genius ingenium: Near Adjacencies to the Owens Lake | Alexander Robinson

Illustration displaying data of lake wide visual resources field assessment by James Lively, Myvonwynn Hopton, and Adrian Suzuki. Fall 2010.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was getting ready to roll out a solution to what is perhaps the agency’s most vexing problem. The alkaline Owens Lake, having been depleted by LADWP’s Los Angeles Aqueduct since the 1920s, was now a 100 square mile volatile salt bed, with resulting dust storms that were responsible for over six percent of California’s airborne particulate matter.

The LADWP had demonstrated from full-scale field tests that instead of controlling dust by watering the giant, dry lakebed, they could build berms, fences and ditches. “Moat and Row” was not only cheaper to construct, it was waterless – the holy grail for a utility using 95,000 acre-feet of water to saturate the lakebed and retain dust each year (95,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the amount of water the city of San Francisco consumes each year).

However, this experimental BACM, or Best Available (dust) Control Method, was never implemented. Just as their definitive “master plan” for the Owens Lake has undergone more than eight unanticipated phases, the project did not go as planned. Moat and Row field test plots were erased, watered over with “shallow flood” and other approved BACMs. After a year and a half of review, the LADWP was ultimately unprepared to answer for concerns of “significant impacts to public trust values, including wildlife and visual resources” that the State Lands Commission and others raised.

By the poor impression it made on constituents and regulatory agencies, “Moat and Row” become an unofficial non-starter. Meanwhile, the LADWP had prepared no alternative approaches for this area of the lake and were forced to pay mitigating fines for failing to meet deadlines set by the local Air Pollution Control District.

Designing for Public Trust

By official accounts, the problems with Moat and Row were habitat and visual resources, two of a host of “Public Trust Values” required to be maintained on all navigable bodies of water (the Owens Lake was formerly plied by two steamships carrying bars of silver) in the United States. The plans that the LADWP had prepared showed a lakebed crisscrossed with orthogonal rows of sand fences and berms up to eight-feet-tall with trailing edges—a grid pattern trimmed to fit the contours of the lake. Driven principally by operational efficiency, the proposal diagrammed the most effective arrangement for dust control performance, construction, and maintenance. While reviewers stated they had concerns of the potential impacts that Moat and Row might have on endangered Snowy Plover populations, there appears to have been an unofficial sentiment that the larger problem was how the LADWP had designed and presented their approach. In their final disapproval, State Lands, the lake’s landlord, and others argued for something more  “creative.”

In a region built upon infrastructures engineered for, and measured by, their large-scale operational capacities, failure due to a lack of “creativity” is still a novelty. While Los Angeles’s design community is galvanized by the failure of infrastructures like the Los Angeles River to provide multiple social, cultural, and ecological benefits beyond flood control, most engineering projects remain driven by instrumentality and pragmatics. For example, recent proposals by the Army Corps for restoring L.A. River ecologies are driven by metrics of habitat units and cost. The only viable alternatives considered are so-called “best buy” options, many of which radically de-value improving the concrete channel itself, the impetus for decades of activism.

Multi-performance design is often still seen as a luxury appliqué or secondary mitigation measure, not integral to the design process. Even as noted landscape architects such as Lawrence Halprin attempted to gain agency in their design in the late ‘60s, most large freeway projects only engage designers to pattern sound walls or provide pastoral relief to the infrastructure, rather than become an integral player in the physical form and ecology of the system. In many recent local infrastructure projects, engineers routinely engage landscape architects at late stages of design to aestheticize their interventions with constituent-friendly renderings and add-on features.

In weighing the essential services that infrastructures must provide, and the vast scale at which they must perform, the marginalization of enhanced, multi-purpose landscape design might be considered reasonable. At the Owens Lake, the LADWP needs to provide water-frugal dust control above all else and the Moat and Row scheme reflects this. However, while pragmatic functionality is clearly necessary, it is, as State Lands argued, at times insufficient.

Los Angeles and the West have entered an era in which public agencies are expected to seek and fortify public trust values integral to the sites on which their systems operate. Beyond marginalization in favor of pragmatics, and beyond after-thought appliqué or horse-trade mitigations, design disciplines have an opportunity to integrate effective technical solutions with powerful place-making. The focus of my teaching and research as a landscape architect is at this intersection: where genius locii (locale) meets genius ingenium (engineering).

Lake Bed as Test Bed

In my studios and research within the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Southern California, I have focused on the Owens Dry Lakebed as a proving ground for developing this approach. Studios and research employ a hybrid process, combining the strengths of engineering and landscape design. Our goal is to create a dialogue between the a-priori rigor of an engineering focus on performance and efficiency, and the ability of landscape design to capitalize on qualitative values embedded on site. Since 2011, I have been immersing students in LADWP’s perpetual Owens Lake dust control project and challenging them to find solutions that hew closely to the established LADWP performance parameters and systems, while providing, and extending the boundaries of, public trust values. Our contention all along has been that landscape design could, in an unlikely twist from it’s outdated perception as a “luxury” service, prove integral to providing the most resource-efficient infrastructural solution.

