The natural sciences are concerned with how things are . . .
Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.
—Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969.

Traditionally defined as a thematic proposition offered for discussion and debate, the thesis is developed through a piece of original research specific to an academic discipline at the culmination of a program of academic study. Theses are produced in various methods and media appropriate to the disciplinary commitments of academic fields across campus. Theses in design are pursued through the methods and media specific to the design disciplines, through design research.

Design research most often refers to the process and products of knowledge produced about and through design, as distinct from knowledge produced by research methods associated with the humanities or the sciences. It can be characterized by its methods and media, as well as by its sites and subjects for work, as well as the dissemination and reception of its propositions.

Most often propositional, rather than simply empirical or descriptive, design research is predicated on a projective condition concerned more with interventions in the world than with describing the world as found. In this respect, design research is characterized by its unique capacity to propose alternative and better futures while also producing disciplinary knowledge in its own right. Thesis projects pursued through design research exhibit a dual valance, at once standing as a form of disciplinary knowledge about the world and as propositions for potential intervention in the world.

Candidates in the MLA program elect to pursue independent design theses at the culmination of their graduate work. The projects presented here represent original thematic propositions put forward through design research to stimulate discussion and debate. In this sense, they are as much about discourse and disciplinary formation in design as they are propositions for how things ought to be.

Charles Waldheim
Thesis Director Department of Landscape Architecture

Brittany Giunchigliani


To Cast a Line in the San Jacinto River

Advised by Emily Wettstein

This thesis addresses agency of the body, of space, and of marginalized lifeways for subsistence fishers near Houston, Texas. It does so through a feminist approach that centers processes of change, instability, and emergence as mechanisms to leverage the fisher community’s embodiment of the landscape through the design of a near-future fishing spot along the San Jacinto River. This project is designed through hurricanes; understood not only as a moment of instability, but as a moment of intensity that generates a closeness to water and a thickness of land at the site of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits. Storm surges from seasonal hurricanes play a role in activating change as debris accumulates and deepens the relationship between fisher people, their body, and the fish that they lure.

Line drawing of various people demonstrating varied fishing techniques.

Caption: Black and white collage with image of a wooden fishing pier above a river. In the foreground, overlayed images in color of hands, fish, and feet are collaged on top. Behind that is a light collage of people and their fishing tools in black and white. At the end of the pier, two people are preparing a fishing rod with buckets and fishing tools sitting next to them. The whole image is ephemeral and dark. At the top right of the image, it reads “to cast a line in the san jacinto river”.

Caption: Black and white image of an underwater scene. Framed within the image is the underside of a wooden pier with its pilings, a crab sitting within sea grasses, and watery bubbles collaged on top of the scene. Light annotation details the different moments on the page, including the dimensions of the pilings, the species of grass and crab, and the type of tools needed to go crabbing. On the right side of the image the annotation shows the tidal range and caption of the image that reads, “southern pier”.

Caption: Black and white image of an underwater scene. The water line sits at the top 1/3 of the image and you can see the white stormy clouds above the water. A fishing lure sits at the top of the water with red drum fish swimming below, amongst the sea grass. A blurred fishing pier is in the background where you can see the faint outline of people fishing from it. Light annotation in white font is detailing different moments of the scene: the species of fish, where the materials from the pier came from (ie. what hurricane storm), and the transition zone of the river. On the right side of the image the annotation shows the tidal range and caption of the image that reads, “long pier”.

Caption: Black and white image shows a person crabbing with a net in shallow water. In the middleground of the image, you see John Fuller, a resident of the area who has crabbed here for years. They are wearing white shorts and a black polo shirt and are holding a simple net to catch crabs. In the background of the image, you see white fluffy clouds and a fishing pier. The shoreline is full of emergent vegetation. Light annotation in white font is detailing different moments in the image: The type of seagrass underwater, the plant species on shore, and the materials that the pier is made out of. On the right side of the image the annotation shows the tidal range and caption of the image that reads, “southern pier”.

Caption: Black and white image shows a pier that has been damaged in a storm. The water around it appears to be stormy, dark and the waves are crashing at the wooden pilings. In the distance you see a curved line of wooden pilings that have captured debris from a storm. In the foreground, you see a damaged wooden pier and it’s pilings. Light annotation in white font is detailing different moments in the image: The storm that damaged the pier, and where the debris and materials came from (town and storm). On the right side of the image the annotation shows the tidal range and caption of the image that reads, “western pier”.

Alana Sahar Godner-Abravanel


Playing with Fire: Three Stories of Burning the Forest

Advised by Emily Wettstein

This thesis follows the language of fire between three characters and a forest in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. In this region, the “good fire” of prescribed burning is deployed within a nonhuman ecological silo, failing to embrace fire’s histories and potentials as an agent of social and political transformation. This project invites that challenge, suggesting forms of communal burning that wield fire as a catalyst of dialogue between each other, the stories we bring, and the forests we inhabit. 

