines derails their bid at the last minute with a promise of a cut of oil rights for the corporation, prompting China and Vietnam to covertly deploy a fleet of pirate dredgers, who siphon sand from the new Filipino island at night.)

Or, speaking of those dredging contractors, given the enormous role of corporations in the global restructuring of coastlines via marine engineering and the increasing function of transnational corporations as modern analogues to medieval city-states1, to imagine a rogue dredging contractor secretly designing its fleet assignments to shuffle vessels to some distant Pacific outpost, where it is building a new island for itself, beyond the reach of any nation-state.

Or, post-apocalyptically (or simply a century from now), Waterworld meets Flood via Dredging Today, post-peak sand.

landscape information modeling

PhilipBelesky.com-PROCESSES-AND-PROCESSORS-diagram-large
[Diagram describing the "interaction between a script to generate a planting plan and data generated from the soil and salinity analyses", from Philip Belesky's research project "Processes and Processors".]

I recently encountered the work of Philip Belesky, a PhD candidate at RMIT’s Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory, who is thinking very interesting thoughts about the role of computation and programming in landscape design.

While this post is primarily going to interact with a few key points from Belesky’s recent post on Julian Raxworthy’s recently-completed thesis (as this is a blog post, it seems appropriate that things get highly referential very quickly), it’s worth introducing Belesky’s work via his contribution to Kerb 21, which was entitled “Adapting Computation to Adapting Landscapes”.

In it Belesky argues against the currently prevailing paradigm for computational design in landscape architecture…

The current canon of computational design techniques is distinctly architectural, aimed at generating and optimising form so that architects can better design complex geometries, complex structures, and complex details. Looking to the few landscape-focused practitioners who do use computational tools, we see designs that typically feature branching, flowing, twisted, folding, and fracturing surface geometries. Here, the formalisms common to the architectural avant-garde have been appropriated by way of a 90 degree rotation: façades turned to become fields.

…argues instead for the deployment of computational techniques as augments to “intuition and analysis” within the design process, through the simulation of landscape processes…

Unlike plans or diagrams, a computationally-defined design emerges from a series of generative rules that form a dynamic system. By creating rules that account for the temporality, uncertainty, and dynamism of landscape systems we can begin to make these phenomena truly operative within the design process. A design for a waterfront could be seamlessly tested against simulations of the hydrological systems that govern tidal flushing, coastal erosion, sea level rises, and storm surges. Planting plans could automatically match particular species to local changes in substrate, grade, saturation, and shading, while maintaining a cohesive composition that maintains ecological diversity and aesthetic effects.

…and speculates (rightly, I believe) that this deployment will require “computational techniques that focus on landscape systems”:

In the same way that architects have created tools to simulate how structural, solar, and thermal systems operate, we must develop tools that make hydrological, ecological, and other landscape systems active within the design process. These tools exist within scientific research and specialised software. The challenge is to adapt these tools by integrating their capabilities into the computer-aided design programs that landscape architects already use.

(This, I should note, is remarkably similar to how Alex Robinson explained the intentions and potential of the bespoke landscape visualization and analysis tool package he presented during the workshops we organized for DredgeFest Louisiana. Robinson has been developing that set of tools for a specific project, a collaboration with the Army Corps of Engineers at California’s dry Owens Lake; I immediately wanted to see the tools recontextualized as first steps towards a set of geographically-agnostic instruments, a first draft of a true landscape information modeling package.)

SoftwareSaltFlats

interface
[Screenshots from software produced for the Landscape Morphology Lab's Rapid Landscape Prototyping Machine project.]

Having introduced the general pattern of Belesky’s work (hopefully without misrepresenting him), on to the primary subject of this post, Belesky’s recent post “Pruned Precedents and Growing Potentials”. That post (planned as the first in a series, all of which will be worth reading if this first instalment is any indication) reads Julian Raxworthy’s thesis, “Novelty in the Entropic Landscape: Landscape architecture, gardening, and change”, in light of Belesky’s own interest in the potential of computational design, refocused on “the temporality, uncertainty, and dynamism of landscape systems”.

I am now encouraging you to read the actual text of Belesky’s post. When you return, I’ll quickly say four things about Belesky’s reading of Raxworthy.

emergence
First, I’d like to record my strong agreement (along with Belesky) with Raxworthy’s critique of the products of the influence of the “Process Discourse” (as Raxworthy terms it) on architectural design. I’ll quote the same portion of Raxworthy that Belesky does:

This new disciplinary proximity is most evident in a fascination with change and time, expressed in terms such as “dynamism”, “mobility”, “process” and “flexibility” that have featured prominently in publishing in both areas since the mid-1990s. This body of thinking and practice I identify as the “Process Discourse”…

…The rise of the process discourse has seen the adoption of ecological models of process, and their generalisation into algorithms, which are now incorporated into architectural-design generation process in order to give designs some of the qualities of dynamism that natural systems possess. Architectural genres such as parametricism and datascape work to model dynamic landscape forces in the design-generation process, but do not change when made as actual structures in reality. I argue in this dissertation that by simulating change, projects underpinned/informed by the process discourse do not exhibit the key philosophical property of change, which is the spontaneous emergence of novelties. This property is recognised in the language used by the process discourse by terms such as “emergence”, but is effectively ignored in the simulatory models of architectural form.

