Floodlands Landscape design experience with boundary methods and lessons one can draw from stories concerning rural backgrounds
Research stage: senior
The countryside can be understood as an essential space ensuring humanity’s demographic and resource equilibrium. It can thus be likened to that landscape of hope observed by Rem Koolhaas in which new forms of sustainability are achieved through a collaboration with robotics or artificial intelligence (Koolhaas 2020). The countryside is the main object of study of multiple academic disciplines. The latter range from spatial and territorial approaches to urban perspectives and to geographical economics, where territories absorb the unequal and asymmetric flows of goods, services, people, etc. between countryside and city. But what do we find fascinating about rural landscapes today? Is it the contrast they offer with urban experiences? The feeling of fascination usually has a positive connotation (desire, attraction or mystification) but it also rests on the tension between what we are seeing and what we are undergoing (Schmid 2011, 7).
Yoknapatawpha was the imaginary land conceived by William Faulkner to place his stories and tales. The first map of this fictitious territory was published on the last pages of his work “Absalon, Absalon!” In 1936. “The Digital Yoknapatawpha” was created by the junction of scholars on Faulkner’s works and technologists at the University of Virginia in 2014 and consists of numerous diagrams and interactive cartographies that map each and every of Faulkner’s tales, including very exact parameters that filer the display in which the information is presented (page numbers, chronologies, families, social hierarchies, events, places, etc.) (see fig.1).
Figure 1: Space-time chartographies: University of Virginia’s The Digital Yoknapatawpha (left); Faulkner’s map (center); created landscape during this research, from top (right)
The immersive qualities of the selected narratives are transformed into an immersive interface in which the student (like any visitor) can explore the possibilities of the narrative emerged after their work, scrolling horizontally in the diagrams designed to visualize the story and listening at the same to the voice of a narrator which gives life to the characters in the story as the visit continues. In this sense, “Floodlands” is a virtual landscape that highlights one of the main coordinates of any narrative: the importance of space, whose transposition with real spaces is unavoidable as the flux between reality and fiction unfolds, in an analogue way to the flux between fiction and the body of the reader thanks to the effect of mirror neurons and their role in embodied simulation.
Boundary methods close to the non-representational theory were our vehicles to share perspectives among the involved disciplines:
(a) selected literary fictions from Anglo-Saxon literature evoke spaces, experiences and times that concluded with empathic writing exercises. Many of these fictions were set in the rural world – such as Yoknapatawpha County, by William Faulkner – or in atmospheres described as barren, in-between or unexplored (Hines, 1997) (see fig.2). While Yoknapatawpha was the imaginary county conceived by Faulkner to contextualise his stories, the students' proposals were also situated in a fictitious land, comparable to a flood plain of the Bajo Segura river (Southeast Spain) (see figs.3 and 7);
Figure 2: Alluvial diagram with literature selected for the case studies.
Figure 3: Workshop to agree on possible partnerships between projects (bottom).
(b) Rural Studio, a program of Auburn University created by Samuel Mockbee to assist the population in West Alabama, was our place to learn about design standards with minimal ecological footprints and maximum climatic adaptation (see fig.4);
Figure 4: Rural Studio Projects 2005-2009. (https://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/the-rural-studio-the-20k-house/).
(c) the tetralemma was our sociological technique to fix the transition between literary excerpts and ecovillage goals. This technique serves to dismantle false dilemmas found in the literary source, as a method of annotation and debate of arguments (see figs.5 and 6);
Figure 5: Dilemma (sample) for case study -a-. Each working group selected 3-8 dilemmas from de excerpts.
Figure 6: Tetralemma (sample) for case study -a. Layout of the debate about de dilemma, and arrangement of excerpts in relation with coordinates: A, B, A+B or nor A neither B. -). See description of the project inside http://floodlands.orsieg.es/, #1.
(d) One of the elements in the final tasks of students is the design of a narrative whose style had to be inspired in the authors’ ones. For that, students were introduced into the theories of embodied simulation as explained by the neurologist Gallese: the resulting narratives have to include words, meaning, motion or sensation. For example, as the study of mirror neurons has demonstrated, reading motion verbs activate the brain areas devoted to motion (Gallese 2019).
