who we are

Office of Living Things is a landscape research and design collective that uses the tools of landscape architecture to cultivate a culture of attention to the agencies, propensities, and complexities of living things. Through a methodology that intentionally muddies our own collective practices with the assemblages we find in our projects, we translate, draw, re-tell and re-invent stories at the intersections of nature and culture. Our research, fieldwork, and design emphasize direct engagement with site and community through a practice of radical listening--being outside, flexible, mobile, and open.

Works, Sharing, Teaching

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North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Virginia

In the summer of 2017, mobilized by the Standing Rock movement of the previous winter, we conducted fieldwork along the length of the pipeline in an effort to document a landscape that embodies a complex intersection of political, social, and material conditions. Our research, and the drawings that came from them, revealed the pipeline as an active agent of change—continually altering the social and material landscape of the communities it crosses. They also left us with a question: how can the tools of landscape architecture be mobilized to resist a colonial relationship with land and peoples? The work was exhibited Feb 2018 in Charlottesville, VA.

We went to look for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and we found it in casual conversations at diners, prayer meetings, laundromats, and coffee shops in the experiences of the people whose lives it shaped. Provoking, listening to and documenting these encounters became something like a research methodology. Since many of these stories were told to us at the table (diner table, picnictable, office desk), we decided to put everyone we met at ‘the table’ in conversation, drawing and visualizing what they told us, as a tool for our learning and a method of documentation. Referencing Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘situated knowledge’, the drawing connects each story to its context, while placing it among the other (sometimes conflicting) information on the same drawing.

Another research tool that emerged from this project was the creation of synthetic drawings that combine strategies and drawing types to represent intersecting histories and overlapping timescales. Each of these three drawings represents one of the sites of extraction and erasure along the pipeline that we studied: Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Iowa farmland, and North Dakota Oilfields. The drawings emerged from the encounters we had along the way, each reflecting the social, cultral and material context in which they were produced.

This map traces the pipeline, its watershed, and its political boundaries through the middle of America, with our route criss-crossing it along its path. 

Our primary research tool was a 2001 Astrovan, outfitted with necessary essentials for life and work. We had a shelving system that converted to a table that the five of us used for creating the drawings. The mobile studio and methodology of living outside exposed us to the environmental conditions of each place, noticing and living in the wind and weather, sounds, and smells that make up a place.

Over the course of our trip, we made over 1,000  sketches documenting the details of what we saw, heard, and discussed. 

This project initiated a series of research threads around  extraction, agriculture and the politics of landscape that continue today. It also catalyzed a research methodology that is collective, open-ended and rigorous.

OLT Team: Batul Abbas, Claire Casstevens, Luke Harris, Cara Turett, Bonnie Kate Walker

The research was generously supported by the Benjamin C. Howland Traveling Fellowship from the University of Virginia School of Architecture.