That’s accurate and well-put. (I think I was groping towards a similar critique in the early days of mammoth, though I never arrived at anything nearly as elegant or systematic as Raxworthy’s critique.)

t_Edaphic02

9-Edaphic_Infiltration-Feature
[Diagram and site photography from PEG Office of Landscape + Architecture's "Edaphic Effects", a gorgeously exact/inexact instance of site-specific "off-label uses for erosion control products", to quote Sarah Cowles. "Exact/inexact" because it is both an instance of tightly controlled variation in pattern and an instance of the imprecision of the application necessitated by the execution of that pattern not just in material, but in landscape material. That inexactness is perhaps one of the most interesting differences between digital morphogenesis in landscape and most digital morphogenesis in architecture, and hopefully a space that future computational landscape architects will more fully exploit.]

pattern and process
As Belesky moves into outlining points where he diverges from Raxworthy, he makes a brief comment that I find illuminating when placed against arguments from Karen M’Closkey’s recent work on pattern and process. Discussing Raxworthy’s criticism of the tendency of the work like that of the AA’s Landscape Urbanism program to treat data and process as the generator of a logic for a new “short-term reconfiguration” of landscape that is “largely static and inflexible”, “impos[ing] a new equilibrium upon the landscape”, Belesky argues that digital simulation is nonetheless capable of contributing to a design process that admits “the slow and gradual trajectories of landscape systems”:

“…improving those tools to better take account for temporal processes would probably discourage a tabula rasa approach by helping designers to work with — rather than supersede — the systems present on-site.”

This helps me articulate a discomfort I had when reading M’Closkey’s recent contribution to JoLA, “Synthetic Patterns”. The article is generally excellent, and I am very much appreciative of the overall intention and results of M’Closkey’s efforts to recover a role for pattern-making in landscape architecture. (The core of M’Closkey’s argument is roughly that patterns have the potential to organize site processes while “bind[ing] together oppositional categories that seem to plague discussions in landscape architecture—system versus composition, representation versus performance, matter versus symbol, vision (distance) versus immersion (multi-sensory)”.) Unfortunately, M’Closkey ends the article in an excessively cautious way, associating the efficacy of the kind of digitally-generated pattern she argues for primarily with their capacity to organize post-industrial sites:

“To design with nature today, we should not attempt to camouflage the fact of our manufactured sites—sites that must be remade in order to support new uses and habitat. There is no inevitable form, or formula, for dealing with such sites, so we need not rely on standardized, engineered solutions for doing so.”1

1I should note that I am reading M’Closkey’s text in parallel with the video from her presentation at the recent Datascapes symposium at LSU, where she makes this point at least as explicitly.

2That said, I think this precise opposition is present in this neat formulation only in M’Closkey’s rhetoric, which suggests that it is possible I am making too much of it. In her built work, like the “Edaphic Effects” project shown above, pattern serves to mediate between extant systems and the designer’s intent, as evidenced by the use of “parametric software to visualize existing and redirected water flow patterns”.

I find this an unfortunate turn both because it elides the value and utility of the natures already present on such sites and (this is where I think Belesky’s point is useful) because it radically limits the scope of the argument for pattern that M’Closkey is making. It seems to me that the promise of digital pattern-making is instead the opportunity to move beyond the kind of relatively simplistic patterns that analog pattern-making at the scale of the capital project is confined to (e.g. the Peter Walker projects M’Closkey references in the article) and, instead, toward more sophisticated pattern-making techniques with rulesets that take into account simulations of the interactions of pattern and process. This would, as Belesky argues, “discourage a tabula rasa approach by helping designers to work with… the systems present on-site”. Viewed in that light, hinging an argument for the role of pattern on the explicit selection of ‘blank’ landscape canvases seems precisely the opposite of the best rhetorical and operational strategies2.

on the limits of simulation
Responding to Belesky on his own blog, Raxworthy reiterates his argument:

“In terms of argument, I acknowledge his points completely in clarifying what simulations can do, and particularly his gentle reproach that there is more recent work from Penn that are better simulations: what can I say, I wrote that part of the thesis 10 years ago, and kept it, because the basic argument remains true that simulating growth and real growth are different. While it may be interesting and worthy to pursue more accurate and effective models of simulation, their focus will always be on their own internal complexity and growth. Which is fine if your site is the interior digital milieu. But if it’s the world, then I argue (a bit polemically here, I grant, but it’s the nature of my blog) you are chasing your tail, since modeling will always by definition lag behind the real.”

In general, I think I’m agnostic about the implications of the truth (or truism, which is the issue) that Raxworthy notes: yes, simulations by definition are incomplete models of the real; but this hardly answers the question of whether they are a useful tool for making landscapes in specific instances. If forced to venture a response, I would be probably offer something like: sometimes they are very useful and other times they are worrisomely misleading or unpredictably wrong, with the skill lying in the negotiation between and evaluation of those two possibilities. Consequently, I’m attracted to schematics for that negotiation, like this from Jamie Vanucchi’s landscape modeling studio tumblr.

