The Future of Landscape Architecture is TV

A photo of a black metal sculpture, resembling a sea urchin, sitting in a grassy, empty lot along Braddock Avenue.

What kind of images will young designers make in a world that increasingly favors videos over paintings? The Media Landscape Lab in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn State University looks at the future of design and asks: are there more appropriate methods of communicating landscape and architectural design today and in the future?

I started the Media Landscape Lab as part of a larger research project, and its central premise is the belief that designers need to explore more media formats to communicate with a wider audience—one that moves past the traditional practitioner/client relationship. The purpose of the Lab is to explore relationships between Landscape Architecture, popular media, and the environment, with the goal of encouraging people to develop greater sensitivities to contemporary and future environmental concerns.

Moving Beyond the Static Image

In general, landscape architecture proposals rely upon images to represent the worlds they imagine. Historically, these proposals have relied on a format that employs a combination of measured drawings complemented by illustrative images analogous to paintings. Despite the more recent use of highly digitized methods, such as digital photocollage and photorealistic digital modeling, these images still draw from a long history of landscape painting and its techniques.

Static images lack immersive views where a viewer might glimpse how people move through a space.

There are, however, limitations to static images. One of the most significant limitations is related to audience groups. Painting as a medium was traditionally seen as highly curated and having limited viewer accessibility. Another limitation to images is that they lack the immersive benefits of sweeping panoramic views where a viewer might glimpse how people move through a space.

The Media Landscape Lab is attempting to address these limitations by experimenting with alternative design mediums in a collaborative setting. Much of the work produced in the Lab is created by undergraduate and graduate students in advanced level design studios and seminars. In the Lab, students are challenged to speculate about the environmental and social issues they will be required to address. By asking them to think about the future, students are given agency as future professionals. The emphasis on using contemporary media formats for presentation allows them to explore platforms that are native to them and seek to understand how they can impact design representation now and in the future.

Designing for the Future

Last fall (2018), I taught the inaugural studio class in the Media Landscape Lab. Unlike more traditional studios, the Lab emphasized design speculation more so than designed outcomes like park or building designs. Because students were focused more on making fiction about the future than designing for the present, video was used as the primary presentation format to enable storytelling. The students were asked to create hypothetical television pilots that imagined the future of a community adjacent to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A photo of Braddock Avenue, a street lined with old, brick buildings and boarded up businesses.

Braddock Avenue in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh that has experienced years of decreasing population and disinvestment. Photo by Marc Miller, 2018.

Before working on location, students were grouped into five teams and asked what design problems they would face thirty years from now. As a creative learning exercise, the goal behind this prompt was to encourage them to reinvent themselves in the studio and expand landscape architectural practices. Students used this initial discussion as the grounds for a series pitch and logline that described their show idea. Emphasis was placed on a clear logline as a means for them to hone in on the ideas and concerns that were most important to them.

Braddock, Pennsylvania provided the setting for the students’ design series. A small borough located east of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela river, it is the location of one of the last active steel mills in the region. The urban fabric of the city core is representative of years of decreasing population and disinvestment. Braddock Avenue, the primary street running through the borough is faced by vacant lots, decayed buildings, and depressed properties. Despite this, Braddock is experiencing a small renaissance brought about by several individuals, most prominent among them the former mayor, John Fetterman. Efforts to revitalize the city include a Michelin-rated restaurant and urban agriculture. Decreased property values have also made the building accessible to artists.

These qualities made Braddock a compelling place for the students’ video experiments. The history of the study area provided the students with the ability to take a deep dive into the borough and examine the impact of the steel industry on growth and development. The borough also allowed them to speculate about possible futures for Braddock. When visiting the area, students saw that many grassroots efforts to reimagine Braddock were present in the arts, architecture, and food.

The students also benefited from access to videos that documented the community’s past and present while wondering about its future. Filmmaker and Braddock resident Tony Buba has recorded the history of the borough in a series of documentaries and video clips available online. In addition to Buba’s work, filmmaker Rosie Hager made a series of short documentaries for Topic, a video and audio storytelling magazine, that focuses on present day conditions impacting Braddock. The mockumentary “Carnage,” produced by Simon Amstell, was also presented to the students as an example that illustrates the impact of social and environmental change through an examination of the present and speculation about subsequent events. All of these precedents provided the students with points of departure for research and story writing and also offered technical inspirations about how to visually frame the borough in their video pilots.

Series that were available on Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube were also used as narrative and conceptual precedents. This was a radical shift for students that are used to looking at designed landscapes for models but was necessary given our emphasis on telling stories about a place in the future instead of proposing a specific solution for a site as if it were to be constructed in the next five years. Watching other forms of television was also important because their work was being treated as something that would be broadcast, reaching out to a wide audience to influence public perceptions of environmental, social, and political futures.

