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Thoughts as design sketches: why landscape architects should don their mental lab coats & experiment

Article by Mercy Ikuri.

Recently the IFLA Africa Symposium 2015 was held at our university here in Kenya. The International Federation for Landscape Architects-Africa Symposium overflowed with a spectrum of lessons and ideas exchanged between professionals, students and academics from various corners of the world, including USA, Nigeria, South Africa and the Netherlands. Consequently I find myself garnishing this paper with some of the gems collected from sessions such as the workshop on Geo-design by Carl Steinitz and a discussion of the Kenyan Landscape Architecture curriculum that got me thinking about thinking. No, that was not a typo.

“On the whole, it must be more important to be skillful in thinking than to be stuffed with facts.”

-Edward de Bono-

During the symposium’s quick-fire question and answer sessions of some presentations, a friend and I mused over the fact that it seemed that the hardest thing for many a designers to do is to accept (even the remote possibility) that all their hard and creative work is all for naught. Or that it may, in time, become obsolete. Therefore we tend to fight to the death to defend our ideas. Do we feel that the ideas we deliver, just by the virtue of being our own and involving an arguably laborious process, are the holy untouchable answers to all the problems the project at hand presents? Why not accept the ‘mortality’ of our ideas?

Now that you are aboard my train of thought, let me speed this up; having analyzed how landscape-architecture solutions are implemented both at the individual and collective level, I am suggesting the approach of experimentation as a potent learning and design realization tool. This has resulted from my, being inspired by Bryan Lawson’s book, “How Designers Think; The Design Process Demystified” that I chanced upon as a sophomore and the mode of experimental and participatory design taken up by Hellowood- an architectural camp in Hungary. These present a way of designing that I really long to see taking place here in my country so as to involve students more dynamically, not just in theoretical problems and projects where students do not actively interact with sites and situations.

Hellowood Camp 2015 hosted 150 practising architects, academics and students who took part in the “Project Village” which they defined as “an architectural experiment that redefines the concept of the village. This was an endeavor in a creative re-imagining of spaces as found within a village and the process involved getting team leaders from all over the world to sketch out project ideas. Later, students came in to embellish these in their own designerly ways and build the projects to completion!

Or you must have heard of the Piano Staircase or the World’s Deepest Bin, two experiments that exploited what is called the „fun theory; the theory states that something which is simple and fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better. This was getting more people to use staircases and dispose of litter better in their respective cases.

Experimenting can be fun but before one can gain the creative freedom to experiment perhaps one needs to map out a line of thinking that facilitates a more quality design process and eventually, a quality product. How we think things through forms the context of the design solutions we offer; it affects expression and organization. Thus, even when toying with ideas, a system that orders thoughts out to be in place.

“To regard thinking as a skill rather than a gift is the first step towards doing something improve that skill”

-Edward de Bono, Practical Thinking-

So out with the rugged thinking cap…it’s time for some mental lab coats! I am of the opinion that in order to find ways of turning landscapes and especially the urbanscapes that are ever so dynamic and complex into living labs of our design solutions, we must first build our own ‘mental labs’.

Everybody loves “listicles” -those very tempting articles that come in the form of lists, so here are 10 “lab rules” to hopefully ensure that not a thought is for naught and that with clarity and consistency, the 70,000 conscious and sub-conscious trains of thoughts flowing through your mind have a desirable design destination.

“Design is such a drug, so fascinating and yet of course so frequently frustrating and infuriating.” -Bryan Lawson, How Designers Think; The Design Process Demystified-

1. Let go of the assumption that your design idea is right. Do not over-emphasize the word “design” and forget it is just an idea or that success depends on a lot of factors. Time, for example; a design that works now may be in ruins in a few decades or so. Or even considering the scale; many designs that perform exceedingly well on the small-scale are harder to fit into a larger frame of a landscape.

2. Monitor your thinking during the design project phases of enthusiasm, disillusionment and panic. This affects one’s analysis, synthesis, evaluation, development and eventual communication of ideas. Consider thought organization; what follows what? Do you tend to start with the highly creative aspect and wrap it up with the highly technical one? That brings me to…

3. Your thoughtflow. You have to “flow”; avoid getting stuck in the cul-de-sac of one idea. At the symposium, James Richards-famed urban designer and sketchbook artist whose work we have been ardently studying as a class- shared one secret; small sketches equal fast thinking / design process equals more volume which then equals more ideas. Thoughts are your mental sketches; the quantity is already there (70,000 remember?) so make them quick quality ones.

4. Read, draw, write, then repeat. What then stimulates your flow of ideas? New places?…Then travel! Or walk it out. Colors? Images? … Then draw! Words?… Then write! Or read… One of the paradoxes of creativity is that we have to familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others before we originate our own. Some would call it fishing for ideas; I say it is simply fishing with others before you get the hang of it and start getting your own catch or batch of ideas. If done in complementary fashion to each other this sequence can prove beneficial in many a visual and verbal communications.

5. Have fun in failure. Simply use the ideas that were a dead-end as a lighthouse to guide you through the darkness of your search to discover what works. Your 70,000th bulb might just light up so brilliantly that it illuminates the rest of the world of ideas and designs.

6. Intellectually interact with other people especially those not in your filed or even remotely related to it. Allow others, including consumers of your profession, to infill your design. Again at the Symposium (you should have been there), Carl Steinitz, spoke of one time when asked which of the student projects was the best, he explicitly said none of them was good. However, he had told the client, a little bit of design A and a little bit design B over there and that other one (when brought together) would make a better design. So let others in on your idea. This will give you a panoramic view of issues, enhancing your breadth and depth, and give you more mental fodder to toy with consciously or otherwise.

7. Have what I call “result independency” where you are not so fixated on your ideas working out that you miss out on some valuable lessons along the way because what you think will definitely work may absolutely not. We are not presenting to the world a well-wrapped gift box, red ribbon and all, but simply a piece to what we think is the problem puzzle…and it may or may not fit. It as simple as that…. and considering how tenacious with our designs we can be, as hard as that.

8. Be ready to do it all over again. The project, the design, the idea…whatever it is, have a waste basket and a fresh sketchbook nearby. Wax on, wax off, my friend.

9. Be ready to do it all anew. I mentioned the fresh sketchbook, didn’t I?

10. Know, experiment on and manifest the Seven Da Vincian Principles. In “How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci” Michael J. Gelb extrapolates all of the above pointers in greater and more practical detail. Read the book, if you haven’t. If you have….Repeat.

All in all, there is really no wrong or right way of thinking- just what produces the best results and that involves the right techniques and some discipline in monitoring and replacing needless thoughts and processes. And it shows; in our design and the kind of experimentation with the landscape we do.

Well, I say to be great (landscape) architects of the future, we should perhaps first build lots of castles in the air… and learn how to build them well.

januari 15, 2016

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