Transects: 100 Years of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania by Richard Weller and Meghan Talarowski, Associate ASLA, celebrates the transect of time: 100 years of people, events and ideas that have shaped the department. What began as a series of lectures in 1914 on landscape design by George Burnap, landscape architect for the United State Capitol, has grown into an internationally-renowned design program. Recognized in 2010 at the Barcelona Biennial as the best landscape program in the world, the department today hosts a diverse collective of practitioners and students from all over the world dedicated to investigating the implications of a rapidly developing world.
Transects follows a narrative and illustrative timeline of the program’s development. A striking theme emerges: the continuous effort to remain creative, experimental, fluid and competitive while establishing a critical design dialogue across the international community. Robert Wheelright, a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), established the first official landscape degree program at Penn in 1924. He acknowledged “the complexity of the problems which the landscape architect is called upon to solve”, involving a knowledge of engineering, architecture, soils, plant materials, ecology, etc., combined with aesthetic appreciation.”
Ian McHarg, who became chair in 1957, left an indelible mark on the program and the profession when he broadened the department’s scope to include a regional planning component. McHarg emphasized the need to address environmental concerns within large-scale planning projects using practices beyond the bounds of traditional landscape architecture and urban planning. His interest in mapping, layering, and analyzing features such as geology, hydrology, and land form produced decades of research studies and design projects. His belief in the responsible stewardship of nature, outlined in his seminal work, Design with Nature, remains the profession’s raison d’etre. In 1990, he became the first landscape architect to receive the National Medal of Arts.
Since McHarg enacted that major shift, the program has expanded to explore new directions in urbanism, infrastructure, cartography, representation, theory and process. Over the past decade, the focus has increasingly become urban design in the global community. As chair, James Corner, ASLA, emphasized the importance of training students such that they “could work not only with traditional forms of landscape and public space, but also become sufficiently competent to help orchestrate the complex ecologies of the city, including built form and infrastructure.” Students participate in real world studios in both the greater Philadelphia region as well as around the world in places like Brazil, Morocco, and Singapore. They analyze the ecological as well as the cultural, political, and economic systems impacting these sites.
Today the program appears poised to undertake bold new tasks. Richard Weller became chair this past year, inheriting 100 years of design innovation. Under his direction, the department is building a research platform to apply design intelligence to landscapes of critical biodiversity, which are under pressure from rapid urbanization. Weller envisions landscape architects, armed with “the skills of the planner, the politician and the artist,” leading the process by which nations can reach the goals of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. He shares the following hope: “McHarg called it stewardship, but the world should come to know it as simply landscape architecture.” The transect continues.
This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania, and former ASLA summer intern.