Witnessing pedestrians as dancers
Reflections on “PERSPECTIVES ON BAILEY PLAZA,” as a building block considering choreography as a landscape architectural design tool, and design as a generative source for choreography most immediately here at The Ohio State University.
Thank you to the Ohio State University Theatre Department and especially Elizabeth Wellman.
The unique value of querying a landscape architectural design in the form of dance lies in the investigation of design’s influence on conscious and sub-conscious pedestrian choices by performing a hyper-conscious abstraction of the original pedestrian movement within the same designed space from which it originated. The process reveals how design prompts and supports pedestrian activity.
Perspectives On Bailey Plaza makes use of a triple abstraction process.
1) observe and transpose a pedestrian’s motion to a written description.
2) realign the trajectory of the pedestrian’s path using a Planora disc and a mobile.
3) magnify the original pedestrian movements by giving them to trained dancers.
My research asks the question, “How can landscape architects better design for the human moving experience of place?”
By gathering and re-imagining design-based activity, I reposition my landscape architect’s perspective on site-visitors, from separate entities to collaborators who respond to and interact with environmental cues. As part of my studies, I have begun to witness public space activity as types of dances.
Dance is more than steps. Dance is a system that trains a person’s spatial-consciousness and leads to the potential to have a heightened awareness of occupied space and movement sensations. This includes what is static vs. moving, relationships between the dancer and the audience, an awareness of visual interest and dynamic changes over time and distances.
Dance sensitivity can enable landscape architects to design for spatial experience, in a sense to choreograph users’ motions. Yet, without a knowledge base of movement to draw from, rich, ambulating, environmental experiences can be difficult to realize.
Bloomer, Moore Yudell write, “Our bodies and our movements are in constant dialogue with our buildings,” in a chapter called “Body Movement” in their co-authored book Body Memory Architecture. I suggest that we look to pedestrians and to choreographers, who work with human movement in space and time as their primary medium, to structure designed relationships between people and their environments.
My work rises from the foundation created by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and dancer-choreographer Anna Halprin, whose collaborative work flourished most prolifically in the 1960s.
In 1943, early in her career, Anna taught a course she titled ‘Visual Design and Dance’ in a New Hampshire summer dance workshop. There she began to test her ideas on the relationships between space and movement. She said, “Space is to design what movement is to dance or sound is to music. Like movement, space is something that we use every day in all our activities… walking, opening a door, sitting up… Our task is to first become consciously aware of space so that we may experiment with ways of controlling it”.
Anna Halprin’s approach was reminiscent of Bauhaus collaboration, in that she brought together diverse teams of artists and used their multiple forms of creativity to expand the group potential. Lawrence Halprin, her husband, observed that her dance work helped him to witness his own field of landscape architecture in new ways. Mr. Halprin wrote The Choreography of Gardens for Impulse Dance Magazine in 1948. In his article, he explained how he made a conscious effort to design spaces that satisfy “the kinesthetic sense[functioning] like stage sets for a dance in that they are designed to determine the movement of the people in them.” He determined that the job of the architect and landscape architect was to design environments that provide “constantly pleasant movement patterns [such that] our lives can be given the continuous sense of dance.”
(START VIDEO OF Perspectives On Bailey Plaza)
The landscape architectural design of Cornell University’s Bailey Plaza in Ithaca, NY is the basis for the choreography of my dance “Perspectives on Bailey Plaza.” The plaza was designed in 2007, by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a well-regarded landscape architectural firm located in Manhattan.
In Reconstructing Urban Landscapes, Rachel Gleeson speaks about Van Valkenburgh’s Bailey Plaza design in terms of “a landscape-based approach … that reframes the challenge of the plaza, focusing on the space itself rather than the architectural frame.” Gleeson goes on to state that, “Cornell University’s Bailey Plaza is an example of landscape architecture that creates the conditions for its own relevance by employing the core elements of its medium — its space, materials, and occupation.”
The choreographic process I undertook explores the many roles of Bailey Plaza and its effect on pedestrian movement. As Bailey Plaza is both the source for movement and the performance stage at the culmination of the process, the dance is a literal and figurative extension of the design.
I deployed multiple mediums: videography, a new architectural tool called the “Planora-Disc” in conjunction with a mobile, and a choreographic software developed at OSU’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design called the “Video Abstraction Tool” to collect site data; identify movement prompts within the design; and then magnify the gathered information on trained dancers. This dance was performed in Bailey Plaza to offer designers and the public a chance to experience the plaza as an obvious performance arena and begin to reconsider the space from new vantage points.
What do I see upon analysis and reflection on “Perspectives On Bailey Plaza?”
Certain items that become immediately apparent include the simultaneous vision of viewers, dancers, space, cars, dance movement and pedestrian movement. These elements exist in a time-compressed format of approximately 10 minutes creating a different perspective on time as the dance includes historic data from the early 1900s to 3 months of select movement data.
The dancers use their human gestures and actions to render design visible through their unusual movements, surprise entrances, and varying levels of energy.
Watching: The watching becomes ok. Instead of pretending not to be people-watching, the dancers in the plaza are hyper-aware of their function as both performers and the object of spectatorship.
A key segment lies near the end when the dancers have freedom to simply move across the space at any speed and in any direction. Now that they have danced unconventionally within the plaza, what directions do they choose to take? Do they “dance” “walk” or “run?” Do they traverse solo or in groups?
How can performance help us study space?
Sally Banes writes, in the presentation of everyday life as dance, “Dance can teach us a lot about conventions!”
If I wanted to understand the workings of an analog wristwatch I would move closer in or magnify the components. If I wanted to test my hypothesis about action in a space I would de-contextualize it, or reposition it, and ask if the original action maintains its inherent meaning. In this case I want to know about the relationship between pedestrians and designed space. By magnifying and re-positioning plaza activity I think I revealed conventions about space and found more questions. Why is it acceptable for dancers to traverse the top of a fountain or weave around a railing but not pedestrians? Why are the rules different? By visibly revealing conventions about pedestrians, designers can choose to break the rules or creatively suggest alternatives.
I found viewing a design space as a literal performance stage changed the perceived scale. It demonstrated the next level of energy that the site is capable of supporting. And hyper-validated the power of pedestrians to capture the imagination of viewers.
Katie Hotchkiss, a dancer and recent graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in Landscape Architecture, responded to POBP with the following thoughts:
“If I had seen the performance in Bailey Plaza in person, I would think of the site’s scale much differently. For example, the plaza would certainly seem much bigger – or “deeper” on a physical scale. However, watching the dancers weave across it would bring the plaza down to a more intimate scale.
I would be much more aware of the types of surfaces and objects within the Plaza.
There is an interplay between paths and shapes of movements that I was hyper-aware of for two reasons: One is that when I watch dancers perform, my body has a sympathetic response and almost feels as if I were mimicking their movements. The second reason is that since they are dancing in a “place”, rather than on the stage (which I think of as a non-place), I become more engaged and invested in their performance.”
I think the power of the site-based dance lies in Empowering pedestrians as the primary source of collaboration in the design process.
With them in my site-based performance research, I am beginning to uncover new data and pioneer this methodology to address the ambulating experience of space.
Here at OSU, a new design-movement based piece around the Knowlton School of Design will be performed in late April 2014.
Choreographic works for the future:
Explorations in Entrances
Vision through the Oculus as a “Pile” of movement and data