Using Digital Technology to Make Landscape History
Presentation at the Annual Meeting
of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Boston 1999
We all know that Boston's Back Bay Fens is Frederick Law Olmsted's crown
jewel and inaugural stone of Boston's Emerald Necklace. o3And we all know
what an exemplar of urban design it is in terms of providing a park infrastructure
for the developing city. o4And some of us know how it was an important
infrastructure for the city because of how it doubled as a municipal stormwater
facility while it simultaneously functioned as a park. But I am using
the computer to tell a more multi-dimensional, layered story than has
ever been told about the Fens. o5 Spatially and temporally bigger.
seeing1.htm (ground movie) It is a story that is multidisciplinary, encompassing
what are conventionally by separate disciplines of historians, sociologists,
engineers, and ecologists (and it is gradually encompassing the realm
of the economist). It is multi-temporal as it spans 300 years. And it
is multimedia, encompassing text, digitized data, photographs, broadsides,
diaries, drawings, paintings, (eventually videos), and computer animations.
I have synthetsized the stories into what I call a Sectional Story that
has been reasonably successful in permitting each discipline to see the
Fens through its own disciplinary lens while simultaneously allowing other
visions. But this is one of the graces of the Fens. It has within it a
series of parallel stories that also have a more compelling synthetic
story that is common and much more important than any of the other singular
stories. And the essence of the story is that it is physicalit is
a tangible, concrete, and visual, which i found was an extremely effective
mediuma medium common to all of us no matter what our disicplinary
delineations.Being such extraordinarily visual beings, we believe our
eyes. And I think that this is one of those commonalities across disciplines.
And the visual ability of the computer is very useful in bridging disciplines.
Let me demonstrate what I mean by this Sectional Story. It is about the
Visible, what I call the Cultural Patina. This is what the designers and
historians see. It is also about the invisible, what I call the Underground
Skeleton what the engineer sees. And it is about the medium that
connects them both, the Made Land that is both seen and unseen. The engineers'
Underground Skeleton studies the technics of the projectsthe nuts
and bolts of the mechanics and hyraulics, wht we usually term "how
it works." The designers' Made Land is easily seen in a series of
two-dimensional plans. And the historians'Cultural Patina is best represented
in a series of period photographs and drawings keyed to each of the various
forms and dates of Made Land.
oseeing2.htm Let me briefly discuss each of these layers individually.
the historian/designer sees the history of land development and change.
So my project catalogs this change, not simply through a series of diagrams,
but through multimedia. In this way, plans and drawings and photographs--
and eventually text-- will give a much fuller "picture" of the
o6 o7 o8 o9
oWORKING ARCHIVE WEB PAGE
Of course, what I'm showing you here is just a sample of what you'd really
need as an historian/design. You can find the rest of it at my website
in a place that I call "working archive." Currently, it has
237 images. There are examples from each of the categories of images that
I have collected or expect to collect. There are also "detail"
pages that catalog ALL of the examples digitized thus far from EACH of
Of course, there is also the invisible, what you cannot see, the UNDERGROUND
SKELETON. What you're seeing is all the underground pipes that permit
the Fens to function as a park and as urban stormdrainage.
A watershed is an area within which the water flows and collects at one
point-- the Fens is the point where all this water goes
This is what it looks like to an engineer-- a simple, elegant diagram.
but what they're really concerned with-- what they "see"-- is
quantitative data. rainfall frequency....
landuse runoff coefficients....
types of water management structures...
All of this is very difficult for designers to "see"-- or to
care about for that matter. It is so incredibly abstract.
This is what it looks like to non-engineers-- in both somewhat abstract
drawings and in visceral physical terms.
NONE of the above ground land-- or the land itself-- would have been possible
without these conduits.
o18 NONFLOODED +FLOODED PLAN
BUT by linking a digitized three-dimensional model with the abstract quantitative,
we find a way for both disciplines to see the same thing. This is the
Fens flooded by a 100 year storm.
Of course, I wanted to engage the designers in the engineering. So, i
had to make it so that designers can see it, because we are more skilled
and accustomed to understanding visually.
The connective tissue between the Underground Skeleton and the Cultural
Patina is the Made Land.
oWhat you're seeing is a few of the montages of plan drawings that we
are deriving from historical research coupled with photographs or sketches
or plans that together give a full vision of 2d and 3d. Eventually, I
will have 193 maps of the Fens, one for each year of its development.
Having said all of this, I have to add that what I am showing you is obsolete.
We are currently updating the project to make it much more robust, much
more intuitive, and much more interactive. As it stands now, you could
search each of the various componentseach media typeseparately.
However, they don't speak to each other. We will be making a new search
tool that allows you to search spatially. You'll be able to move your
cursor over a map of the Fens and Back Bay, click on something you're
interested in, and ALL of the media types that we have on that object
or region will be displayed. Then you can search on any of the items individually.
You will also be able to compose your map of whatever layers that you
want: roads, trees, water, walks, monuments, and buildings by typeinstitutions,
industry, residential, schools, hospitals.
So, by December we hope to have the new webiste up and running and available,depending
on if we can afford the copyrights.