(e) kinematic graphs (kinegrams) were added to understand the way new settlers inhabit the virtual landscape. Each kinematic graph is a sensory resource in which two transparent surfaces explain the design proposal along the virtual valley through a foreground and background, inspired by zoetropic and stereographic techniques, arranged in parallel and vertically in the Rhinoceros vector space. These surfaces are invisible until a camera (viewpoint) is clicked, triggering a transition into perspective mode. Once inside the dynamic picture, one can freely move around, immersed in a binaural soundscape with a voiceover that synthesizes a moment in the lives of the project’s protagonists (Lefebvre 2004, Edensor 2010). These images emphasize the circularity of ordinary landscape actions, rhythms, rhetorics or recurrences “…without a conscious awareness, people perform everyday life alongside others, consequently defining the order, pace, and rhythm of places, and as a result the aesthetic temporal uniqueness of Fitzroy Square…” (Wunderlich 2013, p389) (see figs.7 and 8).
Figure 7: Two interfaces to access to research project spaces at http://floodlands.orsieg.es/.
Figure 8: Resources. Another way to select a case study.
“Floodlands” uses two different ways of showing the general production. The first is a topological presentation, in which a scatter-graph position is proposed with respect to Fiction/Reality, Climate/Time and Barren/In-between/Unexplored vectors, which pay tribute to the categories underlying the order in which William Faulkner arranged his Collected Stories (Faulkner 1950). The second is a topographical display, showing the territory that was created in each project according to the managed resources, and which were subject to a fluctuating water flow as well as pacts of proximity that were defined during the sessions.
The fascination for the new rural landscape was approached from an experimental perspective. The adopted viewpoint was the subjective vision of a character or narrator taken from a literary fragment, from which typological solutions would later be extracted. In this sense, this work advanced a new resource in Social Research Techniques capable of complementing a life story, that ethnographic technique based on progressive conversations which focused on learning from key characters (informants) in order to address a social phenomenon.
a) Old Cahawba (see #1 at the website)
Literary sources and empathic techniques: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner 1930, 75‐154) and A Dreamer (Bush Studies, Barbara Baynton 1902). Faulkner’s story is a multiperspective tale in which different members of a family build the coffin of Addie Bundren and her posterior burial. Baynton’s Bush Studies subverted the ideal of bush lands and wild spaces are idyllic places. The women protagonists of these stories embody the challenges of life in rural spaces, where civilization is hardly present. Landscape design: it consists of a house divided into a millhouse by a river, and a part for wood and rope workers. This adaptation is inspired in a dismantled and relocated proyect by Rural Studio: St. Luke’s Church in Old Cahawba (Alabama). The rain season determines the river flow, and consequently the time in which the mill is active. Climate adaptability: The rain season determines the river flow, and consequently the time in which the mill is active. Short story: “An exhausted raven decides to perch on the highest point of a curious structure. From there, the whole valley can be contemplated. The first thing calling for its attention is an artifact continuously spinning by the river…” (excerpt). Literary analysis: this tale describes the space and landscape from the viewpoint of a raven flying around the area. It is the very raven which is able to think and distinguish the dangerous events and elements of interest at the beginning; also it is the character of the story discovering how this aggressive clime is killing the most fragile species, starting with birds. The end of the story is open, but it suggests an omen of unlucky events. As a modernist work, Faulkner employed in As I lay dying one of the most popular techniques of this period, the ‘stream of consciousness’. Thanks to this technique, the barrier between the character and the reader is weakened, as the text presents directly the thoughts of the characters without the mediation of a narrator, having exactly the same effect than the interior monologue (see fig.9).
b) Confined Islands (see #8 at the website)
Literary sources: Offshore (Penelope Fitzgerald 1979); Canada (Richard Ford 2012). Landscape design: This is an area of forced worked labour in the village, whose use depends on the decisions made by the local justice. It consists of a set of islands with adapted dwellings, working fields (rice fields, mussel factories) and spaces for workshops of fluvial utilities. Climate adaptability: It is the most vulnerable space, a small delta in the river mouth. High and low tides are used for the crop and harvest cycles and for the mussel factories. Short story: “Today has been like any other day in the detention centre. Every step I took increased the gulls’ voices more and more. And the noise of the sea. For me, being placed on an island was the only good thing of the room were I was detained…” (excerpt). Literary analysis: Canada has a simple and clear style that eases the immersion of the reader in the life of Parsons, following the neuroesthetic hypothesis that non-elaborated or foregrounded language enables the immersion of the reader in the story (Jacobs, 2015, p. 7). On the contrary, Offshore’s narrative technique is zero focalization, as the story is presented by an omniscient narrator who knows everything about the story. As in “A Dreamer”, the narrative drives a sympathetic experience towards the characters, as their challenging life conditions and the tough events they undergo are directly presented (see # 8 at the website) (see fig.10).
