Andrea Cochran: “It’s Hard to Sell Nothing”

Andrea Cochran, ASLA, a preeminent landscape architect, said landscape architects often don’t get appreciated for their subtle work because if a “landscape is designed well it looks like nothing has been done. It’s hard to sell nothing.” As a result, Cochran joked she now shows “before images” in all her presentations. At the National Building Museum, Cochran outlined the many artists who have influenced her work and explained some of her projects that have, in turn, influenced many landscape architects.

Her interest in both art and science drew her to landscape architecture. She wanted to study art but her parents wanted her do something more practical. When she discovered landscape architecture, she believed she found a good fit. Within the field, Cochran has had many careers. She worked with the National Park Service in New England, designed landscapes for U.S. embassies in the Middle East, and spent time with a design-build firm before starting her own practice, which now has 12 people. 

Since starting her own firm, she has created her own distinct, contempory style influenced by artists Robert Irwin and Fred Sandback, and landscape architect Dan Kiley. Robert Irwin (see earlier post), a contemporary artist, creates “diminishing views. Some of Irwin’s museum pieces require you to move.” Like a landscape, “you can only experience them by moving through them.”

The relationship between humans and nature intrigues her. She’s been inspired by a well-known Japanese rock garden, which she said “is not about the rocks; it’s about the space in between the rocks.” In the same way, the Lightning Fields in New Mexico “isn’t about the lightning but the grid formation of 20 feet stainless steel poles. They create a spatial reference. It’s about the scale of nature against the scale of humans.”

Some of her projects involve working with artists. Bruce Nauman, a well-known contemporary artist, created a quarter-mile long staircase within a private northern Californian outdoor museum. The stairs’ “height changes choreograph your movement through the space.” To provide access to the buildings in this site, she didn’t want to compete with Nauman but created her own variation made out of CORE-TEN steel and gravel. These are “permeable, quiet, recessive.” She likes CORE-TEN because it’s a material “upon which the changes in nature can be played out.”

For the Curran House, an affordable housing project in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin neighborhood, Cochran created a contemplative garden residents can visit to decompress (see image at top). While she says her work is usually “hard-edged,” in this case she used found tree logs to create soft, comfortable custom benches. A water fountain also helps create a meditative space. Bamboo functions as a green wall, hiding views of the gritty building walls.

In a new commission she just won to revitalize the Allegheny Public Square across from the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, Cochran will turn an area that “previously felt unsafe” because the central seating area was depressed and hidden from the exterior of the square into a vibrant new public park. After many presentations to the community, Cochran discovered that what they wanted didn’t synch up at all with her winning design so she revised so the new park more subtly tells the story of sustainability. With public projects she said it’s important to “teach sustainability by using the design.” However, instead of “solar collectors made in the shape of dragons,” there’s now a native meadow and bioswales that teach but “more quietly.” An art installation made of metal rods will feature a cloud made from mist. “It will be permeable, glowing.” 

Cochran’s other educational work includes Nueva School, which sewed the “landscape and architecture together in a seamless way.” The project, which was done with a very limited budget, incorporates leaves in the pavements to teach students about the nearby trees. The story of the runnel is “also very important” because it demonstrates how stormwater moves onsite.

At the residential scale, one of her major projects in northern california, Stone Edge Farm created a simple yet elegant landscape to manage water. In some areas, leaf litter was left as the landscape in order to protect the Oak trees on site, which “don’t like summer water.” To deal with water, stormwater was diverted to a dry streambed now filled with succulents. Drought-tolerant meadows mean no water needs to be pumped in. In addition, Cochran salvaged 100-year old olive trees that were about to be cut down, installing them to create a “space that has volume.” She also loves the texture of the old trees.

Digging up the site unearthed lots of stones, she asked her client if she could reuse the boulders to create a 100-foot tall pyramid. “He looked at me like I was crazy and then said yes.” The pyramid itself is an angled plane of stones. As an object, its “receptive to the changing nature.” The added benefit of the pyramid: It hides views of the Llama farm next door.

She said she has received criticism that her work doesn’t look like an “ecological landscape.” In other words, its “too beautiful so it can’t be sustainable.” Cochran shows that landscapes can be both sustainable and beautiful and certainly aren’t nothing.

Read an interview with Cochran and check out a book on her work.

Image credits: (1) ASLA 2007 Professional Honor Award. Curran House / Marion Brenner, (2) Allegheny Public Square Revitalization / Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, (3) ASLA 2009 Professional Honor Award. Stone Edge Farm / Marion Brenner.  

One thought on “Andrea Cochran: “It’s Hard to Sell Nothing”

  1. Jonathan F. 04/27/2011 / 3:40 pm

    Ms. Cochran is absolutely right in saying that it is easy to miss the fact that I landscape architect has been at work. At the same time, I am quite sure that her designs are among the least likely to be missed. There is a good reason for this beyond the serene beauty of her work: as Maya Lin posits, Ms. Cochran’s work derives from a “strong, clear idea” that is reinforced by every design decision she makes.

    Landscape architects have very little control over the environment in which they work. Sensory data out of our control floods in from all directions. Light, wind, sound, temperature, etc., all of them are fundamentally out of our control. One could summarize by saying that the nature of outdoor space is chaos. A designed landscape that truly “looks like nothing has been done” is more likely simply to be weak, designed and implemented without conviction. It is necessary very deliberately to establish and repeat that guiding concept if one wants a place that both satisfies its users and delights the senses. A list of those designed landscapes that are recognized as the achievements that we, as landscape architects, aspire to equal or surpass in beauty and emotional impact are, I would say, dominated by designs that leave little or no doubt that a landscape architect has been at work.

    There are landscapes, of course, that look like they are, at least substantially, untouched by human desire — they are our wildernesses and thank God for them. We should celebrate them for what they are while at the same time doing our best to make great, highly noticeable, recognizable places when we are actually making the big decisions.

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