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A conversation with Harvard GSD’s Charles Waldheim about Ed Ruscha’s archive at the Getty

Photo: Austin Liu

Stamen recently launched a project with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles about the work of Ed Ruscha, who took hundreds of thousands of photographs of Los Angeles Streets from the back of a pickup truck over fifty years. This enormous archive of urban photographs is in the process of being meticulously catalogued, georeferenced and run through machine vision algorithms by the Getty. Stamen was asked to build an interface to this collection. Along the way we shared the work with Charles Waldheim at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), who decided to base a graduate design studio in collaboration with the GSD Office for Urbanization around the archive. Ten graduate students are busy making projects at the intersection of machine learning, architecture, planning and urban infrastructure using the images and metadata. What follows is a conversation between Charles and Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen’s founder & creative director, in May 2021.

The Class: Shading Sunset

Eric Rodenbeck: You’re teaching a course at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design about the Ed Ruscha archive Stamen helped to launch last year, called Shading Sunset. Can you tell me about the class?

Charles Waldheim: First of all, thanks so much for opening the conversation about your work with the Getty. And I’ve learned so much. I mean, it’s a remarkable, remarkable resource. You have this institution at the Getty, their archival desire, and then this amazing fount of Ruscha material. That alignment is pretty unique, as you know.

Photo: Austin Liu

I’ve been long interested in descriptions of the built environment that are beyond just style or beyond just culture or taste. And the Ruscha images have also been so powerful in the way that architects see the city. So from that point of view, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to, first of all, develop a line of research through my research group at the GSD, to begin to think ahead what could we do with this material, what shape might it take, what would be the interesting question. And based on the seminar sessions, these kinds of colloquial events with the Getty that we’ve been doing have been really informative. There are a lot of smart people working on this. It seemed like an interesting way to think through large quantities of visual documentation of the built environment. That’s something that I’ve been long interested in, but at the same moment, I haven’t really had a moment or an opportunity of this caliber.

Curating alternative histories and potential futures using the archive

CW: The course is a design studio. It has ten graduate students from across the disciplines of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, urban planners. And what we thought would be interesting for them to do would be to learn with us the training of the neural network and adversarial neural network. It’s a very kind of crude form of machine learning. And in order to do that, we spent about six months building our own kind of workflow. So through the GSD Office for Urbanization we partnered with Jose Luis Garcia del Castillo Lopez and the GSD Laboratory for Design Technology and with Runway ML, the machine learning group. We’ve been using their platform, among other things. We invited the students to begin by curating one or more topics out of the Ruscha material. With that kind of curatorial viewpoint, the idea is that the designer is no longer a person who’s imagining and then rendering, right? As opposed to drawing something that’s fantastical or imaginary, the curatorial role is that the designer is really selecting a set of parameters. Those parameters for us included a range of topics that emerge in the photographs, whether they be signage or changes in the built form of the city, or whether it be what people are doing in these images, or whether it’s the evolution of shade and tree cover, this kind of thing.

“I think of it as mining the digital archive and deriving from it the kind of spatial and visual clues that make up the DNA of the streets of Los Angeles.”

We’ve invited each of the students to curate their own set of storyboarded images. They’re alternative realities, alternative histories, potential futures. In my own line of this research, I think of it as mining the digital archive and deriving from it the kind of spatial and visual clues that make up the DNA of the streets of Los Angeles. There’s some kind of code there. There’s something there that we might be able to extrapolate from. The goal is to then be able to say, with some confidence, that these images come out of that DNA, out of that code. And yet they produce themselves in these emergent conditions that we haven’t seen before. So for the designer then, who was formerly a curator, the designer then pivots to being more of a person who’s interpreting, sifting through, reading into. And those images form a kind of imaginary on behalf of the designer, but that imaginary’s got a couple of advantages over the historic role of the architect.

Image: Alejandra Avalos Guerrero

One advantage is it’s much more efficient in terms of the number of permutations that one can see and evaluate. It doesn’t make the evaluation any easier! There’re still the hard choices and editorial decisions about what to see. And the image is still, it’s only an introduction to what one’s own desires are. What I like about that is that it means each designer brings their own lens and their own wetware, so people will see completely different things from these images. And now the work — we’re in the final kind of weeks of it — is to try to develop a proposal for the redesign of the streets of LA based on the changing conditions we have today, but in which that kind of curated menu of images, these kind of deep fakes have been inspirational in some way. So hopefully, we get something which is new and at the same moment has this kind of DNA connection. And then the last thing I’ll say is that the kind of real-world pretext of all this is to kind of adapt the streets of Los Angeles for a rapidly warming climate, as Los Angeles is among the cities most vulnerable to extreme heat events in the US these days.

Inspirational deep fakes & generating possibility spaces

ER: I love the idea of inspirational deep fakes. It’s very much in line with my history of failures as a more traditional architect, and the still-emerging practice of data visualization and mapping. When I’m most engaged creatively in a project that we’re doing, I tend not to be prescriptive and say, “Build it in exactly this way to meet exactly this kind of goal.” I like to work in deep partnership with designers and mappers and data visualizers. Their first step is to make some kind of anything with the data that we’ve got. And then there’s something to talk about! Then there’s something to respond to. It’s almost impossible for me to think about data visualization in a way that’s not about dialogue or conversation. We have a saying at Stamen that if one person can do a project on their own, it’s not a project that we would take on. I’m becoming convinced that there’s something inherently conversational and multidisciplinary about the practice of taking data and putting it into a visual form for people to talk about.

“It’s almost impossible for me to think about data visualization in a way that’s not about dialogue or conversation.”

CW: Earlier you mentioned your fraught relationship to the blank page. It strikes me that this format of “Let’s start somewhere. Let’s put something on the table and then let’s have a conversation about it,” seems very much coming out of architectural education at least. I wouldn’t say practice per se, but certainly the modalities of studio practice where you put something on the table and we discuss it, and then from that discussion we produce something more interesting.