Similarly, I’m also in complete agreement with Brian Davis’s argument for a multifaceted approach to landscape information modeling in his “Landscapes and Instruments”:

“[Arguments for the inclusion of landscape components in BIM software platforms are compelling] but ignore a set of important issues related to landscape practice that spring from the realization that architecture and landscape are different mediums. While sharing many concepts, materials, working methodologies, and histories, there is no reason to suggest that our representational, investigative, and project delivery tools should be the same, or should have more in common than do landscape architecture and forestry, or sedimentary geology. In fact, I believe my work provides evidence to the contrary. Initial results thus far point away from trying to find a single computational environment for landscape representation, especially one built on the conceit of abstract, limitless space. Instead, it is the process of working between modes- comparing them, interrogating the assumptions and limitations of each- that has been most useful and revelatory in my work. This suggests that in addition to lobbying for the inclusion of landscape as a subset in the development of BIM technology, we should be learning from, appropriating, and synthesizing the representational models of ecologists, civil engineers, and sedimentary geologists to construct methods of landscape information modeling.”

tendency, feedback, and responsive landscapes
Ultimately, Raxworthy’s thesis arrives at a two-pronged response to the question of how landscape architecture can encourage and manipulate the emergence of genuine novelty. The first prong is “tendency”, which Raxworthy defines as “a way of thinking about the design process that recognises that design is a form-making process inherently tied to a prediction of an end, or later state, but where novelty is encouraged to develop over time”. The second is feedback, or “continuing, real-time involvement in a process … when the output of the process is fed back into another iteration of the process as an input”, which Raxworthy rightly associates with the role of the gardener. (One reason that I enjoy Raxworthy’s work is that I see gardening as one of the key disciplinary inheritances of landscape architecture, and appreciate seeing it explored in a non-reactionary context.)

3I think this is also roughly what I mean above when discussing pattern and process.

Reacting to these two prongs, Belesky focuses on the first, tendency, arguing that “the use of computation to examine ‘tendencies’ in the design process seems promising”. This makes sense, as this is precisely what his earlier article in Kerb suggested needs to be happen3.

1801376_576812662402408_2045703302_o

1557299_576812609069080_1239894891_o

1913328_576812659069075_103836812_o
[Images from "strATA", a proposal to use "remote environmental sensing and large-scale climate models" to "build a feedback loop of sensing, reacting, and adaptation" toward designed incremental sedimentary deposition. "strATA" was produced by Lydia Gikas and Matt Rossbach in Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman's Fall 2013 studio at LSU.]

However, I think his quick concession that the second prong is not a promising direction for digital landscape architecture is, in fact, far too quick:

“Unless environmental sensors become widespread and embedded, there isn’t much opportunity for computational tools to engage with real-time feedback.”

Doesn’t the opening conditional here at least have a strong likelihood of being false in the near-future? Sensors are cheap, getting cheaper, and being deployed in a wide variety of environmental uses that read like science fiction: sedimentary particle trackers, autonomous underwater monitoring robot swarms, Plants employed as SEnsing Devices, the overlap of remote sensing and virtual fencing. Rather than “not much opportunity”, this seems an extremely promising field of study, if technologically volatile. (Bradley Cantrell‘s work is one obvious example of such exploration.)

Now let’s all go read Orrin Pilkey’s Useless Arithmetic while doing exercises from The Nature of Code.

mesosphere excavations

Govedare_Melt

Excavation-5

Mesosphere

Excavation-6
[Four recent atmospheric paintings of abstracted anthropogenic geomorphologies by Philip Govedare, whose work was recently featured on Butdoesitfloat. In order from top to bottom, the paintings are: "Melt", "Excavation #5", "Mesosphere", and "Excavation #6".]

semipile

FFM_1

FFM_2

FFM_3

FFM_4

[As a Friday return to blogging for mammoth, photographs of Formlessfinder's lovely half-pile under cantilevered canopy at Design Miami, December 2013. You can watch the architects talk about the design and construction of the pile over an exceptionally annoying soundtrack here.

More architecture via material deformation, please.

The photographs are, in order from top to bottom, by Flickr user Dave Pinter, Formlessfinder, Formlessfinder, and Dave Pinter again.]

environments of extraction

Poster_Storefront

I’ll be at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York this Friday evening, speaking on a panel about “Environments of Extraction”:

Resource extraction and urbanism have always had an intimate love/hate relationship. In the past fifty years, we have witnessed this relationship yield a series of global infrastructures and cities that are increasingly impacting and influencing all aspects of the globe. As these infrastructures, landscapes and territories become inadvertently integrated into the contemporary city, how can they be reconceived to address issues of urbanism that sit outside the logistics of resource extraction? During this panel discussion, we will examine the role of resource extraction on urbanism and question how design can hybridize these infrastructures with the competing forces of economics, geopolitics, cultural values, and ecologies.

The panel is part of the launch tour for Neeraj Bhatia and Mary Casper’s recent book, The Petropolis of Tomorrow, which “speculates on new methodologies for integrating infrastructure, landscape, urbanism and architecture within the larger spheres of economics, politics, and culture that implicate these disciplines”. The event should kick off around 7 pm this Friday (21 Feb) and is open to the public; Storefront is located at 97 Kenmare Street.

[You can follow the general progress of the Petropolis of Tomorrow research project through its research website and blog.]

glitches, flash crashes, and very bad futurists

Last fall, Vincent deBritto and Ozayr Saloojee invited me to come visit their Resilient Infrastructures project at the University of Minnesota; my main contribution was to deliver the lecture above, “Glitches, Flash Crashes, and Very Bad Futurists”. The lecture examines a particular class of landscape problem, which I’ve provisionally described as “glitches and flash crashes”, argues that this kind of problem reveals a potentially (literally) disastrous flaw in the project of distributed design, and concludes by recommending that architects and landscape architects draw on the tools and methodologies of the discipline of futurism to become better futurists. This brings together and expands on a pair of concepts that I began to develop in earlier posts on mammoth, “very bad futurists” and “unknown unknowns”.

