Pan Scroll Zoom 6: Emily Wettstein

By Fabrizio Gallanti and Emily Wettstein

This is the sixth in a series of texts edited by Fabrizio Gallanti on the challenges in the new world of online architectural teaching and, particularly, on the changing role of drawings in presentations and reviews. In this episode Fabrizio interviews Emily Wettstein, Design Critic in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University GSD. The conversation is illustrated by Rae Pozdro.

As the Pan, Scroll, Zoom project evolves and gains momentum, it might become the basis of a small publication. We welcome comments and ideas at editors@drawingmatter.org.

Fabrizio Gallanti: A couple of months ago I noticed a succinct presentation of the package that was sent to your students at the GSD. I cannot exactly recall on which social media it was, but my attention was immediately mesmerised by the tactile, old-fashioned vibe of such a parcel. I imagined the sheer delight of your students, now located at the four corners of the world and yet engaged by their professor in an entirely non-digital experience. It was explained that the heterogeneous materials in the box, all carefully wrapped, were meant to jump-start the first exercises in your design studio. It would be interesting to use (for once correctly) the term ‘unpack’, which is very much in vogue in academic jargon (and quite annoying), to discover what you packaged with so much care. 

Were the items placed in the box with a precise intention to generate a sense of wonder when opened? I notice a mini ISO grid notebook, a larger dot grid sketchbook and a ruler. All these components suggest a great attention to precision. What are they for?

Emily Wettstein: Yes, the box was designed to be opened and moved through as a sort of choreographed sequence, working from the more personal, to the fun and exploratory, to the more logistical materials. 

The analogue drawing and modelling material, such as the notepads, were intended as counterweights to a virtual semester that would lend itself so much more readily to digital making than to making by hand. In the Landscape Representation I class that I also taught to these same students, we used the materials regularly and I loved seeing students upload process drawings on the dots or iso grid paper, and knowing that they were using the notepads every day. 

It was important to me that every part of the package had meaning, so I also invested in high quality vellum for the wrapping so that students could repurpose it for layered drawings. Even the very last piece, a mylar strip enclosing the package contents so that they could be easily lifted from the box, was printed with the colours and line weights for the AutoCAD CTB Plot Style we shared with the students so they could hang it at their desk as a cheatsheet.

FG: The image above shows an astounding array of materials laid on the floor. How long was the process in total, from early conception to its execution, then the packaging and the mailing? Did you have to do a test of the boxes and its content? How much was it trial and error? Was the weight and the size of the boxes accounted for?

EW: My brilliant Landscape Representation I TA, Melissa Eloshway, first came up with the idea in early June. I was brainstorming with my TAs about how to ground and connect with new students in the distanced virtual semester and Melissa threw out the idea of shipping a package to students with foundational materials for their first semester as a sort of parallel to being given their studio desk in Gund Hall. We riffed on the idea for a couple of weeks, and proposed it to Anita Berrizbeitia, the chair of the Landscape Architecture department, who enthusiastically supported it, and things rolled quickly from there. 

The coordinator of the first semester studio, Jungyoon Kim, jumped on board and proposed that we send the students their first studio site model, as well as various large scale plots that students wouldn’t be able to print at home. We were very lucky that the Fabrication Lab at the GSD stayed open during the lockdown as they helped us enormously by spending over a week laser cutting all of the model parts, with great help from our committed TA, Joanne Li, who prepared all the files. Melissa and I then spent many hours collecting the other materials, packaging everything, and giving the personal touches to the packages, including a handwritten note to each student.

But the boxes were also a design themselves. They needed to show care, craft, and attention to detail, not only to act as a design precedent in a way, but also to show each student how important they and their experience are to us. A lot of time went into the personal touches. It was really important to me that I hand-wrote a note to each student and many students have told me how meaningful that was. 

The packages were finally shipped at the end of July to be received in time for the MLA-I Preterm Workshop that we taught in mid-August. So the full project took approximately two months from conception to reception.

FG: These images show some abstract shapes in white cardboard. A closer look allows us to discern some parts that seem to be foldable, suggesting that they might be the pieces of a three-dimensional model. Is that so?

EW: Yes! The package included over 100 laser cut pieces of Bristol paper and museum board to be constructed into the students’ first studio site model. The first design site this year in the MLA-I Core I Studio was Boston City Hall Plaza – an incredibly challenging site, both spatially and socially, especially for first semester design students. Knowing that only some of the students would be local made it imperative that students understand the site three-dimensionally, including its 30 feet of grade change, and were able to engage in a tactile construction. They, of course, dove quickly into digital softwares to simulate the site, but it was really important to us that they understood contours and were able to physically play by hand. 

We chose a pancake contour model instead of a 3d printed model, so that students had the hands-on learning experience of layering contours on top of one another. Their very first Studio exercise was to assemble the model, followed by a cut and fill exercise, in which they literally cut apart the model of the existing I. M. Pei City Plaza design that they had just constructed. So they assembled this beautiful site model of the site context, its buildings, City Hall, and the existing plaza, and then immediately chopped it up – both learning the complexities of the topographic site, its manipulations, and a crucial lesson about nothing being precious.

