California Department of Transportation
 

Module 2: Visual Character
Lesson 9: Visual Character

Slide 82

Welcome to Module 2 Part B

Welcome to Part B of Module 2 of the Visual Impact Assessment course produced by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) with support from the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) for the training of selected employees of Caltrans. It is now available on-line to anyone interested in how Caltrans conducts visual impact assessments.

The presentation you are about to view is the conclusion of the second module of a three-module on-line training course. Module 1 and Part A of Module 2 precede this presentation.  If you have advertently started with this module, you may wish to review these two presentations before beginning Part B of Module 2.

In Part A of Module 2, you learned how to dissect the structure of the landscape into “outdoor rooms” or visual assessment units.  Now you are about to learn how to decipher the visual character of those rooms and who are the viewers most likely to visit them.

 

Slide 83

Lesson 9 Visual Character

First let’s look at what the FHWA calls Visual Character as Lesson 9.

 

Slide 84

Visual Character

We are going to divide the lesson on visual character into four topics.  First we will examine the FHWA’s basic definition of visual character—that it is composed of pattern elements and pattern character.  We will then examine pattern elements—these are the artistic attributes inherent in the elements that compose a landscape.  We will also explore the term pattern character, these describe the artistic relationships between the elements that compose a landscape.  Finally we will practice our understanding of these terms, pattern elements and pattern character, by working together on an exercise that explores the concept of visual character.

But before we do, a few comments about the repetitive use of the same words to label different attributes of the landscape—it’s confusing!   At least many people who took this course in a classroom thought it was.  Keeping track of differences between pattern character and landscape character or between pattern elements from pattern character is confusing.  We all wish the FHWA VIA process differentiated between words better but unfortunately it does not.  Therefore, the best way to avoid confusion is to completely understand the terms and to use them precisely—to use them exactly as the authors of the FHWA process intended to have them used.  If all of us writing VIAs for Caltrans use these terms in the same way, the confusion will start to disappear.  Hopefully, the following lesson will help you understand these terms and give you confidence in your ability to use these terms correctly.

 

Slide 85

Understanding Visual Character

Visual Character is composed of what the FHWA calls pattern elements and pattern character.  Visual Character is one tool an author of a VIA uses to describe the visual nature of visual assessment units.  Later in the process, visual character will be used to explain and qualify visual quality and visual impacts.

 

Slide 86

Understanding Visual Character

Visual character, as defined by the FHWA, is simply the combining of the pattern elements found in a landscape with that landscape’s pattern character.

Pattern Elements are artistic attributes intrinsic to the items that compose a scene. In the picture shown on this slide, it could be said, “In autumn, roadside aspen turn a vibrant yellow.”  Color is an example of an intrinsic artistic element or what the FHWA labels as a pattern element.  In this picture, yellow is a pattern element.

Pattern Character describes the artistic relationships with other items in the scene.  Again in the picture shown on this slide, it could be stated that “The vibrant yellow aspen along the roadside dominate the scene.”  Dominance is an example of an artistic relationship or what the FHWA calls pattern character.  That one element is dominant is this image’s pattern character.

Visual Character would simply put the two statements together:  “In autumn, the vibrant yellow aspen along the roadside dominate the other colors that compose this wilderness scene.”

 

Slide 87

Pattern Elements

Let’s take a closer look at pattern elements by giving some examples, refining the definition, and making adjustments to that definition depending on circumstances in the next few slides.

 

Slide 88

Pattern Elements

The FHWA guidance provides four examples of the types of intrinsic qualities that generate pattern elements that can be found in landscapes.  The four they identify are: form, line, color, and texture.  The list was not meant to be inclusive, exclusive, or otherwise limiting.  In fact the FHWA suggests that there may be other artistic attributes that the author of a VIA may want to include.  Not surprisingly, since these are the four that are listed, these are the four attributes that are usually discussed in a VIA.  But, again, other artistic attributes can be considered, such as lighting, shading or tone.

 

Slide 89

Pattern Elements

The term pattern element is applied to the artistic description of the individual elements of a composition.  It is a term from the field of Art Theory.  Pattern elements are considered objective attributes that are intrinsic to the element. They are best used as descriptive modifiers of visual quality, as we will see later.

 

Slide 90

Pattern Elements

Although pattern elements are intrinsic and therefore objective, their appearance varies by season or even time of day.  The author of a VIA needs to communicate these seasonal or daily changes when writing a VIA.  In the example previously shown for color, the aspen may be a non-descript and undifferentiating green for most of the growing season, only to turn a vibrant and eye- catching yellow in the fall when they not only can be differentiated from other aspects of the scene but they come to dominate the scene.  Describing only a typical summer scene in a VIA would miss this attribute of the corridor’s landscape character—and perhaps one of the reasons such routes are frequently traveled in the autumn of the year.

 

Slide 91

Pattern Character

Let’s now look at the term Pattern Character.  Again in subsequent slides we will show examples, refine the definition, and make adjustments to pattern character based on different environments or observers.

