Chip Sullivan is on a mission to inject a dose of magic and mystery into the study of landscape design.
Sullivan, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley. His philosophy as an educator builds on his artistic training and is rooted in his belief that art and creativity are missing in the practice of environmental design.
As a graduate student in landscape architecture, I both learned from and taught with Sullivan throughout my time at Berkeley. Here are four lessons Sullivan instills in every landscape student:
1. Always, always, always bring a sketch book
Sullivan’s first lesson to all of his students is never, under any circumstances, leave home or the studio without a sketchbook. Sullivan is an avid sketch artist, making copious drawings not only in the field but during meetings, lectures and conversations. Sullivan believes documenting the landscape through sketch is crucial to understanding place and ecological systems.
Doodling during class is not only acceptable, it’s required. Sullivan tells students to sketch non-stop, encouraging them to draw slides and illustrates their thoughts, during his lectures.
Megan Bradley, a long-time student of Sullivan’s, from undergrad into Berkeley’s graduate landscape program, said this mantra has stuck with her through the years. “One of the most important things Chip taught me was to always bring a sketchbook with me everywhere I go. Now it’s a lifestyle!,” she said.
2. Use art to explore sustainability
In his course “Drawing a Green Future,” undergraduates from all backgrounds and fields of study at Berkeley learn basic drawing conventions, through unconventional techniques, as a way to explore issues in environmental design and sustainability.
This is many students first design course. As such, Sullivan embraces an iterative, imperfect learning process, using a range of drawing materials (like sticks!) and exercises that shift focus from artistic talent to allow all students to tap into their own creative process.
Sullivan teaches plan, section, and perspective through sketch, watercolor, and building models and dioramas. The course shows how people move through space — with exercises on drawing the human figure through cartoon, which is his expertise, and sketching from live models.
3. Document your design process
Sullivan’s teaching focuses on telling a story through design and documenting the creative process. A cartoonist who has been deeply inspired by film, his students use story boarding as a way to think through how user might experience a space and capture the process through a mix of art and media.
The studio “Energy, Fantasy and Form,” taught students how to incorporate sustainable and low-energy elements into a design. In their final project, students created series of stop-motion videos to document their design of a green wall on campus. Brandon Yip, an undergraduate in his final year of study, was a student in this class as well as multiple others throughout his time at Berkeley.
Yip said that in Sullivan’s classes, “we learn that landscape architecture is beyond singular reality. We learn to think about spaces in a multidimensional, omnipresent way, unlocking our mind to the possibility of the overseen and under-appreciated.”
4. Let your interests guide your practice
Where his students go, Sullivan follows with unwitting encouragement and positivity.
Sullivan’s personality and distinctive interests have shaped his career as a designer and teacher. He encourages students to allow their passions to do the same.
Sullivan got his start in the field at Sasaki Associates as a landscape architect and planner, before transitioning to academia at Berkeley where he’s taught a variety of subjects within the College of Environmental Design — from design studios to seminars.
In his decades of teaching, Sullivan has written five books on drawing, cartooning, and unconventional means of understanding, visualizing, and teaching landscape architecture. In his latest book, Cartooning the Landscape, Sullivan explores relationships between art, nature and environmental consciousness in an inventive, visual narrative style.
He is interested in landscape as a form of enlightenment and transformation and has embedded this interest into Berkeley’s graduate curriculum. In 2016, Sullivan orchestrated a session “Do Landscapes Dream? Alchemy, Voodoo and Spirits of Place” at the ASLA Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
He expanded this topic into a seminar, reviving professor emeritus Randy Hester’s Sacred Landscapes course, where students explore ideas of “sacredness” in the landscape through a series of design projects. The seminar explores sites that illicit deep emotional connections through weekly drawings exercises that encourage students to approach design as a work of art and cultural experience.
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