Humility and Accountability

When approaching this site and the policy frameworks that govern it, my graduate landscape architecture studios start from a place of humility. While there are multiple grounds for challenging the instrumentalist approach of the managing entities, our strategy has been to understand the current working conditions before offering alternative paths for current, possibly troubled, trajectories. Proposals and methods are necessarily shaped by this aikido-like approach to influence, whereby the momentum of current trajectories is understood and carefully re-directed to an alternative outcome.  The product of small adjustments, such outcomes can be considered “near-adjacent” to the existing conditions, even though they can accrue into radical transformations.

In order to re-direct an engineering trajectory (even when it is failing), landscape practice must closely observe engineering modes. Doing so is less a methodological surrender than both a sensible concession to the ultimately collaborative role of our practice in these situations, and a growing interest in our profession becoming more instrumental and performance-based. Far from abandoning the flexible, qualitative interest of landscape practice, we focus on how to hone or adapt our core methods within the dominant, quantitative framework of engineering. The purpose is not to compromise, but rather seek a methodological common ground—a hybrid practice where the highest interests and concerns of each are accommodated.

Viewshed analysis at Red Pond T3NE (detail), Myvonwynn Hopton,  Fall 2010

Quantitative Research

At the Owens Dry Lakebed, initial engineering design was largely driven by compliance with mitigation deadlines, an approach that incidentally created unsustainably high public trust values. The LADWP, having delayed action for years, had to rush the first phases in order to meet a series of benchmarks. While watering the lake has the highest inherent public trust values of any BACM—almost anyway it is applied to the lake creates valuable habitat and improved visual resources—the LADWP chose it as their predominant BACM on the lake due to its ease of implementation and relatively low capital cost. By following the path of least resistance in terms of construction and implementation for most of the lake, they inadvertently set a high bar for public trust values, at great annual expenditure of resources.

After they had achieved major dust mitigation goals on the lake, they began to take a closer look at the efficiency of each BACM—by the square mile—in terms of the cost of construction, water use, and maintenance costs. However, public trust values having been automatically provided by water was not initially measured or integrated into this assessment.

Approaching this situation my studio began to understand that the LADWP, after having soured from “wasting” so much water and failing to limit their obligations by a series of lawsuits, was beginning to see the lake as a long-term and extremely costly expenditure. There has been a tangible shift in their quantitative strategy as they began to weigh annual inputs, both resource use and maintenance operations, above all else. However, as they seek to move away from water intensive dust control, the question of how they integrate and maintain public trust values in ways that match their efficiency goals comes into high relief.

Perhaps our studio, through analysis and design, could find other, more resource-efficient ways to provide public trust values than making a dry-lake lake-like with thousands of acres of potable water? Might landscape architecture provide an acceptable way to reduce resource inputs that theoretically could continue for thousands of years?

OWENSdry LAKEbed, Christopher Arntz, Fall 2010

Perceptual Fieldwork

Even when fiascos such as “Moat and Row” demonstrate that resource and maintenance metrics cannot serve as the only measures of a successful design solution, there is no clear roadmap of how to combine the quantitative efficiency of engineering with the relatively fuzzy qualitative interests and inspirations of landscape architecture, or even the “visual resources” mandated by Public Trust doctrine. Our studios explore several possible avenues for integrating the quantitative with the qualitative.

The vast, flat space of the lakebed offers a fertile ground for exploring issues of perception and experience. Endless pools of shallow water give way to meadows to pink salt flats to neat rows of vegetation, each foreground experience changing with the kind of ground cover or dust control in place. The lakebed confronts us with the limits of our perception and what we can access. How do we capture and capitalize on these perceptions? If we want to match, or extend, the necessary efficiency of engineering interventions, how do we assess the impact and value of interventions in terms of experiential performance? How do we supplement our subjective understanding of landscapes with additional models and data? How do we calibrate perceptual conditions to utilitarian needs?

In the spirit of John Wesley Powell’s famous exploration of the Colorado River, we saw field surveying techniques as a means to map and value personal, immersive explorations of perception and experience, as well as for data collection. The first year we visited the lake, we conducted a survey of existing visual resources, altered as they were by the approximately $1 billion worth of dust control interventions already in place. To coordinate our efforts, we employed a modified version of the 1995 United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Landscape Aesthetics, Handbook of Scenery Management.

Equipped with custom programmed GPS devices, student groups spread out across the lake’s access roads in vehicles with clipboards and cameras, making regular measurements of “Landscape Character” and “Scenic Integrity” re-conceptualized for the lake’s unusual environment. In addition to helping navigate, the GPSs monitored the groups, measuring number and duration of visits to particular locations made by student surveyors and diverse tours thus surreptitiously assessing the visibility and popularity of specific spots. These studies resulted in the first maps to recognize the scenic value of engineered sites, normally disregarded for lacking “integrity.”

