Bradley Cantrell of the Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab

Bradley Cantrell received his BSLA from the University of Kentucky and his MLA from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architectural Technology at Harvard GSD and the Director of MLA Degree Program. His research and teaching focuses on digital film, simulation, and modeling techniques to represent landscape form, process, and phenomenology. His work in digital representation ranges from improving the workflow of digital media in the design process, to providing a methodology for deconstructing landscape through compositing and film editing techniques. Bradley’s work has been presented and published in a range of peer reviewed venues internationally including ACADIA, CELA, EDRA, ASAH, and ARCC. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to meet with Bradley and learn about his philosophy and unique approach to design.

On becoming a landscape architect
I got my two degrees in landscape architecture. I had no conception of what that meant. Coming into university, I was going in to study studio art, I was a painter and that lasted for about a year and a half. Then I thought I wanted to do computer graphics and computer science was the right thing–that lasted for about another year and a half. One summer I was at a nursery working in a greenhouse and doing landscape maintenance–pruning trees and things like that. This guy told me about landscape architecture and said this is something you should look into. I went to the university and looked at the program, applied for it and fell into it. The thing about it was there was this outdoors aspect, which I liked and is a draw for a lot of people. I’m probably not as extreme as a lot of landscape architects are in this regard. I liked the ability to apply computation and media in unique ways within the discipline. All those things somehow fell together in the profession for me. I’ve definitely carved my own way through it and defined what landscape architecture means to me. You can see that in the lab, it’s my own version of landscape architecture. The profession is open enough that I could do that.

On his influences
I have a professor who’s still here, and now I’m colleagues with, Allen Sayegh. He has a company that I do work with called Invivia. When I was at the GSD, there was research and courses around this term ‘interactive spaces.’ That was the idea that we would use cameras and track people and understand their behaviors and architecture would respond to these inputs. Back then it was called interactive spaces, now we’re calling it responsive environments. His courses and guidance were a big influence on me when I was at the GSD. He also had a course, with Urs Hirschberg, called sculpting motion. That was a huge influence on me in terms of media–a way of using modeling not as a way of representing something but about design exploration. The other influence was Ken Smith, he’s a landscape architect and his influence on my work was huge when I was in grad school. He’s someone who showed me that the profession could be extremely urban and still maintain a landscape phenomenology. It was about my own design agency and agenda. Before that I was working off precedent, trying to understand what people did before as opposed to projecting my mission, what do I want to accomplish?

On his unique approach
I’ve always been excited about computation and the computer’s role in landscape. One of the things that’s slightly unique about my approach is that past approaches have all been about representation or design exploration, so in many ways that’s been about the way we use it to illustrate, analyze, or the way we use it to observe. We translate that through our design proposal to create some sort of beautiful rendering or documentation. For me, collapsing that whole process and putting that into a logic that the computer evolves for part of the process has been something that’s unique for landscape. Not only are we sensing and analyzing in the system we have in the lab, but we’re programming and building the logic for how that actually makes a new landscape. In a sense we set that loose and the land that gets constructed is different every time based on the phenomena that’s being streamed into the system. In a way it’s like a form of manufacturing but it’s not much different than us as designers going out and having a whole set of different kind of influences based on the context or based on phenomena. The packaging of that and the exploration is a unique take. In terms of computation, we’re trying to build a humanizing effect into these systems, an expression of design culture. The idea that we’re using computing not as a way of making everything perform better or be more efficient, but that there might be a bit of a cultural gain embedded in that. There’s a real interaction between machine and human. By not making a distinction between those two, suddenly they actually become the same thing. It becomes a projection of humanity as opposed to us saying computers and computation do one thing and human beings do something else. We’re diametrically opposed and we’re just going to put them to use in a very specific domain. The idea that we are in some sense overlapping, not only our thoughts, but also the way we interface with biology and ecology. To me there’s a higher level of thinking about the way those systems are intertwined and it’s not the duality that we continually set up. Similar to the construct of that we have built around ourselves. In this case imbedding all of those systems becomes much more interesting.

