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Physical modelling in landscape architecture: exploring a design tool for the explorative phases in

Graduation work by Jolanda de Jong

Why do landscape architects not always consider the physical model (“maquette”) as a design tool in the explorative phases of the design process? There must be a reason for this – or even better: a solution to it. As literature did not provide an answer, I started interviewing in practice and experimented with materials and techniques. My curiosity nourished my drive to explore more, to rethink and to reflect. All in order to explore the physical model as a design tool for the explorative design phases in dynamic landscape design. To grasp – at least a small part of – the design process.

The physical model as an analogue tool is closely related to a hand sketch: a way of sketching in three dimensions. A lot of re­search is done on the importance of hand sketches in the design process, but almost no research exists concerning the use of physical models. However, I believe physical modelling offers possibilities for qualitative exploration, which is expected to be of use for dynamic landscape design. With that in mind, this thesis shows a way in which physical models can contribute to the explorative phases of (the) dynamic landscape design (process). After exploring the current use of physical models in (landscape) architecture, an explorative study is carried out to find a specific design tool for physical dynamic landscape modelling.

Figure 1: Thesis focus: making physical models for qualitative exploration in dynamic landscape design

The current use of models The reason why (landscape) architects are using physical models in their design process is led by the value they attach to the tool. From literature I learned that modelling creates a bridge between thinking and making. By interviewing and observing I found out what value practicing architects, landscape architects and students assign to the physical model; and why and when they do – or do not – use physical models in the design process.

Figure 2: The model as a physical thing that hangs around and inspires at the office of karres+brands, Hilversum

It became clear that a physical model helps a designer to understand, to think, to test and to communicate design (ideas). This variety makes the physical model an effective, but also an explosive design tool. One can use it for many purposes and in many ways, but there is no single answer on how to do what when making models. The design, design process and designer(s) depend whether or not to model and how; relating to abstraction and reduction, using certain materials, techniques on a certain scale/size.

Figure 3: Examples of models, (left) used in an WUR Atelier project to design a paths system, (right) used by West8 to simulate flowing water (photo by Made by Mistake)

Although landscape architects assign a high value to the use of physical models at different moments in their design process, they do not use it (or exceptionally) for assignments concerning the dynamic landscape. If a dynamic landscape model is made, it is used to present; and not implemented in the explorative phases of the design process. Landscape architects are lacking the habit to make and use dynamic landscape models broadly in their design processes. To fill this lack of knowledge, to improve skills and to develop experience, an explorative study is carried out in the second part of this thesis.

A physical model for dynamic landscape design Focussed on flowing water and growing vegetation, three series of experiments and a subsequent case-study were executed. The experiments led to a substantiated choice for materials and techniques suitable for dynamic landscape modelling. Three aspects stood out: the use of Magic sand for an explorative landscape study (figure 4), the use of a simple and easy ‘do-try-this-at-home/the office’-set up for physically modelling the dynamics of flowing water (for which Magic sand is suitable; figure 5;), and the use of cress (Lepidum sativum) for physically modelling the dynamics of growing vegetation (which can grow on Magic sand; figure 6). The results from the experiments were translated into a case-study in which a dynamic landscape model was made and tested for a specific design process.

Figure 4: From a series of experiments, Magic sand (mid) stood out as a suitable material for an explorative landscape study; more suitable than clay (left) and plaster (right)

Figure 5: From a series of experiments, a simple set up of sand and water was most suitable to model the dynamics of flowing water

Figure 6: From a series of experiments, cress (Lepidum sativum) was a suitable material to model the dynamics of growing vegetation

The design process chosen was the design process of fellow MSc thesis student Carlo Leonardi. Carlo made a masterplan for the reclamation of a post-mining landscape. He approached this from a phenomenological point of view. As Carlo struggled to design his masterplan further, I developed a dynamic landscape model of a representational part of his masterplan in order to let Carlo find out ‘how to deal with a growing forest’, ‘how to deal with rainwater runoff and soil erosion’ and ‘how to deal with phenomenology in the design’ (figure 7).

Figure 7: The dynamic landscape model (1:200) representing a representational part of Carlo’s masterplan (left), including a water pumping system (right)

To explore how Carlo’s design process was influenced by the use of the dynamic landscape model, three things were part of the testing and reflecting phase: a logbook Carlo kept, the process when Carlo had the model physically around and photos to track the model’s development.

During three days Carlo had the model around for about 1,5 hour each day (figure 8). Carlo was able to take a look at the model and he was asked to think out loud. I only asked some steering questions to test whether and how this model could help him. Water was flowing through the model, rainfall and sunshine was simulated, using a spray bottle and flashlight.

Figure 8: Testing and reflecting the model in Carlo’s design process

When analysing the use of the model in Carlo’s design process, video-materials of the three days were transcribed and coded to find the effect of the physical dynamic landscape model on Carlo’s design process and design (ideas). A part of the visualisation of this video transcript is shown in figure 9.

Figure 9: Part of the visualisation of the video transcript in which the content of Carlo’s thoughts is related to my talk, the interaction with the model and the dynamics of the model: the length of every coloured block represents the amount of words.

When reading the video transcript in combination with watching the movies, it becomes clear that the content of the talk around the model (‘Carlo’s thoughts’) is influenced by the appearance of the model, the interaction with the model and the dynamics of the model. It appeared that the dynamic physical model has an added value over a static physical model. The moment that the model was highly dynamically active, Carlo’s design process got “surprising twists”. The water flew over the lowest bridge, which was unexpected, and the effects of rainfall and sunshine surprised Carlo and stimulated him to think even more about his design and its materiality. The model dynamics also provoked Carlo to think of references (e.g. rainy and muddy situations and a walk in a park with closing vegetation). This makes the model even more a stimulator of creativity, thus landscape architect Daniel Ganz (Ganz landscape architecture).

Besides Carlo’s interaction with the model, the development of the dynamic landscape model was tracked by taking seven pictures each day from the same viewpoints (figure 10).

Figure 10: Keeping track of the model’s development (left: day 1, middle: day 4, right: day 6)

Last but not least, I made a movie of the model itself in which the model was presented with natural sounds that were recorded on the actual project site in Brazil. In this way I explored the dynamic landscape model as a tool to reflect upon the phenomenological effect of the design. Film stills of the movie are shown in figure 11.

Figure 11: Film stills of the movie of the model: natural sounds of animals, wind and rain recorded on the project site are part of this movie

From the case-study two things came out: an example of how to build a physical dynamic landscape model for exploring the dynamics of flowing water and growing vegetation, and an example of how this model exactly could be used in and influenced a specific phenomenological design process (and its design outcome).

Evaluation of the results Although saturation was closely reached in the in-depth study, the results might have been influenced by the author’s preconceptions or expectations. The experiments carried out were not exhaustive and led by trial and error; the case-study offers only one example for one design process. However, because the design process (of building the model and using it to design) is tracked, transcribed and analysed, this thesis offers a comprehensive example of a way in which physical models can contribute to the landscape architectural design process for dynamic landscape design, which makes it a starting point for further research. I hope this inspires landscape designers [you] to start modelling, to experience and apply this (or preferable an even better) way of physical modelling, in order to develop knowledge, skills and experience on physically modelling dynamic landscapes. Together we can identify, recognize and widen the habit of the landscape architect.

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