Student Immersion in the Built Environment

by Kaylin Slaughter, Student ASLA, and Kenneth Hurst, ASLA

Orlando is a wonderland for second-year landscape architecture students. / image: Kaylin Slaughter

In May of 2021, a class of students from Texas A&M studied immersive spaces using landscape journals, pocket sized notebooks within which to record field sketches.

That trip opened a rift in the bubble of design education, spilling out new possibilities and bringing forth questions about what opportunities are missed as students sit hunched over a textbook in their hometowns. The key takeaway from the trip was that travel and site engagement allows students to make multi-faceted, personal relationships with the site. While case studies, textbooks, and design stories may create a primary understanding of site design, this trip demonstrated that an in-person engagement with the built environment provides deep connections that cannot be replicated with words.

The students’ first assignment was to produce hand-drawn field sketches within simple Moleskine sketchbooks. The student could decide what the object of those sketches would be, so long as they interpreted that element’s contribution to the site as critical. Upon their return home, the students would compile their sketches into a presentation, turning some into construction documents, and writing up a synthesis for the trip.

The purpose of the retaining wall is functional, yet the attention to detail and aesthetic continuity sets the wall apart and adds value to the park design. / image: Kyra Chandler

The hand drawing element of the assignment was an important distinction, as hand drawing engages the senses in a way that taking a photo cannot replicate. Since the students would be engaging within the site, photos were allowed and even encouraged, since that interpersonal connection to the space was already being formed by their physical presence. However, while completing the assignment, the hand drawing aspect strengthened the connection tenfold. When a designer spends time physically studying spaces, opportunities for sensory and visual discovery arise. For example, one can notice an object’s contributions to a site simply by studying the shadow it casts. While being taught case studies can allow students to be inspired by the landscape, when they are allowed to make those discoveries for themselves, the impact is lasting.

The designers of Disney Springs told students that each design should tell a story; the students decided to capture that story in their field journals. / image: Kaylin Slaughter

The purest way to make those discoveries is in person, as it is in person that the senses are stimulated. Seeing the color and vibrancy of a site whilst feeling the heat from the Florida sun on your cheek and smelling the sweet smell of the native flora can only strengthen that personal connection and deepen the gained empathy from positive experiences. Instead of reading that a site was “well received,” the students saw, felt, smelled, and heard exactly how well they themselves received it. They had to learn the shorthand of the overwhelmed artist; while the senses are overstimulated, sometimes all one can manage is a simple sketch, a quick measurement, or a jotted note. Later, in a restful state, interpreting what you wrote while your senses were overloaded develops a new skill: translating inspiration into understanding, and understanding into design.

Having just taken construction classes, students were able to capture different paving patterns from a more technical perspective. / image: Macy McGlamery, Student ASLA

The students were able to step into two different pairs of shoes: the designer and the audience, the critic and the curious explorer, the provider and those in need of provision. They existed in a successful design and engaged with features that they usually see only in two dimensions. Within Bok Tower Gardens, for example, there was a large, netted seating sculpture that when used was uncomfortable and abrasive as an adult but alluring and fun as a child. A feature that seemed like it would be great in a design when seen firsthand could be something that was misunderstood or engaged with in a completely different context than “imagined.”

This bamboo handrail was intriguing as an uncommon use of materials. / image: Clayton Daeschner

The study trip and journaling assignment allowed students to see a site being loved and understand why. Those few, written interpretations will inspire new thoughts and conscious design decisions within the students, which unearths a new level of what design education could be. There are innumerable experiences that can mold a designer, but in-person engagement with a space, especially one not immediately accessible to a student, is a great way to start accessing those advantages.

We would like to extend a hearty thank you to Steve Niedergeses and Greg Meyer of Stantec for their generous hospitality in hosting activities and assisting with logistics for this trip.

Kaylin Slaughter, Student ASLA, is a third year at Texas A&M University studying landscape architecture. She enjoys reading and writing about design pedagogy, aesthetic and sustainable forms, and historic reclamation.

Kenneth Hurst, PhD, ASLA, is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. He currently serves on the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) leadership team and maintains an active consultancy in parks and playgrounds.

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