NDSU Landscape Architecture Abroad

Emescher River, Germany image: Kathleen Pepple
Emscher River, Germany
image: Kathleen Pepple

Without unnecessarily denigrating the general quality and value of landscape architecture programs and curricula in the United States, sometimes our teaching can be somewhat myopic. By extension, our students learn to inhabit a worldview that remains quite provincial as international and global influences advance exponentially.

So, on a brisk morning in February 2012, twelve students from the 3rd and 4th year landscape architecture program at North Dakota State University stood in the old Traleze slate quarries in Angers, France, a roughly one thousand acre site that has been active since the twelfth century.

The pervasive French history permeated the sensory and analytical processes of both our Midwestern U.S. students and their more familiar associates from Agro Campus Ouest University. This historical context for site inventory, and the project thesis for reintegrating this largely forgotten landscape into the urban fabric of Angers – introducing tram connections to the adjacent city, and carefully utilizing the lakes and their surrounding terrain as natural amenities for residential housing – required a degree of awareness and appreciation, a growing sense of sophistication that flowed like adrenaline through these students as they confronted landscape architecture in a much larger and more complex world.

Vast areas of mountainous slate tailings, and beautiful emerald green, pristine lakes against grey/black sheer embankments as the open quarries have gradually filled with water over the centuries, a landscape of unique and haunting beauty.  Our French faculty provided a demonstration by one of the last ardoisiers, artisans that have cut slate roof tiles with hand tools for over nine hundred years. Angers is often referred to as ‘the black city.’ The presence of slate was pervasive: roof tiles, fences, dishware, crafts, and jewelry. Near the Chateau d ‘Angers, the castle museum displayed an archeological cross section of the local terrain, revealing a series of stacked architectural manipulations that hark back to Julius Caesar and the Romans in the time of Christ.

Ardoisier demonstration image: Kathleen Pepple
Ardoisier demonstration
image: Kathleen Pepple

This challenge to their sensibilities entered another phase near Elvas in Portugal, an area of rolling hills adjacent to western Spain, dotted with olive and orange orchards and the wonder of cork groves. A shrinking and aging population inhabited the small, ancient walled village of Ouguela; intact due to peripheral geography after the devastation of two world wars. So pristine, so isolated, with few electric lights, the town has been famous as a location for stargazing. Again, inundated by the power of history, our students, a group of students from Michigan State University, and Portuguese students from Escola Superior Agraria de Elvas came together to collaborate, engaging the historical context with a design brief to help resuscitate an ailing economy without damaging the quiet authenticity of the people and their village. A series of complex challenges, assisted by twenty-first century technology, connected these students from three different locations around the world.

Ouguela, Portugal image: Kathleen Pepple
Ouguela, Portugal
image: Kathleen Pepple

Before returning to Angers for the second half of March and final presentations for the Trelaze quarries, the increasingly confident and self-sufficient twelve gathered in Dortmund, Germany, once again joined by Dr. Jon Burley’s charges from Michigan State University, providing a triangulated collaboration with German landscape architecture students from TU Dortmund University.  Continuing their exposure to the overall depth and breadth of European history; in this case the Ruhr was totally destroyed by allied carpet bombing in World War II, providing a time narrative only originating in the late 1940’s, this truncated framework juxtaposed against a deeper background of industrial strength unequalled in mid-century Europe.

With the subtle subtext of past military conflict affecting the families of students from all three universities two generations removed, the reclamation of the Emscher river from an industrial waste conduit to newly designed amenities for ecological habitats, urban development, wetlands, and shoreline residential usage, served as a powerful metaphor for not only the healing of the landscape, but perhaps a collaborative closure for very old historical differences as well.

image: Kathleen Pepple
image: Kathleen Pepple

May the power of these geographies and experiences speak to the efficacy of term abroad programs in landscape architecture across the United States. All of these students, on both sides of the Atlantic: French, Portuguese, German, and the United States, have in a short, three-month time frame expanded their horizons and the knowledge of their own unique contributions and capabilities. Encompassing the history and the cultural significance of these endeavors through collaboration, the lifeblood of landscape architecture, these students have been given a gift that classroom education alone cannot buy – insights into a more cosmopolitan view of a larger world, and the confidence to engage that world with knowledge and enthusiasm.

by Kathleen Pepple, North Dakota State University

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