The Graduate Design Studio in Landscape & Architecture at LSU: 6 down, 91 to go (weeks, not yards… ok, ok, i know there are only 4 downs in football)

We entered the design studio on the second floor of Atkinson Hall in the middle of August when it was 90 degrees by 10am and sticky humid day and night.  What do you wear when the heat drips off you and pools behind your knees and in the creases of your arms all day?  A male professor suggested white t-shirts, seeing as colored shirts tend to show massive sweat stains, and one female professor somehow ended up mentioning NOT to wear white t-shirts, which was good advice for the girls.  Living life in Louisiana lessons.  As for Louisiana, it’s a place where the land is highest next to the river.  If you stand on River Road in downtown Baton Rouge and face the river, you can find yourself in a spot where you are looking at a grassy hill and know that you are below the river.  As the Mississippi flows south, it carries sediment with it, and deposits it on the banks of the river.  The sediment builds up.  The river makes a natural levee of sorts, but it’s not enough to contain the snowmelt from the massive area of the United States that drains into the Mississippi Delta (image coming soon.).  Levees are built to contain the river when it floods.  You’ve heard of levees, right?  Like in Don McLean’s song, “Bye, bye, Ms American pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,” and Led Zeppelin’s song When The Levee Breaks, “If keeps on raining, the levee’s going to break, and if the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.” ( 

The levee system that has been built actually causes land to disappear.  Strange, right?  Wouldn’t you think that if a river no longer flows over land that there would be more land in sight?  Since the river carries and deposits sediment, the presence of the river builds land.  When it is diverted with the levee system, the land begins to disappear.  Buildings that were once on land, are now in water.  There is a group of Native Americans south of New Orleans, near Houma, and they cannot be recognized by the United States as a legitimate group of Native Americans, because the law requires them to have land, and their land is now underwater.  This is a fascinating subject in itself.

You heard the news this spring about the flooding in the Atchafalaya Basin?  The Army Corps of Engineers had to open the floodgate in the Bonnet Carre Spillway and Morganza Floodway to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding.  Unfortunately, people who settle in that area lost crops and homes, but it’s important to know that they occupy that land with the knowledge of that process, and they are compensated by the government in some sort of legal business they’ve worked out.  I’m curious to know more about this subject.  It’s part of a larger theme that occurs in southern Louisiana.  The land is liquid here.  It floods cyclically, in a somewhat predictable pattern.  The Tigris and Euphrates rivers flooded, but with much less predictability, whereas the Nile flooded cyclically.  The differences between the ancient cultures that resided in these areas is largely due to the instability versus stability of these flood patterns.  Cultures of Mesopotamia created walls for protection from unpredictable outside forces (and encroaching, warring groups of people), whereas Egyptians were able to spend lots of time contemplating the cosmos and the afterlife, building giant temples and tombs.  The east side of the river was developed for daily life, with the rising sun, and the western side of the river with the setting sun was dedicated to building tombs and pyramids.  A quote from The Doors: “We have constructed pyramids in honor of our escaping.  This is the land where the pharaohs died,” The Wasp (  They spent so much of life contemplating the afterlife, the space in between death and life.  That’s what John Risk is teaching us in Landscape History, which is like Art History of Landscape.  I’m riveted by his lectures.  Imagine beginning with how people began to express themselves and their relation to the earth, to space.  Learn how these themes connect to contemporary architecture and landscape architecture.  I find it so fascinating.

Six weeks into it now.  Week Four I pulled my first all nighter and by Week Six I feel like 3 months have passed.  We’re in the middle of Project One, designing boxes.  It all began with finding three objects outdoors.  Relate them to each other, we were told.  Observe them and diagram them.  Look at them, really look at them and tell us what you see.  Make this a product and hang it up in front of the class.  Everyone will look at what you produced and the professors will tell us what we did wrong, and point out the few instances where someone almost got it right.  “It’s starting to be something we’d call a diagram, but you all still haven’t quite got it.”  Only in hindsight would this be seen as a gentle response to our failings.

Next, take those objects and create space with them by using a specific wood and wire.  You are allowed to use wood glue.  Make make make.  The authors of the marble and the fork get it.  We pass theirs around and try to see what the professors are saying they did right.

Now, put the objects in space aside.  Design voids based on those constructs.  Draw it and show us.  Done that?  Good, now design a box that contains those three voids based on the objects, and tell us about the relationship those objects and spaces have to each other.

I organized my objects according to their density, with the heaviest object on the bottom, and the lightest on the top.  The voids of the two heaviest objects touched each other, while massing separated the third object that had such less density than the others.  Brick, moss stick, orange twine.

Made your box?  Show us what you did with a filmstrip and a collage.  Pin it up on the wall and we’ll discuss it.  They take a look at the work around the room.  We sit down to talk.  You all have failed. Now present your work.  Let’s talk more about how badly you all failed.  We can’t carry forward with the assignment.  You must make the box again.  This time, do a better job.  Consider the massing and don’t just slap pieces of wood on the outside.  Craft is suffering immensely.  Remake the box.  Gripe, moan, unbelievable, we say.  But we all know we could do better.  I had to quit designing at one point, and had to slap the pieces together, not even creating the third void i designed in my mind and created with chipboard and cardboard.  Second chance, hooray, we get a second chance!  I want to drop my box from the second floor fire escape and enjoy watching it smash apart.

Boxes made on the second try are remarkably better.  Everyone’s craft improves.  Everyone understands massing more.  Some people remain with the simple designs, others shift the massing of their voids to make more interesting boxes to look at.  The next step, the professors announce to us, is to disassemble the box.  That’s right.  After we’ve spent hours and days in the studio and in the woodshop, we are being told to disassemble the box.

