07/29/19 Faculty Spotlight: Aroussiak Gabrielian


Aroussiak Gabrielian will be joining the USC School of Architecture this fall as an assistant professor. She is a co-founder and design director of foreground design agency, a critical landscape practice. Gabrielian’s work on alternative environmental futures has received awards including the Tomorrowland Projects Foundation Award administered through the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Word Changing Ideas Awards recognized by Fast Company, and the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture from the American Academy in Rome. She is currently working on a book manuscript emerging from her Ph.D. dissertation, Encounters with the Anthropocene: Synthetic Geologies, Diegetic Ecologies, and Other Landscape Imaginaries.

Can you tell us about your background?

I am a hybrid scholar-practitioner straddling the fields of landscape architecture and media arts. I received my B.A. in art history and visual arts from Occidental College with a focus on sculpture and expanded media. I then completed a dual master’s in architecture and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and worked in both fields at Snøhetta in NYC for a few years before returning to L.A. to launch my own practice (foreground design agency) and pursue my Ph.D. in media arts practice at the School of Cinematic Arts here at USC. 

What will you be teaching at USC Architecture?

My scholarly and creative focus tackles both materialist perspectives on the living world of landscape matter, and the practice of imaging and imagining landscape, thus addressing both landscape’s material and its representation. I will therefore teach courses in media and materials, visualization, technology and design studios within the graduate program in landscape architecture + urbanism. I am currently developing courses in biodesign, experimenting with dynamic forces and flows of landscape matter, and in futures studies, integrating new cinematic methods into design thinking and speculating to generate alternatives to our current environmental trajectories and the existential condition in which we now find ourselves. 

What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?

I taught at the School of Architecture prior to transitioning to the School of Cinematic Arts for my Ph.D., so I am excited to return and teach in the landscape architecture program alongside its strong faculty and to contribute to the program’s further development. The School of Architecture’s current direction, particularly as it relates to the ethics of design, is central to my design thinking. I am also quite eager to engage in dynamic cross-university dialogue with the School of Cinematic Arts and Roski School of Art and Design, as well as with the biological sciences department and environmental studies program within USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Teaching in the context of L.A. is also a significant draw – utilizing the city as a laboratory for pedagogical experimentation and for design-research. 

What excites you about your faculty role?

I teach not just tools and techniques but their implications for how we see, value and shape landscape. Because the landscape architecture + urbanism graduate program at USC is still quite young, there is room to shape and influence its curricular leanings. Having an impact on how students see, understand and eventually construct their surroundings is extremely rewarding, as is the potential for future collaborations across the School and the greater University.

What are your thoughts on the current state of landscape architecture across the globe?

Landscape architecture is predominantly driven by problem-solving methodologies (obviously with some significant exceptions, most primarily in academia.) Very generally, landscape architects aim to shape the environment in ways that benefit local and regional ecologies and urban public space, but the discourse and the practice is largely eco-normative, restorative and neoliberal. My creative and scholarly agenda attempts to dismantle such approaches, which rarely challenge us to see differently or outside the realm of our comfortable expectations. Through my research and teaching, I engage speculative and critical methods of design and apply them to the built environment. 

The most primary issue at hand for the field is the topic of climate change and human-induced environmental catastrophe that impacts species and landscape processes across scales—from the microscopic to the atmospheric. While bio-, geo- and hydro-engineering technologies have been developed and proposed to counteract the damage we have done, my research and teaching aim to provide an alternative to these so-called “fixes” by inspiring us to imagine a more compassionate and collaborative form of earthly inhabitation—moving away from technoscientific methodologies and instead borrowing from futures studies and world-building (a creative method used in the cinematic arts) in order to imagine and construct multiple alternative realities.

Who or what inspires you?

I am constantly finding inspiration from the neighboring fields in the arts, as well as from the biophysical world that surrounds us—the sociality of trees, the complex multispecies world of living soils, the binding force of our planetary watercourse. As a medium that is always in the process of becoming, landscape and the liveliness of its composite material (“natural” or “constructed”) is a way of thinking. Through my recent dissertation, I have become increasingly invested in the intersection of landscape and biology. I see biodesign and bioart as creating vital affiliations with landscape as we tackle new and harder questions about how to live more collaboratively with the biophysical world. 

What are your research interests? What drew you to the work you are doing now?

My emphasis on landscape media as material focuses on both a renewed investment in the more-than-human world of live matter and how technology might intervene in the material ruins of industrial capitalism to arrive at a more ethical environmental future. My emphasis on landscape media as representation focuses on how representations of the built environment impact the way we see and understand and thus shape it moving forward. It attempts to critically intervene in such conventions of representation to generate new ways of seeing, dreaming and ultimately shaping landscape. Particular thinkers within the discipline of landscape architecture that have really questioned its medium (landscape) and methods (architecture) to develop design frameworks that are both adaptive and responsive to the dynamic medium, and catalytic and imaginative rather than closed and confining, have been my constant fuel and have propelled my work in the field. 

Outside the field, I have aligned myself with feminism through materialist and ecopolitical frameworks. These challenge the emphasis on the discursive and dig deep into the physical matter that makes up the human and more-than-human world (bodies, substances and environments) while continuing to address structural inequalities and the careful attunement to difference characteristic of the feminist project.

Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?

In the current geologic epoch of the “Anthropocene,” in which humanity has directly altered atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, and biospheric systems, developing design methodologies that help steer ourselves, our communities, and our environments toward more ethical futures is critical for planetary survival. This is the most pressing challenge ahead for anyone entering the field of landscape architecture. It is not only an exciting time but a critical one, and hopefully students graduating from this program will leave with the tools, techniques and thinking necessary to tackle the complex environmental challenges facing us all. 

Any advice to current students?

Find comfort in ambiguity. 

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