Christian Gabriel, ASLA, national design director for landscape architecture at the General Services Administration (GSA), has produced a series of five educational short videos, featuring conversations with 18 notable landscape architects on topics such as how to design with nature and time.
According to Gabriel, “the primary aim of the conversations with this informal industry advisory group was to educate the agency’s design and construction staff, thus enabling the agency to deliver higher-achieving projects,” which the “GSA plans, designs, builds, and manages on behalf of the American public.”
Material and Perspective explores the “world view” of landscape architects (see video above).
Designing with Time addresses the “unique temporal issues” that come with using trees and plants that change over seasons and as they grow.
Ecological Infrastructures explores how landscape architects design with natural systems to improve human and natural health and support biodiversity.
Site as Security shows how landscape architects can meet tough security requirements while also creating accessible, beautiful places.
Preservation and Design Evolution shows how historic places can be rehabilitated and re-purposed to fit contemporary needs.
Videos include interviews with:
Jose Alminana, FASLA
Diana Balmori, FASLA
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA
Shane Coen, FASLA
David Fletcher, ASLA
Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
Mary Margaret Jones, FASLA
Mikyoung Kim, FASLA
Tom Leader, FASLA
Patricia O’ Donnell, FASLA
Laurie Olin, FASLA
Marion Pressley, FASLA
Chris Reed, FASLA
Ken Smith, FASLA
Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA
Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA
Thomas Woltz, FASLA
And projects such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, Columbus Circle, and Hunters Point South Waterfront in New York City; Rose Kennedy Greenway and Harvard University Plaza in Boston; Yards Park, the United States Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Washington Monument grounds in Washington, D.C.
The Aga Khan Award for Architecture was bestowed on six buildings and landscapes across the world that show the power of design to revitalize cultural heritage and strengthen community identity but also improve quality of life and enhance natural resources. These include: the Alioune Diop University Teaching and Research Unit in Senegal; the Arcadia Education Project in Bangladesh; the Palestinian Museum in Palestine; the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia; the Revitalisation of Muharraq in Bahrain; and the Wasit Wetland Centre in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1977, His Highness the Aga Khan, a progressive spiritual leader of some 10-15 million Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who has prioritized religious pluralism, women’s rights, and cultural preservation, created an architecture award to honor projects that “successfully address the needs and aspirations of communities in which Muslims have a significant presence.” Since then, some 122 projects around the world have won the prize.
According to the Aga Khan Development Network, the award recognizes excellence in the “fields of contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, historic preservation, reuse and area conservation, as well as landscape design, and improvement of the environment.”
Highlighted are winners with significant landscape and environmental aspects:
Arcadia Education Project in South Kanarchor, Bangladesh. After teaching in the UK for four decades, Razia Alam returned to her home country of Bangladesh and used her pension funds to create a school for underserved children. When the lease ran out on the school’s property, Alam decided to purchase a riverside lot because she wanted the children to be close to a river. The only downside: the property is partially submerged under 10 feet of water during the four month-long monsoon season.
Instead of building a raised structure that would negatively impact the wetland ecosystem, Alam’s architect, Saif Ul Haque Sthapati, created a building that can float but also remain tethered during flooding. Upcycled steel barrels raise the school up during high waters, and bamboo planks, the sole building material, were waterproofed by “applying liquid made from boiled local gaab fruit – a traditional Bangladeshi method.”
Palestinian Museum in Palestine. Through an international design competition, the Taawon-Welfare Association hired Dublin, Ireland-based Heneghan Peng Architects along with Jordan-based landscape architect Lara Zureikat to create a new museum in Birzeit to celebrate Palestinian heritage and foster a culture of “dialogue and tolerance.”
The museum was built on an agricultural site defined by terraces formed with low stone walls (sanasil) and artfully maintained that character. According to the Aga Khan Development Network, “the zigzagging forms of the Museum’s architecture and hillside gardens are inspired by the surrounding agricultural terraces, stressing the link with the land and symbolizing resistance to the West Bank’s military occupation.”
The outer areas of the landscape are used to grow agricultural crops, while next to the LEED Gold, Palestinian limestone-clad building there are gardens that yield produce for the museum’s café. Rainwater is harvested from the terraces and amphitheater for irrigation and toilets; greywater is also reused in the landscape.
Wasit Wetland Center in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Part of a broader effort to restore wetlands along the Persian Gulf Coast, the Wasit Wetland Center, designed by X-Architects, based in Dubai, is an angular visitor center, slimmed down and sunken into the landscape to reduce visual and environmental impacts. School groups and visitors walk through corridors that lead to views of the surrounding water bird aviaries.
