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topoGRAFT—MLA Studio II

Laser Cut Digital Model

In this studio, first year MLA students designed an urban riverside park near downtown Columbus, Georgia. The studio’s specific focus was exploring landform as the creative and integrative use of topography and activity. Students were asked questions such as: What is the role of topography in linking people, place, and program? What are the materials of topography? What means of construction can we explore through landforming?

The studio began with a two-week Materials Explorations assignment. Students worked with quick dry plaster and modifying words such as undulating, folded, or porous, that counterintuitively describe the conventional characteristics of plaster as hard and flat. Students began the material explorations with a period of loose experimentation and an attitude of work as serious play. As such, their modeling methods included the use of scaffolding, fabric-forming, and balloons, clay, or foam insertions that were later removed or dissolved from the dry plaster. Students developed a critical approach toward craft and practiced making as a form of inquiry and discovery. Through a series of feedback sessions and revisions, students created numerous study models and a final plaster model that served as the springboard for the second project. 

In the second project, Digital Explorations, students explored the design potential of capturing, redrawing, and remixing material properties of the plaster model in a digital environment. Students used 123D Catch software to create digital models of the plaster model. This provided students with a digital model, albeit an unsophisticated one, with which to gain familiarity with workflow, the Rhino interface, and fabrication tools. Next, students learned the basics of surface modeling in Rhino by drawing and fabricating simplified versions of the previous model. Finally, students combined the initial digital model with the redrawn model to create a hybrid, remix model that merged textural qualities of the first model with smoother surfaces of the redrawn model. The students then combined their knowledge of digital fabrication and plaster molding to build physical mixed-media models.

The models created in the first four weeks of the studio were then used as inspiration for the topography of the six-acre riverside park. Using a somewhat abstract, pre-formed topography helped students broaden their notions of what types of activities could be meshed within topography. An example is the project shown here where the form of the student’s original model inspired her to create a small hydropower facility that produced the electricity needed to pump river water through a series of contaminant-removing constructed wetlands.

This studio was designed to expose students to the methods, tools, and media necessary for contemporary design production and to introduce a workflow that encourages exploration and experimentation with digital and hand craft techniques. The Material Explorations project fostered an environment where playfulness and creativity could be explored and turned into a productive learning experience. The Digital Explorations project guided students step-by-step through the completion of their first digitally fabricated models, which gave them the basic competency, confidence, and motivation needed to continue excelling with digital tools. And the park design project challenged student’s aesthetic and conceptual predispositions about landscape architecture while reinforcing a culture of critical thinking, self-reflection, and a willingness to explore new ideas and methods.