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Birkeland's “Landscape as Memorial” studio class sparks innovative projects and discussions

“How does collective memory about a memorial change over time?”

This question sparked visiting assistant professor of landscape architecture Jennifer Birkeland’s course “Landscape as Memorial” (Larch 414: Special Topics Studio) which launched in the fall of 2017. The studio class provided students with pertinent skills for their futures, stimulated deep conversations and self-reflection, and generated buzz for its innovative final projects, such as a virtual space for adoptees to come together, or a hotel on Mars dedicated to David Bowie.

Birkeland (RLA, LEED AP) started teaching landscape architecture at Penn State’s Stuckeman School in the fall of 2016. Her inspiration for the studio class originated in 2011 while she worked with the firm Olin on a year-long competition focusing on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Birkeland managed two projects, and one in particular was pivotal for her. She redesigned “Constitution Gardens,” the picturesque park between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. She remembered sitting in a meeting about the future goals for the project: “we were discussing the potential buffers between the Vietnam Memorial and the Constitution Gardens.” It dawned on her that the narrative of the Vietnam Memorial has changed over time: “as those who had relatives involved on the Vietnam War have passed on, people’s relationships to these landscapes have significantly changed. The collective memory changes for memorials. I began thinking about ‘how does collective memory about a memorial change over time? I thought that would be a good prompt for a studio class.” In addition, the topic is a useful teaching opportunity because, “memorials become a bridge between landscape and architecture.”

Birkeland channeled this idea directly into her teaching practice: “I wanted to give students the opportunity to use landscape as a tool to set up a ‘performance,’ much like the Vietnam Memorial.” She describes, “You go down into it, the earth goes above you as you go down. Even if you were not tied to it, the way the climate and sound changes – the environmental factors – change the way you are in the space. It’s something I want the fourth and fifth year students to think about and explore. I want them to use landscape and materiality in a way that it doesn't have to be about water, plants and seasonal change. It can do so much more, like architecture can.”

Elucidating further on the capacity for a memorial to affect people’s experience and mood, she says, “there are two powerful examples of this: The Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman, and the Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind in Berlin. These are great examples about how a place controls users as they go through the buildings, to understand what it was possibly like. There is a debate about whether you can feel what those people experienced. It is objective, but it’s powerful for a designer to take on the task of coming up with something that represents a person or event and also embodies or stimulates an idea or feeling.” Birkeland adds, “I think there are complicated narratives that need to be told in public open spaces and these students should be thinking about them.”

At the outset of the Landscape as Memorial course, Birkeland provided each student with a precedent to study: “They drew the precedent and we talked about what it was, where it came from, where it was going.” She integrated current events into her class discussions, such as the controversial events surrounding the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, in summer 2017.

“We talked about the difference between figural and abstract. I asked the class ‘what does it mean to have a memorial look like someone, or on the other hand, be abstract and interpretive? Where does it start to become more or less appropriate?’ It grew into an interesting discussion.”  – Jennifer Birkeland

The course introduced new tools and techniques for the students to use in their design careers. Birkeland had them utilize the Stuckeman School’s 3D scanning and printing resources to make objects. “They have been making models and big drawings. I’ve also been trying to teach graphic style – how to produce an image, with some funny results occasionally,” she laughs. For their first project, she gave the groups each a miniature bust of a musical composer. They scanned the busts and made 3D digital models of the musicians. “There were no rules, other than they had to use the face to make a landscape. The range of drawings and ideas was interesting. There are so many facets of landscape architecture, so I wanted to remove the speedbumps so they could be creative, and wouldn’t get paralyzed.”

To provide her students with exposure to iconic memorials and landscapes, Birkeland took the class on field trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. “I wanted to get them thinking about future [design] by seeing memorials from the past. We saw the National September 11 Memorial, Federal Plaza, Washington Square Park, FDR Memorial, and the Irish Hunger Memorial.” She had each student select a site and make a graphic timeline of its development and reflect on it “as if they took a snapshot of the world in one hundred years, ‘what would that memorial be?’” She laughs, “There was a range of depressing and horrible propositions from ‘everyone is dead,’ to ‘New York is underwater,’ to ‘robots had taken over.’ There was a droid charging station, flying cars…some more outrageous than others…funny ones.”

The students had the freedom to choose a topic for their own memorial, about an event, or a person, or something from their imagination for their final project. Birkeland didn’t set constraints, like, “make sure twenty cars can park on the site.” She explains, “I wanted them to be creative about how everything is expressed and how form comes out of their ideas...It differs from the real world when dealing with real problems, clients, cities, communities where there are constraints and budgets, but they want innovative ideas, new ways to experience a place. Like in any discipline, for example, in the field of medicine or science, it is all about the exploratory phase. This is where new and big ideas happen.”