Across the nearly 50-acre site, which was once a waste dump, the Wasit Wetland Center has restored the native wetland landscape and built six shelters made out of recycled wood and plastic for bird watchers.
Revitalization of Muharraq in Bahrain. Pearl diving was once the primary industry in Muharraq, the former capital of Bahrain. With the growth of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the industry fell into decline. With the rise of the oil industry, the capital then moved to Manama.
Muharraq’s unique heritage is being preserved; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along a new “Pearling Path,” the Bahranian government and Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research initiated a comprehensive program that included the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, creation of new museums and visitor center, and the transformation of vacant lots into a chain of 18 new public spaces.
And, lastly, the Public Spaces Development Programme in Tatarstan, Russia. The Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia has a population of some 3.7 million. During the Soviet era, churches and mosques were destroyed, leaving public spaces associated with these places of worship empty. With the end of the Soviet Union, property was privatized, and the most appealing lakeside property was purchased and became inaccessible to the public.
To remedy these issues, the Tatarstan government transformed 328 spaces across 45 municipalities, covering two cities, 42 towns, and 33 villages into public beaches, ponds, parks, gardens, plazas, and boulevards that can be enjoyed year-round, even in dark, snowy Russian winters.
Last November, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations presented ambitious designs for the 1-mile segment of the 182-mile-long C&O Canal that passes through Georgetown. The goal then seemed to be to throw a bunch of bold ideas out there to see what sticks. Six months later, at a public comment meeting in Georgetown sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and Georgetown Heritage, a non-profit group financing the planning and design process, Field Operations offered a pared-back plan more respectful of historic preservation concerns. Sarah Astheimer, ASLA, a principal at Field Operations, said the latest design concepts are “smarter, more incisive, and more responsive to the site.”
NPS said they can either take no action other than immediate repairs or maintenance to this highly-popular national park, or they can design and build the “alternative design” approach, which for the purposes of public evaluation is separated into two options.
NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations clearly listened to community concerns that the original proposals would be too radical a shift in the laid-back feel of the canal. Responding to over 350 comments from the public, power point slides in the presentation now highlighted the “historic significance” and “informal charm” of the linear park beloved to many D.C. residents and tourists.
An important discussion in this review focused on whether to expand the width of the narrow towpaths that limit access along parts of the canal. But instead of long, cantilevering pathways that were offered last November, Field Operations now proposes widening the paths slightly and only at key “pinch points,” a more strategic solution. Astheimer imagined new linear platforms as contemporary equivalents of the wooden decks that once lined the canal.
At mile-marker zero, the beginning of the 182-mile-long trail, Field Operations proposes intelligent fixes to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity and make the marker more of a destination. One option includes fun “habitable nets,” where people can lounge over the water, a feature now seen in other urban waterfront parks.
The proposal for the area they call Rock Creek Confluence, where the canal meets the creek, is also sensible, opening up views to the creek and the sequence of locks through a viewing platform set in pollinator-friendly meadows. A new pedestrian bridge will make both sides of the canal more accessible.
The Mule Yard design options feature more trees and expanded visitor infrastructure. Heading west towards Wisconsin Avenue, a busy corridor lined with coffee shops, restaurants, and stores, they propose a few alternatives to improve accessibility. Where the canal flows under Wisconsin Avenue, there are a few configurations with stairs and an elevator; and on the south side of the canal, a new boardwalk.
Further west down the canal, at Potomac Street, one of the central commercial hubs of Georgetown, where crowds come hear a jazz trio at Dean & Deluca on the weekends, an overlook has been transformed either into a “sky deck” or terraced seating. The designers propose opening up views across the canal here by clearing old trees along the south side of the canal. Elevators and Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA)-accessible ramps would make the canal, which can only be reached via steep stairs, far easier to traverse. These proposals would likely increase activity here and help bring more people down to the canal and perhaps the Georgetown Waterfront Park a few blocks to the south.
Lastly, the aqueduct and stone yard segments, the points in the plan furthest out from downtown Georgetown, are proposed as new destinations. The Stone Yard area could be left alone, but Field Operations proposes adding a platform or outdoor seating nooks there.
At the old aqueduct, which is now an interesting, graffiti-covered ruin, Corner’s team proposes heavily redeveloping the space — either as zig-zagging overlook platform or as a structure covered in a trestle, with a kiosk. This is the remaining ambitious piece perhaps most reminiscent of the High Line in New York City, which Corner’s firm also designed.
Astheimer seemed to understand what many community members conveyed in the first public review: that the C&O Canal is a “respite in a time when we are all overstimulated.” The new design concepts largely help preserve that vision while improving access and safety. Perhaps the community will find the final designs can be even more surgical, so as to further limit impacts on this historical landscape.
