Mingjie Cai and Suzanne Mathew
MC: The first question is about the educational trends and development of landscape architecture in RISD. In the topic selection of the 2020 RISD Master of Landscape Architecture thesis, I noticed some topics related to "Ruralism": shifting the main body of research to non-urban areas, involving the urban hinterland, exploring the development model of local communities, etc. It responds to the ongoing discussion of planetary urbanization: the rural area is inevitably urbanized through globalization and logistics development, dissolving the boundary between urban and non-urban. The Green New Deal proposed in 2019 is also a planning and design policy based in the US and on a larger scale, with regional and local specificity. How do you think the scaling-up tendency in research and design affects the field of Landscape Architecture? Especially the impact on the direction of RISD's landscape architecture education?
The field has been multi-scalar for some time – with the introduction of ecological planning in the late 1960’s and the publication of Design With Nature by Ian McHarg, landscape architecture began analyzing systems beyond the site scale. The landscape urbanism trend, beginning in the 1990’s, brought these ecological considerations into cities, and expanded landscape to the infrastructural scale. What I think is shifting now is that we understand that landscape thinking means examining relationships between human and non-human environments, and between current constructions and future climatic conditions. I think the shift to examine rural and regional contexts is less about the dissolving of the relationship between the urban and non-urban and more about the reframing of all constructed environments as a negotiation between human cultures, natural systems, non-human habitats, and climate dynamics.
At RISD, we approach multi-scalar design in every studio while looking at different contexts, and therefore, are focusing on a different sets of relationships each time. One studio may focus on the relationship between human and non-human ecologies, another will focus on the relationship between a range of communities, infrastructure, and the spatial environment of cities. In each we will look at the body scale, the spatial scale, the systems scale, and the regional scale, so that we understand how the forces we work with shape the environment from the watershed down to the curb. Within these relationships we are also looking at various scales of time and change: from what your senses perceive in the present, to the historical impact that cultural shifts have on built form, to the long-range impacts of climate changes. Landscape design now is as much about form as it is about the choreography of dynamics between built form and social, cultural, and environmental dynamics.
MC: At the end of 2019, you worked with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for two weeks conducting field studies and workshops on the topic of "How microclimate factors define space in the landscape" in Alnarp Landscape Lab. As I know, you have been focused on developing new techniques for measuring and visualizing the invisible, temporal, and environmental phenomena that shape landscape space. In your previous research, you mentioned the microclimate factors include light, shadow, wind, temperatures, etc., which define our space through non-visual sensory perception. Could you talk about how you control and manipulate the tactile scale and visual scale in these research projects? How is this research method based on sensory perception applied to the teaching practice of landscape architecture program in RISD?
My work is primarily concerned with increasing our sensory awareness, and as a result, our recognition of space when it is defined by something other than a physical boundary. I’m interested in how our bodies sense changes in the environment that are subtle and often happen too quickly to notice (shifts in light, temperature, humidity) and also in how we convert those sensations into a spatial impression. What are the many ways in which we feel enclosure outside? I approach the question methodically – I choose an environment to study, observe and document its microclimatic conditions, and then use that ‘data’ to visualize these atmospheres. Sensory-spatial perception is complex, and over time I’ve found it necessary to develop methods that allow me to isolate different climatic factors, measure and observe them incrementally, and then unpack what my body has experienced in space. The last step, which I think is crucial, is to translate that bodily comprehension into a drawing or model that can convey qualities of volume, depth, and dimension, as well as qualities of weight, rhythm, and atmosphere -- because these are all characteristics that help us recognize space.
My survey methods utilize a variety of instruments to take samples of atmospheric conditions, but my goal is not to rely on the data to measure and model the environment. Instead, I think the acts of using a tool, recording measurements, and conducting a survey, can be used to train the body. It’s process of meditation, deep observation, and physical exercise, and it serves as a way to condition the body and mind to recognize sensory space. In my work, measuring helps me to slow down, to notice and consider small changes, and to decide whether the changes I notice are significant. It strengthens my awareness in the moment through a dialogue that happens between my body and the survey. An instrument may tell me one thing (‘the temperature is a certain number of degrees, the wind is coming from a certain direction at x mph, the light levels are increasing’), but my body will put it into a sensory and spatial context (‘I feel warm, these buildings are directing the pattern of airflow, this canopy creates a cool and deep shade’). Often, I find that as I simultaneously perceive and measure, I will disagree with the data, and this moment of surprise can really help me discern what is actually happening around me. It is simultaneously about becoming more immersed in the environment and more cognizant of my own bodily reactions. When we are methodical about how we observe, we get a better sense of how our bodies perceive things we feel but cannot see.
At RISD, we begin with these intensified methods of observation and then we use the collected ‘data set’ to play. The way we unpack and visualize becomes the next step in reconnecting a sensory experience to something that invokes a bodily and spatial reaction. While scientific methods of data collection are useful to be more precise in observing complex phenomena, artistic methods are critical to restoring a ‘sense’ to the data. For the data to carry a spatial affect, it requires translation into something we can recognize, and maybe also something we can feel. Traditional methods of modeling or plotting the data in space can create a loose outline for atmospheric space. But for us to depict the spatial feeling in a drawing, we need artistic techniques to evoke a visceral response in the viewer. Once we can do that, atmospheric space becomes something that we can actively shape as we design.
MC: Compare to MLA programs worldwide, RISD's landscape graduate program has its distinctive features: it is not only involved in the US landscape architecture education system, but also set up under the structure of art school, enabling exchanges and cooperation with up to 16 different fine art disciplines. According to my own experience and observation, RISD's teaching philosophy emphasizes critical making in the process of creation and design, not just critical thinking. Does this design philosophy of thinking by hands reflect RISD education that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between ideas and actions and lets actions advance ideas during the creation process? What do you think of the interdisciplinary innovation potential brought by this unique multi-art discipline environment of RISD?
I hinted at this in the last response, but I believe that we all have some form of artistic cognition. It’s how we integrate meaning into our comprehension of the world. We think with our hands (and senses, and feelings) differently than we think with our logical ‘mind’, and RISD teaches students to tap into these other ways of thinking. Our understanding of the world doesn’t come from logic, analysis, or measurement alone. Using our artistic and intuitive cognition allows us to deal with complexity by accessing our personal reactions to the world – be they cultural, aesthetic, sensory, or remembered. So yes – we do emphasize a process that moves back and forth between letting your hand and eye drive and letting your thinking respond. When you add to this the fact that our students are taking classes across design and fine arts disciplines – in everything from glass, to digital media, film, illustration, photography, sculpture – we really start to see a proliferation in what this process can yield. Each of the disciplines bring their own material processes, ways of seeing, and relationship to the environment.
We work with so many invisible complexities in the landscape, and it is exciting to see how these complexities unravel when we use materials and processes that come from other artistic disciplines. To really understand it you have to see the work, but at the core of it, artistic practices allow us to express complexity without simplification because artistic practice doesn’t require a solution. We forget sometimes that design also isn’t always about solving a problem. It’s similar to the difference between prose and poetry: prose is more likely to inform through clarity, precision, and explicit description, while poetry informs through imagery, metaphor, and the pluripotency of ambiguity. Both are necessary as designing the landscape requires both the precision and expression. We don’t relate to space or the environment from a purely functional point of view; we use our poetic and artistic senses to engage and understand, and therefore I believe it makes sense for us to use artistic processes to explore, to analyze, and also to design.
This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture journal February volume, 2022. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.