ER: Can you talk a little bit about this notion of generating possibilities for a warming planet through inspirational deep fakes? We talked earlier about living through the pandemic, of course. We’re now collectively understanding that radical changes in the built environment, and of our interrelationships with one another, many of those things are suddenly…I don’t want to say suspect, but it’s been revealed that they were constructed according to a certain set of realities. And those realities can shift, sometimes (often?) unexpectedly quickly. And we need to develop ways of talking about that and acting in this new kind of environment. That’s what it seems like you’re anticipating with this notion of generating possibility spaces for new Los Angeles.

“We have a saying at Stamen that if one person can do a project on their own, it’s not a project that we would take on.”

Photo: Thomas Kuei

CW: I think you and I share this sense of the malleability of reality, and the extent to which we all live in a set of constructs that we believe to be true. And I think that both our experiences are that the power of an image — or the power of a project and an idea to present an alternative — is something inherent to design. There’s no necessary correlation between using thousands of Ed Ruscha’s images of Sunset Boulevard and dealing with shade or climate or humidity. The generative image curatorial and imaginary faculty cultivation, let’s say, is one thing. But from that, what you’re asking those images to do, is infinite. You could ask anything of it!

So in this regard, there’s been a lot of interest, obviously, in, let’s call it, the politic of data, or the politic of big data, or the politic of forms of machine learning. And the first thing we say is that we have no interest in a conversation about objectivity. In other fields, there may be more of a concern for something like a scientific method or form of activity. But in design, by definition, we’re going in the opposite direction. We need to produce something which is more than the existing reality that we have. And that’s why I find both the volume and the potential of these images so powerful; because they’re just familiar enough. We can map them on to the LA that we know.

12 Sunsets, photographed by Ed Ruscha, archived by the Getty

In some ways, they’re in our DNA, they’re on our retinas for the last 50 years. And yet also, as you’ve seen and noted, they’re constantly shifting. There’s that shifting that’s undermining the stability, let’s say, the fixity of the built environment. You might say about climate, and climate in the public realm in a city like Los Angeles, where there’s plenty of shade for the wealthy, the automobile, the private garden, the well-appointed lawn, that these are all venues in Los Angeles that are quite well cooled. And it’s the most vulnerable populations on the street that are without shade. So this idea of the streets of Los Angeles being a venue for the playing out of climate inequities and questions of racial justice and all of those things, it struck me as an interesting way to interrogate these Ruscha images. Because, as you know, the images are absent of people, generally speaking. They’re sort of cold and dispassionate, distanced. And that distanced view that Reyner Banham and Denise Scott Brown built upon the way in which they saw Los Angeles and Las Vegas. That’s really so deeply encoded in our design fields, and we felt like this would be an interesting way out of it. But it’s not through the politic of the images that we get there, but it’s rather through the politic of the urgent threats that we have this condition.

The last thing I’d say would be there is something inherently, I think, or potentially powerful in making a proposition which goes beyond the minimum condition. In the design fields, often there’s a kind of a fault line between architecture and the fine arts and things that are perceived to be more culturally indulgent, let’s put it that way, versus what we actually need on a regular basis. And often the conversation about climate becomes techno-managerial. It’s immediately on the policy side of the House. And as a result of that, I find that we live in a culture which is relatively impoverished in terms of urban imaginary.

So my project, not just in the studio, but my longer term project, is that I believe fundamentally in urbanism as a cultural project. The shape of the city as both a political and social act is so important, and I don’t want to give it over to just a policy or the minimum condition, just painting our streets lighter so that they will be slightly cooler. It’s not really my idea, many others have expressed this. But the idea that the image of the city — in history we see many examples where the image of the city as an alternative becomes so powerful as an idea that it kind of forces it — it wills its way into reality by virtue of that. So on the one hand, my project is about the autonomy of the cultural practice of the designer and the idea of looking at the city, the image of the city, and who gets to make that imaginary. And on the other, there’s this idea that we would be ambitious with those images knowing all the entropy and the friction that is in the world as we see it today.

Pointing the archive at the future

Photo: Guanyi Wang

ER: You’ve been part of some of the conversations we’ve been having with the other scholars involved with the project. There’s a kind of enigmatic nature to Ed Ruscha’s project. We find themselves asking questions like: “Is it an archive? Is it a work of art? Is it a source material?” And there never seems to be a definitive answer, which is of course fascinating in its own right. There’s no definitive way to answer any of these questions, right? It’s been created perfectly to be many things to many people from many different places of meaning. It makes me think of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He said “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” That’s what I feel like Ruscha is a master of and did with this project. He makes this archive that was just so absurdly, almost comically complex. And then if you just think about what a Herculean task it was (and is) for the Getty teams to digitize these film rolls and faithfully connect it to metadata. There’s no way to apprehend the entirety of the collection, really.

CW: Some of the scholars who work on Ruscha that we’ve spoken to say it’s tempting to think of Ruscha in a fine art practice as one end and distinct from his photographic practice, his art books, or even the streets of LA project as an archival practice. What you said is my reading of all of this, which is it’s much more deeply Duchampian to do this thing. It’s ongoing! It’s still happening today and it’s the lack of finitude, the impossibility that this thing is going to be ongoing just strikes me as fantastic. It also resists being distilled into any one of those layers. As soon as you think it’s a kind of tongue in cheek kind of Duchampian game, then there’s another voice that says “Well, no. It is also this kind of archive, this record.”

Sunset Boulevard 2007 by Ed Ruscha, archived by the Getty

I have deep respect for the Getty and all the people working on the project in different lanes. I think there is a lot of information that can be drawn from the archive. But I think in many cases, the initial impulse will be too often to try to locate in some historical and geographical precision to contextualize and to kind of fix in a way. I think that there’s a role for that in our discipline, certainly in history and art history or architectural history. But I’m interested in what we can do going forward. What can Ruscha’s work tell us about what alternatives are out there in the future?

