Separating Program from Design

Should programming and design be two separate disciplines carved out by separate professionals? Are there certain benefits or disadvantages to this approach?

A number of people involved with Houston’s Discovery Green shared their thoughts with Landscape Architecture magazine.

Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces (PPS): “You need a lot of skills to make a project work. In the beginning, you need a vision and you need a program. You don’t want a design. You don’t know the answer, but the community does….

The program needs to be independent of any designer because you know as well as I do, if you have the designer do the vision, it’s really only about the design. [When a separate programmer works with the community], the community then owns the program because they did it. There’s this healthy tension between [the programmer and the designer] that can produce really fantastic results. It’s like a check and balance.”

Mary Margaret Jones, Hargreaves Associates: “It depends on the designer. We always do public process up front before we have a design vision. Maybe some don’t, but we do. The best designs are usually the ones that grow out of what you hear about the program, what you hear about desired uses, and the site itself—its soils, its climate, its geomorphology—and out of those things you begin to work on the design. You also have to bring good design to the table.

Programming is not rocket science. It should never be seen as something that’s separate from design. In the best instances, it’s part of the design process. There have been cases where designers have had set styles that they apply wherever they go, and those have led to failed plazas and parks, but that’s not the way we work.”

George Hargreaves, Hargreaves Associates: “In architecture, they will do programming that’s not building specific, then they set about designing a building around it. The flaw in that is you often end up with a building you can’t afford. I find it very difficult to work that way.

“We actually put design as part of that process. If you put a parking lot beneath a park, that’s $30 million; it creates these problems and these opportunities. At the same time we’re trying to understand the regional landscape, trying to understand circulation flows, the microclimate. We’re not only talking about program opportunities and how much they would cost, but how they would impact what we’re trying to build.”

Bob Eury, Central Houston Inc./Board of Discovery Green Conservancy: “I feel pretty strongly about having an independent program advocate. The tension created by the two parties, the separate programmer from the designer—I think that tension is extraordinarily helpful. There are a lot of significant pieces of Discovery Green that are a direct product of the public engagement. But I sure don’t want Fred [Kent] designing it either.”

Guy Hagstette, Discovery Green Conservancy: “I feel fortunate that we had the talents of both PPS and Hargreaves. They both brought a lot of ideas to the table. I would not go so far as to say the programmer should always be separate. The public input process prepares the client to be a better client. You can do this with the design team or a separate programmer, but you need to do this.”

Jacob Petersen, Hargreaves Associates: “It appears that [programming] will be something landscape architects have to fight for to retain it in the profession.”

What do you think?

Image credit: Hargreaves Associates

9 thoughts on “Separating Program from Design

  1. Luke 12/16/2009 / 11:11 am

    Interesting timing on this article. I had read in the Metro that the Friends of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia “called in the guy who fixed Bryant Park” to make improvements to the square. When I opened the paper to the article and saw no mention of Laurie Olin, I was surprised. The Friends brought in Dan Biederman who was credited for turning Bryant Park around in the 90’s. Interestingly, the Friends of Rittenhouse Square want to make improvements “on a host of design and operating issues, such as horticulture, lighting, paving materials, event programming, and park management and staffing.” In the case of Bryant Park, the work of the programmer paved the way for one of the most successful urban spaces in North America. Having said that, I find the existence of both in a project as something with limitless potential. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if in some cases the relationship between the programmer and the landscape architect was a nightmare and resulted in poor design. It truly depends on the complaisance of both the programmer and the landscape architect to collaborate with one another.

  2. David C. Racker, FASLA 12/16/2009 / 12:36 pm

    Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble but Programming is just another name for the Same Old $#! (SOS) that has been repackaged for today’s use.

    Programming components of Inventory/Analysis, Wants vs Needs, Opportunities/Limitations, Adjacency/Proximity (the list could go on forever) have all been a part of good landscape architectural design from the genesis of the profession. However, It’s only come into a sub specialty of it’s own relatively recently.

    I’ve observed over the past forty-seven years in my work as a licensed landscape architect that the professions of Architecture and to a lesser degree Engineering have found it “cool” to reinvent what they do every now and again. They seem to need new buzz words and catchy phrases to make what they do seem more technically complicated, more valuable and more mysterious than it really is. Like healthcare, architects and engineers have “unbundled” their services to create marketing advantages; which is fine. But they want to BS the rest of us in the design professions to thinking that it’s “New and Improved” when it’s still the SOS.

