During the sixth semester of my undergraduate tenure at West Virginia University, students were presented with the opportunity to earn an academic scholarship by writing a creative essay oriented around the profession of Landscape Architecture and how students and professionals explore the relationship between humans and natural environments. In this specific text that went on to win the scholarship, I focused on how the profession of Landscape Architecture is the catalyst for blurring the lines between the natural and built worlds by looking at the four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire and how they influence the design of built structures that work harmoniously with natural patterns.
Both visual and verbal pieces included in this article communicate what academic and extracurricular activities I have been involved with and how they shaped the formation of my essay. Through experience with the 2013 Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive,” I learned valuable sustainable principles of design. Through academic studio work, I have been able to explore these sustainable principles and include them in an array of design projects. My experiences with these international competitions and studio work leads me to believe that landscape architects are at the forefront of creating varying scales of spaces that are designed with nature in mind and with the goal of improving the way people live, work, and play. This essay creatively communicates how I believe a developing landscape architect sees how design works properly with natural systems.
If These Walls Could Talk
I’m sitting alone within the confines of my studio, blankly staring at the vellum and marker in front of me. My mind wanders and I think I hear the outdoors calling my name when a faint sound whispers in my ear. My imagination can hear the walls around me speaking a tongue I seem to understand. I know that what I hear is impossible, but I continue to listen. If these walls could talk, they would tell me that the world I hear outside has been separated from me. If the walls of my studio could talk, they would say there was no consideration for the outside world when they were built. If these walls could talk, they would say that a harmonious covenant that was once shared between nature and man has been lost.
The four elements of earth, wind, water, and fire have lost their once strong connection with how each and every person moves, works, and plays. Ancient cultures lived in harmony with the elements. First nation peoples on all continents built, gardened, and lived knowing that things worked best when they learned and applied the lessons of nature. Each of these natural elements has characteristics related to how we as designers are inspired to create spaces that carry a strong symbiotic relationship between natural systems and the built world.
The scientific explorations of our human origins increasingly point to the common ground from which human and nature were formed. From a religious standpoint, God created the Heavens and the Earth. After God completed molding the earth, the Bible tells us he took a handful of soil and made man. Both perspectives illustrate how humans and earth are, at their origins, one and the same. Ever since we began moving earth and building on top of it, our appreciation for it has decreased drastically.
When place and structure are designed with consideration to the availability of land, it is most harmonious with nature. If these walls could talk, they would tell us to look up rather than to look out to design more sustainable places that avoid disturbing untouched and unmarred earth.
Changes in the design of one element can directly affect another element of nature, such as wind. Living well relates directly to breathing well. The materials that the whispering walls have spoken about are materials that are natural and clean and that do not release toxins and volatile organic compounds into the air, but rather clean and refresh it. A well-designed green home that current trends in design are moving toward considers where wind passes and blows relative to its placement. Just as trees work in harmony with wind-breaks, and cold air, all factors become considerations as to where a well-designed home will be oriented. The improvement of indoor air quality through the introduction of living walls has brought a new phenomenon of experiencing the outdoors within the comfort of a home. If these living walls could talk, they would also tell us to pause and breathe deeply.
Wind is not the only natural element that affects the design process of each space. Another natural element that moves just like the wind as it speeds up and vanishes is water. We live in a world that is dynamic and is experiencing a drastic change in climate. Currently, sea level is rising at unprecedented rates. Human connection and interaction with water has moved beyond the point of simply taking the benefits and then disregarding it where it is not needed. Proper resilient design now calls for the built world to welcome water to become part of one holistic system. Coastal areas have no direct choice anymore than to properly design to have water move in and out of space just as the tides rise and fall. If these walls could talk, they would tell designers to welcome water into the land to create one system that balances the built world and the hydrology of water.
Making room for water in the future as sea levels rise is crucial, and the phased coastal landscape described below—from “The Philadelphia EcoDistrict,” a submission for the Better Philadelphia Challenge design competition—addresses this issue:
Flood Wall as Program: In addition to construction of mixed-use development and key infrastructure out of the forecasted flood zones, two strategies mitigate sea-level rise and prevent catastrophic floods. The first of the two strategies uses the designed flood wall as an aid in creating a diverse program through its structure or facade.
Mixed-Wetland Shoreline: One of the leading causes exacerbating the effects of rising sea levels is the removal of fringe forests and riparian flood zones. These vegetated barriers slow down wave velocity and stabilize the river bank in a low-cost operation. A combination of five living and evolving edge typologies designed for the future re-establish these vegetated buffers along the Philadelphia EcoDistrict’s shoreline to help mitigate sea-level rise.
Phased Coastal Landscape: In the first stages of development, the landscape framework is established where the site is graded to meet the specifications of the five shore typologies and is then planted with selected vegetation. The middle stage represents the noticeable change in the water level. As the landscape matures, the water becomes a part of the inland features including a kayak launch area and riverfront trail. The third stage of the shore evolution is where amenities double as protective measures. After the Lower, Upper, and Berm Wetlands are intentionally consumed by the Delaware River, the terrace series acts as a wall to further protect the mixed-use development from future increases in water level.
Perhaps the most essential element in green design is the harnessing of the sun’s power. Orientation in the landscape, use of solar panels, design of high energy efficiency in windows and building materials, both inside and out, all contribute to the kind of structure or space that leaves behind the smallest carbon footprint possible. Using the sun’s energy alone not only creates a more sustainable place, but designing with the idea of daylight in mind generates better human morale, too. In order to capture the sun’s array of benefits efficiently, the sun’s ecliptic must be taken into consideration in a holistic design process from start to finish. If these walls could talk, they would tell us to provide shade where the sun is hottest in summer and windows that would allow sunlight to naturally brighten and warm the indoors in winter.
If these walls could talk they would tell us that the natural elements in the world are slowly being disconnected from how it affects our daily lives. Man’s creative spirit has invented and reinvented living spaces with each new technology, each new culture. Many times it appears we have moved rather far away from nature. Human nature, however, tends to operate in cycles. We seem to be moving back toward a greener, more sustainable, and efficient way of life. We have come to realize that our biological clock is heading rapidly toward midnight unless we change our ways. The connection with earth, wind, water, and fire must once again become our focus in design and establishment just like it was when the world consisted of small settlements in the corners of the world. How we move, breathe, collect, and capture natural elements provides us with sources to which no other resource can compare. As designers of the built world, listen to the walls when they try and whisper to you.
by John Wray, Student ASLA, West Virginia University