Here’s my full description of the talk:

In the mid-nineteenth century, British geologist Charles Lyell travelled through the antebellum American South; what he found shocked him: forest-clearing, shoddy farming practices, and rainwater had worked together across broad swathes of the South to gouge vast and deep gullies that had no apparent geologic precedent.

This extremely rapid change—it took only a few years for millennia of accumulated soil to completely erode, leaving wounds that gaped often fifty, sixty, even eighty feet deep—might be understood as an example of how landscapes are prone to rapid perversion through the aggregate impact of many actors (in this case, farmers) behaving in accordance with misaligned incentives (in this case, a system of tenantry that favored exhausting plot after plot over developing sustainable practices for a single plot). Collectively, these tendencies both present difficulties for the design of resilient human settlements and suggest the need for designers to become better and more rigorous futurists.

north coast design competition

dredge-city_1
[Map of annual dredging volumes in American cities in the Great Lakes Basin, via Matthew Moffitt's project "Dredge City", which won the 2013 ASLA Student Award of Excellence in General Design.]

The city of Toledo is the epicenter of dredging on the Great Lakes: of the roughly three million cubic yards of material dredged in the Great Lakes every year, nearly a full third is sucked out of the Maumee Bay and deposited in disposal areas in and around Toledo.

This rapidly-accumulating surplus is the focus of the first North Coast Design Competition, initiated by fellow dredge fanatic Sean Burkholder. Entitled “Designing Dredge: Re-envisioning the Toledo Riverfront”, the 2014 edition of the competition offers an opportunity to explore the collision of dredged material management and large-scale public space on an urban riverfront, with the specific charge of creating a “dredge research” site, which would host activities like “de-watering experiments, plant growth studies and admixing operations” while “prioritiz[ing] the relationship between dredge material and the public”. (Which I find considerably more exciting than the perhaps more obvious suggestion that landscape architects make a few more parks.) Burkholder recently spoke with Landscape Architecture Magazine‘s Jennifer Reut about the reasoning behind the launch of the competition:

You’ve put the use of dredged material and dredge research sites at the center of the competition’s program. Why?
Dredging in particular is something that does occur in the entire basin, and that’s increasing because of water level recession in the lakes. Shipping is the most cost-effective means of transport in the area, and it continues to be a better option for moving bulk materials. Shipping is not going anywhere, so dredging is not going anywhere. It’s an inevitable condition that needs to be addressed.

Toledo is in the shallowest portion of the Great Lakes. Because of that, the shipping channel in Toledo is 20-plus miles long, so imagine what an incredible amount of material that is. The only way of getting ships into the port is continuous dredge… Right now, a dredge research site doesn’t exist. In order to be useful, the material needs to be tested and evaluated, and we need to experiment to see what we can actually do with it. There’s so much of it in Toledo, it makes sense for the experimentation to occur there.

Additional details about the competition, including schedule, requirements, background materials, and jury, can be found on the competition website. Registration opens February 1 and ultimately closes March 30.

[Jennifer Reut also recently interviewed Matthew Moffitt, whose drawing headlines this post, about his project "Dredge City". Burkholder was Moffitt's advisor for the project.]

sediment and wind

sediment-wind
[The even grid of the world's largest offshore wind farm, the London Array, surrounded by swirling sediment in the Thames Estuary. Seen at NASA Earth Observatory:

To date, the London Array includes 175 wind turbines aligned to the prevailing southwest wind and spread out across 100 square kilometers (40 square miles). Each turbine stands 650 to 1,200 meters apart (2,100 to 3,900 feet) and 147 meters (482 feet) tall. Each is connected by cables buried in the seafloor, and power is transmitted to two substations offshore and to an onshore station at Cleve Hill.

With construction operations working out of Ramsgate, the Array is eventually supposed to grow to 245 square kilometers (95 square miles). The wind farm sits on two natural sandbanks, with water as deep as 25 meters (80 feet). The site was chosen because of its proximity to onshore electric power infrastructure and because it stays out of the main shipping lanes through the area.

Via Tim Maly.]

land-making machines

audubon-dredge-at-rainey
[The Audubon Society's micro-dredger, the John James, making new land in the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in South Louisiana. Karen Westphal, Audubon’s Atchafalaya Basin program manager, will be speaking about this participatory micro-dredging project at DredgeFest Louisiana's symposium, which is this Saturday and Sunday at Loyola University in New Orleans.]

Tim Maly and I explain why we’re holding DredgeFest in Louisiana this coming weekend (and following week) for Gizmodo:

…south Louisiana is disappearing—terrifyingly fast. Sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, and canal excavation for industrial purposes have all combined with the constrainment of the river via flood control infrastructures to radically alter the balance between deposition, subsidence, and erosion. Instead of growing, the delta is now shrinking. Louisiana has lost over 1700 square miles of land (an area greater than the state of Rhode Island) since 1930. Without a change in course, it is anticipated to double that loss in the next fifty years. By 2100, subsidence, erosion, and sea level rise are projected to combine to leave New Orleans little more than an island fortress, effectively isolated in the rising Gulf of Mexico.

