Alexander Robinson's Journey to Rome

School News

Alexander Robinson's Journey to Rome

September 25, 2015

Alexander Robinson, Assistant Professor in the USC School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture Program, Director of the USC Landscape Morphologies Lab, and principal of the Los Angeles-based firm Office of Outdoor Research (oOR), was awarded the 2015-2016 Prince Charitable Trusts Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture. From September 2015 to July 2016, he will be working on his winning proposal at the American Academy in Rome.


The proposal, A Projective Picturesque: Reconciling Pictorial with Performance in Landscape Architecture, draws from his ongoing research on performative landscapes and infrastructure and their unique place-making attributes—attributes he says are largely overlooked. The goal is to reconcile scenic and pictorial theories based on “Grand Tour” paintings of the Italian landscape with contemporary design processes and tools in landscape architecture, opening up new possibilities for linking visual experience with landscape performance.


The proposal also reconciles two dominant streams of interest: landscape painting and a systems approach to landscape architecture. “Landscape painting brought me to landscape architecture,” he says. “There have always been painters in my family. My grandmother was a painter. My father was an avid backpacker. So, I’d look at paintings with her and was constantly hiking the Sierras with him.”


As an undergrad, he went to Swarthmore to study fine art with a focus on landscape painting. But there was always this other side of him that wanted to do something on a larger scale and in a more public way. “As a painter I felt like I wasn’t utilizing all my skills. I was a computer nerd who liked being outdoors and I was interested in larger issues of ecology and how to engage the world and change the substance of day-to-day lives.” This is what ultimately drew him to the discipline of landscape architecture and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. This, he says, is where he became interested in this notion of systems.


While at the GSD he focused on systems and performance, the idea that landscape should chiefly be about creating dynamic urban systems that weren’t constrained by artificial boundaries, like a park. “Spaces should have agency,” he says. “I took on this myopic interest in how systems worked in landscape, how landscapes could be built based on ideas of performance.” This path eventually led him to look at large-scale infrastructure. 


Since joining the faculty at the USC School of Architecture in 2009, he has been focusing these interests on the Owens Lake Dust Control Project, the Los Angeles River, and ways of developing rigorous multi-disciplinary interfaces for their design. This work, conducted through USC’s Landscape Morphologies Lab, which he established in 2011, includes the development of advanced physical modeling, custom software systems, and examinations of infrastructural experience and place. He proposes that we can improve our relationship with landscape infrastructures by re-making our engagement with the tools and practices that shape them. 


Now, with the Rome Prize project, he is proposing a return to considerations of the pictorial and the scenic in contemporary landscape practices and methodologies. “The pictorial aspects of landscape have been thrown under the bus,” he says. “To recover them, we need to look back and see how these Grand Tour painters, like Turner, Corot, and Lorrain for example, developed their methodology.” But not just on a purely formal or compositional level, he adds.


From this investigation, Robinson will then turn his attention to composing mixed media drawings and ultimately hopes to develop software that incorporates visual design, engineering, and performance measures. The goal is to put the broader parameters of 21st century landscape performance in conversation with pictorial and scenic issues and, in this way, bring considerations of the pictorial and visual into contemporary systems approaches to landscape.


“The investigations these painters did were both personal and empirical. Turner filled sketch books studying natural phenomena and features amidst the city of Rome. They were creating the source material for landscape architecture’s most influential design theories in a landscape marked by ruins and infrastructure. The Los Angeles River is a sort of modern day ruin, which we are trying to inhabit and redesign. I’m interested in how these older ideas of the pictorial can contribute to renewal and serve as a basis for how to think about places like the LA River.”


In the coming weeks, look for Alex’s notes and observations from Rome as he works on his Rome Prize project. Learn more about his prize-winning work by watching his recent lecture. ♦