Computers in the Design Process 1987-2005
by Edward Flaherty

A Short Historic Perspective

This ASLAcomputing2005Newsletter provides an historical perspective on the evolution of certain computing tools and thinking within the profession of landscape architecture. Mark Lindhult and John Danahy have commented on the Computers in Landscape Architecture papers they originally gave in 1987. Kurt Culberston has commented on his ProjectProcess21 presentation from the 1998 Portland ASLA Annual Meeting.
The contributing authors identify significant digital forces in our turbulent profession that merit additional consideration. 

Mark Lindhult 
Mark Lindhult, FASLA is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a partner with The Berkshire Design Group, Inc. in Northampton, MA. He has been active in the application of computers to landscape architectural problems since 1978. He was the first computer editor for Landscape Architecture magazine and chair of the ASLA’s computer committee for 4 years. He and Jim Sipes are currently under contract with Wiley & Sons to write a book about integrating digital technology into the planning and design process.


Computers in the Design Process 1987-2005- Image1 

In the 1987 education session, Future Trends: Computers as Conceptual Design Tools in Landscape Architecture, Professor Mark S. Lindhult, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts, wrote in his summary:

“...basic enhancements must be made if the designer is to interact with his computer in an intuitive fashion. There are many specific design applications, which, given an intuitive an d intelligent interface and artificial intelligence, can be added within this framework. Some of the topics currently being researched are: shape grammars--programs for generating an inventory of shapes, forms, and patterns for the designer to choose from, interactive means of dealing with various levels of abstraction, ways of representing various landscape typologies, techniques for representing design constraints, and void models--methods of dealing with modeling spaces as opposed to solids modeling.

The future bodes well for the development of systems that may incorporate these types of capabilities. Recent advances in superconductive materials ensure that the computer’s speed will continue to accelerate; improvements in hardware and software for parallel processing will allow for the complex calculations required to support sophisticated graphics and fast searches through large data and knowledge bases that the system will require; laser disk technology will provide storage for the terrabytes of needed data; and research into artificial intelligence and human cognition will provide the software for developing knowledge based systems that meet the needs of designers.

There is a bright and exciting future for landscape architects and the computer. These new tools have the potential for enhancing our creativity by providing the means to evaluate designs in the conceptual stage of the design process. However, we must begin to work now on adapting our design methodologies to take advantage of this new technology.”

In 2005, Mark Lindhult summarizes the changes of the past two decades and looks at the future needs:

“Since my article back in 1987 a great deal has happened in the realm of integrating digital technology into design practice. One significant change is that few are asking whether they should use CAD in their office. Almost every firm is applying CAD every day making tools such as AutoCAD and VectorWorks ubiquitous.

Many firms have adapted the way they work to incorporate these tools into the design process. Practitioners are creatively integrating hand sketches; image editing, GIS and CAD to develop their final product. The emphasis during the past 18 years has been on production tools – an area where clear enhancements to productivity are evident. Now that these capabilities have been woven into the fabric of most design practices, there is a move towards adapting digital tools into the conceptual stage of the design process. The best example of this is SketchUp. In my 25 years of teaching, I have never seen students gravitate to a tool of any kind as quickly as this software. Unlike Auto- CAD, which they feel compelled to use, this is a tool that they actively enjoy using and experimenting with to explore preliminary design ideas.

A great deal of progress is necessary in order to accomplish many of the larger ideas laid out in the article – the need for a designers operating environment, knowledge driven databases and flexible and intuitive programs and interfaces. ArcGIS has made the most significant strides towards knowledge driven databases, looking at the data that is necessary to make a decision and applying processes to solve a problem. If only CAD for landscape architects was like that. As always, the tools available to architects are more robust in their “understanding” of the elements that make up a design and their inherent characteristics.

In hardware, Moore’s law has held fast over the past 18 years so the profession has benefited from ever increasing processor speeds and increased storage capacity with an actual reduction in cost. I still remember paying over $3000 in 1984 dollars for an IBM PC with dual floppy drives. With the coming of holographic storage, new processor designs and enhanced graphics abilities it is clear that the hardware side will continue to advance. The future bodes well for the profession. I’m looking forward to 2023.”

John Danahy is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and the Director of the Centre for Landscape Research (CLR) at the University of Toronto. He joined the faculty in 1981 and has developed an internationally recognized expertise in digital media for design, planning and visualization. Projects undertaken by CLR seek to improve design thinking through the addition of computational technology to professional design and public decision-making.