Moreover, even where the land itself may not be entirely submerged, the loss of barrier islands and coastal marshes exposes human settlements ever more precariously to the vicious effects of hurricanes and tropical storms, including the destructive waves known as storm surge.

This situation is entirely untenable. You thought Katrina was a terrible disaster? (It was.) Imagine what happens to New Orleans when a Category 6 hurricane hits in 2086, when even the highest ground in the French Quarter and the Garden District is barely above sea level and well below the ever-thickening barriers the Army Corps will throw up to protect America’s newest island.

In response to this apocalyptic but plausible threat, Louisiana is engaging in the world’s first large-scale experiment in restoration sedimentology. With the aid of components of the federal government like the Army Corps of Engineers and a bounty of funds earmarked for coastal restoration and protection as a result of payments owed by BP for the damages wrought by the 2010 Deep Horizon oil disaster, Louisiana has accelerated its nascent crash-program in experimental land-making machines, rapidly prototyping a wide array of weird and wonderful techno-infrastructural strategies for building land. This is an effort to cobble together a synthetic analog to the land-making machine that the Mississippi once was. If you want to understand the future of coastlines and deltas in a world of rising seas and surging storms, you should pay close attention to what is happening in Louisiana.

Read the full piece at Gizmodo. (And, if you’re able, come to DredgeFest Louisiana!)

the collision of geologic time and infrastructural control

“Before artificial levee construction, the river avulsed and a new delta was constructed every 1,000-1,500 yr: the active Plaquemines-Balize Delta began to form about 1,000 yr ago, and was for some time contemporaneous with the older Lafourche Delta, whereas diversion to the Atchafalaya River course began about 500 yr ago, but is now managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.”

[Michael Blum and Harry Roberts, "Drowning of the Mississippi Delta due to insufficient sediment supply and global sea-level rise"; PDF link]

hyper-reality: a new vision of the future

Long-time readers of mammoth may recall our excitement at Keiichi Matsuda’s short films Domestic Robocop and Augmented City, both of which present believable near-future visions of a world in which “synthetic spaces created by the digital information that we collect, consume and organise” supersede “the physical space of buildings and landscape”, while at the same time subtly critiquing the potentially dystopian character of this future.

Matsuda recently launched a Kickstarter to fund the production of a new set of films set in a similar future, swapping out London for Medellin. (I mention that swap because I think it’s a fantastic choice, given the socioeconomic, cultural, and architectural environment of Medellin.) Based on his earlier work, I think we can trust Matsuda when he says that “it will be an ambitious new vision of the future; instead of jetpacks, flying cars and robots, think smart cities, super-social media, and ubiquitous augmented reality. It will be a science fiction short for our time; introspective, critical, and beautifully designed.”

But if you won’t take my word for it, check out Matsuda’s launch video:

We don’t post many requests for funding on mammoth, but we highly encourage you to contribute (as we have) to Matsuda’s project, which has roughly a week left to obtain full funding. (The final deadline is Saturday, December 7.)

dredgefest louisiana

525_sediment delta

Things have been terribly quiet here at mammoth this fall. (Assuming that by “here” we mean “here, on the blog”; they’ve been quite busy if by “here” we mean “here in Ohio and Virginia”, which is where I’ve physically been. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to recap those adventures soon — there’s been quite a bit to write about.) One of the biggest reasons for that quietness is the enormous amount of planning and energy that’s gone into putting together DredgeFest Louisiana, which we’re very excited to now be able to publicly announce.

DredgeFest Louisiana is a symposiumfield expedition, and speculative design workshop about the human manipulation of sediments, from the infrastructural constraint of the Mississippi River at a continental scale to bright orange erosion control fences bulging with wet mud in a spring downpour on a suburban construction site. It is an encounter between government agencies, designers, theorists, academics, corporate practitioners, industry experts, students, and the public. It’ll be a lot like DredgeFest NYC, but with the emphasis on a lot: bigger, longer, more speculative, more intense. Much like the Mississippi River itself.

It will run January 11-17, 2014: a full week, though the individual components are two days (symposium), one day (tour), and four days (workshops).

It will move between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The symposium, which opens the event, is in New Orleans. The workshops will be hosted by the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture in Baton Rouge. The tour, which closes out DredgeFest Louisiana on January 17, will depart from and return to New Orleans.

Perhaps most importantly: tickets for DredgeFest Louisiana are available through Brown Paper Tickets, at dredgefestlouisiana.brownpapertickets.com. For the rest of November, tickets are available at an early-bird discount of 25% off. (You’ll see, if you click over to Brown Paper Tickets, that ticket prices are rather low, at least relative to similar events. This is because DredgeFest is a non-profit event — a labor of love — and we want to make DredgeFest open to as many people as possible. That said, space is limited, particularly for the workshops, so better to reserve tickets sooner rather than later.)

Read on for much more detail about the event theme and components.

525_DredgeFest Louisiana_Poster_11x17

Terrain
Geographer Richard Campanella has evocatively described the Mississippi River—which is North America’s largest river, discharging more than three times as much water as the next largest river in the United States—as the “land-making machine”. And, indeed, historically, this is what the Mississippi River did: it made land, building its enormous delta—the southern half of the state of Louisiana—over the course of a mere five thousand years, carrying approximately 400 million tons of sediment out of the center of the continent every year, and spraying that sediment around the edges of its mouth. Even today, constrained by levees reinforced with articulated concrete mattresses, locked into a single course at Old River Control, and starved of sediment by upstream dams, the Mississippi River retains potent land-making power, readily evidenced, for instance, by the growth of the Wax Lake Delta, a new delta southwest of New Orleans formed as a by-product of the reorganization of river flows for navigation and flood control. Nearly 200 million tons of sediment still flow every year down the Mississippi and its primary branch, the Atchafalaya.

