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Design Computation [19FL UVA]

Department of Landscape Architecture
University of Virginia School of Architecture
Fall 2019


In the past few years, the environmental management discourse has seen an emerging paradigm of research and practice that revolves around cybernetic technologies and computational methods in regulating, controlling, and managing environmental processes. Concepts such as smart cities, responsive landscapes, sensing networks, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cyberphysical systems have been popularized in the design professions. Many hope to use these strategies to avert myriads of environmental problems induced by climate change. These efforts are giving rise to a new paradigm of design and research— the cybernetic environment. Given this broader context, the next generation of landscape architects should not only learn digital tools and techniques that are central to the design professions but also be exposed to the history and theory of systems thinking that underpins the cybernetic environment paradigm.

This course is a combination of theory and practice reflected in two parts: lectures and workshops. In the lectures, students will explore the history and theory of design computation and contemporary discourses around computational thinking. The lectures map out a theoretical terrain by tracing the history of cybernetics and expose students to a set of ideas rooted in systems theory, posthumanism, and science, technology and society (STS), etc. These ideas will help students build reflexivity by deepening their understanding of subjectivity in the modeling process, the limitation of systems thinking itself, and -the social construction of spatial data and a cybernetic environment.


In the workshops, students will learn hands-on skills of computer-aided design tools, including Rhino and Grasshopper. Students will also explore different modeling and simulation techniques. Models here are in their broadest sense, including architectural models and numerical representations of environmental phenomena and processes. Through hands-on exercises, students will learn tools and, most importantly, understand how different software manages data and represents geometries differently, forming a critical lens of how computation structures information and constructs the environment in a profound way.


Course Objectives

The course allows students to:

  • Gain interactional expertise in scientific and engineering professions in order to conduct constructive conversations and collaborate with scientists and engineers.
  • Learn terminologies and concepts that are necessary to understand emerging scientific and engineering research.
  • Be able to critically examine cybernetic technologies and understand their premises, assumptions, and limitations.
  • Develop alternative approaches to modeling, simulation, and responsive tools with landscape sensibility.

These abilities are crucial for the next generation of designers to challenge the deterministic and linear way of thinking that is still a dominant paradigm in contemporary environmental practices and explore strategies of indeterminacy and recursive processes needed when humanity is faced with unprecedented environmental uncertainties such as climate change.

The course relies largely on Grasshopper as a way to introduce computational thinking. However, students must use other software including ArcMap, AutoCAD, Rhino, Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign throughout the course. The drawings submitted in each module should be carefully edited and polished outside Grasshopper and Rhino in order to be clear and legible. This process may include changing line weights, and adding in details, notations, and legends, etc. Legibility and clarity of the works are expected in this course.


Four Modules



Student Works



© 2021 Zihao Zhang