On the his research approach
In Louisiana, there’s been a series of efforts with the infrastructure in the Mississippi River that is about breaking the levee system down, and allowing the Mississippi River to flood the bayous and wetlands during times of high water. That project is about controlling when we open up the levees– building sediment diversions– and when the river gets at a very high water level they open the gates of the diversion. Then this sediment laden water pours out into the back swamps and drops the sediment out of the water and builds land. You can think of it as just dumping tons of dirt out and building more coast. That was a natural process in the past. We built the levee system and that water is trapped and the flooding doesn’t happen anymore. We know the story of Louisiana–it’s basically disappearing. One strategy is about building that land up. Some of the projects we worked on were more ways of articulating a sediment diversion. Instead of having a giant gate, we build what we thought of as inkjet printheads that would open and close smaller gates. We would be able to build landform right at the edge of that and would then funnel water in specific ways. If you think of them in terms of how a printhead might lay down one layer, the next layer is then influenced by that and sends that sediment somewhere else. It gets very fuzzy far away from the gate but up close we can build discrete landforms. That project is one that we’re trying to attach to a known infrastructural system. Thinking about further articulating that system, it could not only build interesting form but build form that’s attached to that ecosystem. We were using sensing to process how those forms were built and how those might support different types of ecology, based on angle of repose and slope among other things. The bigger picture was those might begin to become aligned in a way– if you think about how those landforms were built. They would be aligned based on the average storm paths that come into Louisiana. They would be able to provide some protection for the coast. As an infrastructure they build themselves based on the power of the river and the way you move the gates, but they would be choreographed to build the most highly performative land for storm barriers. That is an idea that was a three-year set of thought-processes that came together to prototype a series of responsive models. We began to realize a lot of the ways infrastructure are being built is at a very large scale and even when it’s at a smaller scale, there is a permanence to it. There’s always this end goal that we think we want to achieve. The way the systems are working are on 50-100 year timelines. Not only are we implementing the system, but we’re also changing and modifying what we don’t understand the implications of. What we’ve been imagining is: is there a way to build these large-scale, territorial changes to landscape that aren’t about us needing to know the end results? It’s about us developing a way of sensing that system and understanding it–this constant feedback– and that the changes are so small that we’re always able to reverse or move ahead. We can negate our last move or we could promote our last move. That design language for me is an important one because the logics that get setup are never about making such huge changes that we’re not able to hit the undo button a couple of times. That is a feedback loop and is an interesting way to start to work with human constructions and natural evolution. Not only does it let us learn and have a bigger database of knowledge for every step we make, but it also builds humility into us. We could be making these mistakes and we might need to backtrack, and with that we allow ourselves to construct in a way that we could do that. That’s the bigger strategy and for landscape is a design language that we don’t have right now. We don’t have a developed way of approaching landscape in that fashion. The thing I could attach it to is a very trivial connection, but I also think it’s important. It’s the gardener continually maintaining and living with the topiary garden. It’s that type of weird relationship of control but not being in control. Topiary is very much about control but how do you develop some in between version where we don’t know what’s going to happen next but we do want to be part of that form of influence?

“Ecolibrium” (Rendering courtesy of Bradley Cantrell, Josh Brooks, Martin Moser, Devon Boutte, Kim Nguyen)

On his limitations
The books I’ve written have mostly been about representational techniques and so they’ve been very important for landscape at a time where we moved from analog tools to digital tools, and we’re basically using digital tools to simulate analog tools. The first book was about that, we made this transition but have we really gone anywhere? The second book was being slightly more projective about modeling and thinking about the fact that as architects we’re not really making objects, we’re making contexts or environments. It’s a range of techniques on that end. In terms of the modeling tools–there’s a huge range of issues of a want on one end to simulate and make models that perform like natural systems. There’s always this want and you see it in students and when you consult offices: how do we build a simulation that will give us this information? In environmental simulation, the biggest problems we’re running into is that there are so many variables that we don’t have methods that can actually simulate those the systems. A lot of what we’re running into is that limitation. It’s the fidelity of the model and the reliability of the model. What we’re imagining is those methods of simulation that are actually versions of diagrams–they’re just abstractions. We’re trying to develop ways that they’re attached to material performance. This might be issues about the way land can support different types of vegetation or habitat. David Mah here has been doing a lot of work about material intelligence and how different landforms and materials actually support one another but then tying that back to parametric tools like Grasshopper. That relationship between the way landscapes perform and the way we’re modeling them are some of our biggest challenges. In the real-time feedback version of this, we’re getting past that by using the physical model as the performance tool and just sensing what it’s doing and then interfering or manipulating. In that case the numerical model isn’t trying to perform like the landscape, it’s the physical model that’s performing like the landscape. That relationship is one we’re having a lot of discussion about and trying to figure out what it means to abstract and what we can pull from it. As human beings, our initial move is always somewhat metaphorical. As soon as we learn something and we say ‘the system is performing this way.’ That’s the most tragic version of it–oversimplification. Using the ways these kinds of systems perform and developing some sort of aesthetic metaphor that plays out on-site, which we see plenty of.

