Immersions and encounters: Fieldwork in landscape architecture

Fieldwork at Rogie Falls with Leonie Mhari, January 2019. Photo credit: Elinor Scarth.

In this post, Elinor Scarth, a landscape architect and lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, reflects on students’ experiences of being immersed in the field, and how it can open up moments of experimentation and creativity…

I am floating on the horizontal surface of a transparent florescent orange inflatable lilo in the Firth of Forth. It is February 2006. I am thinking of the selkies, I am watching the Hound Point oil terminal as I paddle downstream.

I am standing in the Black Water upstream from Rogie Falls. It is January 2019, the water is up past my thighs, I am wearing thick rubber waders which push against my legs under the pressure of the current. The banks of the Black Water river are frozen hard, rippled pockets of ice and icicles in suspension capture in crystallized form the running water and sparkle in the low sunlight between flurries of snow.

I am a landscape architect, and these are moments from my encounters with the field. These snapshots recollect two fieldwork experiences, firstly, as a student, and more recently recalling work I undertook in the field as part of a collaborative research project. Perhaps being out of my comfort zone is where I am most comfortable?

The practice of landscape architecture would be purely academic were it not for the field. The landscape architecture programmes at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) are professional programmes. Shaping landscapes is central to professional practice and therefore to learn to be in the field and, above all, to be in contact with the landscapes we are asked to define and design within, is critical to the pedagogy of landscape architecture. Moreover, how we orchestrate those encounters can significantly shape design work that tends to take shelter in the spaces of our design studios. The moment of contact with the field is often a moment of experimentation and can open up significant creative direction in the design process.

The potential for the sights, smells, sounds, taste and feel of a landscape to be experienced is often uniquely possible in the field. For some students, the field is a place of significant first encounters: a jellyfish sting, the particulars of pitching and camping in a tent, or seeing a shooting star for the first time. Fieldwork can also allow for the sometimes rigid, pedagogical student–teacher hierarchies to break down into a space where individuals are learning together in a shared environment.

In the fieldwork explorations I prompt with students, we seek to multiply perspectives by taking different lenses to the landscapes we are studying: these lenses are not uniquely optical. I draw on examples of three students who have graduated from landscape architecture programmes at The University of Edinburgh: Leonie Mhari, Emma Herbert, and Yue Qin.

In Leonie’s work, the lens is that of performativity, thinking through the work of feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, in landscapes that might wear make up, and in which spaces of intimacy are incited through hand holding:

Composite image by Leonie Mhari, fieldwork in the Calanques National Park, 2017

For Emma, the detached aerial view provided by drone and satellite technology is set in drastic contrast with the rich, haptic experience of the forests and woodlands of Scotland that can be afforded on the ground.

This year, Yue has developed a method of ‘making with’, in which she makes paper with the tide in the coastal environments that she explores. The gentle rocking of the tide and the paper pulp in the framed mesh filter the intertidal waters and result in a sort of fabric of the landscape. Thinking with Donna Haraway (a posthumanist theorist) and Astrida Neimanis (a hydrofeminist), she has postulated post oil landscapes of Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth:

Composite image by Yue Qin, fieldwork in the Cromarty Firth, 2019

However, keeping the life of the landscape alive in the context of the studio following fieldwork encounters is not without its challenges. A progressive amnesia in the mind of the students can set in upon return to the dry, relatively sterile environment of the ECA teaching spaces. While a certain distance from the multiplicities of complex landscape conditions can provide an important space for unhindered speculation, the significance of visceral corporal memories, shared moments of contact, and the results of ‘making with’ a landscape through in-situ fieldwork can be easily forgotten. To counteract the distancing that students tend to manifest, I seek to foster studio environments in which ‘the field’ becomes a space of continued meaningful dialogue, in which the visceral experience of a landscape can be brought into dialogue with speculative design invention.

Elinor Scarth has contributed to the forthcoming publication, Fieldwork in Landscape Architecture : Methods, Actions, Tools, by Thomas Oles and Paula Horrigan, to be published by Routledge January 2021.

For an expanded reflection upon the representational translation of fieldwork in landscape architectural and architectural studio practice at ESALA, Edinburgh College of Art, see the chapter: Analogue fields by Adrian Hawker, Elinor Scarth, Tiago Torres-Campos, in Representing Landscapes: Analogue, Edited by Nadia Amoroso, Published by Routledge 2019.

Elinor Scarth

Elinor Scarth is a landscape architect and lecturer at The University of Edinburgh where she directs the Master in Landscape Architecture programme. With over ten years experience working in an international context with renowned landscape and architecture practices, Elinor has managed a wide ranging portfolio of projects from private gardens and public spaces and parks. Elinor’s approach to research is enriched by a ‘making with’ approach to landscape architecture design. In addition to her work at the Edinburgh College of Art, she has led design studios at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Paysage and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture in Marseille, taught on the European Masters in Landscape Architecture (EMiLA) programme, and co-organised the EMiLA summer school in 2015.

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