    To every trained, educated and experienced landscape architect, PROGRAMMING, no matter what we call it, is inherently essential to good design. Done independently by another or included by the designer doesn’t make it either better or worse so long as it’s done and done right.

    Personally, I believe architectural firms who have specialized in “Programming” are having their design skills atrophy; while those firms who now hire “Programmers” are loosing their edge in being able to think a design project through.

    Just my $.02 worth and thanks for the discussion topic.

  3. JAFLA 12/16/2009 / 12:50 pm

    Fred says “The program needs to be independent of any designer because you know as well as I do, if you have the designer do the vision, it’s really only about the design.”

    What a Crock to generalize that way! Sounds to me he must be that kind of designer himself and thinks the rest of us are too. Like Bob Eury, I sure wouldn’t “want Fred [Kent] designing it either.”

  4. Lynn Wilhelm 12/17/2009 / 3:11 pm

    Hear, Hear, David.

    Programming is just a part of good design.

    I do like the term as it well describes the part of the process that needs to occur before work starts at the drafting table (read: computer).

    I do residential work so my programming is much easier than public work. But without the program, I don’t feel I can come up with a successful design. But in a way, the clients come up with their program by themselves.

    Once I know what client’s need, how they will use a space, what works in the existing site/architecture I can design. I have to be able to ask the right questions–it’s part of my job.

    I agree with JAFLA, too–I don’t work like that as a designer either.

  5. Kathy 12/20/2009 / 6:02 pm

    Vision is the idea or perception of what the client wants the site should look like or how it should function. Programming encompasses the elements which are a part of the vision. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the “vision” ususally comes from the client with the LA guiding and contributing to the vision.

    Whether the designer or a third party is doing the programming it should be a cooperative endeavor between the client and the designer/programmer whether this is one party or two.

  6. David Bartsch 12/23/2009 / 11:00 am

    I agree with everyone who believes that programming is best when well integrated into the total project process, similar to engaging contractors early on when possible: the program informs the design, the construction technique/opprotunities/constraints inform the design, and the design allows the program and construction to occur. It is only the unscrupulous (either designer or ‘programming consultant’) who would limit the due dilligence of predesign services to anything less than a full exploration of stakeholders’ (that includes the site itself) needs, wants, opportunities, constraints, and imagination. Of course end-users need to be part of any legitimate programming. For us, the best projects are those in which program is less pre-conceived at the start, and everyone’s best skills are utilized to make the most of a site – for aesthetic engagement, technical advancement, ecological sustainability, and everything else we landscape architects are in this for. Best to separate programming from design? Hardly. It depends on the skill level and integrity of the landscape architect.

  7. Richard G 12/23/2009 / 11:18 am

    I have to agree with David, JAFLA, Lynn, and Kathy. Fred needs to spend more time around real designers as it appears that he sees design as a function of drafting his “vision”. Program cannot be separated from the design process as designers must understand program from the perspective of the end users, not some third party that interprets the user’s needs. Many programs are revised and adjusted after preliminary design reveals the reality of site limitations / opportunities and budgets. Is the “programmer” going to act as third party middleman throughout the design development? Not on my projects.

    Having a facilitator to help communicate with a community and organize the programming process can be useful. Anything to make a program more complete can only be helpful in producing good design. Decapitation of the program from the designer’s role is foolish.

  8. Jonathan Mueller, FASLA 01/02/2010 / 1:13 pm

    Racker’s right…well stated!

  9. Darell Bagley 01/04/2010 / 6:13 pm

    Fred Kent’s argument is based on the assumption that what landscape architects do is superimpose an arbitrary or contrived design upon the landscape. My landscape architecture education taught me that the design concept must grow out of the initial process of site analysis, and a comprehesive understanding of the context, client and site user requirements (program). I have always used that process as a spring board to coming up with a creative concept for a given site. However, I was taught an important lesson by a partner, that you don’t want to let the client and the program drive the design to brink. If you do that, you will continually make changes to the concept until you have no design left and something very mediocre at best. As professionals we must let clients know when something is compromising the project.

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