Figure 9: Kinegram for design proposal (case study –a-), following some Samuel Mockbee (Rural Studio) sustainable practices.
Figure 10: Kinegram for design proposal (case study –b-). See description of the project inside http://floodlands.orsieg.es/, #8.
Floodlands’ translates into visual language the different analysis. It works as a data repository for all the production. Floodlands is an interface in which the visitor can explore the possibilities of the designs and narratives and use the taxonomies that order all the production: one can select authors, date of the story, empathic and sociological properties by label.
Figure 11: Key findings during the learning experience.
The new country duties speculate with the implementation of communal benefits, trying to create social bonds and observing natural rhythms. Dwellers of this community are families and other humans inspired by the literary excerpts. As in Faulkner’s tales, this research wants to offer a multiperspective on how settlers deal with rural dilemas, making us rethink our relation with Earth (see fig.11).
The selected stories originally illustrated how country life was not always more humane than city life or that coexistence with domesticated species or the use of natural resources did not always unfold according to urban observers’ interpretations. In addition, the reading and analysis exercises led students to identify with one or several characters and to a creative proposal on how to reconstruct countryside spaces.
The architecture students positively valued their access to the characters’ inner experiences and perceptions. Despite their fictitious nature, these figures illustrated the historical value of the concerns and worldviews of the societies belonging to the published works’ temporal period. We believe that such an opening to the characters’ inner experiences plays a fundamental role because they cannot be accessed via common historical data or statistics, only in literature. We must remember that these future architects will need to project not only spatial, social or economic problems, but also the emotional and cultural issues that people may have in general. Through this practice, future landscape architects were able to access that level of situations in which they could imagine contemporary statements and make design proposals.
Some other answers in the questionnaire given to the participating students were referred, for example, to the objective of designing in a fictitious landscape that would later provide keys to understanding the globalized world; or to the use of literary content to generate new perspectives about the rural and about the current post-covid-19 situation (see fig.12).
Figure 12: Some graphs in relation results of the survey on the educational experience.
Floodlands is a sample of emergent pedagogy conducted by members of “Viceversos” and “Architectural Projects: critical pedagogies, ecological politics and material practices” (https://proyectosarquitectonicos.ua.es/investigacion/grupos-de-investigacion/) at the University of Alicante (Spain). Floodlands viewer was an original idea by Jose Carrasco and Sergi Hernandez, as a second opportunity to work on a transmedia interface after “Migrant Matters” project http://migrantmatters.orsieg.es/. Floodland’s code was written by Sergi Hernandez (https://orsieg.es/).
Edensor, Tim (2010): “Thinking about Rhythm and Space”. In: Edensor, T. (Ed.), Geographies of Rhythm. Natures, Place, Mobilities eand Bodies. London: Routledge.
Faulkner, Williams (1950): “Collected Stories”. Random House.
Gallese, Vittorio (2019) “Embodied simulation. Its bearing on Aesthetic Experience and the Dialogue Between Neuroscience and the Humanities”. In: Gestalt Theory, 418(2), 113-128.
Jacobs, Arthur M. (2015) “Towards a neurocognitive poetics model of literary reading”. In: Cognitive Neuroscience of Natural Language Use. Roel Willems.
Hines, Thomas (1997): William Faulkner and the Tangible Past: The Architecture of Yoknapatawpha. University of California Press.
Koolhaas, Rem (2020): “Countryside A Report”. Taschen.
Lefebvre, Henry (2004): Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everydaylife. London: Continuum.
Schmid Heiko et al. (2011): Cities and Fascination. Beyond the Surplus of Meaning. London: Ashgate.
Wunderlich, Filipa M. (2013). “Place-Temporality and Urban Place-Rhythms” In: Journal of Urban Design, 18, 3, 383-408.