One of the really exciting things is where the project is headed. So far,
I have talked about the unseen processes being that of engineering. But
the more exciting part of unseen is where the project is headedinto
sciencewhose unseen processes are even more elusive and harder to
represent. But that is exactly what we're going to do. Let me show you
how I have begun to do that. This portion of the project was born of my
concern that landscape architects, in general, do sloppy ecology-- even
when they think about it, which is only about half the time. This model
will have scientific rigor built in.
We begin with the base. It shows water, landform, buildings, bridges,
Students can model their designs which will be primarily landform, planting,
and and built structures like walls and bridges. Two or three times during
the semester, they will load in their design and test it-- to see if the
ecological dynamic that they imagine in their heads is actually correct.
Students will be able to change the physical digitial model or the database
behind the model.
o273D WITH FLOOD
Equipped with the information of the engineers, then the designers can
make informed desicions.
Let's look at a detailed area of a hypothetical design process. Let's
say that we take all the water that's being diverted from the Fens in
the present engineering and let it flow through the Fens. The ecological
consequence of that is a higher water level.
She can choose from an on-line vegetation library that I've developed.
There is a collection of different types of plants according to form and
water tolerance. A designer can choose a plant (click on a box) and decide
whether they want to model it three dimensionally as
a young tree.
a 15 year old tree.
or a mature tree.
o33SURFACE + PLAN
or you can click on a button and see it large and in detail
o34 o35UGLY EXISTING TREES
Back to our detail. A designer can decide that the existing trees are
too ugly-- or they died in the flood, and decide to plant cherries.
go to the cherry library and choose to model the stick model that loads
o383D WITH CHERRY STICK
and see what it looks like. If she likes it, she may decide to see what
it looks like more realistically and more fully spatially.
o393D SURFACE CHERRY
and if she likes that, she may want to see it with leaves on the trees
o403D LEAVES CHERRY.......
Here, there is so much data that they can go get dinner while this thing
is loading-- do work by taking a break.
I want to add that I have no intentions to "render" this as
in a full-scale animation. I firmly believe that design needs to be left
"open," without being portrayed right there in front of our
faces as too real. If we do, the creative impulse is squelched.
The pedagogic point is to built scientific rigor into students' designs.
Right now, they-- and we-- only guess. Plus, it's an opportunity to teach
them in a case study, direct, applicable way about ecology, mainly about
plant ecology. With this model, students can see the effects of their
actions over time, see the ecology, which is key to making them think
of ecology as part of the aesthetic.WHAT I'VE LEARNED:
As I hope that I've given you a taste, the computer is a fabulous multidisciplinary
tool for at least 4 reasons:
1 Cross-Dressing with Precision
Cross-dressing in other disciplines' costumes is exciting. Yet, much inter-disciplinary
work is, in most cases, a masquerade filled with sloppy methodology and
suspect content. Pursuing the Fens project via the computer demanded a
precision, discrete methodology, and fine resolution of information that
I had not experienced in other multi-disciplinary project. Text can gloss
over details and circumvent rigorous methods, but technical animations
and GIS and hydraulics programs are unforgiving. Most importantly, the
computer's quantitative precision and graphic dexterity provide an effective
medium for demonstrating how technical and cultural information can be
thought of more reciprocally.
2 Maintaining Disciplinary Autonomy
It is a strange paradox. The most significant relationships between disciplines
occur when they are held apart, when each professional can bring the full
resources of her expertise without having to conform to another discipline.
The computer is a medium that inherently maintains disciplinary autonomy.
Computer software to date does not cross disciplines well. Despite the
advent of multi-task processors, computers do not really do two things
at a time well. A computer's own "parallel" working method nicely
mirrors good interdisciplinary work: autonomous disciplines working in
parallel, intersecting at critical moments, separate with enriched knowledge,
and then cycle through again.
3 Understanding Working Processes
I cannot make engineers good historians any more than I can make designers
or historian good engineers. What I can do is lead them to find value
and content in the working process of the other.
Computers are terrific at facilitating understandings of working process.
Their greatest asset is that they record information extraordinarily well.
They demand a good filing system and coordination of data between files.
Most importantly, computers catalog our actions and results in a way that
other team members can retrace our steps, following our query in a sequential
manner. Consequently, we can look at each others' files, view them by
date, and survey each others' progress. In the process, we learn about
the working process of another discipline, thereby enriching our understanding
of the larger project.
4 Equalizing Effect
Computers are great equalizers. Design students suffer from computer technophobia.
Civil engineers are terrified of drawing. By having engineers manipulate
(draw) two-dimensional data via the computer, the engineers are more comfortable
drawing. And by having designers take something they know-- making-- and
translate it to a digital form, they are more comfortable with the wizardry
of computing. From a pedagogic standpoint, the computer takes a shared
fear and offers an instructor a common tool to use in building confidence.
And no discipline has an advantage over another.
becoming entangled in the technology
untrained landscape architects
Ultimately we are creating a new way
of doing urban design in three different aspects. First, I hope that people
will see the value of seeing cities as dynamic entities and that valuing
this quality will reveal potentials before unoticed. Second, I think that
this project will reveal more creative ways of viewing "preservation"
rather than freezing a landscape within a particular time and trying to
return it to a culture in which it no longer exists. Finally, the project
seeks to show the value of a thorough understanding of history when approaching
urban design projects--that by gathering an in depth history and making
relationships between the various media that a thorough historical
analysis requires offers a view of the city that is productive in imaging
what it can be.