Seeing Sectionally


Seeing Sectionally: Using Digital Technology to Make Landscape History

Kathy Poole

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 physical–it is a tangible, concrete, and visual, which i found was an extremely effective medium–a 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 projects–the 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.
Cultural Patina
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 Fens' development.
o6 o7 o8 o9

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 the categories.

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.
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.
time sequence

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 components–each media type–separately. 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 type–institutions, 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 headed–into science–whose 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.
o263D BASE
We begin with the base. It shows water, landform, buildings, bridges, and walks
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.
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.
o3115 YEAR
a 15 year old tree.
or a mature tree.
or you can click on a button and see it large and in detail
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.
o36 PLAN
go to the cherry library and choose to model the stick model that loads really fast
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.
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.
incompatible software
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.




Copyright © 2002 by Kathy Poole and the University of Virginia