The site is at once a US Forest Service experimental forest, home of the town of Challenge, and ancestral homeland of the Nisenan people. Each story elicits a future of fire—as participation in the burn, cultivation of non-extractive forest-relationships, and leverage for land access—with moments that welcome us into the frictions of burning together, in pursuit of fire as a collective force of human nature.

Line drawings over a contour map background with a marked fire iine. Images include hands with a drip torch, plucking a mushroom, and holding a notepad labeled BURN PLAN, a twig with emergent leaves and buds and a bee, tree branches and roots, and three people near a large mound of cut and split wood.

Ayami Akagawa


Surviving Survival: Landscape Futures for Climate Catastrophe

Advised by Pablo Pérez-Ramos

This thesis advocates for landscape architecture to mitigate risk and plan for adaptation to catastrophic climate events. It develops an adaptive response and critique of Tacloban, the Philippines, as it responded to Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. As government authorities displaced populations from places of risk, the relocation burden heavily fell on informal coastal settlers. The process of relocating inland reinforced injustice by stripping them of their identity and livelihood. This design thesis proposes landscape interventions to enable a more culturally relevant and ecologically informed path toward adaptation. The project explores landscape approaches to embed income-generating agriculture and fishing activities in green infrastructure systems that alleviate calamity. The design of social spaces within productive communal landscapes strengthens the community’s identity despite the chaotic resettlement histories. Furthermore, the proposed flexible spatial usage of the existing engineered solutions honors the local population’s agency. 

Image in the shape of a roofed structure, with adults sitting and children playing atop a pile of construction rubble highlighted by an overlay of white tree and root outlines.

Gracie Villa


City | Forest: Reordering Plant-Human Relationships Toward Healthy Cities

Advised by Gary Hilderbrand

Based in the belief that the quality of the urban landscape directly reflects the quality of its soil, I propose to utilize processes of beneficial disturbance to reorder the vegetative and soil regimes in the city’s public realm. The outcome is a regenerative living infrastructure identified as the City Forest; a collection of trees, associated undergrowth, and soil where people live, work, and play. This topology offers an alternative to the objectified street trees that make up most of America’s urban vegetation and curates an intensive dialogue between people and forest, or city and forest, not possible under current spatial practices. 

In this case study, the City Forest redefines major corridors in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as an efficacious place to begin intensifying the forest. Cambridge is a leader in urban forestry but has yet to boldly confront the socioeconomic practices inhibiting a healthy future. By rejecting the hierarchies and land use patterns inherent to our car-centric landscapes, the City Forest emphasizes solidarity with nonhuman nature and advocates against destructive forms of economic practice and ontological distinction, asserting that the natural capital that accumulates in the forest reciprocates directly with healthy lived experience in the city.

In an urban street scene a worker walks over frozen slush and past buildings. Brightly colored vertical overlay panels of leaves and trees and light line the sides the worker’s path.

Kanchan Wali-Richardson


I Want to Live Together: I Want to Hear You Even as Extinction Tears You Away

Advised by Malkit Shoshan

This project is my attempt to grapple with how to live in a time of increasing extinction and loss. How should we go on? Knowing everything we know about how implicated we are in the unraveling of lives? 

The project envisions a social infrastructure to catalyze both spatial and intrapersonal change, grounded where I live, in a peri-urban neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Garapito Creek Community School is an experimental design-build lab, galvanizing community members as agents of change through radical multispecies politics and interventions that address the needs of the entire community, human and nonhuman. It is the center of gravity for existential reckoning. 

The project, and thus the politics of the school, insist that a design practice in the face of these existential threats must be personal, must be embodied, must honor grief, and must come into being through the rebuilding of deep relationships with others. These others are the plants, animals, people, and fungi who we must hear if we are going to live, together. 

An illustration at evening in open land, of about a dozen varied people gathered around a stepped pit, some seated on illuminated steps as benches. WIldlife lingers on the periphery.

Sophia Sufeng Xiao


Blurred Lines: From Fragmentation to the Common on Urban Coastal Edges

Advised by Craig Douglas

This thesis investigates how ecological and social agents can facilitate the blurring of urban edges, reverse the historical progress of urban fragmentation, and enrich culture and publicness in the Bronx, New York City. From the 1930s to 1960s, directed by Robert Moses, the government transformed streets into expressways, parcels into superblocks, and urban voids into single-function open spaces, shaping excessive amounts of edges and lines. The fragmentation enforced social divisions. It displaced the preexisting communities, segregated racial groups, and caused social vulnerabilities.