One of the things that’s so appealing to me about this line of work is that it avoids the tendency to grow the problem vertically. We have great tools of visualization. We’ve never had better maps or better data. We have so many incredible tools. Any time you pull on an urban problem, it tends to expand, right? It’s all connected. There’s something about the facticity of these Ruschan images that are so specific. It’s limitless but it’s also bounded in that horizon, right? Its frontal at this very particular depth. And that precision has allowed us to give our students the tool to do some really interesting things. We built this Rhino plug-in workflow, where you identify the Ruscha camera which is at a fixed height at a certain distance from the curb, and you lock that in and there you are. That recursive quality, where we can return to that same viewpoint angle and study that in relationship to what the students are proposing, that’s been really productive for us.

Riffing off 12 Sunsets

ER: That leads me into wanting to talk about the specifics of the work that your students have done. I wanted to get in there by way of the sifting and the mining that you’ve been talking about. I’m curious to hear what kinds of things your students are finding or what you are finding.

For myself, there’s great pleasure in engaging with the archive in a sustained way. There are things that you find that are, in retrospect, completely obvious. But they would have been totally unimaginable from the beginning. One of those is due to the optical-character-recognition software that was applied to the work. You can find every instance of the word, DONT along Sunset Boulevard. And most, maybe all, of those are photographs of DONT WALK signs. Which makes perfect sense, because if you photographed a WALK sign from a moving car, you would by definition be running a red light by driving alongside it. So there’s this kind of weird, almost mycelium-like set of connections in between all these different parts of the Boulevard that pop up in these funny ways.

Sunset Boulevard by Ed Ruscha, archived by the Getty

Another one is that if you look at the photographs of the big downtown office buildings that Ruscha and his team were driving past while photographing, you can very often find the reflection in the windows of the truck or the van that they’re using. Ruscha and his team sort of “accidentally” made a map of all of the DONT WALK signs along Boulevard Los Angeles, and accidentally left an historical record of the different trucks and cars that they were using. I just love that stuff, this notion of discovery and kind of retroactive obviousness that I would have never encountered without deeply engaging with the archive and looking at it over time and thinking about it. So I’m very curious to hear what specific kinds of threads you and your students have found worth pulling on.

Photomontages by Amira Hankin & Eric Brelsford, Stamen Design

CW: You and I talked earlier about the idiosyncratic sequencing and beginning and end points of the archive; sometimes they drive all the way to the beach, sometimes not. Sometimes they stop for lunch. So one of the first things that we did was I asked my team to try to pull together with your help and with the Getty’s help is just a kind of a map to understand where did they start and end in each of these cycles, and it’s odd, no? I mean, it picks up here, starts there. And there is a kind of pattern to it, but not really.

From the outside, if you imagine this practice or the way that it’s been treated historically, you would imagine it’s much more systematic. But when you actually see it, it’s highly contingent. And I find that I think that’s often true in archival work and different kinds of archives that what you encounter is so radically different than what you might imagine finding in the abstract. This link about the studio might be fuel for that conversation.

“…it very quickly corroborated that the wealthier the zip code, the more tree cover there is.”

CW: One thing that we were struck by was — again, this should have been obvious but until we spent time with these images and of course, not traveling — because normally we would have been on the ground on Sunset Boulevard for a week and a half and we would have been up and down and talked to everybody in town. And absent that, we were a little bit removed, but one thing that immediately caught our attention was the relative disparities between different municipal boundaries or even different neighborhood or district boundaries along Sunset Boulevard. And of course, it very quickly corroborated that the wealthier the zip code, the more tree cover there is.

Photo: Xiaoji Zhou

I had a couple of students that were looking specifically at those sort of issues, how immediately we ended up with radically different Sunset Boulevards, not that far from one other spatially but separated by a political boundary or a text division line or a homeowners association, a set of protocols. And what was interesting was for those students, almost immediately, the eastern end of the boulevard closer toward Silverlake and closer toward the kind of the denser, tougher parts of town, were just radically different places than the lush green UCLA until the further west. And so the iconic pop or clichéd image of the Sunset Strip, which I think many of us have in our kind of collective imaginary, even Ruscha did work on, kind of fell away very quickly.

Shade = wealth

CW: So there’s this kind of excessive luxury of shade in the wealthy end of the Boulevard, and the extreme poverty and the toughness on the streets on the other end. That was the first reading. The second reading was the ubiquity of the red LA curb line, which again, I’ve been familiar with, I’ve seen, but something about in the Ruscha images and in our work with them this curb line has been echoed back to us even stronger than it was in the original.

Sunset Blvd & Sunset Plaza Drive, LA, 2007, as photographed by Ed Ruscha and archived by the Getty

Many of these photos, as you know, are black and white. Some of them have been colorized by us after the fact, some were shot in color. And so in that regard, I would’ve thought the red line of the curb would have been kind of a trivial thing at best. But it’s come back triple-fold because it’s almost always in the frame! It’s almost always present in a place that’s marking the bottom of the frame. And it ends up becoming a datum that’s interesting. And then the third thing I would say is the moments or breaks where you have depth of field, any place where the street front kind of drops away and there’s a bridge abutment or there’s a kind of hillside, those are moments that stood out for the students as well. And we have a couple of projects working on those sites, which are kind of bizarre. You have one of the wealthiest cities in the world and this great wealthy district and then we just decided to leave that side of the hillside under improved.

ER: On the one hand, it’s an incredibly vast, totalizing display of power and wealth to be able to make this archive. And so it’s got all that associated with it. And then it’s also got these kind of just very sweet moments, where it takes a picture that no one would otherwise have a reason to take. It’s touching in a way: “Oh, look at that hillside.” It shows the choices that people have made about their landscape in a way that’s very, very accessible. If you can just look at all the abutments along a twenty three mile road, in five minutes you can find all the bus benches or you can find all of the skyscrapers.

