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West Hill Emerging — Syllabus

Landscape Architecture Studio: Integrating Theory and Practice
LA 3010, Fall 2013, MWF 13.25-16.45


West Hill is severed from the rest of Ithaca by topography, infrastructure, and water. It is split into two different municipalities, the City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca, each of which has its own institutional cultures and planning agendas. Even today, it is still largely undeveloped despite its proximity to the center of the city. For this reason West Hill will almost certainly increasingly be expected both to provide high quality accessible public open space and to house greater and greater numbers as Ithaca grows into the next century. Yet there are major challenges to implementing this vision. There is a problem of accessibility, with non-automotive access up and around the hill often difficult and dangerous. The division into two municipalities presents a range of technical and logistical problems that will be solved only through sustained dialogue and coordination. And the creation of a public landscape out of a place where most of the land parcels are, and will continue to be, in private hands, will require both inclusive visioning and political will to achieve. All of these challenges must be met if West Hill is to emerge as a cohesive landscape in the coming century.

Current plans for West Hill envision a necklace of new parks running north-south at the crest of the hill, connected to new types of residential neighborhoods that will house hundreds or even thousands of residents. While they will be located in the Town of Ithaca, these parks and neighborhoods will likely come to be amenities that serve the diverse populations of the City of Ithaca and the wider region. It is therefore critical that they be conceived in ways that are holistic in relation to both their immediate surroundings and more distant places, and in ways that reflect the diverse aspirations and priorities of the people who will inhabit and visit them. In a landscape too rigidly divided between private and public realms, these parks must further both social solidarity and ecological sustainability. There is thus no avoiding the necessity of planning them as a system rather than a series of discrete and independent “sites.”

The challenge, in short, is to weave the new West Hill into the urban fabric of a growing city, one that very soon will have a new waterfront district, and major new infusions of residents and urban activities, at its West End. This will mean plans that are flexible enough to retain their integrity in the face of declining public investment while delivering real and measurable benefits to citizens. If this technical and social challenge can be met, then a new West Hill can emerge, one that will move, step by step, from the margins of Ithacans’ collective consciousness to its very center.


The goal of this studio is to develop visions of the future landscape of West Hill, one of cohesive urban neighborhoods, high quality public open space, and good access for pedestrians and bicycles. Our primary task will be to envision in detail the new system of interconnected parks that will serve the needs of both neighboring residents and the larger community of Ithaca, and to catalyze new forms of social and ecological capital in the process.

The key to conducting this exercise in a way that is not reductive and formalistic will be to engage the diverse constituencies of West Hill and Ithaca in an open dialogue about the needs and future of this landscape, and to begin the process of making sense of possibilities through collective design speculation. The result, I hope, will transcend the representational conventions of the past and succeed in evoking a real place emerging through the co-evolution of natural and social systems. Arguably, this is what all landscape architecture practice must be capable of doing if it is to remain relevant in the coming years.

In this context, one of the major objectives of this studio is learning how to manage design across the boundaries of municipalities and parcels. This is a persistent problem in the planning of landscapes, which are almost invariably subdivided into the holdings of people with very different values and interests. How do we come up with a cohesive design strategy that conceives of the landscape as a whole in such a context? How do we engage all relevant stakeholders, not just those with the loudest voices? How do we build the process of community engagement into the design process itself? A major part of this studio is therefore devoted to the collaborative process through which people take part in shaping the visions that we generate. For it is only through such collaboration that the visions we emerge with will be truly durable and resilient in the long term.

The above goals concern the public products of this studio, which hopefully will come to influence the ongoing conversation about the future of West Hill. But there are also a number of other, “private” objectives of this studio, ones concerned with helping you to become a more reflective and resourceful designer.

The first of these objectives is to become practiced at the design process itself. It is commonly thought that the design process is a logical sequence that runs from site analysis through design speculation to formal prescription. In reality, design is a road that begins in intuition and hunches and proceeds with many false starts and wrong turns. These wrong turns are critical parts of the process, and knowing how to profit from them is a skill that all designers must develop over time. More than a linear process, design is largely a matter of a dialogue between the rational, technical mind and the affective and the sensual ways of knowing as a body in the world. This dialogue is inevitably fraught with tension and contradiction. Learning to inhabit, and to conceive forms and relationships, out of that tension is one of the key goals of this studio.

The second private objective is to develop the capacity to theorize, or to reflect critically on practice, and to build this reflection into the design process itself. This means that you will be engaged in a process of active reflection on your work throughout the course, drawing periodically on readings in landscape architecture and other fields to assist you. Keep in mind that theory, at least as we will understand it here, is not something recondite and abstruse. It is simply the process of sustained speculation on practical acts. In this sense, theory is very close to ethical reflection, or the consideration of what one should do in particular situations. At every stage of the design process, then, you will be asked to step back from your decisions to reflect on why you approached a particular site, system, or problem in the way that you did.

