In 2013, urban landscape historian Thaïsa Way, FASLA, embedded herself in the office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, Washington in order to understand the firm’s inner workings. That initial academic curiosity sparked a collaborative relationship, the remarkable result of which is GGN Landscapes 1999-2018, a compendium of GGN’s projects that interweaves theory and practice. The book sets a new standard for landscape architecture monographs.
It was the goal of both Way and GGN to improve upon the typical monograph, characterized by photos of finished, successful projects and not much else. Both parties were also wary of getting too much into the weeds of each project. GGN Landscapes struck that balance, presenting not only each project’s final design but its evolution, told through detailed written accounts and built upon by process sketches, models, and photos.
The book’s richness is the result of the access Way was granted at GGN. Way looked over shoulders, asked questions, and attended meetings. Details such as which team members led discussions, which incessantly sketched, and on what sort of paper were all taken note of. Way pored over working documents and memos to clients and consultants, seeking to understand how GGN made and maintained relationships. Not confined to the office, Way visited each of the book’s featured projects, accompanied by their respective lead designers (save for one instance in which that designer was unavailable). She stressed that this effort would have been impossible without the benefit of GGN’s trust.
Way’s research paints a picture of an especially collaborative firm that is interested in the intersection of analog and digital techniques and embraces experimentation. It’s worth emphasizing that many firms would claim these same traits. Way witnessed them at GGN. Her analysis is borne out in the book’s featured projects, all of which could stand alone as case studies.
The first project presented in the book, and perhaps GGN’s most famous, is Lurie Garden in Chicago. Way’s text tells the story of GGN’s involvement, from the project’s procurement through research, design, and resolution. The book describes the technical challenges encountered and thought process behind GGN’s decisions. Iterative sketches show variations on the garden’s iconic breastplate form and planting scheme. And, of course, there are plenty of photos that attempt to capture the power of the space (Way thinks that even GGN failed to foresee just how impressive Lurie Garden would become).
If the Lurie Garden chapter shows us a young firm getting a feel for itself, India Basin Shoreline Park, the book’s final featured project, shows a mature practice in full command of its faculties and with a firm grasp of landscape’s agency. Shannon Nichol, one of GGN’s three founders, led the concept design for the park in the Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood of San Francisco. The concept is, as Way describes it, “emblematic of 21st century design,” negotiating issues of environmental degradation, access to the water, historic preservation, and neighborhood revitalization. GGN’s concept includes a large meadow reminiscent of a patent slip that once existed on site. Included in the chapter are Nichols’ sketches showing the meadow’s origin in the concept, and a series of plans show its refinement over time.
The book also contains less project-oriented views into GGN’s process. Way believes understanding the designer is crucial to understanding their approach. As such, we learn how GGN’s founders came to landscape and their attitude toward design. We also learn of how their practice benefited early on from successful collaborations with outside architects and engineers and how this helped form their broad view of landscape architecture.
With GGN Landscapes, Way and GGN have constructed a monograph better suited for backpacks than coffee tables. I cannot think of higher praise.