 

Slide 92

Pattern Character

The FHWA identifies four types of pattern character: dominance, diversity, scale, and continuity.  Of course there are other artistic relationships that contribute to visual character, such as the concept of balance.  The author of a VIA can determine what artistic relationships are important to discuss for the project under consideration and need not limit the discussion to the four identified by the FHWA as examples.

 

Slide 93

Pattern Character

Whatever terms the author uses, they should describe an artistic relationship between the elements that compose the landscape.  Pattern character, just like pattern elements, is most useful as a descriptive modifier of visual quality.

Like the term pattern elements, the term pattern character, is from art theory.  If you are particularly interested in understanding art theory in greater detail, a few books on the subject are listed in Resources for CEQA and Caltrans VIA Process under the heading, Selected Books on Aesthetics and Visual Impact Assessments.

 

Slide 94

Pattern Character

Like pattern elements, the relationships that form a landscape’s pattern character are not necessarily constant; their appearance varies by season or even time of day.  The author of a VIA needs to communicate these seasonal or daily changes when writing a VIA. 

Returning to the image of the aspen, dominance changes by season, only becoming dominant in the fall when it changes color and becomes differentiated from surrounding green mass.  But it may be this dominance of fall color that generates interest in the corridor from tourists.  It is essential for the author of a VIA to describe more than just a typical summer day.

 

Slide 95

Practicing Technical Skills

Let’s do a class exercise together to better comprehend these concepts and practice our technical skills.  We’ll walk through the class exercise.  Then we’ll draw some conclusions based on the exercise.  Then apply the conclusions to our team project.

 

Slide 96

Practicing Technical Skills

To do the exercise, click on Exercise 4 - Evaluating Visual Character and print out the two-page worksheet. 

 

Slide 97

Practicing Technical Skills

We are going to look at three images and describe their visual character using the concepts of pattern elements (that is, its intrinsic artistic attributes) and pattern character (that is, the artistic relationships between elements).

 

Slide 98

Practicing Technical Skills

First let’s look at the visual character of the existing scene in this “before” image.

Do you see any pattern elements—any intrinsic artist attributes?  What sorts of lines exist in this image?  What colors occur?  Forms?  Is there any texture?  This covers the four attributes identified by the FHWA.  Do you see anything else?  What about lighting, tones, shading?

Second let’s analyze the picture for its pattern character.  What do you see in terms of dominance, scale, diversity, and continuity?  Are there other attributes of pattern character, such as balance?

During the classroom discussions, people noticed the curved line that forms the road and the yellow and white lines that trace it.  Some people were very methodical and divided the image into a grid to measure what was dominant, usually concluding that green dominated the scene.  There were comments on texture.  On the sign.  What do you see?

Interestingly, there always seemed to be a few people in each class that would not like the location from which this picture was taken. They suggested that view shown is not a view a driver or passenger would likely see—it is taken from the wrong side of the road.   Others would counter that it might be the view a walker would have on the corridor.    But there aren’t any walkers, would come the retort.  Then again, there aren’t any drivers in this image either would be the response.

Perhaps you are asking similar questions. This is an issue of picking a key view.  This key view allows us to see around the bend.  In reality a driver traveling 45 miles-a-hour—the posted speed—would quickly see around the corner, also.  What is it you are trying to simulate in two-dimensions—the exact view, or the experience, of a driver?  To better capture the experience many simulations are not always what a driver actually is capable of seeing at any one time.  Picking a key view is tricky and the appropriate location is dependent upon what you are trying to analyze as an author. 

Many people prefer to pick a key view from the driver’s perspective believing that it is the most accurate way to depict a particular scene.  Perhaps.  But what you don’t see in a particular view may be as important as what is seen.  Remember what you pick to analyze must be representative of the corridor.  To help you develop your analysis, we suggest that you ask yourself if the image is representative and then document why you picked the location you did.

 

Slide 100

Practicing Technical Skills

Now do the same thing for the simulated image called Alternative A.

First describe its pattern elements (line, form, texture, color).  Then its pattern character (dominance, scale, diversity, continuity).  Are there other attributes of pattern elements and pattern character that contribute to the visual character of this proposed alternative?  Perhaps additional attributes you identified for the existing image?

In the classroom, people commented on how many more curving lines there were than in the image of the existing corridor—the retaining wall, the traffic barrier, the guardrail, even the more distinct pavement and pavement markings accentuated the curve of the road more than it had previously been shown.  Constructed objects now tended to dominate the scene more in this image than they did in the image of the existing scene.

One thing that many people questioned was the use of cars in the simulation.  They noted how the cars blocked much of what may be considered an intrusion by many—the guardrail.  They noticed that the cars were new—as new as the road—and these subtle changes may influence how people evaluate this alternative. 

These criticisms of the simulation are appropriate if the cars and the “newness” of the roadway are, in fact, unduly affecting judgments.  It is very important for the author of the VIA (and for the creator of the simulations) to try to avoid inadvertently prejudicing the analysis.

 

Slide 101

Practicing Technical Skills

Now do the same thing for the simulated image called Alternative B.

First describe its pattern elements (line, form, texture, color).  Then its pattern character (dominance, scale, diversity, continuity).  Are there other attributes of pattern elements and pattern character that contribute to the visual character of this proposed alternative?  Perhaps additional attributes you identified for the existing image?