On his design principles
For me there’s always introducing one new aspect to every project. That’s similar to a lot of people, but the idea that no project is a rehash of the last project. It’s always some form of an evolution. In a larger sense though, this idea of the breakdown between the definition of nature and humanity and the inert computational environment– trying to break down that barrier is what I’m attempting to do on every project in the last 10 years. In some way redefining that set of relationships and not taking for granted that we know what nature needs to be and that we as human beings always have a hand and a responsibility in our interactions with the earth or the environment. I’m an environmentalist but in a different sense than we would define most environmentalists. I’m not a hands-off version of that. As human beings we are constructing the world around us but we must have a sensitive consideration about the kind of things we’re changing. That interaction can never be over-simplified, we always need to keep it complex and open-ended.

On best advice to pass onto students
I’m not an ideologue with students. With students I look for their interests and their inate idea about themselves and their agenda. What is it that they’re trying to accomplish? In many ways I try to encourage that from them. I believe there’s room for a range of ways people work within the design professions. What I’m trying to pass along is that each student cultivates their own voice and that they come out of a program like the GSD not necessarily knowing who they are in the profession, because I don’t know if we ever figure that out. But at least understanding that  their voice is an important one. The development of that in students is extremely important. The way I drive myself I wouldn’t put off on students. It’s more about them building up that voice for themselves.

On his future aspirations in the next 5-10 years
We’re looking at public open space, park systems, particularly network park systems in cities and thinking about what the technological overlay for that is. What is the interface between all of these ways of sensing and monitoring within cities and how that plays out in public open space. There’s a whole set of built projects that are starting to come alive and we’re getting onto design teams that also want to imagine how this might happen, it’s going to be interesting over the next five years. These are not as heavy-handed as the work going on in the lab, but these are subtle overlays about how technology is giving us more information about how natural systems are working. For me that’s a pragmatic end of the profession that I want to start to cultivate and develop. You can count on one hand the amount of projects that have this deep sensing and technological overlay that aren’t gimmicky or specifically for the sciences. Most of them are weird forms of installations and things–we’re doing those also. But those are about taking on one aspect of sensing or monitoring or actuation and exploring that without the kind of pressures of making a real project. It’s about exploring one aspect that is a drawing in itself.

On the future of landscape architecture
As a profession we are looking into the future at societal changes, issues of migration and climate change or issues of abandoning waterfronts in cities due to sea-level rise. In five years those pressures aren’t necessarily going to be there, but it’s slowly building. How do we start to address some of these huge social and cultural problems that manifest themselves in physical relationships and cities? There’s a whole range of issues there in terms of social justice and cultural relevance. I wouldn’t pretend my work addresses all of those issues, those are outside of my work, but there are important ways to start to interface my work in large-scale infrastructure with how those types of things play out. How do our cities actually migrate from the coast as waters rise? What kind of issues of equity and social justice are relevant in that migration? Some of the others, particular to landscape architecture, are developing a relationship with environmental or ecological systems that is more symbiotic and less of a dichotomy. People in design, ecology, and the humanities are all thinking about this relationship in new ways now. As we move forward, what is our way of speaking about how the environment is going to change. My daughter’s generation–she’s 20 now– has a different concept of the environment or environmentalism than I do. It is one that’s much more attuned with future generations’ outlook on the idea that human beings might not need every need of theirs satiated and that we might find some inbetween relationship with the planet. That’s one that’s not about getting rid of our technological systems but it’s possibly a change in the way those systems are implemented and where capital isn’t a driving factor.

On advice he would give his younger self
I’ve always paved my own path through this profession. Particularly in coming into grad school, I might have paid more attention to the people that I immediately dismissed. I was one of those students who for some reason was just resistant to the faculty. When I was in studio I always wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to just prove a point for some reason. There’s a healthiness to it, but there’s also an uphill battle that I made for myself. Rather than being strategic, I immediately defaulted to ‘what you’re saying has to be wrong and I need to do it the opposite of that.’ That’s not across the board, but I would take a deeper read of those moments. Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction I would take a deeper read into the profession and into the academy than I did in the past. These are things when you’re young, there’s no way you can tell yourself that. It’s like the reason I would not go bungee jumping now, but I would’ve done it when i was 25 (laughs).