Process of Decoding Rome: Interview with Landscape Architect Ross Altheimer

Still_RossAltheimerVideo field recording of the American Academy in Rome by Ross Altheimer. Courtesy of the artist.

“Trust your instincts. Practice. Question later, make first. Collaborate, invite your friends, make new friends and collaborate with them. Invent processes. Get distance. Be fearless.”

Ross Altheimer is an award-winning designer who combines his professional experience in architecture and landscape architecture to construct transformative places. MD talks to him about how he decodes a landscape using field recording and drawing.

What do you love about landscape architecture?

I love that the practice of landscape architecture, at its most basic, is the thing that connects people to each other and to the land. The land being the medium. There are a complex set of forces at play–social, cultural, ecological, geologic, geographic, meteorologic, etc…  Since these are primarily open ended systems, and sometimes hard to fully know, it requires a level of abstraction in order to work within the medium.  I try to put these forces into the frame of time, space, movement and narrative to make them knowable and is what excites me about the medium..

How do you familiarize yourself with a landscape and document it?

I do a lot of research in the form of cultural, historical and ecological threads to see what kinds of narratives might emerge.  I also do a lot of mapping, map collection, synthesis of maps and creation of new maps. I also engage in a series of exercises around site documentation including drawing, sound recordings, film and inhabiting the space. The best way to document an environment is to visit a place in all times of day, all seasons, with different events happening at varied durations to know and understand and become intimate with the place. In terms of medium for documenting I think it requires testing of different recording methods, but certainly sound, film and mapping are excellent ways to begin to understand the simultaneity of environment and phenomena.

HeadphonesSound recording of Mount Testaccio in Rome by Ross Altheimer. Courtesy of the artist.

What activities and exercises are you currently doing to gather information about your environment?

I have been spending some of my time here digging into broader research on the city than I typically do.  I haven’t done any traditional mapping. I have been experimenting with other ways of mapping and drawing. I have spent more time here engaging the city directly and cataloging phenomena through a number of different kinds of activities that I am calling field recordings. They are divided into a number of different media types including sound recordings, film of existing phenomena, rapid movement drawings, in field concept sketching, in situ recording models and memory drawings. Each of these are decoding a set of phenomena or layers of the city or series of situations. There is something about repetition and the shifting locations of these exercises that begin to form a kind of map themselves.

0Memory drawings by Ross Altheimer. Courtesy of artist.

From our studio visit I noticed your memory and rapid movement drawings. Can you walk us through the process of making them?

The memory drawings I have been making as a part of my running practice. I wanted to find a way to better connect what I was experiencing in the city into my studio practice.  I began drawing a set of images from memory following the completion of a run. The images I capture are the most potent visuals from that movement sequence. I have been doing these drawings with charcoal on rolls of receipt tape.

The rapid movement drawings I make while walking through space and translating these images on my ipad. I try to do these drawings in around 10 seconds and try to capture the essence of the moving image . I have a stylus that I use, a drawing application and I process all of these digitally.

Microsoft PowerPoint - shoptalk.pptxRapid movement drawing by Ross Altheimer. Courtesy of the artist.

How does movement relate to landscape architecture?

First of all landscape architecture addresses both constructed and natural systems, and these systems are constantly in flux, in motion in some way, so thinking about these things in a dynamic way and as constantly moving is important. Movement is also at the core of how we understand landscapes as humans occupying space.  The notion of movement while travelling, driving, walking, running, bussing, subwaying, biking, and segwaying. It is also the basis for me personally discovering landscape as a child.

What roles do time, space and memory play in landscape architecture?

Wow, all of my favorite things. The understanding of landscape, and the experience of landscape are constantly driven by these things…. In some ways these are forces that shape our physical environment and our connection to natural systems. These are really at the core of my research thus far in Rome and I am currently in the midst of trying to embed processes around these more deeply into my practice. We could easily take each one of these and isolate a set of relationships that emerge out of each of these but I would say I am trying to deal with the simultaneity of these things.

After you have collected all the information about a landscape, what do you do with it? Is storytelling involved?

I always find a way of synthesizing the information through maps, drawings and constructing a set of narratives that can give structure to the process so storytelling is definitely at the root of it. In constructing the stories I try to find the most compelling threads from the information and start putting a set of things that may seem like they don’t belong into a set of relationships.  I love these juxtapositions and conflicts, they are the things that drive the work.  These are the kinds of relationships that I explore in my hypothetical infrastructure projects.

What are hypothetical infrastructures?

Hypothetical infrastructures are a set of unbuilt projects that I have been working on for the last 10 years to test ideas about movement, ecology, systems and narrative. I use these projects to explore emerging cultural, ecological and infrastructural opportunities in our cities, rural lands and regions.  They are a set of ideas that re-imagine what might be possible if we began to think more broadly about how landscape is conceived and how it can inform the future of cities and rural lands.

Microsoft PowerPoint - shoptalk.pptxHypothetical Infrastructure of New Ground, a ritual landscape for the Dakota community in remembrance of the U.S. Dakota War by Ross Altheimer. Courtesy of artist.

Do you have a hypothetical infrastructure for all the information you have gathered thus far in Rome?

Yes, I have a set of five hypothetical infrastructures here that I will be working on for the next four months. Dishabitato Garden. Mussolini’s leftovers. Boating in the Pantheon. The grotto at Malagrotta. Tiber’s Islands.

Do you have any advice to our readers about the creative process?

Trust your instincts. Practice. Question later, make first. Collaborate, invite your friends, make new friends and collaborate with them. Invent processes. Get distance. Be fearless.

For more information about Ross, his work and process visit and his recent feature

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One thought on “Process of Decoding Rome: Interview with Landscape Architect Ross Altheimer

  1. […] AAR fellow landscape architect Ross Altheimer uses every inch ceiling to floor to show visitors his process. Everybody loves to know how an artist thinks. Learn more about how he integrates memory, drawing and recording into his work. […]

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