The site model parts we shipped were broken down into four different sets: the context topography, the I. M. Pei plaza design topography, the context buildings as unrolled surfaces to be folded up by students, and the notorious brutalist architecture of the Boston City Hall building as designed by Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles, which was essential to understanding the design history and legacy of the site.

FG: This image shows cut-outs of human figures, flat and then standing thanks to the fold at their base. There is a dimensioning scale, actually there are three in total. What are these people going to populate exactly? There are many figurines with umbrellas, they feel as if they were copied from some nineteenth-century painting. Why are they under the umbrellas?

EW: Scale is a difficult concept for any first semester design student, but it becomes especially challenging in a virtual semester. We also have many students transitioning from a metric to imperial system, so I felt that it was vital for students to be able to immerse themselves in the different scales. The folding cards allowed them to create little worlds that they could enter at eye level. The three-dimensionality allowed the figures to be arranged relationally – creating a more 3d scene. Each scale had a different scene or way that people were interacting and the different scales were chosen based on their studio exercises. At ¼”=1’ people are working in the landscape, at ⅛”=1’ people are waiting in line at a street food cart in the rain, and at 1”=20’ people are walking along a street. 

The people under the umbrellas are waiting at a street food cart in the rain! I think there’s something unique about landscape architecture in that we are designing outdoors in the elements and need to imagine all these different scenarios. This seemed like an important reminder to students as they began their education.

FG: Is this a real leaf from a tree in Harvard Yard? That means that each student got a different one. Have you taken a picture of each? How did you select which ones were good enough to go?

EW: They are indeed each unique leaves from the few remaining historic elm trees in Harvard Yard! The leaves were a wonderful idea from a colleague, Pablo Pérez-Ramos, who also taught in the first semester Core I Studio. He wrote this lovely caption to accompany them:

Botanically-based phenomenological apparatus to help mentally transport remote MLA I students into the historic Harvard Yard and its monumental American Elm (Ulmus Americana) canopy. 

Melissa scoured Harvard Yard for fallen elm leaves, and we pressed them in the Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs, a notoriously large and heavy book on plants. The leaves were then selected based on how well they were pressed, so I now have a bunch of wrinkled leftover leaves scattered on my desk. The students particularly loved the leaves and many still have them on their desks and have said it makes them feel connected to Harvard from afar.

FG: There is a cat guarding the boxes. Where were they prepared exactly?

EW: The boxes were assembled at my home since all Harvard buildings were closed due to Covid-19. My partner and I had just moved into the house in June and this project became a sort of initiation of the space with the many parts of the box filling the dining and living rooms for over a month. Melissa also prepared many materials at her home, and we spent a long time wrapping and packaging each part. It was a real labour of love and collaboration, including with my cat, Lulu, of course.

FG: There are so many things there! Plans, maps, a sheet with some parallel coloured lines, the jigsaw pieces. Could you name them all? Are there other things that we do not see? What were the instructions?

EW: There really are so many parts and many students compared receiving and opening their box to Christmas morning! 

The use of each item in the package was revealed as the semester unfolded across their various classes. To begin from the top, when you open the package there are a series of small gifts: a handwritten personalised welcome note, an individual pressed American Elm leaf from Harvard Yard, a 10’ pocket measuring tape and a scale figure pop-up card with three different scales to be used in their MLA-I Preterm Workshop, and two dot grid notepads (standard and isometric) to kickstart their Landscape Representation I ‘Log’ exercise. 

As you continue, you find the various packages of laser cut site model parts for students’ first Core I Studio project: Boston City Hall building in museum board, site context buildings in Bristol paper, Boston City Hall Plaza topography in Bristol paper (1’ contours), and a foam core model base. The final packages include various large scale plots, such as: 36”x48” and 11”x17” site plans for the two Core I Studio projects and reference scales with both metric and imperial. Finally, a mylar strip encloses the package contents so that they could be easily lifted from the box, and is printed with the colours and line weights for their AutoCAD CTB Plot Style. All the packages are labelled and wrapped with carefully folded high quality vellum to be reusable in their drawings.

FG: I am very attracted by the entire strategy that you put in place. Besides the very practical issues that you confronted and solved so brilliantly, I was wondering if you could say something about the deep motivations that you had to embark in such a generous endeavour. Ultimately, I have the impression that much of what you did exceeded what is normally expected in a design studio.

EW: The project really began as an attempt towards equity and inclusion, as students were around the world in so many different circumstances, but they had an effect far beyond what I had imagined, and I’ve been genuinely touched by the students’ responses. They spoke of feeling seen, held, cared for, connected, and truly welcomed into a community. It also made the experience finally feel ‘real’ for so many students and acted to many as physical proof that they really were admitted. They felt more on even footing with their classmates who come from a wide-range of backgrounds and skill sets. It marked the beginning of their education and showed them that they were embraced by the institution – they belonged here – which is an idea that in my teaching experience many students struggle with in their first year at Harvard. I think we don’t realise how much these small gestures mean to students, especially in a virtual semester, but we all need to be seen, and feel that we belong and are cared for.