“There’s a group at Yale that’s studying the amount of sky and the change of the amount of sky over time in images along the strip because it’s a reliable indicator of the development of new buildings. I love this idea of the act of cataloging the quotidian, or the things that would not be typically mapped, and seeing what there is to learn from that.”

So there’s this interrogative quality: I can know where everything is, very quickly. Exciting! But what’s also just amazing about the archive is that half of it is very, very boring (from some perspectives) pictures of trees and bushes and hedges, precisely geolocated and tagged, often in really weird ways.

There’s a group at Yale that’s studying the amount of sky and the change of the amount of sky over time in images along the strip because it’s a reliable indicator of the development of new buildings. I love this idea of the act of cataloging the quotidian, or the things that would not be typically mapped, and seeing what there is to learn from that.

Architecture as generous epidemiology

Photo: Sarah Smyth

CW: One of the things that you’re getting at that I want to reinforce is there’s something — I want to say “generous” but I don’t think that’s the right tone — about the archive. I think there’s something that’s destigmatizing or normalizing, something between generous and normalizing, with the kind of relatively democratic gaze that it has. Knowing the image is of this boulevard, this moment in time, is so often the way that we understand the built environment in cities. It’s already so prejudiced. It’s already so charged to be value laden. We’re being sold things in that sense.

There’s something about the Ruschan project which is generous because he’s photographing all of it. If, after the fact, we have an interest in don’t-walk signs or hillside retention, those are things that are available to us. But because it’s all there, it’s different than the architect’s gaze who comes in and says, “Well, no, this is the view,” right? Reyner Banham made a film for the BBC called Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles 72, and he made this kind of fictional audio car tour of Los Angeles. He asked, if you were to make a proper guidebook to the city of its monuments, what would you put in the book, right, what would be the tour. And there’s something about Ruscha that it’s all the tour. The whole thing, every building is a part of the tour, right? Bearing in mind of course that he only photographed some streets and not all of them, and that the ones he photographed tended to be a certain kind of street — he never photographed in Watts, for example. But I think the impulse still holds.

“…now we can talk about actual populations of buildings. That’s very exciting for us to be able to look at it from an epidemiological point of view, as opposed to a single patient or even an idealized rendering of that patient…Architecture as epidemiology!”

In our field, we used to be utterly focused on the ideal types, right? We were always focused on Capital A-architecture, certain examples that are meant to be idealized. But now we can talk about actual populations of buildings. That’s very exciting for us to be able to look at it from an epidemiological point of view, as opposed to a single patient or even an idealized rendering of that patient.

ER: Architecture as epidemiology! It’s perfect timing, because we’ve gone from nobody knowing about epidemiology to everybody thinking about it all the time. So it’s kind of a grand time for that.

CW: We live in a world where you can get the shapefile for every building footprint in the country. It’s no longer even interesting. It’s all so available, right? So in that framework, the idea that we have this material from Ruscha and with it, you can understand something about the pathology of the city over a long period of time. It’s a remarkable project. Again, I’m in your debt.

Jungrok An

Photo: Jungrok ‘Rok’ An

So this is the work of Jungrok ‘Rok’ An from Korea. He’s a landscape architect and has been developing this interest in the iconic palm tree in Los Angeles. In this case, he was struck by two things. One was the ubiquity of the kind of the street wall hedge. The idea of the kind of solid green mass that would have been a building in some other culture but in Los Angeles is a way of demarking privacy and replacing the street wall. And what Jungrok is working on is a kind of shade structure, a kind of vertical shade structure that can be sometimes occupied but can also provide a kind of shade for the street. It also reinforces the kind of street wall edge in the place where there aren’t necessarily a lot of buildings filling up the block.

The climate in Southern California, as you know, is really Mediterranean, it’s dry, it’s not a desert per se. But of course, what we’ve done to over engineer it has produced conditions of extraordinary precarity. With this process also, we spend a lot of time with the students and cultivate their ability to make curatorial choices between these images. Because of course, you look at each image and you could imagine something out of it. And at the same moment, a student choosing this image or that image will arrive at very different outcomes in terms of project. And we’ve also done quite a lot of work to bring to the imaginary faculties precedents from elsewhere to be able to source and say, “Oh, well, this seems totally novel.” But there is this one vertical park in Zurich that operates similarly, right? And that park becomes an important precedent for Jungrok’s work.

Alejandra Avalos Guerrero

Photo: Alejandra Avalos Guerrero

Alejandra Avalos Guerrero is a Mexican architect. She became interested in Ruscha’s practice of, from his earlier studio location, looking at the weather conditions by looking for the Hollywood sign and sometimes photographing that, to understand the weather. She found it really compelling that on the northern side of Sunset Boulevard there were all of these exposed hillsides. She’s doing a project which is a series of what she calls Mountains, and she’s developed a series of parks to be able to provide a kind of a pleasure garden or park-like setting to make some value out of these sites that are otherwise neglected.

With this style, this process essentially, you’re working through training up a neural network to be able to recognize patterns. In those patterns, what the student begins with is a curatorial interest. She began with an interest in all of Ruscha’s photographs of these exposed hillsides. So she sourced all of those out of the thousands of images of Ruscha’s, fed those into this adversarial network, and then trained the network to be able to reproduce those within certain parameters. And in this case, what you’re looking at is really a kind of a hallucination from many, many examples of the retaining structures. You can see the roadway at the bottom, the curb line at the sidewalk, then there’s a retaining wall of different shapes and patterns, and there’s often vegetation on the horizon and sometimes leaking through. So in that regard, there’s more variability. Where you see the most change is over the contested patterns of the different retaining walls, which are different heights and they’re different widths. And almost always the plant shows up at the top, crowns it, and the street at the bottom is more or less consistent. And so what she’s dialing in really is what would be an interesting way of reading this retaining wall structure that would be true to that physical history but would also liberate us from the specifics of its engineering.

ER: I’m just laughing in astonishment and delight over here.