Students also mapped and valued a variety of perceptual conditions. The lakebed is situated in one of the deepest valleys in the country, flanked by mountain ranges on both sides, with some peaks above 14,000 feet. At any point on the lakebed, both spectacular mountain ranges are visible, yet gaps appear in the perception of middle and foreground, depending on the dust control system framing the vantage point. Some of these studies were the first to reveal the peculiar conditions that create disorientation on the flat lakebed.

Building on these studies and inspired by Edgar Payne’s Sierra-based work on outdoor painting composition principles (Composition of Outdoor Painting, 1941), students analyzed a single vista point in greater detail, to the extent that they altered it based on their understanding of its framework and effect. These studies initiated a more precise understanding of scenic values, particularly of the built landscapes. One student, intrigued by the surreal color gradients of saline pools, inventoried a remarkable diversity of chromatic effects. Others studied views ranging from sinuously picturesque to radically orthogonal arrangements, resembling city-sized petroglyphs.

In response to this re-survey of visual resources, students were required to produce a “postcard” of the Owens Lake that epitomized their understanding of its appeal as a recreation and site-seeing destination, two important public trust values identified by local constituents. The postcards challenged students to produce a minimally modified vista that could be self-consciously hawked to the general public in a nearby gas station. One student, altering course slightly, visualized a billboard on the lake edge taunting us with contrasting views of the lake before and after the LADWP’s interventions.

Postcard Proposal, Myvonwynn Hopton, Fall 2010

Subsequent visual resource studies of the lake benefited from testing concepts and techniques developed by Tadahiko Higuchi in his seminal The Visual and Spatial Structure of Landscapes, a qualitative/quantitative study of Japanese shrines and their surrounding landscapes. Students measured “foreground,” “middle-ground,” and “background” within the different dust control methods. By establishing measured thresholds for detail perception, landscape reflections, and other sensory and feeling perceptions, sense perception and experience could be calibrated as carefully as dust control or habitat performance.

Cumulatively, the perceptual documentation, analysis, and response generated through fieldwork led design students to re-frame the category of “visual resources” to include the altered, infrastructural landscape itself. By inventorying and valuing the manmade as well as the natural, students located themselves as curators within a concrete manifestation of genius ingenium.

Choreography of Place

With the emphasis on understanding extent, quality, and principles of perception and experience, the development of designs proceeded in a different direction, borrowing a playbook from neither engineering nor landscape design.

Rather than developing a discrete site or technology, students began by choreographing an idealized experience on the lake, akin to a cinema storyboard. Informed by their field studies and equipped with this “experiential score,” students proposed intervening into the site only to the degree necessary to support this experience. The goal was to minimize investment in experiential performance to the extent that it would be valued—a significant departure from the typical landscape architecture impetus to control the entire site, an approach that while seductive, can, un-abetted, easily overwhelm budgets and resources and can diminish the perceived value of the profession.

In subsequent studios, we honed the experiential score, with a particular focus on a “capstone” experience—a heightened moment, inspired by the annual “firefalls” in Yosemite Valley, that may be very specific and temporal. For example, a student oriented reflections and experiences based on which mountains were best lit at different times of day. These studies sharpened the design process to the conscious minimalist creation of a human interface with the lake.

Critical Values

While some may argue that the visual and experiential qualities of the lake are bit players in a landscape dominated by concerns of water supply, dust control, and bird habitat, what distinguishes the students’ work was an understanding of how “aesthetics” and “recreation” can be used to leverage technology to help us better cherish and protect a place. Students successfully made the case that minimal investment in the qualitative and perceptual could enhance resource use and transform the dry lakebed into an asset with public support.

By some indications the LADWP has learned from this process. Representatives who attended our final reviews of student work claimed to be inspired by the student designs. Not long after, LADWP hired three landscape architecture firms to design the next phase of the project. By all accounts a challenging collaboration, progress was delayed by the discovery of an archaeological site indicating a Native American massacre… the process that may come to an indefinite halt.

While potential benefits are manifest, it is clear that even in the best of circumstances, developing solutions that can bridge between the divergent priorities of the managing engineering entities and landscape architect consultants, is difficult work—a task that neither profession is especially equipped to engage in. There is a need for improved techniques and approaches, not only in the design classroom, but in experimental practice as well. At the Landscape Morphologies Lab (LML), we are developing design tools that provide professionals with a hybrid set of representational and feedback technologies that enable a more rigorous exploration of the design space defined by the project’s complex parameters. For the Los Angeles River, the lab fabricated and employed a scaled physical hydraulic model, employing an engineering methodology that is also appealing to non-professionals. For the Owens Lake, LML is developing a multimedia system that includes a robotic sand modeler, a 3D scanner, projection, and a custom software interface. The systems are designed to support a working environment that respects critical constraints, but still allows a free and impassioned study of potentially enriching outcomes. The first phase of the Los Angeles River studio will be exhibited in August 2013 at Los Angeles City Hall. An interactive exhibit of the Owens Lake research is expected in Lone Pine, California in early 2014.


Alex Robinson directs the Landscape Morphologies lab at the University of Southern California and is principal of the landscaped design and planning practice, Office of Outdoor Research.


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Pedagogies

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