Before thinking about design on campus, we first thought about what it means to construct a landscape. As the cultural geographer J.B. Jackson notes, creating landscapes is about the speeding up and slowing down of natural processes, which means time is a critical factor. Jackson also believed that human systems and natural systems are inseparable since the behavior of one profoundly affects the other in a cyclical way.
This brings us to two fundamental concepts about landscapes which we can apply to our project at the University of Texas at Austin: character and duration. Duration is how we think of time applied to landscape, and character is the distinct, recognizable patterns of manmade and natural elements in the landscape. Character is inherently temporal; it depends on the maturity of vegetation, the age of buildings, the relative wear and tear on our surroundings as we use them. Landscapes are at once ephemeral and enduring, and character is shaped by these durations. Character also influences duration; the physical appearance of a place affects the length of time we interact with it, how we feel while we’re in it, and how we recall it in our memories after time has gone by.
These concepts of character and duration operate together on campus and in order to design for them as landscape architects, we are offering the idea of performance. Performance can be defined simply as the carrying out of a task, and landscapes certainly do perform functions, but on the complex site of The University of Texas at Austin, our idea of performance is expanded: for us, performance is about role, behavior, and impact. We think about our concepts of character and duration as having roles in the landscape, that their behaviors shape each other over time, and the result of their interaction has an impact on us as human beings who engage with these landscapes.
So, why does all of this matter to a university? Universities tend to exist for a long time. The University of Texas was founded over 130 years ago. We also have a strong identity, which translates into our physical appearance. We are a distinctly urban campus built up around the unique natural feature of Waller Creek and while Central Campus has developed rapidly, Waller Creek has been present for millennia. The qualities of campus and creek, when taken together, create a particular character for our university and speak to notions of duration: comparing the rates of human development to those of natural processes.
For this project, we were given three objectives. We were asked to expand access, enhance the environment, and engage the creek. In the context of performance, the behaviors of these objectives are move, sustain, and imprint. “Move” is about attentive, efficient movement across campus. It’s about directed time, increasing awareness and reducing conflict among multiple modes of transportation. “Sustain” is about improving the quality of ecosystems through water management. It’s about cyclical time and creating landscapes that are resilient. And finally, “imprint” is about transforming the creek into an amenity with which people can interact. It is about enduring time, as continued and recurring interaction with a place is what imprints it in our memory.