These ideas were well demonstrated in the dynamic and varied projects. Birkeland explains, “The projects ranged in subject from Prince, to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, to bullying…one student created a virtual space for adoptees to come together. They took on a broader language than I anticipated.”

Birkeland described a few exemplary student projects that represent the diversity of topics covered. “Karen Kuo’s (BLA ’18) project is completely in virtual reality. Yesterday she bought a digital component that reads a heart rate, and will sync up with a computer, and as heart rate changes the environment changes…this virtual memorial presents the concept that landscape architecture doesn't have to be in a physically planted environment – it can be any space where you live your life. This idea opens doors to let students walk through and explore for themselves what is interesting to them.”

When reflecting on the assignment, Kuo realized, “I have been fortunate not to have experienced traumatic events in my life. But then I realize everyone has losses; it can be an object, or a place, or people. Yet there are no memorials for loss of objects or places.” So, she set out to create a virtual memorial for those losses – a virtual space to process grief. “I wanted to create a place to share collective memory. Maybe about a single event. I wanted to create a place that is private, immediate and intimate, that is right there whenever you want it.” She designed a virtual space with a lot of rooms that each represent the different stages of grief.

“It is not necessarily a landscape project and also not an architecture project; it is something in-between.” She concluded it is more like an installation, “but it’s not art, it’s not aesthetic. Maybe ‘landscape architecture’ is the in-between.”  – Karen Kuo (BLA '18)

Birkeland described another student’s project, “Cristina Frass (BLA ’19) made a memorial that is a tribute to the 2011 Japanese tsunami. She has a personal connection to the event, because she volunteered to help clean up after the disaster. She is an amazing student, with a beautiful project, and she is interested in creating a space that documents, not the physical timeline, but the stages of the event. In a way, it’s the most traditional memorial of the studio, using abstract objectivity to create space.”

“I wanted to create a memorial that made the visitors feel like someone who had gone through a disaster. So, I assigned a different type of experience to each of the three phases of the event: tension – before, chaos – during, and silence – after the disaster. I had to conceptualize what type of spatial experience creates these feelings. How do I represent tension, chaos, and silence in the landscape? Then, I added a memorial component for the people that lost someone in the disaster, how do they interact with the memorial, how does it fit with their life?”  – Cristina Frass (BLA ’19)

Frass wove together several traditional Japanese concepts in her memorial design. “I represented the chaos stage with a huge wave, which can be overwhelming. In Japanese culture, water is a paradox: it is destruction, but also it is life.” She added lighting to the memorial to represent the concept of a lighthouse. As is practiced during the Japanese holiday Obon, traditionally, light is used to call the souls of the deceased to their families. “They light up lanterns to guide spirits of the dead towards the afterlife.” The memorial is designed to create a space for people to gather and remember those that have passed on. There are 20,000 holes through which light shines (one for each of the deceased), and from a distance the light creates the shape of a paper crane. “This is based on the belief in Japan that if you fold one-thousand cranes, you get a wish. And people usually put paper cranes on gravestones as a well-wishing of sorts.” Frass added, “coming up with a symbol for the memorial was really hard because these are 20,000 lives that are completely different. But I figured that the one thing they have in common is everyone wants to wish them well and wants them back. So, this place is a wish. My goal is that people can come there to put lanterns around the memorial and join together to overcome the disaster.” She reflected on her experience in the class, “it is one of my favorite studios I have had, I really enjoyed the process.”

A third student’s project further illustrates the wide range of topics inspired from the studio class. Birkeland explains, “Tongtong Zhou (BLA ‘18) is very perceptive. She is very good at reading situations and quickly understanding the frequency of the environment she is walking into, which has made her a perceptive designer and given her a great skill-set to be uber-creative and to dissect things that are interesting to her and also to other people. Tongtong keeps telling me how much fun she is having. It’s a really beautiful project.”

“When I chose the class, I wasn’t very interested in the topic of memorial design – it seemed traditional, conventional, and formal, but through this course I was introduced to new technologies, 3D modeling, and new programs for rendering representations. We had the freedom to choose what we wanted to do for a final project...I ended up having a lot of fun.” – Tongtong Zhou (BLA ‘18)

Zhou chose to dedicate her memorial project to David Bowie. “When I saw him in the list, I knew I had to do it. I love his music and him as a person. I find it very interesting that he was always ahead of his time. When I started the design, I didn’t want the memorial to be very focused on his physical appearance, so I chose to take a more abstract approach. I looked into David Bowie’s life from when he started to gain his fame to his death. I found that he has distinct characters, music styles, even costumes, and personalities in each period. Early on, he created the character of Ziggy Stardust. Later, he created Major Tom, an astronaut who traveled into space and never came back. Because Bowie had an ongoing theme and storyline happening in space, I put my memorial on the planet Mars.” Then she had the idea to make her memorial into a hotel because Bowie named one of his songs after the “Mars Hotel” where he once stayed in California. She used his most iconic symbol, the lightning bolt, as the shape for the memorial hotel.