At the same time, south Louisiana is shrinking. Sea-level rise, salt water intrusion, canal excavation for industrial purposes, and flood control along the edge of the Mississippi River have altered the balance between deposition, subsidence, and erosion. As a consequence, Louisiana has lost over 1700 square miles of land (an area greater than the state of Rhode Island) since 1930, and, without a change in course, is anticipated to double that loss in the next fifty years. Settlements from Lake Charles to Bayou LaFourche to New Orleans are endangered by this loss, both directly—as the land itself disappears—and indirectly, as the loss of barrier islands and coastal marshes exposes settlements to storm surge, while heralding the loss of the terrain that extractive industries, from oysters to oil, depend upon for harvesting resources.

This is the terrain that DredgeFest Louisiana enters into.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Topics
DredgeFest begins with dredging, the linear industrial activity of uplifting sediments and transporting them to new locations. But DredgeFest is about much more than dredging. We believe that dredging is a key component of a much wider cycle of human practices that accelerate, decelerate, transport, and materially alter sediments. We are interested in how the full range of technologies, practices, and organizations operating within that wider cycle collectively alters sedimentary balances, both eroding and generating landscapes.

DredgeFest will investigate topics such as dredging methods, sea-level rise, the beneficial uses of dredged material, habitat restoration, marsh terracing, land loss, barrier island reconstruction, invasive species, revetments, spillways, floods, hurricanes, river flow models, advanced geotextiles, landscape robotics, novel ecosystems, feedback cycles, and turbidity curtains. We are curious about the instruments of public participation within the dredge cycle: grassroots organizations, volunteer efforts, environmental health and justice, the political economy of dredge. We are interested in the choreography of sediment along the length of the Mississippi, from Corn Belt farms to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sediment is foundational to Louisiana, playing a more obviously active role in the lives of Louisianans than in the lives of any other American state. We’re excited to hold DredgeFest in Louisiana because we believe Louisiana is living in the future: experiencing the aggregate consequences of human activities for coastal regions sooner and faster than perhaps any other part of the nation, and experimenting with the tools, methods, and practices that will be required to cope with those consequences. We think that more people should be aware of these things, so we are putting on a festival, open to the public.

525_2013-02-14_13-25-12_744

Schedule
Saturday, January 11-Sunday, January 12
Symposium (New Orleans)

Like the symposium at our previous event, DredgeFest NYC, the symposium at DredgeFest Louisiana will bring together a broad mix of disciplines, corporations, public agencies and organizations in live public conversation, exploring and explaining dredge.

Confirmed symposium participants include:
Sean Burkholder, Assistant Professor of Architecture, University at Buffalo
Travis K. Bost
, architectural designer and independent researcher
Richard Campanella, Geographer and Senior Professor of Practice, Tulane University
Bradley Cantrell, Associate Professor and Director of the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University
Sarah Cowles, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, The Ohio State University
Andrea Galinski, Strategic Planning, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
Stephen Hall, Associate Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Louisiana State University
Justine Holzman, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University
Kees Lokman, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington University in St. Louis
Andy Nyman
, Professor of Wetland Wildlife Ecology, Louisiana State University
Susan Testroet-Bergeron, Public Outreach Coordinator, Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act
Eugene Turner, Distinguished Research Master and Shell Endowed Chair in Oceanography and Wetlands Studies, Louisiana State University
Robert Twilley, Professor and Executive Director, Louisiana Sea Grant
Karen Westphal, National Audubon Society Louisiana Coastal Initiative and the Paul J Rainey Wildlife Refuge
Clint Willson
, Director of Engineering Design and Innovation, the Water Institute of the Gulf

The symposium will be accompanied by an exhibition of research on sedimentary landscapes in South Louisiana conducted by the Coastal Sustainability Studio, Public Lab, and the Dredge Research Collaborative, along with additional work by other independent researchers. It will also be followed by an advance screening of “The Fluid and the Solid”, a documentary film by Ben Mendelsohn and Alex Chohlas-Wood about dredging, the Anthropocene, and the exponential rise of human earth moving.

Monday, January 13-Thursday, January 16
Workshops (Baton Rouge)

Internationally-renowned designers including Smout Allen (Bartlett School of Architecture), Case Brown (P-REX), Alexander Robinson (University of Southern California), Bradley Cantrell (LSU), Richard Hindle (LSU) and Jeff Carney (LSU) will join the Dredge Research Collaborative to lead fast-paced, intensive, and speculative small-group design workshops, running January 13-15. Collectively, the workshops are arranged under the theme of “Dredge Futurism” — future scenarios related to the dredge cycle that may lie outside the investigative scope of official predictive procedures. Three detailed tracks — “Adaptive Devices”, “Hybrid Landscapes”, and “Regional Choreography” — will explore distinctive takes on that dredge futurism. (Full descriptions of the track themes can be found at the DredgeFest website.)

A day-long large-group workshop, led by the DRC and open to all LSU landscape architecture students free of charge, will follow on January 16.