CW: It’s great fun. This is the kind of work that I went into this line of work to do. You couldn’t imagine getting up on a Thursday morning and getting paid to be able to do this with a group of really bright, talented students.

ER: I’m pinching myself right now. I’m working at the intersection of urban studies, science fiction, architecture, gardens, data, the technological gaze, it’s a dream!

Thomas Kuei

Photo: Thomas Kuei

CW: Thomas Kuei is also an architect and has an interest in the cooling shelters and kind of public affordance, toilets, showers, and things for people that are living hard, and has built a project that straddles the two sides of Sunset Boulevard. On the one side, there’s a place that delivers and organizes a set of social services. And then on the other side, there are restrooms, showers and a range of other kinds of public amenities. Thomas began work by looking at all the places he could find on Sunset Boulevard that Ruscha documented where there was some ambiguity about whether the sidewalk was public or private. That narrowed the view very quickly.

“Thomas began work by looking at all the places he could find on Sunset Boulevard that Ruscha documented where there was some ambiguity about whether the sidewalk was public or private. That narrowed the view very quickly.”

In places where the sidewalk was evidently public, that’s one sort of line. And on the other hand, there were a lot of places where there was an outside cafe or there was a gap in the street wall. There was a kind of ambiguous space. And what he started to refer to as gray space, he did a very rigorous survey of the so-called gray ground or gray space on both the north and south side of Sunset Boulevard. And in so doing, he argued he wanted to expand that ambiguous zone. But as opposed to giving it over to private for-profit operations, he thought he would expand that ambiguous zone but to give it back to the public, essentially. To provide a kind of coffee shop, a set of public restrooms, a shower, a cantina, a place for a couple of reasonable public amenities out of the ambiguity of that space.

ER: We were talking about this earlier within regards to what’s happening in cities all over the country, where restaurants are opening annexes in front of their storefronts so people can eat outside. The original parklets were invented by Rebar here in San Francisco. It started as this act of protest, of occupying a parking space for the length of time that you’re allowed to park there with astroturf and chairs and just have a picnic where before there was a parking space. So many possibilities are opening up inside that kind of conversation, right? Where the boundaries that we thought were fixed are not.

CW: This idea of this gray space then became a kind of convex kind of expansion of the public realm in a kind of generous way. I think it’ll be interesting. In some ways, it’s impossible. In some ways, there’s no definitive work of urban design or a design project that could live up to the kind of the ambiguity that these images contain. They often will be more provocative than any particular resolution of a designer project. I like thinking of it in that way, which is that we’ve set ourselves a very high bar. But that’s the game that we’re playing. And being able to look at the two in relationship will be interesting.

Austin Lu

Photo: Austin Liu

CW: Austin is a landscape architect. He came into GSD and he developed this incredible series of images. While the rest of the studio is focusing on Sunset Boulevard and the streets and the public realm, my reading of his drawings is that they are really a glimpse into something more kind of deeper and much more kind of about sensorial pleasure. Based on that, Austin developed a project for a pleasure garden. And he was interested in this history of the pleasure garden, these places that were products of modernity, in places like London or Paris, eventually in New York as well, where you would go in the 19th century. And you’d buy a ticket for a few pennies, and you’d go into something that was really a kind of an amusement or a kind of entertainment in the context of a garden. So Vauxhall Gardens in London would be the canonical example where it’s not a public park yet, but it’s in a landscaped estate, and it’s meant for the working class, right? So you’d go there with a few farthings, and you get to hear music, and you have food, and there’s dancing. And it’s a kind of amusement park with some infotainment around the edges.

Vauxhall Gardens by Samuel Wale (c. 1751)

CW: Based on that, we discovered Austin had a real appetite and interest for Instagram culture and the ways in which Instagram and social media play into Hollywood these days. And so he’s developed this pleasure garden based on Ed Ruscha’s notion of real estate. One of the Ed Ruscha art books that he was interested in was a book called Real Estate Opportunities that Ruscha published in the late ’60s, early ’70s, which were Ruscha’s photographs of vacant lots. And these vacant lots all had price tags associated with them. So there were dozens and dozens of these in this artist’s book. And Ruscha was, of course, selling these artist’s books through his imprint, Heavy Industries, in the back of magazines. So Austin was interested in that, began curating images of Ruscha’s vacant-lot real estate opportunities, developed a StyleGAN model, curated those. And that set of images curated through StyleGAN produced these images. So there was a notion about real estate and vacancy. And so Austin called this project Ed Ruscha’s Real Pleasure Garden, like, “It’s a real pleasure to be here,” kind of play on words and the idea of a kind of tongue-in-cheek commercial activity in the context of a studio, which was otherwise about the public realm and questions of societal need. And it’s really a remarkable project, in the end, that Austin produced.

Photo: Austin Liu

“What you’re generating is actually a way of generating new types of typologies.”

ER: Painterly is the word we’ve started to use. And this one looks like a whole other world. I’m looking at it and I understand what it is, but these are new forms. What you’re generating is actually a way of generating new types of typologies.

CW: Exactly! What we invited him to do was to isolate, pull out ten slices, and he developed this pleasure garden into ten rooms. So each of the ten rooms is a totally different look and feel, different garden design, a different program, a different set of uses. And then he named each one of them based on a kind of character or quality of light or a set of ambiances that might be attributed. So in that sense, it was a remarkably generative project for him, even though he had no experience with that kind of work. He came from sort of a landscape planning tradition. It was very scientifically based. And this was liberating, I think, because it meant that there was a limitless number of potential garden facades or images available.

ER: On the right there, those one, two, three, four, five vertical elements. I’ve never seen anything like that before.

CW: And similarly, the plant material. In many of these, as you’ve seen, the location, the presence of plant material versus structural elements or architectural elements, those things get sorted in a different way. So you end up with plant material in the shape of buildings or buildings occupying the space that was plant material, and he found that really productive as well.

ER: So maybe that form that’s on the left there, which looks like a big bush, is not actually, but it’s bush material in the shape of a building.