Computers in the Design Process 1987-2005- Image2 

In 1987, John Danahy covered Affordable Sophisticated Imaging, and the Development of Image Rendering for Design via three case studies, and wrote in his conclusion:

"Designers must learn how to use this technology adroitly. As a design tool, the technology of computer aided design is still largely a promise. Clearer understandings of perception and spatial abstraction are needed and one must be keenly aware of the design methodology one is using to take full advantage of the computer tools available today. Considerable work in computer science is needed before the tools are forgiving enough to be used intuitively by most designers.

Design demands adaptability. No one general purpose system will work efficiently for all users in all applications. Every problem we have worked on has required us to modify our systems to do the work efficiently. In our opinion, the user should be able to recognize the general tools in a graphics system with an easy to understand macro programming language."

In 2005, John Danahy has written in relation to those two paragraphs, these thoughts and concerns regarding where we are headed:

“Almost two decades of incremental technical progress has largely realized the promise of automating the well understood and economically productive tasks practiced in the 1980’s. Pretty much every production task done then, now works quite well on very affordable computers. The graduates at Toronto have not been asked about their manual drafting skills or lettering ability for years and years – “Autocad required”. I would say that the field uses the two dimensional drafting and publishing computer technologies quite adroitly. The field is much more productive and efficient in this regard. However, despite this complete transformation to digital media for production and communication, I have not witnessed a shift in the way design is approached. The synthesis of complex issues and the act of composing a design remain untouched. The production tools have amplified the typological and copy paste forms of design which represent archetypal design – not prototypical, inventive design. Clearer understandings of perception and interesting abstractions have not been on the practice or research agenda so these remain underdeveloped.

Some of the promises have been overwhelmingly met and some others remain unrealized. The promise of powerful real-time graphics hardware is here as is the promise of computer aided drafting. My tablet PC now runs the software we could only hope to use on machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1990s. And AutoCAD production of working drawings and digital publishing dominate the production of reports. Halfway into the first decade of the 2000’s, the graphics cards are faster and at least two orders of magnitude cheaper than in 2000. Today’s software is halfway to the goal of supporting design thinking. The hardware is fully capable of achieving the 1987 promise – it is just our profession that remains unable to pay for the crafting of software that can begin to harness design thinking at the early stages of a project. R&D is still something foreign to the small business industry that characterizes design of the built environment. The economics of practice are dueling with the double edged sword of productivity – competition and low prices for the same work. Instead of reinvesting time in design or better still, better tools for design that opens our thinking, competition over the price of a design and implementation fee creates a form of economic stalemate.

For all the progress in hardware and image production tools, the intellectual aspects of supporting design thinking remains for the most part, unchanged from 1987. To be fair, I think this is very understandable because none of the tools that really work today challenge the usual model of design production and practice. We are still in what I call the horseless carriage phase of the evolution toward computer aided design thinking. We think backwards as we are carried into the future by technologies that we do not invent or make. The great theoretical arguments of the past 15 years in landscape architecture have been completely uninfluenced by the ideas of 20th Century’s most renowned media thinker, Marshall McLuhan. To my eye, none of McLuhan’s ideas regarding how media (digital electronic computational media) structure what is possible to perceive and think have influenced the way landscape architectural design is practiced. People make faster, more colourful, bigger presentations of ideas but the tools are not shaping or being used as a prosthesis to negotiate design. The provocative intellectual wars in landscape architectural design have been over the role of ecological and aesthetic authorities within an exceptionally conventional acceptance of the designer’s traditional role and capacity.

Material production of landscape remains dominant in the mind set of the profession. The virtual landscape of knowledge, meaning and management has yet to be widely explored and practiced. In contrast, the left brain of landscape architecture (landscape planning) has made much more progress in using GIS for comparative studies based on time based data series and parametric what if studies where the computer is amplifying the capacity to think, compose and cope with complexity. It seems this half of landscape architecture has benefited from and has led the development of computation because the academics working in landscape planning are not afraid to programme and build or adapt their tools. Design academics and researchers have avoided this topic and “fiddled” with Photoshop collages or Flash animations while other fields and landscape planners advanced the tools of abstraction and perception that enable and empower their intuition. I am sorry to say that the designers designers are still dominated by a mentality of fear, impatience and lack of interest in how their tools structure and enable their intellectual capacity to design landscape.

Macro languages have advanced and made it possible for the advances seen with plug-in technologies that address specific task and disciplinary production. Interestingly, landscape architecture has failed to educate the next generation of landscape architects in this most important literacy. Unfortunately, the market for our services does not manifest this need as a demand so I am less than hopeful to see much progress here. None of our graduates with programming skills could find a productive place in landscape architecture. And those graduates with strong applied 3D and terrain modeling skills have found employers unwilling to buy the technology needed to exploit their advanced talent. So during this middle ages period, I fear we produce image processing collage artists and minimally competent contract document technicians. As an old timer in design computation, I find the generation of academics that has followed me are more concerned with the emergence of dueling and dialectic theoretical approaches than in a McLuhan inspired look at the instrumental effect of media on what media allows us to think. We still pretty much play in the same old sand box – so far. Time is on my side.”

