Open for debate: teaching Thunderdome style

In post-apocalyptic films featuring the fight-to-the-finish Thunderdome, an audience chants the arena’s guiding principle, “Two men enter, one man leaves.” In many ways, the ongoing “Thunderdome Debates” initiated last fall at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED) borrow from the movies, but there’s no steel cage. And if anyone is left behind, it’s only figuratively.

The Thunderdome Debates stake out their own special purposes and rules. There’s no blood, just verbal sparring by two leading minds in landscape architecture and environmental planning – one man and one woman who face off in Wurster Hall in front of an audience comprised mostly of well-mannered students looking for more than the typical and too-often-sleepy expert presentations.

“My ‘take-over-the-world’ goal is to re-position Berkeley at the center of debates in this field, since there’s broad interest in the big topics we’ll discuss,” quipped Kristina Hill, an associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning and Thunderdome Debates mastermind.

Thrashing it out

Kristina Hill

Kristina Hill

Moderator Kristina Hill to Julie Bargmann:

What pisses you off about starting with form instead of process?

Bargmann: That’s actually why I left sculpture. …I was making objects, and gravitated more and more towards making installations… it is just that kind of, you know, object-making. Objectification. That’s the thing that burns my ass…

Kristina Hill to Walter Hood:

Are there aspects of all this process stuff that piss you off?

Hood: This is what I hate: ‘I feel,’ or ‘It feels’ – the idea that you’re so much in tune [with a site] that it’s very subjective… you can’t argue with it. … It’s completely autonomous, so personal. Particularly on the West Coast, you find that a lot. People come up to you and start to tell you how they feel on a site, and you can’t reconcile it. It’s a very personal thing…So… that gets me.

She launched the debates in part to highlight this year’s 100th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning (LEAP). Sensing a real need for spirited debates and a positive response from the first events, she is making it an ongoing series.

No more talking heads

“In general, academic departments run talking heads lecture series where a guest comes in and does an hour lecture, there’s a brief Q&A, and that’s it,” Hill said while explaining the reasons for the debate format. “That’s standard all over the country. Debate events are the exception rather than the norm.”

Thunderdome Debates participants defend their positions on important, often thorny, issues in the field and subjects that long have been associated with Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning.

Participants have debated topics including the relationship between design form and process, the value of professional expertise versus community or public opinion, and the essential skills landscape architecture and environmental planners must have today. Coming debates will evaluate the value of hand drawing compared to illustrating with the aid of a computer, and the most essential components of a modern landscape.


Professor Thaisa Way

Professor Thaisa Way

Thaisa Way, a landscape historian and associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, participated in a Thunderdome Debate last semester in a “generational face-off” against LAEP “master” and UC Berkeley emeritus professor Randy Hester, a leader in participatory design and author of “Design for Ecological Democracy.” Such pairings, Thaisa Way said, offer invaluable examples of the importance of defending ideas, with the gloves off.

Randy Hester

Randy Hester

“In the 21st century, the challenges posed by climate change, urbanization and human and environmental health are all too large and too important to be politely discussed,” said Way. “We must debate and debate hard and loudly, take a stance and argue, while listening and critically thinking.”

Walter Hood

Walter Hood

The academic heavyweights hitting the mat in the first round of the Thunderdome Debates included UC Berkeley’s own Walter Hood, who specializes in urban and public spaces, and internationally recognized Julie Bargmann of the University of Virginia, nicknamed the “queen of brownfield mediation” for her innovative work reclaiming industrial wastelands, such as abandoned coal mines and urban rail yards.

Jule Bargmann

Jule Bargmann

Student perspective

Daniel Prostak, who expects to receive his master’s degree in landscape architecture from UC Berkeley later this year, recalled the Hood-Bargmann face-off as “an apt pairing of two respected designers…perhaps the most robust personalities in the field.”

He said he appreciated their candid interactions and sharing of personal narratives that helped illuminate how they have arrived at their viewpoints, although the debate was less confrontational than some expected.

“While most of the audience probably came to see blood, at times Hood and Bargmann seemed to share the deepest sentiments, more so than not,” Prostak said. “Maybe by starting at the polar opposite ends, it streamlined the path toward common ground. All-in-all, the small venue, crowd participation and earnest tones made a memorable and provoking discussion…”

A “layer of difference”

“The Thunderdome Debates are not as raucous as I would want and as we need, speakers and audience members remain too polite and too uncomfortable with serious intellectual debate,” she acknowledges. “But they are essential as a ground from which we can frame a stance, build arguments and engage in responding to the grand challenges of the century.”

Accenting the exchange, Hill said, is the male-female pairing that “adds a layer of difference in style and emphasis to the differences they may have in intellectual positions…and it provides role models to students of both genders equally. It’s interesting because the majority of (LAEP) students are women, even though the leaders of firms and most of their principals are men, and most faculty are men. Change is coming to the field, whether it wants it or not.”

Hill added that she hopes the debates spur more creative thinking about significant issues in landscape architecture and environmental planning, and solidify the College of Environmental Design’s ongoing role in the UC Berkeley tradition of “public, thoughtful and passionate debate.”Thunderdome-Upcoming.-410

Coming attractions

The debates resume at noon next Tuesday (Feb. 4) with Catherine Dee of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, an advocate of emerging drawing tools and practices, taking on UC Berkeley’s Charles “Chip” Sullivan, who said the integration of drawing in the design studio enhances problem-solving and helps students uncover the magic of design. The two will examine whether hand-drawing in design is dead, debate whether drawing is genuinely being used to pursue intellectual goals, and explore the differences in American and European approaches to teaching drawing to aspiring landscape architects.

Video clips as well as written transcripts of previous Thunderdome Debates are online, where the discussion actually continues with more comment.  Click here for video and written transcripts of each debate. Look for the “Blow by Blow” section, or weigh in yourself at “The Debate Rages On.”

The Thunderdome Debates schedule is available online.


  • Read an excerpt from an essay about women in landscape architecture taken from “Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice,” edited by UC Berkeley’s Louise Mozingo and Linda Jewell.