As designers, we have the responsibility to intentionally form the urban environment, to “paint the city in bold strokes, as O’Malley writes in “The Art of Ecology, the Art of Urbanism,” inspired by the way natural processes create beautiful patterns at a large scale. O’Malley’s post triggered some critical ideas about our intentionality as designers, specifically in relation to the method or process by which we transfer design inspirations into our own formal concepts. Ecological design inspiration from natural patterns brings up an interesting problem: we find inexplicable beauty in the form of nature, forms that we desire to emulate both for their formal beauty and for their ecological performance, yet nature does not rely on the intention of a designer for its form but rather on a set of natural laws and processes—gravity, erosion, climate—that have acted upon the earth based upon rules set in place long ago.

Several questions arise: In the same manner that natural patterns do not rely directly on a designer for their formal expression, should designers focus their design intention on forms or processes—that is, static descriptions or flexible guidelines? How much can we control the formal product of a design in a flexible, ever-changing environment? Should we think of ‘form’ as an initial intervention, subject to change over time, or as a fixed entity, such that the landscape never changes? Increasingly in our work, we strive to create places that change over time – that bend and yield with the processes and systems of the landscape. How do we draw this? How do we design this? In the end, how do we communicate our vision for an ecological city – something that is always changing over time? The subject of our intention—the agency with which we design and communicate our ideas—continues to be a topic of critical discussion.

An enlightening correlation to both these questions and O’Malley’s original poetic reference to the painter can be found in James Corner’s exploration of representation. In ‘Representation and Landscape’, Corner describes how an artist’s medium directly influences the formal representation of their intention—the medium, be it paint or metal or a digital tool, determines a set of possibilities in the final piece. In some regards, the final piece embodies the performative characteristics of its medium, not just the design intent. In fact, as Corner recognizes, some artists may not know the final form of the piece when they begin their work but rather rely on the properties of the medium with which they are working to lead them to the final form. [Corner]

For ecological design, our mediums are the processes—natural, social, and economic—that define a living system or an urban environment. Ecological design, as defined by Van der Ryn and Cowan, is “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes.” [Van der Ryn]

Corner goes on to identify that designers are one step removed in the artist’s process—our hands do not touch the materials that will finally construct our designs. Rather, we use representations, traditionally drawings and models, to communicate our design intent to a builder—the intermediary who actually constructs the project. For Corner, the distanced condition of the designer from their medium results in an informative essay on representation, an exploration of the drawings we use as designers. For us, particularly in ecological design, this same realization allows us the opportunity to identify the medium with which we do directly interact and construct a process in which we may ‘paint’—in which we explore the relationship between medium and form. Our challenge is to understand the connection between the formal and performative characteristics of ecological processes within the strategy of our design intent.


Corner, James. ‘Representation and Landscape’. Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader, 2002.

Van der Ryn S, Cowan S. Ecological Design. Island Press, 1996, p.18

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Andrew Watkins

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