CW: Exactly. And those kinds of transpositions are happening all the time in the StyleGAN modeling where, basically, it’s mapping surface texture and color, but then it’s promiscuous about which geometry that it goes onto, ultimately.

ER: We’ve done some similar work with Aman Tiwari at CMU. He was showing us some models that were starting to analyze photographs of cities and identify what’s a street, what’s a building, what’s a car. AIs are going to need to do that if they’re going to drive around. But also, it’s interesting just to not do that, right? To think and stay clearly at the level of surface, so to speak.

Image: Aman Tiwari, Stamen Design

CW: Based on the work you had done and what I saw the people doing in the Getty was important and interesting work, which was territory that was pretty well staked out. You do see, in some of this work, the hubcap, kind of the position of the tire, one-fifth of the frame. Those dots come in and out of focus. You can also see the frames of buildings. You can see vertical street lights. Those things repeat with some regularity, and they come in and out of focus. I think what we found most productive were these things that would emerge, a set of garden rooms, we would never have imagined, absent this set of images. So having this thing out ahead of us and making up these spaces for us to interpret, we found incredibly productive.

So in this sequence, I think of it like an MRI, kind of moving in depth through a set of layers. And what Austin did, ultimately, was pick slices through this and gave them a certain kind of depth. And those became the ten garden rooms, and they had different characters, different enclosures. But ultimately, because of the nature of this animation, they all have a kind of continuity, let’s say. They hang together as a sequence.

ER: The kind of plants that are in here are not plants that I would have ever made. My eye wants to put certain things in front of other things, but then they don’t actually go into the back.

CW: On the one hand, to be a little bit more critical, not about Austin’s work but about the whole operation, it’s also a bit of a parlor trick, right? Our capacities, our human brains, our senses, they’re very good at finding order and imposing order even when there is not an order that exists. And so we’re wired that way, to place things in depth and assign materiality and understand spatiality. So on the one hand, this is a line of work that I find really productive and I’m committed to, but it’s productive because it’s tricking our senses, right? And as it tricks our senses, what it’s opening up is kind of the reading of the designer.

Ultimately, what’s available to be read, it’s not really in the image. It’s only in the imagination of the designer. It’s what the designer brings around in their wetware, in their experience. And that’s why you and I look at this, and we would see totally different things, right? Austin saw something entirely different than what you and I would see, in part because of our different education, cultural background, professional training, all those things. We’re all wired to see different things in the same image, right? And what we prioritize is, of course, based on judgment and experience. And that’s why the student work, in the end, is quite different, each project that comes from it. But ultimately, it’s a lot of horsepower up front, to do a kind of parlor trick on our own senses. And as long as we’re aware of that, as long as we don’t make too much of that and give it too much authority, let’s say, as long as the designer is still making judgments and recalibrating, because the dials on this thing are still quite new, at least to us. We’ve only had a couple passes at this. Recalibrating some of those things will be interesting the next time we do this. We’re going to extend this to summer and some work in the office, and so I’m excited to do that.

“They’re so beautiful that it’s easy to get seduced by their beauty. It can be tricky to really think clearly about them.”

ER: I showed some images that we’d generated in a similar way of some satellite imagery, to Paola Antonelli at the MoMA a couple of years ago, and she said, “How are you going to avoid the beauty trap?” That was sort of wonderful. They’re so beautiful that it’s easy to get seduced by their beauty. It can be tricky to really think clearly about them.

CW: That’s right. On the one hand, that beauty is a necessary precondition for the attention of the designer over a long period of time. On the other, because these have been curated by those designers and selected from some other infinite number of possibilities, they already have a certain aesthetic quality to them. And so for me, the key in Antonelli’s question is, what’s the valence of these things for outside audiences? To present this to some other audience that wasn’t engaged in that feedback loop or the interpretation, I think we just have to qualify what they mean for them.

Sarah Smyth

Photo: Sarah Smyth

CW: Sarah Smyth is the only member of the studio that is LA based. She’s an urban planner, and she was interested in cooling centers and the city and county response to heat events, which are becoming increasingly common. And so she did this study of Sunset Boulevard looking at the two ends, the eastern end, sort of toward downtown, and the western end, out toward the more residential areas. And she found a set of patterns that repeated in the kind of ubiquitous strip malls. She was sorting for infrastructure in the public realm. So streetlights in particular, you can see a number of streetlights here and kind of light standards and the things that hold up highway signs or roadway signs or things that hold up traffic signals, that kind of thing in the foreground, and then the strip mall architecture behind that.

You can occasionally see these kind of fan palm figures. These kind of ear- or lobe-shaped flourishes come in and out of focus often for many of these videos. And some people choose to ignore them, and other people choose to make them into something. In Sarah’s project, she interpreted them as kind of weather balloons that might go up and both measure temperature, humidity but also convey to people the sense that the cooling center was opened, up and running. A part that was interesting in Sarah’s work also was that the eastern side of town is overwhelmingly concrete and asphalt. There’s not anything growing, nothing vegetal anywhere. There’s no shade in sight. And of course, the western side, Bel Air, UCLA campus, has plenty of plant material. And you can see here, essentially, the animation that she made was kind of a transect between those two things and trying to bring certain characteristics of one of those places into the other.

Photo: Sarah Smyth

CW: You can see here her preoccupation with these vertical infrastructures, the kind of vertical elements that you can see. In the Ruscha images, as you know, the bottom fifth of the frame is the street and sidewalk that’s always present and the dark line of the red curb. There are these vertical structuring elements. Sometimes they’re poles, sometimes they’re trees, sometimes they’re columns. And then behind that, you see this kind of mashup of strip-mall building frames, these two-story commercial structures, versus the plant material. And so the project she did was produced by conflating those two things and imagining a world where the two-story strip mall would be growing into the vertical infrastructure and would be covered with plant material and some kind of urban prehistory somehow.