Kurt Culbertson 
Kurt Culbertson, CEO of The Design Workshop, is a graduate of Louisiana State University with an MBA in real estate from Southern Methodist University. Kurt is a full member of the Urban Land Institute, participating in the Recreation Development Council, and chair of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Young Presidents Organization. Kurt’s work in sustainable development strategies has earned him recognition both nationally and internationally. He is an ASLA fellow, recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a fellow of Dumbarton Oaks.


Computers in the Design Process 1987-2005- Image3

In his ProjectProcess21 presentation in Portland 1998, Kurt said:

“In some ways, it would have been easier starting out as a small firm today in the information age, investing in technology from the outset, and always staying current with new trends. In this way you could grow with the technology and vice versa. In some ways, those firms like our own (The Design Workshop) that leaped into technology early on, are at a competitive disadvantage to those who joined the parade later and at a lower cost fr the same or better applications. Technology is making it quite easy in many ways for a small practitioner to accomplish amazing things.”

He continued: ”...the tremendous cost of technology is one of the factors that will drive the consolidation of the industry into fewer, larger firms and a multitude of small shops.”

He added: “One of the greatest potential productivity gains in landscape architecture and land planning will come where there is adequate coverage and real time retrieval on a global or at least a national basis of topographic, legal and environmental data sufficient to make site planning decisions.”

He spoke presciently: “I am far more excited at the potential for the intranet to transform our business than I am with the value of surfing the Net.” 

In the passage of nearly a decade, Kurt now sees digital tools and networks affecting practice this way: Since our panel discussion at the 1998 Portland ASLA conference, Design Workshop’s foreys into technology have taken four main directions:

First is the rationalization of systems. After researching testing, and acquiring a broad range of technological applications, we found that we had far more systems than we could effectively use. Collaborative tools such as white boards and teleconferencing were used far less than we anticipated and as a result the investments have not been justified.

Modeling programs such as Form Z and 3D studio max were great in the hands of those individuals who were truly committed to using these programs, but far too complicated for the average user to use as a design tool. As a result, one can find many designers using products such as Sketch Up quickly and easily while the former programs are only used in special applications.

A process has thus been underway to rationalize the systems available and concentrate of those where we find the greatest productivity improvements.

The second is training. Given the continual growth of the firm and the large volumes of new graduates from a wide range of schools, there is a great deal of variation in what programs and how well they have been taught various technological applications. As a result we have instituted “boot camps” for new employees at which they are given “basic training’ in the firms’ standard suite of programs. We also have ongoing technology training as part of the offering of Design U, our corporate university.

The third is standards. One of the first steps in quality management is to reduce the variation in the quality of products that are being produced. When the amplitude is reduced one can then concentrate of systematically improving the work product across the board. As a result we have spent the last two to three years, developing CADD and GIS standards to insure consistent use and output from these products. This has produced a tremendous productivity gain. We have had discussions with McGraw-Hill and ESRI Press, respectively about publishing both of these products but at this moment we have more pressing publishing priorities.

Finally, comes the question of “digital democracy” or the solicitation of public opinion or discourse. Although I was initially quite excited about the prospects here, as one reads the writing of individuals such as Daniel Kemmis’ Community and the Politics of Place, or Daniel Yankelovich’s Coming to Public Judgment, one realizes that the process of “working through” matters of public debate and opinion requires a great deal of time and energy, often over decades. As a result technology can be used to sample public opinion or to illustrate the weighing of public values in a GIS application. But these are only tools. One does not simply provide the public with a “button to push” out of which comes the answer.

They prefer face to face public discourse. They prefer human interaction. So while, this does not suggest that all efforts of “digital democracy” applications be ceased, it does suggest that landscape architects are far more in need of training and expertise in public facilitation than in developing the next electronic tool for this purpose.

Edward Flaherty 

John Danahy and Mark Lindhult have been educating students in digital issues together for nearly two decades. Kurt Culbertson has been employing those students and evolving his firm’s use of digital technologies to improve his product quality and efficiency over that same period.

What does their experience tell you about how to mold your practice or your educational program?

Well, if you don’t know, then read this again and share your comments at LArch-list. If you are not already subscribed, to subscribe, send email to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU with the subject and text (paste it!) SUBSCRIBE LARCH-L 

And as always, you can also access ASLAcomputingBlog to comment on these papers.

Until next time,
Edward Flaherty

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