Envisioning Environmental Justice, Understanding Ecoterrorism

Two approaches emerged from the students’ work. The first approach involved narratives about environmental justice, using familiar dramatic television series formats. Glitter was inspired by Summer Lee’s recollections of Braddock in the Topic documentary series and tells the story of three people in a future Braddock where air quality regulations for industrial processing plants are rolled back. Shiny flecks of material that float in the air simultaneously pose a health risk for local residents and serve as a tourist attraction. As the pilot progresses, we see how the material and the mill impacts the lives of the three main characters.

A photo of three brick buildings along Braddock Avenue. The center building stands out with an intricately detailed black and white mural painted across its façade.

Community members have led grassroots efforts to revitalize Braddock by initiating projects focused on art, architecture, and food. Photo by Marc Miller, 2018.

Resilience combines a coming-of-age format and documentary storytelling. The story revolves around a graduate student studying fashion as she immerses herself into a subculture that grows into a niche clothing style. As a sign of solidarity and resilience, the residents wear face masks in response to the air quality. Over time they evolved from symbols of environmental justice to crafted accessories that reflect the resident’s identities and community pride. The people the main character meets reveal the history of the place and explain why the masks are important to them. Her time with the residents has a transformative effect on her life and education.

Other pilots focused on serial narratives as a communication platform and television as a medium. The documentary Wild Wild Country and television chase series like the Fugitive and Prison Break served as the inspiration for Burning Green. The pilot starts with a fire at the mill and its impact on the residents of Braddock. As the story progress, the events begin to focus on a single person and his impact on the community. Where other teams explored environmental justice as an explicit theme, this pilot uses eco-terrorism as a plot device to address environmental issues.

These pilots were able to explore the social and cultural impacts of climate change in the future, and much of this exploration was made possible by the medium of video. I found three aspects of video as a design medium important. First, when looking for images or design inspiration, screens are more accessible than paintings. It is not uncommon to see students watching a video of some sort while working on a computer. They may be watching a video using a smartphone, a second monitor on a computer, or some other device.

Storytelling plays a crucial role in landscape architecture.

Second, as a presentation medium, leveraging the format and popularity of the television series as a particular genre of video allows designers to communicate ideas to a broader audience, expanding the role of the designer in designing space. Simply put, television is more immersive than a painting or drawing; motion pictures have the benefit of being able to shift frames and move through space. Because of this, both the focal space and its story can evolve. Static landscape images cannot accomplish this dynamism.

Finally, many of the classroom discussions were concerned with the process of scenario building and identifying existing television series that could serve as precedents. During these discussions, I noticed a definite shift from understanding design as so many objects and outcomes to viewing design as a way of imagining how people might react to, and with, their environments. Designing their respective series allowed the students to be more empathetic than illustrative in their investigations.

Narrating the Stories, Problems, and Futures of Design

Storytelling plays a crucial role in landscape architecture. As a form of storytelling, serial television is able to leverage time in a more nuanced manner. The ability to examine multiple frames of space over time holds particular appeal to landscapes where time cycles occur seasonally, annually, and ecologically. Additionally, the ability to explore cyclical relationships and sudden disruptions allows for designers to gradually overlap complementary and conflicting conditions.

Finally, designing solutions without actually building a project is of particular importance. There is an implicit assumption in design education that a project must be constructed to evaluate a designer’s performance, but there is something to be said for exploring a design in the realm of fantasy or imagination. Working with serial narratives allows designers to test performances through digital models instead of physical constructions. Using stories in addition to modeled or stage spaces, designers could also embed anticipated or desired social behaviors into the proposal. In short, as immersive mediums, videos allow for a more nuanced spatial and temporal experience while providing the benefit of modeling environmental scenarios and behavior for a broad audience.

Given the diversity and depth of the videos produced in the class, it seems that serial videos hold vast potential for designers and should become a more common practice. However, because of the time constraints of developing and writing a narrative, storytelling and scenario design in television cannot be a complement to building projects but must be thought of as independent projects. Conventional design practices don’t include the production of serial narratives for a broad audience. However, given the global impacts of climate change and the necessity of both to imagine the future and inform the public, perhaps it is time to expand how design is practiced.

Featured image: A large sculpture decorates a field where Braddock Avenue businesses and buildings once stood. Photo by Marc Miller, 2018.

Marc Miller is an assistant professor in the H. Campbell and Eleanor R. Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at The Pennsylvania State University where his research interests include examining how information is organized to produce designs and how information is made accessible for public decision-making. At the core of his research is the idea that the discipline of landscape architecture must shift away from repeating design processes from the past toward future-facing problem-solving in order to remain relevant. Website. Contact.