Friday, January 17
Tour (New Orleans)

This bus tour of dredge landscapes in the lower Mississippi River Delta, leaving from New Orleans, will be ticketed, open to the general public, and led by the Dredge Research Collaborative with local experts.

525_2013-02-14_13-03-55_303

Partners
DredgeFest Louisiana is organized by the Dredge Research Collaborative with assistance from our partners, including the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, the Coastal Sustainability Studio at Louisiana State University, and Gulf Coast Public Lab.

Series
DredgeFest is a roving event series. The first DredgeFest was held in New York City on September 28 and 29, 2012. DredgeFest NYC was organized in partnership with Studio-X NYC, an arm of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; sponsored by Arcadis, TenCate, and TWFM Ferry; and featured speakers and content from agencies including the US Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and New York City Economic Development Corporation. The event was covered in The Atlantic MonthlyWired DesignUrban Omnibus,Dredging TodayScenario JournalLandscape Architecture Frontiers China, and Landscape Architecture Magazine. A full description and video archive of the event can be found here.

finance fundamentals i

Mammoth has long held an interest in the broad social, economic, and logistical systems which provide the context within which any infrastructure, landscape, or building is designed and constructed. One particularly important contextual component is the nature of a project’s financing. This is true for the Panama Canal Expansion, it is true for the Fresh Kills Landfill transformation, and it was true for building the Seattle Public Library. It is true for every new Starbucks, and the suburban freeway extensions which instigate their construction. The environment you are sitting in right now, reading this post, was almost certainly facilitated in part by someone with a background in finance.

Unfortunately, in my experience, finance (and money generally) has been a particularly inscrutable topic for designers. At best, it’s just not something we’ve taken the time to learn with any sort of rigor; at worst, an explicit focus on money, profitability, and financial value is considered to be taboo in the design professions.

Lacking basic financial literacy is harmful to the design professions, especially now, when profit margins are slim and the value designers bring is being called into question. How can we defend the value of our profession when we’re barely able to define ‘value’ in the first place? We’re bringing renderings to a gun fight. Beyond self-justification, understanding the financial constraints and opportunities for each specific project will help improve the chances for outstanding architecture by allowing architects to better leverage our position at the nexus of the project team.

I’m sure, by now, you’ve heard all these arguments before. After all, SHoP built the Porter House, one of the first projects to wear a design-develop model of architectural practice on its sleeve, nearly a decade ago. The past few years of Great Recession have seen calls for increased architectural agency (the most common buzzword for intervening more explicitly in politics, finance, technological development, community outreach, etc.) accelerate even more. And firms like Alloy are creating highly successful projects while breaking new ground by vertically integrating design, development, and construction practices within a studio environment.

So let’s say you buy it. It’s time to learn more about finance. Well, what does that mean?

Most of the time, it’s discussed in vague principles about accepting increased risk — financial, liability, or both — in return for increased reward and opportunity to influence a project. It’s time to add some specificity to this dialogue. Something I’d like to talk about in the near to mid term future (a timeline you should absolutely disregard, given that this is my first solo post in about 14 years) are proposals for alternate ways architects can structure their fees, form nimble partnerships and team organizations on a per-project basis, appropriate and share risk, minimize overhead expenses, and find recurring revenue streams beyond design fees. But to have these discussions, it’s important to establish a set of baseline metrics and principles which can be used to compare different options among the topics above. How are things done now? How does an investor know whether a project has been successful? How do they determine how much they can spend?

To answer these questions, we first need to learn a little math.

I’d like to run through a few basic financial definitions and principles used in the real estate industry. This won’t turn you into an investor, but hopefully it sheds light on some of the key metrics which drive the real estate industry, and shifts a few unknown unknowns into known unknowns.

There are a handful of key metrics I want to describe – Internal Rate of Return (IRR), Net Present Value (NPV), Discount Rates, Net Operating Income (NOI), Cap Rates, and Loan to Value (LtV) – and how we derive those metrics from estimates (hopefully based off of sound market research) about expenses and revenues associated with the property. This post, long though it is, will only discuss IRR, and hint at discount rates and NPV. I may get around to writing about the others in another few years.

The first thing you need to know about investing is that you do it to make money. The second thing you need to know about investing is that having money today is worth more than having money tomorrow (not just because of inflation, but also due to risk – money you’re waiting to receive is hypothetical until it’s actually in-hand). So when evaluating an investment, you need to figure out how much it’s expected to make you over a specified period of time (called the ‘Future Value’ or FV), then revert those numbers back into today’s dollars to get an apples-to-apples comparison with the other potential investments you’re evaluating (called the ‘Present Value’ or PV).

The most common metric used to determine future value is called ‘Internal Rate of Return’, or IRR. This is a fancy way of saying, if you put this money in the bank, what is the compound interest it would have to earn to give you the same amount of money at end of an identical number of time periods? IRR translates between PV and FV according to the following formula: FV = (1+IRR)^n * PV (where n = the number of periods over which the rate is compounded). IRR is one way of determining the bang for your buck for an investment.

Why is that the formula?