I’m starting to see the humor in our professors having told us to pin up our work, tell us how badly we all failed, ask us to then present our work, talk more about how we failed, and tell us to redo the project. they are hilarious, those two.  That was the week before last.

With our successful boxes, the next assignment is to cut apertures into the box, to think about letting light in, how and why design your box to let light in.  We are assigned a site in the American landscape in which to place our box.  We thought we were done with the woodshop, that we wouldn’t ever have to return if we didn’t want to, but now we had to make return visits.   The guys in the woodshop (Check out Jonathan Pelliterri’s sculpture here are so sick of us.  Few of us have any woodworking experience and we go in there to use blades that could saw a body part off to do things we have no idea how to do.  Sometimes we don’t even know what to do, but we’re in a room full of miter saws, radial arm saws, band saws, drill presses, and sanders longer than our wingspan, and we have to figure out how to build the box we’ve designed in our minds and on paper.  Amazing how quickly we get over what we don’t want to do.  There is no time to act differently.  Good luck, our professors tell us.

Craft, craft, craft.  Take care with every decision.  Make design decisions that are backed by logic.  Cut into that object you spent so much time and effort to create.  Grapple with the feeling of unmaking what you put so much work into.  Take it apart like you mean it.  We make the cuts, let the light in.  We draw diagrams of the solar path including azimuth and elevation of the sun during September in our site.  My site is Mono Lake in northern California, east of the Sierra Nevadas and on the edge of the Great Basin that is one of the four biggest deserts in the country, stretching from eastern Oregon to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, and down the the corner of California and Mexico.  The lake is three times saltier than the ocean, is a resting spot for migratory birds that eat alkali and maybe brine shrimp too.  No fish, it’s too salty.  I place my box on a small island in the lake where the light of the sunrise and sunset can enter the voids of the box.  The three voids in the box align on a vertical axis, which I decide is the axis mundi, and cut my aperture to let a shaft of light enter the box, mainly during mid day.

We were told on Wednesday to disassemble the box further by cutting it into pieces, with a logic and design behind each move, then use wire again to attach the pieces together.  Choose the most dynamic natural force of the site, and allow that force to run through the box in its location.  Create gaps in the box.  Allow the site forces to become spacemakers in your box.  Draw diagrams of how the force will interact on the box, and how the box will respond to the force.

Design is perpetual.  It evolves and changes.  We create plans, then we create models that differ from the initial plan.  Design school is different than regular school.  We don’t write papers and take tests, being told we understood 88% of the material, and that we were wrong for reasons a, b, and c.  Being in design school requires you suspend your concepts of right and wrong, and think about a million and one ways to do something.  Create a plan, and try to make it.  You won’t be told what percentage you got right.  You’ll be told what is working, what isn’t, and how to make it work better in ways you may or may not comprehend.  It’s challenging, time consuming, and full of ridiculous requests from our professors to do things we never even knew existed in ways we never knew we could think.

Taking a sculpture studio in undergrad is about the only academic experience I had that prepared me for the Design Studio in Landscape Architecture.  There was no way then that I knew how helpful his sage-like advice would be to my future professional life.  Three things my sculpture teacher taught me during undergrad: be deliberate- meaning don’t leave the viewer wondering if you meant to do something in your work,  realize that every decision is part of the creative process, and the table saw can be a very dangerous machine.  Mike Rathbun, you’re so cool.  Seriously, very cool.  When I had Mike as a Sculpture I teacher, he was planning a trip for his wife and two daughters to take the year before the eldest went off to college.  They were going to retrace Steinbeck’s route through the Sea of Cortez in a sailboat Mike owned.  They would live at sea together for a couple of months.  Mike taught us to make interesting sculptures.  He told us to make things that people look at for a long time.  If it’s interesting, people will look at it for awhile.  Here’s his latest piece at the Boise Art Museum:

More images of Mike's work:

3 Responses to “The Graduate Design Studio in Landscape & Architecture at LSU: 6 down, 91 to go (weeks, not yards… ok, ok, i know there are only 4 downs in football)”
  1. Love it. Sounds like you picked the right place to be P! And yes Mike Rathbun. Miss you lady!

  2. I didn’t know LSU had a landscape architecture curriculum. I wonder if you can better draw the line better than me between landscape architecture and urban design.

    • Good question. I can begin to answer it for you, but this answer won’t be complete. Urban design looks at the design of cities- how buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces, commercial areas, and infrastructure all come together (or something like that…). Landscape architecture is very much about looking at systems within the landscape, finding the forms that exist, and then using these to design outdoor spaces. It encompasses a wide range of areas including: city parks and park systems (like the emerald necklace in boston), urban plazas, botanical gardens, residential gardens, and national parks. It is also an approach to designing ecological restoration projects, industrial reclamation projects, and can be seen as an approach to urban design (think ecological urban design). Landscape architects who work in urban design might view the city as a fabric stitched together by natural and artificial landscapes. Approaching urban design through an ecological lens could be very beneficial to the natural systems that exist within cities, such as stream corridors, urban forests, and animal habitats. I guess that maybe urban designers would be less ecologically-minded, but then again, maybe there is a trend among urban designers to show the opposite. The two fields are melding quite quickly, I think. In New Orleans people are planning to green the Lafitte Corridor, and this very much falls into the field of landscape architecture and urban design. Hopefully that gives you an idea. has a lot of projects done by landscape architects that could give you an idea of what we do.

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