The Design Observer Group


Posted 03.31.11


Anuradha Mathur

Visualizing Landscapes: In the Terrain of Water




For millennia water has been celebrated and ritualized in everyday practices across cultures. Today it is increasingly central to design and scientific discussions about global sustainability, as we seek innovative solutions to the challenges of rising seas, atmospheric pollution, extended drought and aquifer depletion.

Is it time, then, to rethink our relationship to water and how we imagine both its presence and absence in design? Can new attitudes, questions, and techniques of visualization aid us in this creative endeavor?

These are some of the questions that inspired us to delve into the archives at the University of Pennsylvania, and to assemble an exhibition that explores how architects and designers have been expanding the frontiers of representation. How have we imaged and imagined the terrain of water? How might we do so in the future?


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Imaging/Imagining — an excerpt of which is presented in this online gallery — brings together drawings, prints, sketchbooks, models and other media from the Architectural Archives at Penn, as well as from members of the school's design faculty. Technically diverse, and spanning more than a century, these projects provoke us to think about how we conceptualize and relate to water; and indeed, the archives yielded a remarkable variety of approaches.

Highlights include Paul Philippe Cret's elaborate rendering of his Beaux-Arts Parkway Plan for Philadelphia, of 1907, showing the grand boulevard and the Schuylkill River; Louis Kahn's back-of-the-envelope sketch of boats floating on a river in Dhaka; the printer's proof of an environmental report on the Toronto waterfront, prepared in the mid-1970s by Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd; soil and hydrology studies drafted by students in Ian McHarg's landscape planning studios at Penn; atmospheric sketches on yellow trace by Lawrence Halprin; watercolors from the notebooks of Laurie Olin; James Corner's map-drawings and Alex S. MacLean's aerial photographs of large-scale American landscapes; photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn; sketches by Valerio Morabito; Karen M'Closkey and Keith VanDerSys's analytical drawings; and Jenny Sabin's algorithm-generated Fourier Tapestry.

To study this work all at once is to detect signs of struggle, often a divergence of enquires and techniques, rather than a convergence or consensus. But the struggle is not a grim battle; rather a charged and playful discourse, as practitioners engage and contemplate the world, and labor to depict its complexity. Some of these works have heralded influential modes of visualizing our environment; and we hope that collectively they hold the promise of further stimulating vocabularies of place, history and ecology, and of informing other disciplines even as they draw from a larger field of design.