This project regards climate change and projected sea level rise as an opportunity to initiate the agenda of urban progress by blurring lines to reverse fragmentation. The ecology acts as a means to activate the blurring, mediating the edges with water and land. It encapsulates the social interventions that engage with multiple social groups to generate diverse eco-hydro-social conditions, gradually transforming the fragmented spaces into a common landscape.

Street map with topographic overlays and illustrations of trees and people. Labels include: hip hop art, community structures, maintenance, cultural events, marsh habitats, ecological magnetic education.

Black-and-white photo collage of residential city buildings and people in various activities, with an image of Yankee Stadium in the middle under the handwritten words, “Keepin’ It Bronx.”

Diagram showing map of The Bronx, NY, overlaid with a timeline of development history from 1870 - present.

Aerial map of The Bronx, NY showing locations of specific historical events.

Black-and-white photo collage and flow chart of historical events and challenges in The Bronx, NY.

Dominic Riolo


Landscape Intaglios: Revealing the Sacred Mountain

Advised by Paola Sturla

“Why . . . do we fail to see the potential of revealing the sacred mountain as a necessary civilizing and urbane symbol?”

—William Rees Moorish, 1989

This thesis examines the role of the sacred mountain as a discursive element within landscape architecture. This thesis defines sacred as that which marries earth, water, human, and sky. In so doing, it asks: How can a work of landscape architecture reveal the sacred mountain as such? The project proposes the creation of a new national park, Intaglios National Park, containing a series of sited interventions on New Mexico’s San Antonio Mountain. This series of sited interventions, or intaglios, represents, reveals, and rehearses the claims of the sacred mountain as cultural formation uniquely suited to revelation through landscape architecture.

Black-and-white illustration of a white rays emanating from a dark circle or sun and a faceted mountain range crossing the horizon.

Sam Valentine


Design in the Convívio: Making Space for Landscape in Self-Built Communities

Advised by Dan D’Oca

This thesis examines the roles in which a landscape architect can operate respectfully within dense, self-constructed communities. Piloting a design process within the context of the convívio—a socially rich but spatially constricted network of communal open space—demands a focus on the varied lived experiences of urban residents and a responsiveness to their stated needs. In collaboration with the community members of Chapada do Rio Vermelho in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, the work comprises remote interviews, auto-photography, and design conversations oriented around three feasible, site-specific landscape interventions. The thesis finds space for the landscape architect and design student to offer their skills as a listener, designer, facilitator, and advocate.

A comic book cover of people on a side walk with different color radiating concentric lines.
The thesis, Design in the Convívio, is presented through the frame of a comic book: universally recognizable, sequential, and legible to the every-person.

a comic book spread.  The left page shows a black board with equations  and a pile of Poloroid photos. The  right page shows a street scene with word bubbles.
Residents sent dozens of photographs, capturing and then reflecting on their images of daily life in a self-constructed community.

A comic book panel of three smart-phones displaying an application. Word bubbles coming from the phones.
Three feasible, site-specific landscape interventions respond to the values and concerns held by the community.

A  comic book spread. The left page  showing four exclamation word bubbles. The right page showing a street diagram and a key of the objects in the diagram.
The final pages of the comic book are “tear outs,” written in Brazilian Portuguese and designed to allow residents a pathway to self-implementation.

A comic book spread showing  street diagrams and keys and describing the objects in the diagrams.
The three designs — a secure sidewalk plaza, a stairway reconfigured for communal space, and a shady grove for outdoor exercise – envision modest public-realm improvements to address the community’s stated desires.

Echo Chen


Extending Material Preservation: A Bridge Festival in a Rural Chinese Valley

Advised by Alex Wall

This project explores the preservation of the covered bridge as heritage in a rural valley of southeastern China. It proposes a form of resiliency for the local community against capitalist development. Covered bridges are a form of cultural heritage that embodies broad social and religious significance. The material conservation of the bridges is challenged by intensifying summer floods, together with the aging, depopulation, and poverty of the rural population.

This design prioritizes the process of culture preservation over material conservation. The preservation of local knowledge and culture practices are the keys to cultivate a continuous and sustainable relationship between village development and bridge preservation. Set in the context after a prospective flood, the design involves the bridge reconstruction process in a two-year bridge festival that encapsulates the meaning of intangible vernacular heritages through a combination of local rituals, food cultures, geomantic knowledge, traditional forestry, and the native hydrology system.

Orthographic drawing of a covered bridge showing framework and facade outlines and stairways on each side and small structures with traditional Chinese roofs on the span, and including a large decorated sign labeled ”Wish Will Note”  Line drawings of figures show  intended use.