Imagine you have $100, and you will earn 10% per year by making a certain investment. At the end of the first year, how much will you have? it’s pretty simple – 100 * .1 equals $10, which what you earned. Add the original $100 you started with, and you’re at $110. In the second year, that $110 becomes the figure earning 10% – so we take 110 * .1 and get 11 in earned interest, then add that to the 110 we started year two with, and we’re at 121. Shown in a single equation, we’re doing this:

$100 * (1.10) * (1.10) =
100 * 1.21 =
$121
OR
$100 * (1 + .1)^2 = $121
$100 * (1.1)^2 = $121

You take the rate and add it to one (the one accounts for the starting value, instead of adding it back in like we did above), raise it to whatever power equals the number of periods over which the interest will be compounded (this could be monthly, yearly, whatever – for real estate investing and mortgages, it’s almost always described in yearly values [but compounded monthly, which is a twist we'll ignore here]), then multiply it by the starting value – and, voila, you have your future value.

FV = (1+IRR)^n * PV.

Now, where this formula starts to get really useful is when you use a little algebra to take a known present value, future value, and number of periods to figure out your IRR. Imagine I’m presenting you with two buildings. One costs $125, and will make you $12/year for the next 5 years. The second costs $113 and will make you $12/yr for the first 2 years, but only $11/yr for the last 3. Which one has a higher rate of return? (You’ll need a scientific calculator that can take the nth root of a number – the 5th root, in this instance – to solve for the unknown IRR)

FV1 = 125 + 12*5 = $185

FV2 = 113 + 12*2 + 11*3 = $170

IRR1: $185 = (1+IRR)^5 * 125; IRR = 8.2%
IRR2: $170 = (1+IRR)^5 * 113; IRR = 8.5%

When we run the numbers, we see that building two has the higher IRR, despite having lower total FV, because your going-in cost was lower as well. In our simplified scenario, we would therefore consider building two to be the better investment, because our money is working harder for us — those dollars are earning just a bit more each year.

Right about now you’re thinking – surely this is too easy, there must be more to it. And you’re right, of course. There is no one magical metric in real estate finance that can be relied upon to guarantee a good project. There are two main shortcomings with an IRR-only analysis. First, it doesn’t tell you anything about cashflow. And second, it doesn’t tell you anything about risk.

Cashflow is exactly what it sounds like – flows of cash into and out of a project, business, investment, whatever. Cashflow is particularly important in real estate because of something called debt service. Debt service is the payments you make on your mortgage, construction loan, acquisition loan – they are the dollars that you owe your lender, as opposed to your investors. Buildings and land are, for the most part, really expensive, so it’s rare to pay for acquisition and construction costs without debt financing. However, It’s not just a lack of purchasing power that makes debt such an important component of real estate financing. Even if you could afford to buy the building, you’ll typically still want to borrow money for it because it increases your return on equity higher than the return on the overall returns achieved by the investment.

This is called leverage, because it allows a multiplication of the initial force — the equity you put into the investment — into much higher returns. Here’s an extreme example to show how that works: imagine you have a project which costs $100 and achieves a 15% IRR. You pay $100 out of pocket, and you have $115 at the end of the year. Nice and tidy. But what if you only needed to pay $1 for that same investment, and borrowed the rest at 5% interest? The cost of borrowing would be just under $5 for the year, but you’d still have the rights to the $15 of returns at year’s end – resulting in a net gain of about $10 on your $1 investment. The return on equity (your own invested dollars) is 1,000% instead of 115%, even though the project itself is still only returning 115%. And because you only tied up one dollar in this investment, you can look for more leveraged opportunities for the other $99 you didn’t spend – if they could perform similarly, each $1 earning $10, you’d have about $1,000 at the end of the year, instead of $115. That’s the power of leverage. It’s the reason Mitt Romney could run for president.

Excessive leverage (meaning borrowing a higher percentage of the overall cost) can lead to extraordinary profits, but it also dramatically increases the risk of default. If you can’t make that $5 interest payment, for any reason, the money you invested is lost. This is one reason folks get mad at private equity firms — when the acquired companies collapse, it’s often because they can’t afford the amount of debt the PE firms saddled the companies with. It’s the same principle in real estate, but with foreclosure on the property instead of bankruptcy for a company.

So, you see where I’m going with this cashflow issue. A $100 investment which returns $0 in year one and $121 in year two, and and a $100 investment which returns $10 in year one and $111 in year two will both have a 10% IRR, and both have a future value of $121. But if you have to make an $8 interest payment each year, you’ll default under scenario one. Just looking at the IRR doesn’t show that, but it’s really important stuff to know. Can I make enough to cover my debt service, when each payment is owed? Does the project maintain positive cashflow?

Additionally, you’ll want to know where different portions of that cashflow come from to understand how each affects the overall IRR. How much of my return comes from rent? How much come from selling the property? When you buy a property, you might purchase one with leases in place for the next 5 years – this money is relatively low risk, as it’s under contract. But you’ll also make assumptions about how much you’ll be able to sell the property for – this is much harder to predict than rents you have under contract, and is consequently higher risk. It’s important to know how much of your return comes from cashflows with different risk profiles.

Which brings us to the second major limitation of the IRR metric — it doesn’t tell you anything about risk, only the returns.

Say I come to you tomorrow with an investment projected to have an IRR of 145% over the next three months. Assume there are no anticipated negative cashflow events. Sounds pretty good! Until I tell you that the investment is in stolen iPhones which you’ll have to sell out of the trunk of your car, and you’ll almost certainly get arrested. It’s a risky business.

You might have a property showing a 45% IRR, but without additional metrics, there’s no no way of factoring in that you only have a 50% chance of actually realizing that return. This is where our next key metrics, discounted cashflow analysis and net present value (NPV), come in handy. But I’ll leave the description of those for another time…