Landscape Architecture Course on 'The Bodied Environment' Links Movement and Space

December 08, 2011

Becoming attuned to the kinetic potentials of the human body is usually thought of as the purview of dancers, actors, athletes and physical therapists. But how a body moves through space is also the concern of architects and landscape architects as they design and shape the built environment.

University of Virginia landscape architecture lecturer Alison Hirsch and eight students spent the semester considering how the body moves in the environment by studying theory, engaging in environmental movement exercises and learning from guest lecturers about their experiences and research in a School of Architecture pilot course, "The Bodied Environment: Performance and Movement Experience."

"We are looking at performance as a way of shaping and activating public space," Hirsch said.

"We studied two forms of performance," Hirsch explained: Scripted, choreographed performance, as well as the performance of everyday life, such as walking and other habitual movement.

On the theory side, the students were introduced to designers, city planners and movement experts, who – influenced by sociologists and anthropologists – in the 1960s came up with notational languages to describe how people move through space. The course also included studying the works of architect Philip Thiel, who believes that the eye-level experience should be the basis of designing movement through space, and Kevin Lynch, an urban planner who created mental maps of how individuals perceive and navigate the urban environment.

Kurt Marsh, a dual-degree architecture and landscape architecture graduate student, has a background in fine art that focused on figure study.

"I'm interested in incorporating ideas about the movement of the body" in architecture and landscape architecture, he said. The course "seemed like a perfect fit. The theory and practice examples are a bridge between architecture, landscape, art theory and choreography, and all discussed in an academic way."

Students also studied the work of groundbreaking landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who choreographed with his wife, avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin, a participatory design process that involved "Take Part Workshops" to encourage citizen participation. The workshops involved a series of "scores" or choreographed activities as a community participation technique. The guided actions were intended to help participants see the landscape in a new way and to generate a common language to talk about it. Halprin then used the responses from these activities to design and guide movement through his built projects. He employed this approach in his design for Charlottesville's Downtown Mall in the 1970s.

Hirsch's forthcoming book, "City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin and Public Performance in Urban Renewal America," focuses on public demand for participation in urban renewal projects during the 1960s.

"Halprin designed for the human scale, to stimulate participation in the environment," she said.

Dance theory also played a key role in the course. The Laban movement analysis is a theory developed in the 1920s and '30s that describes, visualizes and notates human movement through a system or language of notation based on body, shape, effort and space.

A visit by performance artist Alejandro Cano, who interacted with the space around trees on Grounds by means of a long, red cloth which he draped over high branches and performed dangling from it, set the tone for the class, Hirsch said.

"His 'performance' loosened up the students to think beyond conventional forms of movement and design," she said. "His performance forced us to reexamine mundane forms of movement and how it affects our perceptions."

Kim Brooks Mata, interim head and artistic director of the U.Va. Dance Program, led the group in a series of Laban movement activities that introduced the students to awareness of their bodies as "planes of movement" through the space in a confined courtyard and an open lawn.

A session with Charlottesville dancer and choreographer Katharine Birdsall, who was a founding member of the Zen Monkey Project, added another perspective on the Halprins' collaboration. Birdsall had created a major case study of their work for her doctoral thesis. As an exercise for the class, she directed the group to close their eyes, release their "judging minds" and move "authentically."

With your eyes closed, "it’s easier to release our preconceptions and inhibitions that prevent us from moving creatively in space.  Though it's still quite tricky for non-dancers," Hirsch said.

Part of the coursework required the students to put into practice the theories they were studying. They developed individual exercises to challenge conventional notions of how people move in space and interact with one another in the environment. "It challenged us to think beyond habitual forms of movement through space," Hirsch said.

Fourth-year architecture undergraduate student Malorie Torrey, who is also a dancer, appreciated the opportunity to "explore movement ideas in a more academic setting," she said.

For her class project, Torrey videotaped a dancer performing in underutilized spaces on Grounds. They included a garden, Lambeth Colonnade and courtyards beside the Rotunda and on the grounds around the Architecture School. The dancer was charged with moving and interacting with each space for three minutes.

"I wanted to see how her movement was affected by the space and how she reacted to it," Torrey said.

She then drew diagrams of the experiences, analyzing the connections between the spaces with a focus on how the dancer reacted to changes of material, levels and light.

The process "made me think more about how we mediate movement, or not mediate it" when thinking about design, Torrey said.

David Holzman, a graduate landscape architecture student and tango instructor, and Abigail Whalen, a graduate architecture student, explored movement by assembling a flash mob that was part choreographed, prescriptive movements, and part interpretative action. Another exercise they developed was to each walk Carr's Hill on a path of their own choosing to specified locations, where they were prompted to respond to some aspect of the environment. All their actions were video recorded for later analysis.

"Just the act of walking revealed how the two different bodies interacted with the space," Holzman said. "The realization was not groundbreaking, but underscored the action."

For their analysis, the duo compiled a video that incorporated split-screen images of the walking intercut with the images of the flash mob and their graphic analysis for the exercises.

Through the Carr's Hill exercise Holzman realized "what different cognitive maps Abigail and I had of Carr's Hill. We took different routes and had different experiences along the way."

To see how the study of the body in motion has a direct application to their chosen professions, Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer talked with the students about Laban's theories and his impact on her work. She studied modern dance and movement theory before she studied architecture.

"Laban's work, and that of his followers, provides an analytic language useful in isolating elements of human movement in order to understand objectively how people move in space. Such precise study allows us to consider the design of buildings and landscapes at a very elemental level – the level of the body in motion," Tanzer said.

"I always begin by imagining how people might move through space, then envision the space that would wrap or shape this motion."

— By Jane Ford


Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations