Material Provocations

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Aqueduct, New York/Source: Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Landscape architect Ken Smith, FASLA, founder of Ken Smith Workshop, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, founder of Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, and James Lord, ASLA, principal of Surface Design, can provoke reactions with their creative use of materials. While these landscape architects couldn’t be more different, what unites them is a passion for how materials can create  memorable experiences. At a recent symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), each practitioner revealed how they do it.

Smith draws much of his creative inspiration from fashion. “I go to clothing stores and look at clothes like people go to art museums. But when you go to stores, you can touch the clothes, inspect the seams, see how things are put together.”

He presented his work on Croton water treatment plant, a golf driving range located over a subterranean 9-story water treatment facility in the Bronx, NYC. He admitted it was challenging to control the expression of a concept through the use of materials in a project so large and with so many constituents, but found clever ways to push the boundaries. When the fire department came in late in the design process and required a fire lane, Smith could have seen this as an annoyance.

Instead, he turned this moment into an opportunity to show an indeterminate edge, expressing one of the conceptual threads of the project by using simple unit pavers in an unusual way. “Usually, good craft with a unit paver is to have an edge restraint and cut the units because good craft is about expressing the form. But I adopted bad craft, and in this case, bad craft is good design.”

Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop
Ken Smith Workshop, Croton Water Filtration Plant, New York/ Ken Smith Workshop

Cochran said she came to landscape architecture though an interest in art, but didn’t feel at home in the profession until she began to work at a design build firm. “Suddenly, it brought me back to materials — touching and feeling things and thinking more like an artist. My work really changed once I started to think from the building blocks to the bigger scale, rather than designing these huge things and trying to figure out how they would be composed.”

When seeing a site for the first time, she asks herself “how does it want to feel?” She is precise in the manipulation of color and texture to create perceptions. One of her projects is a residential project on a steep slope in San Francisco, in which a grade change of 18 feet had to be resolved from the entrance, to the doorway of the residence.

Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, Perry Residence, San Francisco/Source: Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
ASLA 2015 Perry Residence, San Francisco/ Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Cochran knew she wanted to make this a visceral, almost scary experience. She created cantilevered walkways out over the edge of the cliff, giving the illusion of falling off the edge. This effect was heightened by the addition of non-reflective glass at the end of the walkway, and a floor that is a porous grate. “Some people won’t walk out on it, it’s too scary. I love the fact that we have been able to elicit a strong emotion with use of material.”

Lord first completes a rigorous process of site analysis, which involves researching the history, culture, and even the folklore of the place, before he begins designing. What he learns informs the choice of materials.

He presented the IBM Plaza in Honolulu, which won an ASLA professional design honor award in 2015. In Hawaii, places on a map aren’t traditionally spoken of in terms of north, south, east, west, but in terms of that place’s relationship to the mauka (mountains) and the makai (ocean). There, what’s important is one’s location in relation to the Pacific Ocean.

With a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture, Lord sought to bring the sensation of the ocean to the site, using materials like glass, metal, and water to evoke the horizontal, reflective, and blue nature of the surrounding Pacific. “Descendant stories were key. By listening, we were able to define the materials that makes a place authentic.”

ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu bt SURFACE DESIGN, / Marion Brenner
ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award. IBM Plaza, Honolulu, SURFACE DESIGN / Marion Brenner

These three landscape architects express their provocative ideas about materials through the manipulation of light, color, and texture, no matter how large or small the site.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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