Visually, most people seeing this image in the classroom would describe it as being more unified—the retaining wall and the traffic barrier were now constructed from the same stone-pattern formliner—the unity increased the dominance of built forms over the natural landscape was the conclusion of many viewers.  What do you think?  

 

Slide 102

Practicing Technical Skills

First let’s look at the visual character of the existing scene in this “before” image.

Do you see any pattern elements—any intrinsic artist attributes?  What sorts of lines exist in this image?  What colors occur?  Forms?  Is there any texture?  This covers the four attributes identified by the FHWA.  Do you see anything else?  What about lighting, tones, shading?

Follow the directions on this slide.  Using your notes from page 1 of this exercise, describe and rate the compatibility of the visual character of each alternative with the Visual Character of the existing scene.

Review the following set of comparative slides.  Record your answers on the second page of the worksheet.

 

Slide 103

Practicing Technical Skills

Review your notes on the first page of this exercise.  Based on the information you have listed, write a short narrative on the second page of the exercise discussing the compatibility (and incompatibility) of the Visual Character of Alternative A with the Visual Character the existing scene.  Then numerically rate their compatibility on a seven point scale (from - 3.5 to + 3.5).  Record your measurement on the bar graph on page 2.

The measurement is your own—there are no standard or absolute ratings to guide you.  The measurements are merely relative—they are simply used to compare alternatives.  Nonetheless, it is helpful to be consistent.  A preferred strategy for assigning a numerical rating is to avoid assigning the first set numbers at the extreme ends of the scale.  This gives you flexibility to judge the compatibility of the next set of images better as or worse than the first set without getting too involved with fractions. 

 

Slide 104

Practicing Technical Skills

Do the same thing for Alternative B.

Frequently, someone in the classroom suggested that additional aspects of the two solutions we are comparing should be weighed.  For example, we should consider the difficulty small creatures may have in crossing Alternative B versus Alternative A.  Knowing that the ability for animals to migrate can be crucial to particular species, some people argued that unity doesn’t matter, the health of animals and the viability of ecosystems are more critical. 

It is true that ecological issues may in some cases trump visual issues.  In other cases visual issues may coincide with ecological or social or even economic issues.  However, it is important for the landscape architect to stay focused only on visual issues in the VIA.  The environmental generalist will merge and weigh the influence of each issue in the environmental document.  It is the responsibility of the landscape architect to present visual issues with clarity and to verify that visual issues are presented correctly by the environmental generalist in the environmental document. 

 

Slide 105

Practicing Technical Skills

Answer the three questions on a blank sheet of paper.

Notice what you have accomplished in this exercise.  You have removed opinion from the discussion of visual character.  You didn’t say the visual character was great!  Instead you merely described the existing scene using artistic terms.  Then using the same terms, you described an alternative.  Next you compared the alternatives, essentially asking how far removed is the proposed landscape from the existing landscape?  And is one alternative more removed than another?

Very analytical.  Very objective.

The environmental document may or may not need all the detail but the conclusions become important—even if they are embedded in other discussions for both the VIA and the environmental document.   Usually the primary difference is one of the level to which detail is reported.  The environmental document, of course, has the advantage of being able to refer to the VIA, thus allowing for more brevity.

 

Slide 106

Practicing Technical Skills

Now let’s apply these ideas to your team project.  Click on Team Project (Part 3) - Visual Character and print out a worksheet for each alternative you are examining.

 

Slide 107

Practicing Technical Skills

Select a Key View on the alternative or alternatives you are studying.   These selected Key Views should be views from the road.  We will now apply what we just learned in the previous exercise to the Team Project.

 

Slide 108

Practicing Technical Skills

Follow the directions on the slide.  Be sure to label which alternative and which key view you are studying on the worksheet.

Use the map, narrative, and photographs to give you clues about the visual character of the existing scene at your chosen key view. Be sure to use only the concepts of pattern elements and pattern character to describe visual character. Report your conclusions on the worksheet as a short narrative.  

 

Slide 109

Practicing Technical Skills

On the second page of the worksheet, describe, as a short narrative, the compatibility (and incompatibility) of the Visual Character of your selected alternative(s) with the Visual Character of the existing route.

At the bottom of the second page of the worksheet, rate the compatibility or incompatibility of the Visual Character of your selected alternative(s) with the Visual Character of the existing route by giving it a number between -3.5 and +3.5.

 

Slide 110

Practicing Technical Skills

Please click on FHWA VIA Process – Concept Diagram Worksheet and print out this worksheet. 

Follow the directions on this slide. Fill in the upper left blue box on the worksheet with the rating you have for your selected alternative.

Remember this is a rating for only one visual assessment unit.

 

Slide 111

Visual Character Summary

This completes the presentation on visual character.  We will be using the concepts we have learned again in the next module (Module 3) when we discuss visual quality and visual impacts.  Now we are about to shift focus from visual resources (the blue boxes in the FHWA diagram) to viewers (the yellow boxes).   We will return to visual resources in Module 3.

NEXT

Module 2B, Lesson 10 - Viewers