Shi Tang

Photo: Shi Tang

CW: Shi Tang is a landscape architect who was ultimately interested in the kind of waviness of the ground plane. And to that, everywhere she looked, being a landscape architect, she kept finding these kinds of plant materials that would somehow invoke a kind of wall, a garden wall, or some kind of wall or fence. And so those two things invoked a quality of a kind of Asian garden, in a way. And she also then became interested in looking at the signage, the kind of billboard-facade relationships. You can see here the automobile tires emerging, coming in and out of focus. The thing that I love about this, it moves a lot. But a part of what I like about it is how active the ground plane is. The ground plane is kind of roiling. It’s almost like a kind of ocean surface. And in the Ruscha material, so often the ground plane is horizontal and so static and continuous. Instead, this invokes depth because of that undulation.

Photo: Shi Tang

“…I don’t know how long one could look at these [animations]. They do produce things that are kind of monstrous.”

ER: This is a really wild-looking one. And these two clusters of steaks with hats.

CW: For some people, the animation’s going to cohere; for other people, the projects are more about the stills. For Shi’s work, the stills are kind of amazing. She pulled out twelve of these and named them and you could start to detail them, because they were so well composed. And in that sense, the still images that have been pulled out and named and described, they have a greater coherence, if not beauty. They make sense. We called them in the studio storyboard images, pull out the nine or ten rooms or the ten moments, let’s say. And the students did a very good job with that. The animations were generative toward that, but I don’t know how long one could look at these things, and I don’t mean just Shi’s. They do produce things that are kind of monstrous. And again, for general audiences, they could be disorienting, they could be frightening. It’s not clear what their meaning would be. But in the hands of a designer, the idea that it’s generating this list of potentials, I think, is quite productive. And so going from the animation, which is this kind of monster, to the stills was a key moment for many of the students where it was like they got some control.

“One of the things about machine learning that I think is so wild is that you trade understanding for certainty. A lot of times, you don’t know what’s going on; you just know that it’s working.”

ER: One of the things about machine learning that I think is so wild is that you trade understanding for certainty. A lot of times, you don’t know what’s going on; you just know that it’s working.

CW: I’m glad you said that! It became such an important metaphor for the design process because so often, we’re in the studio and we’re trying to convey that sense that you have to give yourself over to the process and see what it becomes. What it is is more important than what it meant as you were making it, right? And this is a great metaphor for that. Because it was so immersive, it also turned off a lot of the second-guessing or wanting to get out ahead and prejudge. We had the sense that you can’t really judge this thing until you’ve baked it, right, until you’ve seen it. And then you can say, “Well, it looks like a bamboo grove to me,” right? And at that point, it’s more interesting to think about what it’s produced.

I’ve been doing this in the studio well before machine learning, basically using the strategies of the avant-garde to postpone or delay authorship. The key idea is to try to be productive culturally without being prejudicial or without preconditions. Often, there’s a desire to put into a process meaning or parameters of control that will guarantee a certain outcome. This process, because the students bought into it and trusted it, allowed them to speculate and to imagine places that they wouldn’t dare have proposed without the alibi of the process.

ER: If you’re giving yourself excuses to let go, there’s something to that. There’s something to be said for that in the design process. We do it at Stamen with data visualization all the time at the beginning of a project. You’re faced with a giant dataset, and you don’t know what’s to be done. So you just try something, anything, and see what happens. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what’s going to come out, but you’re not going to be able to have a well-informed conversation without an artifact of any kind, right?

CW: That’s right. And if it gives the designer a permission, if it gives them license, if they self-authorize. if it can just defer our judgment for a bit until we have something to talk about. I think you said this is some of your modus operandi within the team at Stamen: “Until we actually can test-drive something, let’s withhold judgment. And once we can see it and talk about it, then we can have a conversation,” as you say, “that’s informed and intelligent.”

ER: Trying to do a data visualization without the data is like telling somebody a joke and asking them to imagine what the punchline is. You need the real stuff to work with.

CW: That’s fantastic. It’s like handing somebody a flowchart instead of telling them the knock-knock joke. It just doesn’t work.

Michele Turrini

Photo: Michele Turrini

CW: This is a drawing by Michele Turrini. I think it’s just kind of an amazing image. Michele is an Italian landscape architect. He was interested in the ubiquitous red curb in Los Angeles, which shows up as the kind of dark black line in the earlier black-and-white Ruscha material and then as the red curb in the more recent color images. And so Michele was looking at Google Street View because we didn’t get a chance to go to LA because of the pandemic, and so looking back at the Ruscha material and basically sorted for Ruscha images of two conditions.

So first of all, this is about conditions that were diagonal or had some depth. Michele was looking at sites that weren’t the frontal, two-story, flat stuff, but whenever there was a bridge overpass, whenever there was a diagonal hitting the grid and you would have that long view. So he curated a dozen of those long views over time and then mapped where the red curve went at the diagonal view. What he found was that the red curb gets really complicated, because there are these traffic islands and then there’s a setback and there’s a traffic corner. And so in the normal Ruscha flat world, the red curve is just running along like a datum at the bottom. But then when you come to a diagonal or, all of a sudden, there’s this bridge overpass, the red line kind of disappears. And so you can see here this pink, this kind of salmon, this crab-leg color. That’s the remnant of that red line in depth. The manipulation of the ground plane and then the kind of plant material, the vegetal stuff in the back, became the kind of primary framework for Michele. It’s amazing how uncanny it looks, right? So he did that with a number of different rooms like several of the students have done, and then he stitched them together into this kind of panorama, in an early attempt to make some kind of linear coherence. And I think you can see the ground plane in the curb line as it kind of moves in depth.

Photo: Michele Turrini

ER: I’m curious about these images, too, because they haven’t been photoshopped, right? I mean, this is a generated image that’s being panned across.

CW: That’s right. And in this case, it’s been spliced together and then panned across. So it’s multiple stills from the model being spliced together and then panned across. But, yeah, I mean, they are raster images, but they’ve not been photoshopped, manipulated.

