This is the question landscape architect Shane Coen, ASLA, founder of Coen + Partners, asked as he began his lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. For him, the answer is his father, the painter Don Coen. He emphasized the importance of teaching sight, saying “it’s our job to get people to see. It’s our job to inspire spaces that inspire people.”
Coen’s lecture showcased a selection of projects Coen + Partners have completed since its unlikely beginning 25 years ago. Shortly after graduation, Coen was asked suddenly to co-start a landscape practice by the son of the creator of Herman Miller’s famous Aeron chair. The practice began with “no money and no experience, but the unbelievable opportunity” of a five-year, rent-free space. With time and a stable foundation, he applied his “ability to see” to the mid-Western countryside surrounding their Minneapolis-based office.
Coen made clear his work does not replicate nature but rather works in contrast to it. Emphasizing the importance of working with collaborative architects, Coen’s work is in many ways itself architectural, capitalizing on “the simplicity of form and color sitting in a landscape.”
His firm’s guiding principles are manifested in Jackson Meadow, his first project, which was designed in collaboration with architect David Salmela. The award-winning 1999 planned residential community features 64 uniquely-designed but all-while pitched-roof homes, carefully placed in a rolling woodland, with porches precisely oriented toward the community’s 5-mile nature trail.
Awarded a 2015 National Design Award from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Coen + Partners’ projects cover a range of types and scales, each aesthetically adjusted to their particular context. Despite its expansion, however, the firm’s work remains 40 percent residential, with Coen noting the importance of these projects as educational and exploratory projects for the firm. Yet it is his series of award-winning public and institutional projects have led him to his latest and perhaps most challenging work in Saudi Arabia.
Coen received a sealed letter inviting the firm to interview to design the master plan and open spaces for the lands surrounding the skyscrapers of Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District. Coen soon found himself in the driver seat behind a 1,220-acre project, with a need to “create a vision and build a team” — a role he sees as critical for landscape architects going forward.
Drawing on the star dunes and wadi streams of the Saudi Arabian desert, renderings of the project reveal large star-shaped sun shades and water-centric linear park space.
Considered the first inclusive public space in Riyadh, the project was recently approved by Saudi Arabia’s High Commission. With Coen + Partners ”design vision and aesthetic leadership” on the project, it will be interesting to see the firm’s minimalist design approach at this new scale.
This guest post is by Nate Wooten, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, University of Pennsylvania School of Design.