04/25/22 USC School of Architecture Professor and Team of USC Faculty Members Receive Substantial Grants from Lauren Bon & the Metabolic Studio & Annenberg Foundation and SRDA for LA River Project


The Los Angeles River is a 52-mile concrete flood control channel that has yet to be significantly improved upon despite three decades’ worth of planned revitalization and unresolved master plans.

Recognizing that this degraded natural feature is in dire need of a rescue, USC School of Architecture Associate Professor, Alexander Robinson, FAAR, a landscape architect whose research focuses on infrastructure design and the Los Angeles River, initiated the “Los Angeles River Integrated Design Lab.” Serving as principal investigator, Alex and a team of distinguished experts researched how to effectively reimagine and redesign the LA River channel.

“Today, with the effects of climate and societal change, we are pressed to reevaluate many existing large infrastructures to find new ways for them to better serve their purpose in a changed environment and in view of a radically different future,” said Robinson.

In 2019 the “Los Angeles River Integrated Design Lab” received a $150,000 grant from Lauren Bon & the Metabolic Studio & Annenberg Foundation to support the creation of a hydraulic river model integrating landscape architecture design and building of the lab. Lauren Bon & the Metabolic Studio & Annenberg Foundation also previously supported Robinson’s Owens Lake research.

However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and transition to a remote workforce, Robinson was inspired to transform the research initiative into a new project that would investigate how the use of a user-friendly, augmented reality (AR) tool could invite and engage community stakeholders to redesign the LA River.

Aptly titled “A Shared Vision for the LA River: Making Infrastructure Design Inclusive with Augmented Reality,” the research project will investigate how novel modes of advanced physical and digital representation can facilitate stakeholder and expert involvement - on design outcomes contingent on critical technical and economic constraints.

Most recently, the project was awarded a $275,000 grant from the Strategic Directions for Research Award (SRDA) Program to help support the development of the AR system and testing community engagement with the model.

In addition to monetary support from Lauren Bon & the Metabolic Studio & Annenberg Foundation and SRDA, the project also receives in-kind donations from the City of Los Angeles and United States Army Corps of Engineers. Specifically, the City of Los Angeles grants access to the Hydraulic Research Laboratory next to the river providing lab space and access to the water infrastructure necessary for the development of the hydraulic model – an in-kind donation that exceeds the monetary support of both grants combined. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers provides fabrication support for the 60-foot long model by delivering large shipments of milled foam from Mississippi to the lab.

The LA River project leverages the expertise of several USC faculty members including: Mitul Luhar (USC Viterbi School of Engineering), an engineer and expert in hydraulics and river renaturalization; Andreas Kratky (USC School of Cinematic Arts), an innovator in AR and public engagement; and Gale Lucas (USC Institute for Creative Technologies), a social scientist with expertise in research methods and statistical analysis who operates in the engineering sphere, who all serve as co-principal investigators. As a team, they focus on the development and testing of new modes of stakeholder involvement in technical infrastructure design with AR and physical hydraulic modeling. 

“The challenges of reimagining the LA River are complex, multi-layered and involve a heterogeneous group of stakeholders, such as engineers, community members, landscape designers, and political representatives,” said the co-principal investigators.

The LA River project’s proposed research is focused on asking the question:

“how can we empower stakeholders to formulate and realize a shared and innovative approach for the complex technical problems we are facing?”

“A paradigmatic revision is needed,” explain Robinson and his co-principal investigators. “We have to start by investigating how to make infrastructure design more inclusive. Our research proposes that the primary hindrance lies not within the formidable technical or economic challenges such infrastructure projects present, but rather in their antiquated practices of design communication and authorship. This project will investigate how novel modes of advanced physical and digital representation can facilitate stakeholder and expert involvement—on design outcomes contingent on critical technical and economic constraints.”

Housed in the City of Los Angeles’s Hydraulic Research Laboratory along the LA River, the AR system invites engineers, community activists, ecologists, earth scientists, environmental health scientists, and other community stakeholders alike to engage in an iterative and playful redesign. It combines physical hydraulic modeling and other advanced technologies, including robotic fabrication and AR, to create a design interface where technical design practices are made imaginative and accessible. The model will be augmented with a set of technologies to engage multiple viewpoints, information, and stakeholders thereby creating a “common ground” on which all stakeholders can meet and engage in the design process. Additionally, the AR interface will allow visualization of different scenarios of interventions on the LA River so that new plans can be visualized, simulated, and discussed in their effects.

“We hypothesize that stakeholders will show greater feelings of involvement and support after using the AR system, when compared to viewing such models without AR,” continued Robinson. “Right now, we’re focused on developing the AR and physical model design interface and then we will conduct focus groups throughout the fall and winter. We’re pleased to have USC School of Architecture graduate students involved as researchers for this project and look forward to sharing our findings next year.”

To learn more, visit oorscapes.com/LA-River-Integrated-Design-Lab.


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