Water in the Desert, Ceramics in the Landscape

Ceramics/Landscape Architecture interdisciplinary studio

In much of the US, the systems that transport and deliver water are hidden below our feet—part of an invisible infrastructure network. But, as 14 students in a cross-disciplinary Landscape Architecture/Ceramics studio discovered last fall, the earthen irrigation ditches—or acequias—that run aboveground in Albuquerque, NM and other parts of the American Southwest are sites of tremendous historical, cultural and political significance.

“Water can be quite contentious in the desert,” says Landscape Architecture Department Head Emily Vogler, who for the past five years has been researching the history of the acequias in Albuquerque—where she grew up—and the role they might play in the city’s future. The clay-soil ditches, which are more than 400 years old, have eroded significantly over time, and the municipal strategy to line them with concrete has further damaged both their effectiveness and aesthetic relationship to the desert landscape. For Vogler, who first noted the deterioration of the acequias while in high school, finding an alternative that supports and strengthens the hydrological, ecological and human use of the ditches is of paramount importance.

“Truly collaborative studios like this shift the way students think about making.”
Assistant Professor David Katz

With backing from RISD’s Academic Enrichment Fund, which supports interdisciplinary curriculum development, Vogler and Assistant Professor of Ceramics David Katz designed the Acequias studio to see how makers from their respective fields would work toward this goal together. “There’s an incredible opportunity for collaboration at RISD that’s unique,” says Katz, whose fine art practice reflects a deep interest in how people occupy and alter the landscape. “Truly collaborative studios like this,” he adds, “really shift the way students think about making.”

Making use of tools from both disciplines, students fabricated modules designed to stabilize the edges of the irrigation ditches and to reflect the aesthetic and cultural values of Albuquerque’s diverse population. They also traveled to New Mexico, where they conducted field research and met several people who work with and rely upon the acequias to sustain local agriculture and ways of life. Particularly eye-opening was a visit to Zuni Pueblo, where students also observed how pottery made on the reservation reflects the symbolic importance of water for the Zuni people.

For students, the travel component of the course was instrumental in shaping how they thought about the design problem of the acequias—an opportunity, says Austin Bamford MLA 18, to “imagine better futures through site analysis as well as craft.” Learning the essentials of ceramics fabrication has also helped him bridge diverse interests in design, construction and sculpture. “Designing an object for the landscape [in the abstract] is very different than actually making one for it,” Bamford says in describing the relationship between theory and practice.

Fellow grad students Mingjie Cai MLA 18 and Yifan Qiu MLA 18 agree, noting that working at multiple scales shaped their design thinking. “By going back and forth between the module and the urban scale,” Qiu says, “you can achieve a higher level of sophistication [in your design].” And for Cai, adopting a fine artist’s perspective on exploring and testing materials in the studio has dramatically impacted her approach to making.

“What we did this semester can really stretch how [landscape architects] think about the field.”
Associate Professor Emily Vogler

Overall Katz and Vogler were pleased with how students combined architectural and fine-arts approaches in their work. “Students worked amazingly hard,” says Vogler, “and I think what we did this semester can really stretch how [landscape architects] think about the field.” And for Katz, the collaboration illustrates another way that ceramists can interact with the world. “Through applied ceramics,” he says, makers discover “new doors to what’s possible and new paths to explore in their own work.”

Going forward, both professors hope Acequias can serve as a blueprint for similar interdisciplinary studios. By merging a landscape architect’s approach to site and a ceramist’s approach to material, Vogler says, “we discover the common questions [of our fields] and what we can gain by asking them together. To us that’s so exciting.”

Robert Albanese