FROM METAPHOR TO MODEL: EXPANDING ECOLOGICALLY-INFORMED DESIGN
NOTESPaper was presented at the 2014 ACSA International Conference in Seoul, South Korea. The panel organized by Bimal Mendis is entitled "Parametrics + Planning: New Hybrids + Landscape Infrastructure".
In recent years, practitioners and researchers in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design have become increasingly interested in developing ecologically-informed design strategies. Within this setting, ecology is not simply a synonym for the environment, nor does it necessarily suggest a ‘green’ agenda; instead, it emphasizes a system-based holistic perspective of a given context. With such a definition in mind, a growing body of work acknowledges lessons acquired from ecological science, presenting natural systems as dynamic, interconnected, resilient, complex and indeterminate, and attempts to situate strategies for design within this flux. Yet, the tools and methods currently used by designers with which to advance such work are limited. The familiar practice of mapping, in formats such as spatial maps, timelines, organizational diagrams, and other modes of visualization, is the central driver currently used in presenting, synthesizing and mobilizing ecologically-oriented, systems-based design interventions. However, in most cases, such drivers are offered as-is, with little explication of their validity, assumptions and limits, and, as a result, are fundamentally bounded by the limits of ecological metaphor. Although metaphor is recognized as a useful communication tool across disciplines, there is a “rich technical world” that stands behind it; one which offers much opportunity to ecologically-informed design practice.
Surpassing the boundaries of ecological metaphor demands a set of tools which can deal with managing the dynamic processes and forces, flows and feedback loops, which characterize ecological systems. While current techniques are helpful in isolating and abstracting certain aspects of these ecosystems, much of their inherent complexity is lost due to our human limits in managing and working with complex, parallel relational chains. Herein rests an opportunity for computational design to appropriate ecological modeling, as a point of access to the full technical richness of ecological science. In this context, the computational designer is able to abstract a problem for initial action and then, relying on the machine as an automatic accountant, incrementally rebuild the lost complexity, thereby allowing the relevant characteristics of the problem space to be maintained.
An appropriation of ecological modeling into design practice offers a parametric and relational framework for advancing ecologically-informed design as a process of formation, which affords both generative and exploratory opportunities to the development of landscape infrastructure. Similarly, hybrid ecological models, which couple multi-disciplinary parameters and characteristics, offer a mechanism for simulating emergent ecological-urban possibility spaces, extending a designers ability to both navigate and cultivate epigenetic potentials, toward the formation of a synergistic territory where human-centered needs and ecosystem logics coexist to mutual benefit.
Such a vision need not be utopian; emerging thinking and investigation surrounding natural capital and ecosystem services suggest that market-driven metrics need not be left behind. Drawing on existing precedents around the world of such redirected agency, we can begin to speculate on a new future for the post-industrial city that resists simple categorization and advances a new language for emerging landscape potentials.