Zhou divided Bowie’s life into eleven periods and eleven rooms. Each room features the characteristics from each of his periods. For example, the first room represents his British “mod period” in the late 1960s. “This was when Bowie was finding his own position in the music industry. He was defining himself.” The second room is the reception, “which mimics and abstracts the landscape of Mars - it’s very wild with hills and craters.” The third room represents what she calls his “hippie period.” She made a model for her favorite, the fourth room, which she calls the “Berlin Period” set in the 1970s. “He was addicted to drugs when he lived in Los Angeles. He wanted to get clean and sober and see himself more clearly. When he faced this issue, he moved to Berlin and made three albums, that he called the Berlin trilogy. His music in that period was ambient and minimalist. Those three albums were his favorite. They came from a deep place in his heart.” She explained her design concept for the room, “before the Berlin Wall was taken down, it was a strange and divided place. Because of the wall situation, the room is made of several panels, like a fence, made out of glass mirrors. When you walk through the space, you can see yourself but the wall heights differ and change.” Beyond the trippy atmosphere caused by mirrors and slanted walls, she describes “it is the ‘deluxe suite’ with one large bed, a TV, and a fridge!” These three students’ projects signify the diverse options for creative and bold interpretations when it comes to memorial landscape design.

Hailing from Los Angeles, Birkeland carries with her extensive experience, bolstered by degrees in landscape architecture from California Polytechnic State University and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She has practiced in several states and multiple countries, in offices such as Ken Smith’s Workshop, the Olin Studio, and West 8. In 2013, Birkeland opened her own practice called op.AL (architecture firm and design practice) with her partner, Jonathan A. Scelsa (AIA, NCARB). “Our investigations range in scale from regional planning and infrastructural design solutions to the domestic. Clients include the City of Salem, Circle Acres Nature Preserve in Austin, New York State Council of the Arts, and New York Parks and Recreation.” They combine landscape architecture and architecture while they conduct research, design, and build installations. Their projects are often overlaid with postmodern references, commentary and discussion of architectural theories like those of Denise Scott Brown from the 1970s. Their firm won grants – including from the New York State Council of the Arts – to research the roofscapes of the Gowanus Canal Watershed in Brooklyn, NY. They are particularly interested in addressing issues of rainwater, harvesting water, and creating a zero offset in buildings. They were funded to observe and integrate roofscapes into a discussion spanning diverse disciplines. Born from this project, the duo created a proposal for which they recently won the Rome Prize (spring 2018) to study the Roman Domus which historically collected rain water in the home’s impluvium (before there were aqueducts) which set a precedent for sustainability within design.

With her experience designing in many settings, Birkeland has garnered perspective on the processes and challenges for new designers. In reference to her students she says, “they often need guidance and sometimes a push out the door to do something they’re very uncomfortable with. That’s the thing that a lot of design students have issues with – how uncomfortable design is. It’s personal and difficult (and I know this because I do this) to put your ideas down and execute them and have them judged by a jury and talk about what is successful and not successful but that’s how you become a good designer. To be a good designer, you need to put your design in the ground and come back five years later to see if that concrete chipped, or the paint faded, or a tree died. All of this is so embedded in so many layers that you can’t just know, you have to do it and do it a lot. It’s very uncomfortable. It can be personal, you might want to cry, people might yell at you. But that is how you grow in design. I want this to be for them. It is something very different from what they’ve been doing. It gives them more courage and more ownership towards who they are as a designer and what they find interesting.”

The studio class provided the students with new skills, ways of thinking, and important experiences that prepare them for a well-rounded future as landscape architects. “It has been a process. A lot of students have changed the way they think and have matured and are able to talk about it in a more comprehensive manner – instead of spouting what you think you are supposed to say.” Birkeland adds, “the Penn State program does an excellent job of preparing young landscape architecture students to practice in a wide-range of firms immediately when they graduate, and I hope that this studio gives them that one thing in their portfolio that is foundational but is a little more ‘their own’. There is something about letting them pick their own topic that gives them passion. It can be hard talking about one’s work, or to know what people want to hear to get a job, but, in a way, having a set of really weird drawings of David Bowie in a spacesuit in wonderland will spark a conversation.”

Student work by Christina Frass
Student work by Christina Frass
Student work by Christina Frass
Student work by Karen Kuo
Student work by Karen Kuo
Student work by TongTong Zhou
Student work by TongTong Zhou
Professional project by Jennifer Birkeland
Professional project by Jennifer Birkeland
Professional project by Jennifer Birkeland