User Needs and Experiences: Environmental Autobiography
“As I began to teach in the College of Environmental Design it occurred to me that students of landscape architecture and architecture might benefit from exploring their own earlier years to uncover those personal environmental experiences – positive and negative – that had shaped their values. With this in mind, I started to craft an assignment that became known as the environmental autobiography. The exploration began in the classroom. I asked the group to close their eyes and then took them on a guided meditation back to a favorite childhood place […] After about ten minutes I had students open their eyes and in silence, draw this place […] When all had pinned their drawings on the wall, volunteers described their favorite place to the whole class. After this initial drawing exercise […] I asked students to spend the next three weeks writing their environmental autobiography by[…] describing every environment up to the present that still had a “charge” for them […] Having completed this more subjective part of the paper, I asked students to look more objectively at what they had written and try to answer the following questions: […] In your studio work so far do you see any…patterns that have some connection to a past environment? Do you see any connection between your ideal environment and what you would like to design for others? […] In the early 1970s, I added another course, ‘Personal Values in Design,’[…] where the environmental autobiography became the sole focus of the class […] We met one weekend at China Beach in San Francisco where there was ample flotsam and jetsam. We exchanged journals and each ‘constructed a house’ for the ‘client’ whose journal we had read. What was extraordinary about this experience was that, despite all that we knew by this time about our own biases and values, most still ended up creating a house for their client imbued with their own—not the client’s—preferences. Over the years, I spoke about the environmental autobiography at conferences […] and found, surprisingly, that more or less the same assignment had been developed at the same time as a teaching tool by at least two other colleagues: Randy Hester at North Carolina State University, and Kenneth Helphand at the University of Oregon, unbeknownst to each other […] My own environmental experiences and how they have shaped my life are explored in my books House as a Mirror of Self, and in Iona Dreaming: The Healing Power of Place – A Memoir (Nicolas-Hays inc., 2010).”
Excerpt adapted from Clare Cooper Marcus, “Environmental Autobiography,” Room One Thousand, Issue Two. Full article available at: https://room-onethousand-u8b1.squarespace.com/environmental-autobiography/. Images courtesy of Clare Cooper Marcus and the College of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley, Clare Cooper Marcus collection.
Left: Sample projects from a seminar taught by Clare Cooper Marcus. This assignment was meant to prompt students to think about all of the feelings a place evoked by suggesting it would be destroyed. Here, students convey their ideas and feelings in visual form. Images courtesy of the College of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley, Clare Cooper Marcus collection.