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Exceed the Visual

Dede Fairchild Ruggles, Ph.D.

For landscape historian and professor D. Fairchild Ruggles, called Dede, landscapes represent a series of decisions. The streets, the trees, the paths, the city layout are all the “result of a cultural way of thinking about the environment.” Dede looks for the traces of these decisions in the Mediterranean, medieval, Islamic, and southeast Asian landscapes she studies and teaches about. What social, political, cultural, and environmental values are revealed in these traces? Historians exploring the 14th-century Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain found that French conquerors replaced tiles from the Islamic period with cultivated gardens. What do the cultivated gardens reveal about the conquerors’ values and how they were responding to the palace’s Islamic past?

According to Dede, it is crucial to understand the history of a landscape before designing anew. “If we design on top of something without understanding the underlying logic, it’s like we cut ourselves off from the past. If you don’t understand who you are, how can you possibly develop into something more than that?”

She is interested in how we interpret, preserve, and reinvent the past through cultural heritage landscapes. “We know that the past is never delivered directly to the present,” she says, “but comes through the filter of our ability excavate, perceive, interpret and imagine it.” In other words, our social values affect the way we steward and preserve heritage landscapes.

Dede helped to found the Cultural Heritage Studies Program at the University of Illinois and recently won a quarter of a million dollar grant from the Getty Foundation to study the heritage of Mediterranean cities over time. “We are trying to look at the history and the present in a dynamic way,” she says. The grant is a three-year collaboration with colleagues at the Cyprus Institute to study and create multiple workshops about heritage landscapes for young scholars around the world.

Dede also teaches an advanced course on visual theory and a course on the senses. Many people think that landscape design starts on paper, but she suggests that landscape design starts with the eyes. “You look at the environment and position yourself within it, and then you move on to other senses.” Consequently, “Our experience of landscape exceeds the visual.” How do people respond to the sounds, smells, and textures in an environment? For Dede, landscapes are performative. “The material contents of that space (trees, water, birds) are all in some sense performing their roles through time.”

I am D. Fairchild Ruggles. I go by the name Dede and I teach the History of Landscape, primarily Mediterranean, medieval, and Islamic landscapes but also the landscapes of South Asia.

I teach Cultural Heritage Landscapes.

I teach an advanced course on visual theory that I think is very important for designers because often we think that design is out there on the paper, but it actually starts with your eyes; as you look at the environment and position yourself within it.

Finally, I also teach a course on the senses. I’m very interested in the sensory perception of the environment and how landscape architects can better design environments that acknowledge the fact that our experience of landscape exceeds the visual.

The big project that I’m working on right now is funded by a quarter of a million dollar grant from the Getty Foundation. I work with a colleague in Cyprus with which the University of Illinois has a bridge relationship. One of the subfields of that supercomputing organization that we’ve set up is cultural heritage, which is how I came on board. I do work on heritage landscapes and heritage environments. With my colleague, we put together a grant that looks at the heritage of Mediterranean cities over time, treating them as a palimpsest.

We’re really trying to look at history and the present in a dynamic way. It will be a three-year project – multiple workshops aimed at younger scholars from around the world.

Given my field as a landscape historian, there is a large part of it that looks at the planning of cities, because that is actually important for designers. Just as designers are going to determine what it will look like tomorrow, a historian can explain why it looks the way it does today. To me, those are two very essential parts of what a landscape is.

The most important thing I think we learn when we started to study design is that there is a series of decisions – that tree, that street, that wall, that grid system.

I come from the northeast. Those winding streets are old cow paths that get turned into avenues and roads. All of that is actually the result of a cultural way of thinking about the environment.

If we design on top of that without understanding the underlying logic, it’s like we’re cutting off the past. It’s like we’re failing to understand who we are. And if you don’t understand who you are, how can you possibly develop yourself into something more than that?

I always say the landscape is very performative. It’s not entirely about the static object. It’s performative in that it’s a series of actions that we do. It’s a series of lived experiences in that space. Even the material contents of that space (e.g. trees, water, birds) are all in some sense performing through time. They’re roles in that garden or landscape.