Landscape architecture students pair age-old methods with technology

Julie Eble
May 08, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Chase Weaver and Xinxin Li spent a week working with fellow students twisting thin, black wire by hand to create the more than 2,000 miniature magnolia, American beech and other trees that populated their 3-by-8 foot landscape models. The master of landscape architecture students could have used a 3-D printer to quickly generate the trees, but they chose to make the replicas by hand, the way generations of landscape architects did before them.

“I think the wires made perfect trees,” said Li. “We were able to manipulate and bend the branches to touch each other, and make them reach out over pathways to create a spatial feeling.”

Maria Debije Counts, visiting instructor of landscape architecture at the Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, guided Weaver and Li through their project, which involved translating blueprint drawings and aerial photographs into precise AutoCAD drawings. While she is a proponent of using digital technology in landscape design, she says it’s important to have her students do hand drawings before incorporating any kind of computer-generated technology.
“I think there’s something about the hand-eye-and-mind coordination that just happens when you draw a line by hand,” said Counts. “There’s a physical gesture that you’re making, and you’re part of it. This is especially important in landscape architecture because these students are designing for 3-D spaces, so they’ve really got to be in that space to understand how the decisions they make can affect their designs. And making models and drawing by hand puts them in that space.”  

Students come to the landscape architecture program from all over the world with a wide range of technological experiences and backgrounds. One of Counts’ main goals is to help them learn how to go from hand-drawn analog techniques to 3-D modeling and digitalization. To this end, she developed a series of workshops in which her students first acquire inspiration for their designs from abstract paintings before delving into the digital realm.

“For a designer, any entity can be a source of inspiration or reference for conceptualization. We just happen to use abstract paintings as our influence,” said Counts.
The students’ designs start out as loose sketches or charcoal drawings that are later refined to a more precise series of shapes. From those shapes the students develop outlines they can use to explore topography and start to use the forms to envision the slope and contours of the area. “Doing the drawings by hand helps them understand what a line at a specific spacing and elevation means in 3-D,” said Counts.

Counts is aware that the wave of digital visual representation is becoming more standard in the design communication and research aspects of landscape architecture. As a result, her students use such software programs as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to visualize environments in more photo-realistic ways. Some are even using such 3-D modeling programs as Rhinoceros (Rhino) with Grasshopper plugin — a commercial 3-D computer graphics and computer-aided design software and graphical algorithm editing tool — to generate parametric landscape designs.

To get everyone up to speed, Counts teaches basic-level computer classes on landscape architecture software platforms. In these workshops, students convert their vellum hand drawings into AutoCAD before transforming them into a Rhino 3-D model.

In addition to using visual and 3-D computer software programs for their designs, some students use such applications as Google Earth and real-time geographic information systems (GIS) to research existing landscapes.

For instance, Weaver used Google Earth to compare plans he already had for his re-creation design with what was actually constructed in the space. “I traced over the plans in AutoCAD to create line drawings that were transferred into Illustrator to make diagrams. Then I used Rhino to build a simple 3-D program,” he said. He later fed the program to a computer-guided cutting machine that carved out contour lines in his model and automatically drilled holes for his trees.

Li used GIS data to research streams, flood zones, municipalities, roads and topography for her model re-creation of an existing landscape. Prior to GIS, landscape architects used plastic overlay drawings to see how different areas and materials in the landscape overlapped. “The beauty of GIS is that the spatial and geographical data for a particular landscape is stored and displayed in layers so you can quickly turn them on and off without having to redraw the data,” said Li.

Counts agrees that the use of technology in landscape architecture is beneficial. However, research has indicated that a designer’s understanding of spatial relationships is influenced by the technology they used. For instance, a designer accessing data through a keyboard and mouse has measurably less awareness of spatial relationships than a designer who uses tangible objects.

“Technology enables students to have fun and explore design possibilities,” said Counts. “But the key for them is to first have an understanding of the physical implications those technologies have on their designs. That way the process doesn’t get out of hand and they can actually use the software applications to create an informed space that’s intentional.”

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  • wired trees

    Landscape architecture students used thin, black wire to replicate the various tree shapes and sizes that populated their designs.

    IMAGE: Cody Goddard
  • portrait of Chase Weaver

    Chase Weaver used pliers to twist wire into various shapes and sizes to replicate trees for his project.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
  • portrait of Xinxin Li

    Xinxin Li placed hand-worked trees onto her model.

    IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle
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Last Updated May 18, 2015