The third and final private objective of this studio is to develop techniques for representing landscape as a complex interaction between human and biophysical systems. As designers you do not generally make changes to real landscapes, but rather provide a set of “instructions” about how others should change the landscape, or how the landscape might or should evolve over time. This demands the capacity to represent landscape in many different ways depending on issues at stake and the audience with whom you are communicating. Though landscape architecture has adopted certain conventions for representing outdoor space, in reality there is no single best way to evoke a landscape. For this reason, the studio will involve engaging many different means of thought and expression. The ultimate goal is to make you more resourceful and inventive depicters of landscape in all its richness, multiplicity, and tension.

With all that said, the specific learning outcomes of this studio are as follows:

  1. 1 To gain confidence in the design process as a method of conceiving and solving real-world problems
  2. 2 To gain proficiency at identifying, analyzing, and evaluating landscape systems and practices
  3. 3 To gain the ability to develop conceptual designs through quick modeling and sketching
  4. 4 To develop the capacity to expand conceptual designs into refined site and landscape plans
  5. 5 To develop and improve your methods of representing landscape systems and sites
  6. 6 To learn how to reflect critically on ethical and practical problems in the design of landscapes


This studio is divided into five learning modules, each of which has its own character, rules, and learning objectives. Each module builds on the tasks of the previous one, and each is designed to further specific outcomes in the above list.

The first module, “Landing,” is devoted to learning to “read” and understand a place that is new to one. It is designed to hone your ability to convey the experience of landscape, and to archive that experience for use in later stages of the design process. Students in this module will work alone. This module furthers Outcomes 1, 2, and 5 in the above list.

The second module, “Imagining,” is devoted to three quick design tasks that explore in a preliminary way the opportunities and constraints of the future park sites. In this module, students will work in pairs. This module furthers Outcomes 1, 3, and 5 in the above list.

The third module, “Voicing,” is a single exercise in which students design, organize, and implement a forum for public engagement. This process will culminate in a design charrette to be conducted on 5 October 2013. Students in this module will work collectively as one group. This module furthers Outcomes 1, 3, and 5 in the above list.

The fourth module, “Emerging,” is core of the studio. It involves generating a design for the future parks and connectivity networks of West Hill. Students in this module will work in groups of three or four. Further details about this module will be worked out collaboratively in studio, including the writing of the project brief itself. In addition, there will be considerable time for individual critiques, discussions, lectures, and tutorials as desired by individuals or the group collectively. This module furthers Outcomes 1, 4, and 5 in the above list.

The fifth module, “Speculating,” runs across the entire semester and consists of periodic reflective essays that build your capacity for reflecting critically on practical and ethical problems in the design of landscapes. This module furthers Outcome 6 in the above list.

I believe strongly that landscape architecture is a discipline with a public mandate. Part of this involves thinking always about how we go about disseminating ideas. In the current age it is no longer good enough, nor indeed satisfying for you, to produce materials that get shoved into real or metaphorical drawers hours after they are produced. For this reason, all submissions for this class, including essays, will be uploaded to a public website located at westhillemerging.tumblr.com. While we will be working in many different media throughout the semester, all submissions must therefore be digitized and submitted to the proper folder on Dropbox at https://www.dropbox.com/ sh/9j6ybg87k0hjg3s/OpnN92lPjd in order to be uploaded to the public site. Further details on this process will be provided at the first class meeting.

Finally a special note on attendance. Studios are collaborative and cooperative environments where we are engaged in a process of reciprocal co-learning. It is therefore important that you be present during studio time except on those days marked with the phrase ‘Field Work’ in the syllabus. Attendance will be taken in Room 462 at the beginning of each studio meeting, and it is expected that you will arrive on time and remain in studio for the entire length of our meeting. Requests for exceptions should be addressed to the instructor prior to the beginning of the studio meeting concerned.


Each student in this course is expected to abide by the Cornell University Code of Academic Integrity. It is expected that all material submitted by a student for academic credit will be that student’s own work. Should copying occur, both the student who copied work from another student and the student who gave material to be copied will both automatically receive a zero for the assignment. Penalty for violation of this Code can also be extended to include failure of the course and University disciplinary action.


In compliance with the Cornell University policy and equal access laws, I am available to discuss appropriate academic accommodations that may be required for students with disabilities. Requests for academic accommodations are to be made during the first three weeks of the semester, except for unusual circumstances, so arrangements can be made. Students are encouraged to register with Student Disability Services to verify their eligibility for appropriate accommodations.


In order to make this studio as productive and fulfilling as possible, I will be routinely soliciting feedback from students on its scope and quality. In addition, there will be two formal evaluation exercises: the first at the mid-term, the second at the end of the class. It is extremely important that you take part in these exercises, because your comments will shape the next iteration of this class.