Dean's Letter: Spring 2009

Dean's Letter, Spring 2009
College of Architecture
Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design


Architect Paul Shepheard in his book What is Architecture reminds us that Vitruvius believed that architecture consists of landscapes, buildings, and timepieces. Timepieces [machines] for Vitruvius were sundials, which represented the full spectrum of the earth and planets. "There is a scale of things all to do with the land, at one end of which are the forces of nature, the perception of which, at any given place I would call landscape. At the other end of the scale are the local difficulties solved, and the opportunities opened, by our use of machines – and somewhere in between are the buildings, which if conceived grandly and accurately enough, can extend outward to embrace each end of the scale." Buildings in the middle, landscape on one end and machines on the other.

Landscape, originally a painting term from the Dutch landschap, meaning region or tract, is a "portion of land which the eye can comprehend at a glance." Landscape in its early English usage meant not the view itself but a painting of the view as in the 17th century landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. J.B. Jackson in his book Discovering the Vernacular Landscape goes further in uncovering the etymology of the word. He refers to the component roots of the compound word, which refer to earth or soil, and shape as stemming from the word sheaf. Sheaf referring to a composition of similar elements has come to mean a collection. Therefore landscape as a "collection of lands" refers both to a distinct boundary, or plot, but "something like an organization or a system." Jackson offers the following definition: "… a composition of man-made or man modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence: and if background seems inappropriately modest we should remember that in our modern use of the word it means that which underscores not only our identity and presence, but our history."

Combining Shepheard's understanding of landscape as the perception of natural forces at a specific place and Jackson's belief that landscape is the infrastructure for our collective identity we might more accurately describe landscape as that which allows us to perceive ourselves, each other, and our relationship to our broader environment, in particular to the forces that shape it.

This provocation is often camouflaged by our preoccupation with the "view." In an essay entitled "A Topographical Amnesia," Paul Virilio compellingly suggests that this perception is being destroyed by the proliferation of manufactured images that do not require our imaginations. These instruments allow our engagement to happen at a distance and transform experience into an image. Through an increasing abstraction, and simplification, the "enabling capacity of vision" is "ruined by a teletopology," which renders the landscape mute. If this is the case the manufactured image is more tenacious than the "view," interrupting the perception of the natural forces that allow us to experience landscape. Perhaps buildings can help.

Buildings at some level remove us from the environment and the landscape. They hold us above, and inside, and under. But they also strategically reintroduce us to the environment through openings that ventilate, roofs that collect the rain and guide our view out, spaces that are at once inside and outside providing shade that makes the sun more apparent, and through systems that reintroduce air, light, and the experience of the landscape and the forces that shape it. I would argue that buildings that do this dynamically and express this fact and this relationship are more sustainable. More sustainable not only in how they operate, but in how they allow us to see and experience the forces and the relationships allowing the building to be an interface that is conspicuously in the middle, "conceived grandly and accurately enough, [so they] can extend outward to embrace each end of the scale," of landscape and machines.


"A design machine must have an artificial intelligence because any design procedure, set of rules, or truism is tenuous, if not subversive, when used out of context …"

In the 1970 book Architecture Machine, Nicholas Negroponte, a professor of architecture at MIT and founder of the Media Lab, outlined ideas for "the intimate association of two dissimilar species (man and machine), two dissimilar processes (design and computation), and two intelligent systems (the architect and the architecture machine)." Written before any such machines existed and patterned after ethical robots, a specific class of machines described by cyberneticist Warren McCulloch, Negroponte's Architecture Machine was dependent upon an understanding of the environment as an evolving organism as opposed to a designed artifact. Additionally, the interface of the person and machine was predicated on a desire for self-improvement that ascribed intelligence to the artifact or the artificial and was concerned with "problem worrying," not "problem solving" – problem worrying acknowledging the dynamic relationship between problems and solutions in an evolving context.

Negroponte goes on to describe that this could happen through a dialogue between the person and the machine and between the machine and the environment. He states that the dialogue between the machine and the environment must be two-fold: first, "an [architecture] machine must receive direct sensory information from the real world," and second be aware of other designers procedures such that it can provide both "unsolicited knowledge and unsolicited problems." In this way a designer could "tune into controversy" that could challenge the designer's own assumptions preventing the machine from simply being a "yes man."


The architecture machine would be a subset of a landscape machine which would be the consequent association of a species and a process (man and environment) a system and a network (a city and an infrastructure), and four dissimilar designers, an architect, a landscape architect, an urban designer, and an artist. The landscape machine would record, predict, and respond to the weather. It would contribute to the forces that are in part the product of the perception of landscape thereby sustaining it, it would reveal the beauty of these relationships, and it would be connected to all other landscape machines such that it could learn over the course of time. It would not be distinguished by artificial boundaries between man and nature, building and environment, urban and rural. It would, in fact, redirect these relationships towards new generative potentials. Shepheard continues, "Perception of the land is not like revelation, it comes about slowly. When it arrives, it is as sure as the day is, but there's a long dawn to sit through first … Turning the land to profit has been the underlying strategy of moves in the landscape for so long … is it still possible to think of the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people?"

Bruce Lindsey

Dean, E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration