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Tactics for understanding post-Covid-19 places

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  • Picture of Carl A. Smith FRSA
    Carl A. Smith FRSA
  • Arts and society
  • Environment

Carl A. Smith FRSA argues that drawing places, both their undeniable physicality and somewhat less tangible moods and atmospheres, provides an excellent way of assessing what is there now, and what might be there in the future.

As an architectural educator and practitioner, my design process focuses on an intuitive, senses-first/rationality second approach to understanding place (and here, I specifically mean geographical space that is claimed by, and associated with, human habitation, experience and emotions). In particular, I begin ideating through drawing my sense of place, quietly and in situ.

I am currently reflecting on this approach in the shadow of the global pandemic; how robust it has been against the backdrop of Covid-19 and how – even now as we slowly return to normalcy – thinking of sites as places, and documenting them quietly through drawing, could continue to offer value for architects and designers. These tactics speak to broader considerations of reconciliation between society and our estranged places.

Figure 1: Early explorations of site, context, program and client for a courtyard-design commission (Carl Smith Design, 2018).

Drawing the Unsee-able

Understanding physical space as place – emotionally claimed geography – is a vital mode of environmental investigation. Furthermore, the concept of place, our shared connections with our world and each other, has acquired especial profundity in our current state of isolation. Making new, successful places through architectural practices – buildings, landscapes and urbanism – is fundamentally about understanding and harnessing existing natural and cultural systems, and re-working and conserving them as necessary to create new locations of emotional resonance. As a vehicle to those ends, drawing (as a noun) should act not only as objective representation, but also as a metaphorical manifestation of the unsee-able, intangible, and complexly layered qualities of places.

Figure 2: Brett Paris

For example as part of their current design studio, my students are interpreting a creek that runs through the design site, as both an element of reflection, light and attraction, and the locus of something unsettling and incongruous. According to historical maps, it is likely that the creek has been artificially channeled and is contributing to issues of nutrient and sediment loading into a lake at a nearby recreation area.

As a verb, drawing in quiet on one’s own on site, offers designers the opportunity to bring forth understandings and perspectives founded in feelings, moods and interpretations as much as objective observation and measurement. The interpretive flavour of this approach is not as far-removed from robust and demonstrable understanding as one might initially think. Subjective impressions of place, formulated before more technical and objective evaluations, is a helpful signpost towards rational understanding of environments. Furthermore, aesthetic sense and experience of the land cannot be removed from the equation of environmental responsibility, with non-technical understandings of the physical, measurable world – such as romance and responsibility – having long associations with ecological thought.

In short, the tactics imposed by the pandemic – working in isolation without normal access to collaborative discourse, often-solitary site visits, and the need to ask pointed and germane questions when we do have the opportunity to interface with colleagues – might, in fact, reengage us with site-drawing practices and the agency of subjective expression. Furthermore, if we see drawing places as an activity that can usefully be performed by those without the technical training of architects and designers, re-emphasizing the value of familiarity and occupation, we might see a broadening of collaborative drawing exercises, once we move-past Covid-19, to include members of the public.

Betrayal in the Belief of Beauty

It is of course, possible (indeed probable) that the initial values and beliefs with which we imbue places, are unmoored from the objective facts of history, ecology and the physical and social sciences. An ecologically degraded landscape or condemned ruin for example, are quite capable of being attractive (or at least compelling). An observer, drawing in the field, can imbue such places with an aesthetic value that is out-of-step with other considerations such as health, safety and wellbeing. But this does not make these readings worthless. The initially sensorial, place-based approach can spur the designer’s curiosity, and lead – quite naturally – to the articulation of highly relevant, pointed and well-formulated questions to collaborators, including invested members of communities.

Despite the challenges of the Covid-19 era, there have been opportunities for design-collaboration, even if this has been curtailed and stifled by the vagaries of online meetings and document-sharing. Answers to design questions and discussions that arise from sensorial place-readings through drawing, can lead to the discovery that initial impressions are – from other perspectives – incorrect, or at least questionable. An ecologist’s, historian’s or engineer’s view of a beguiling place might be less than positive: an attractive site can be ecologically compromised, a romantic-derelict may be structurally unsound, and so on.

Nevertheless, the tension between these perspectives is often fruitful ground for designers, as they reconcile ecology and beauty, romance with utility, and form with function. Furthermore, the connection between designer and place that is inculcated through those initial forays with the sketchbook is a powerful motivator for critical inquiry and thoughtful action. In the mind of the designer, this is no longer just a physical space to be altered materially, but a place of values and associations.

In architectural practice and education, there has been a certain poignancy in maintaining a sense of creative camaraderie over the past year. There has also been an understandable disruption to authentic discourse and collaboration. The past-12 months have seen a significant reliance on solitary reflection, and barriers to the naturally collaborative discourse of design.

The tactics above revolve around personal readings of place and the embrace of subjective ‘false’ understandings of the world as beginning points for design discussion. Place drawings based on values and interpretations, rather than objective measurement and accuracy, provide opportunities for designers to form early-connections with environments, that can lead to personal-investment and effective collaboration with other disciplines.

Authorship of place narratives through drawing, can also be an effective vehicle for community engagement and storytelling. Of course, we all long for normalcy and, within the context of architectural practice, that will mean a return to tightly scheduled site visits, round-table design-discussions and face to face conversations. Nevertheless, I would caution against leaving behind, totally, some of the methods and approaches of reflection and immersion that have been foregrounded by this time of pandemic.


Dr. Carl Smith is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He is also a Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield, a Chartered Landscape Architect and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

 

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