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In the Realm of the Weird

Diving into the art of landscape architecture with Isa Lewis

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Editor’s note: “In the Realm of the Weird” is a bi-weekly column uplifting local artists who are producing groundbreaking, innovative, or otherwise unorthodox work.

Over the course of the quarter, I have covered various forms of art, from genre-bending lo-fi and electronic music to new takes on folk and Americana and digital art.

While each of these subjects have been enlightening, I wanted to step into a different realm (if you will) this week. Another often overlooked form of art is landscape architecture. Although it may appear natural, each piece of flora and fauna around campus is deliberately selected and organized to reflect the UW and its values.

To better understand the world of landscape architecture, I (virtually) sat down with Isa Lewis, who studies this discipline at the UW. Lewis is highly knowledgeable about this topic and agreed that landscape architecture is an often undervalued and underappreciated art form.

“It requires its own sort of knowledge, because it's like a truly interdisciplinary field,” Lewis said.

Lewis is an extremely talented landscape architect in the making. Although she hasn’t completed her studies and a fair amount of her work remains unpublished, the projects she did show me were simply incredible. Not only had Lewis mapped out and labelled individual sections of a planned location, but she created an extensive list of plant nomenclature, including their Latin names, livable environments, and usage (medical, food, craft, etc.).

This impressive attention to detail is nothing short of artistic and so, it's no wonder that when asked about her inspirations, Lewis cited Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s “Akira”.

“For me, it's very much cyberpunk,” Lewis said. “I'm very inspired by futurism and sci-fi. I think that that is a really interesting way that people can … take inspiration in their design.”

In regard to creating an Earthwork piece, or artwork that, according to the Museum of Modern Art, is “made by shaping the land itself or by making forms in the land using natural materials like rocks or tree branches,” Lewis recognized the movement’s creativity, but noted the vast amount of other uses for the land.

“I don't know,” Lewis said. “Things used to be a little bit easier to make big designs like that, because the ethics behind land ownership were a lot less nuanced than they are now. Basically, the only place where you can do design and have it be kind of unambiguous is abandoned land and, even then, it's a little ambiguous because … you should be feeding that back into other communities.”

Lewis said she supports smaller Earthwork projects, like Martha Schwartz’s “Bagel Garden,” which remains impactful but causes less damage to the surrounding environment and nearby populations. This shift from razing large portions of land in areas which do not belong to artists toward smaller projects, healthier land, and more equitable opportunities are the practices that make Lewis’ work so important.

“A lot of landscape designers also create their own ideas of a utopia, and I think that's a really important thing to do as well,” Lewis said. “Obviously, create real things, it's important to do that, but I think it's also still important to create speculative designs and to try to imagine what things could be and how you would do it.”

A sustainable utopia has the potential to exist in our world. With landscape architects like Lewis nearing the project implementation stage, I can tell our future is in great hands.

Reach columnist Jacob Renn at Twitter: @jakemrenn

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