ER: And how is it that the edges line up? I guess it’s just part of the math.

CW: Yeah, it’s part of the math. And so comparing the StyleGAN images with the kind of Rhino model vector, snapped in actual design project, to the rendering, the kind of Photoshop rendering of the project, is interesting in that regard because they’re similar. They’re from the same family, but they’re different things, clearly.

Guanyi Wang

Photo: Guanyi Wang

ER: This one blew my mind. Guanyi Wang. I think that what I’m seeing is the generation of imagery from the StyleGAN, and then that imagery is being used to model vegetation on existing landscape? What’s in my mind is you’re basically generating topiaries based on machine-learning analysis of the kind of green space that should be there?

CW: So Guanyi started with a very kind of interesting take on Sunset and just an observation about the signage and billboards. This was before we got into the StyleGAN work. She became interested in the presence of these billboards and the fact that in a place like Whisky a Go Go or these other places, there was a kind of cultural history. I don’t know if you think of Sunset Strip as cultural or not, but let’s call it that.

ER: 100%!

Photo: Guanyi Wang

CW: Secondly, there were these huge billboards, on the one hand, advertising to the automobile, but then a lot of other signage kind of taking over the building and the fact that the signage had pulled away from the building. So what you see here is these kind of sight-line studies of lanes, of traffic, and from where people can see them. And then from that, she said, “Okay, let me do a kind of deep dive into Ruscha for billboards on these sites or in and around these sites by a half a kilometer”. And so she curated a StyleGAN model based on billboards that produced the images that we saw earlier. And then she did kind of a depth map analysis of these images. So she read those images from the StyleGAN as if they had depth, based on some rules that we put in, and then projected that three-dimensional depth back onto the site of these billboards. So it’s not yet topiary. It could be, but it’s something like a kind of digital vestige or digital kind of shroud or a kind of palimpsest of the billboard space projected back over these buildings. And ultimately, she did a project that was less vegetal and more billboard-surface-like.

ER: This is the first one that I’d seen that embeds different kinds of spatialities into each other in this exciting way. I’m thinking a little bit of some things that Lebbeus Woods might make in terms of these kind of openings and kind of buildings that kind of wrap themselves into the interstices of other buildings.

Image: Lebbeus Woods, Berlin Free Zone

CW: We encouraged many of the students to do this kind of depth mapping work. In some cases, it really produced great results, like for Guanyi. For others, it was a total dead end. It had to do a lot with whether you were on the north side of the street or the south side of the street. Or if you were on an angled part of Sunset Boulevard as opposed to a east-west piece of the street. The tension that we were interested in was the visibility of the billboard, shifting from the automobile to the pedestrian, and secondly, how can we derive shade from these structures? So the observation she made was that the billboards are really about the private consumption in the public realm, and they don’t really produce shade, even though they’ve taken up quite a lot of real estate. They’ve emancipated themselves from the buildings, clearly. That’s interesting. Ultimately, her project became a kind of public propaganda, sort of shifting away from commerce and toward more public, free speech, and kind of social media broadcast, and the audience was more and more pedestrian as opposed to automobiles. And the forms ended up being derived from that sort of depth map process.

Xiaoji Zhou

ER: This one took my breath away, by Xiaoji Zhou.

Photo: Xiaoji Zhou

CW: Xiaoji, in the end, is one of the projects where the initial curation of the animation was maybe less clear because it’s kind of moving through all these different kinds of spaces. But when she pulled out a number of storyboarded spaces, she could describe each one in great detail, kind of the quality of atmosphere, the quality of light, these floating elements. And what Xiaoji did that — it was interesting when she found built precedents in the world for all of those, the Diller Scofidio Blur Building or the floating kind of canopy of a certain artist, right? So basically, she was able to identify in each of these images a certain spatial material, atmospheric quality, and then point to a precedent in the world that seemed like, “Oh, that seems reasonable, right? People have done that before,” right? And then from that, she did a really remarkable project, again, public realm, looking at shade. It was more of a kind of streetscape project and looking at bus stops, in particular, and how people might be protected from the elements.

Blur Building, Diller Scofidio + Renfro

ER: As I’m looking at these, I’m wanting to download them and open them and preview and then just have my own little gallery of them. They’re beautiful!

Photo: Xiaoji Zhou

In closing

CW: We’re just now collecting some of the greatest hits, so you can also see some of the design projects. What I said to the group was, “In some ways, it’s a kind of setup. There’s no way that the design projects that you make, that you build out are going to be anywhere near this kind of pulsing, flickering light for 90 seconds. It’s a setup, basically.” But in some cases, I think it was really productive to get people out of their head, to feel licensed to imagine things they would not have otherwise imagined. And because of the nature of the work, morale was super high in a way that during COVID, it hasn’t always been that way. Students get exhausted, and there are so many challenges. But I was really pleased because the students really maintained the kind of morale because the work seemed fresh to them. I think it was new stuff and also because I approached it like this: “I don’t know this. I don’t really know what this stuff is. We’ve never done it before.” And once you say that to a group of students, I think they found that interesting.

ER: At Stamen, we say joy is a driver. It’s a driver of productivity. It’s a driver of creativity. It’s important to not just always be slogging. Kim Stanley Robinson, in his latest book The Ministry for the Future writes “Whether life means anything or not, joy is real.” I believe that.

CW: That’s really beautiful, not only that you’ve understood that, but you’ve been able to share that as a culture. Because it’s not always the case, as you know, in design schools, that that’s the ethos, right? I always found it to be true. Especially back in the day when you and I were in school. I just think it doesn’t produce creativity. It doesn’t build the trust that you need with people to go out and produce something we haven’t seen before.


There’s a great article about 12 Sunsets at the Washington Post. You can view the site live at, and read our blog post about the work on our blog. If any of this is interest, please get in touch!

Published: 05.11.21
Updated: 09.20.22

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.