Winning Waterloo through Nature Play

Rebosante is a word that means, variously: bustling; brimming; overflowing; and it captured my mood as I watched my team present at the Academy of the Sciences last night. As finalists in the Community Design Collaborative’s Play Space Competition award ceremony, we introduced our landscape architectural design for a park in the heart of Norris Square.  One of nine, the evening’s lineup was chosen from forty teams that proposed redesigns of three existing Philadelphia parks. It was a thrill to share a room with local, regional and international design talent as well as a local leaders from industry, government and stakeholder communities. Each presentation brought something provocative to the table, and the passion was palpable.

We entitled our project Waterloo: Rebosante - offering a layer-cake of innovative strategies to manage stormwater, re-use existing site elements and introduce natural materials at the Waterloo Recreation Center. From start to finish, participating in this design inspired me. I was moved by the incredible work neighbors have done to re-appropriate the park from its use as a place for drug consumption and trade (led by MIMIC - short for Men In Motion In the Community). I was struck by the hydrologic-mantle Charlie Miller (the founder and principal of Roofmeadow, and my boss) conceived to transform the vast pavement into a working funnel and play-pump. I was impressed by collaborator Meghan Talarowski’s ability to reconfigure play equipment that no longer meets code into simple elements with multiple uses, such as hammocks and adventure climbers (Meghan is a friend of mine from school who also runs her own firm specializing in innovative play design - Studio Ludo). Finally, collaborator Eileen Kupersmith introduced me to concepts such as “soft fascination” - a restorative cognitive state claimed by psychological researchers Rachel and Stephen Kaplan to arise only through immersion in nature.

Throughout the exhilarating process of learning from collaborators and conceiving a worthy design, in my quiet time I pursued one question: Can I bring actual nature play into a design about nature play? The ingredient list is simple: water, dirt, living plants, paper. But for me, the environment surrounding this question is fraught.

When I chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architecture graduate program, I feared it would be difficult for me to meet expectations for refined graphic production. It was. I had majored in art history as an undergraduate, so I savored my ability to describe and interpret images, but slogged through learning to draft, model and render. Training in a host of digital programs was contrasted with time building models in the wood shop and enjoying drawing classes with some of the greatest practitioners in the field (editorial note: any production ability I developed in school has been far outdone by subsequent graduating classes - in design one cannot be content with one’s work for long). I arrived at PennDesign as the previous department chair was departing to run his firm full-time, and theoretical orientations of the faculty were diverse. The word “process” (a Jim Corner-ism) echoed through the halls, but one aspect of image production in this environment was missing, and remains absent in my professional experience: the presence of pulp.

Design images summon what should be. In landscape architectural imagery, the absence of pulp - which makes most of our lives - stands as a quiet spectre between what I’ll dub machine-mode and great-master-mode. These two modes loom large throughout the design fields addressing built environment, and their seduction lies in their abstraction. Machine-mode was best described by an architect friend of mine when looking at an algorithm-generated pattern encrusting a building facade: “it’s the practice of making problems just to solve them.” Master-mode is more familiar in our canon: across media and text we’ve seen the iconic contributions of cultural heroes (Pollock, LeCorbussier) whose brilliance relies on rigid notions of authorship, expertise and individualism historically enjoyed primarily by white male heroes. Heroes of master-mode also frequently refer back to earlier (white male) heroes from the Western canon for reinforcement of this role. It’s institutionally advantageous to uphold machine-mode and master-mode. But, as we know, binaries leave much of value behind. Moreover, neither mode conveys what matters about spending time in the land. For example - contact with other species, enclosure by one’s climate, perishability - these are aspects of outdoor reality that are subordinated by machine-mode and master-mode.

I’ve decided that going outside to get my hands dirty must become part of my practice as a designer: namely, the values motivating me ought to be expressions that I enact, not just things that I have. Having first trained in art history, I believe we can find image-making traditions that offer us methods to harness outdoor experience. For example, a quick Google image search using the terms: Frottage, Herbarium and Gyotaku begin to show participatory methods of interacting with the environment through image-making. On my team, I was surrounded by expertise and creativity, but I knew that I could support our work by composing an ecologically connected planting design and by preparing presentation graphics imbued with the influence of plants.

“I have to run outside and take some of your weeds” I explained to a friend of mine whom I visited this January, along with her newborn daughter. Our other friend promised to take me to the train station and we were running late. I filled a bag with what I could find: small broadleaved weeds and tiny grasses, and some old flowering stalks of perennial weeds. Our designs were still in-progress, but I had invested hours of research in the plant list and wanted desperately for plants to draw traces of life into our images. In the slideshow below, you can see what I did on my return visit. The approach I used was a riff on Gyotaku, dunking plants in inky water and pressing or smearing them onto paper. Our final design shows traces of my primitive prints from that day. Next time I find an opportunity, I hope to take my time selecting plant material, experiment with greater pressure in printing methods, and try rubbing drawings. But I won’t call it “process” - it’s practice.

 

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Kate Farquhar joined Roofmeadow in 2015 as a Landscape Designer, after earning her MLA from PennDesign in 2012 and spending 3 years honing her skills at Philly area boutique firms. She also assists in the introductory ecology sequence at PennDesign. Past professional highlights include projects with local groups such as the Philly Seed Exchange, the Institute for Contemporary Art, Philly Parking Day, the Philadelphia Folklore Project, artist residencies abroad and numerous design-build projects. Sustainable problem-solving, environmental justice and play get her out of bed in the morning.