Coming next this spring: NPS, Georgetown Heritage, and Field Operations will finalize the plan, and then present design concepts before the Old Georgetown Board and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) in the coming year.
Shaping the Postwar Landscape, edited by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), and Scott Craver is the fifth in a series of books that serve as an encyclopedia of landscape architects and allied professionals who made significant contributions to American landscape design. The book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in American landscape design’s roots.
While the editors set out to provide a reference guide, they’ve achieved a relatively compelling read. Professional disciplines are comprised of people, ideas, and projects. Through the fastidious profiling of American landscape pioneers, Birnbaum and Craver have encapsulated a specific period of landscape architecture in an easily consumable text.
Per the title, the book focuses on landscape architects who were most active post-WWII through the bicentennial. This was the era of Modernist design and the move to incorporate environmental intelligence into design and planning. This era saw the first freeway-capping parks, rooftop gardens, and waterfront revitalization projects. And saw landscapes architects take on a broader range of projects in new territories and at new scales, from urban pocket parcels to suburban developments to greater ecological regions.
It was also a time in which the profession of landscape architecture experienced impressive growth. ASLA members numbered 540 in 1949, a figure that leaped to over 4,000 by 1974, according to Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA. With that growth came added diversity and strength of ideas. More women, minorities, and people without professional backgrounds in landscape architecture took on roles in shaping the discipline during this period. The individuals chronicled in the book are those whose professional and academic work guided and informed landscape architecture during an especially exciting time.
Postwar Landscapes’ profiles are well-written and include useful personal and professional information as well as analysis. For instance, we are told not only what projects landscape architect Satoru Nishita worked on, but of the renown of his father’s bonsai and that his portfolio demonstrated a keen eye for design details. In this way the writing avoids dryness in spite of the book’s encyclopedic format. The format does have the benefit of allowing one to telescope in and out of the book. But as one reads through, names of people, projects, institutions and movements recur to the point that one begins to recognize the larger constellation they form.
While Postwar Landscape’s format might suggest it’s suitable only for researchers, its reach should be much greater. Many landscape architects are well-versed on projects but fuzzy on the associated names and chronology. This book is an excellent tool for filling those gaps.
If you know of Lafayette Park in Detroit but not Alfred Caldwell, or admire Cornelia Oberlander’s work but want to understand her broader impact on the profession, Postwar Landscapes can be a rewarding read.
As founder and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, few individuals have done more to increase awareness of American landscape design than Birnbaum. His crusade has produced the sort of work that edifies and anchors a discipline, work that should not be taken for granted.
Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.
He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.
He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.
In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”
He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”
In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.
He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:
“Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
Restore and protect wetland systems.
Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
Establish native plant nurseries.”
Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.
Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.
Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.
At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.
And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”
Building Your Values – Curbed New York, 11/20/18
“The Ford Foundation’s restoration of its landmark building makes a bold statement about what architecture owes the public today.”
It’s High Time to Memorialize the South’s History of Lynching — The Architect’s Newspaper, 11/2018
“According to a new report by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) entitled, Landslide 2018: Grounds for Democracy, numerous lynching sites in Shelby County, Tennessee, are virtually unmarked for their historical significance.”
Planning a Neighborhood Square – Western Planner, 11/21/18
“Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.”
Interview was conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.
How can landscape architecture educators strike a balance between teaching students about the big picture issues — climate change, urbanization, biodiversity loss — and the practical aspects of designing and building a project in the real world?
The curriculum has to strike the balance. Education should be project-based, because that is the education we’re best at and what really works for designers. Some of those projects start small and work up in scale, and then others start large and work down in scale.
I remember a project when I was teaching at North Carolina State 35 years ago. Arthur Sullivan, who had taught at the University of Pennsylvania and was a scientist, ran a wonderful studio where he asked students to analyze a suburban house, an urban house, and a rural house. He asked them to analyze every bit of water and trash — to discover these homes’ impact on the world. What would have to happen for them to achieve zero resource use? So, it was a small focus, but it looked out.
Whenever students are doing something small — like working out their water system — they’ve got to know where every drop of water ends up. They have to have a realistic view rather than just, “Oh, this is what they did in Portland, and so we’re going to do it here.”
The issue is learning to look at the specific situation and then back out and look at the impact of the small on the large. At the same time, you can look at the impact of large-planning decisions on how small projects are built.
How does landscape architecture education incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles, which are viewed as so critical in today’s job market? How is education focused on STEM strengthened by design thinking?
It’s fascinating how in the last decade science and technology curricula have been looking to design schools for design thinking. There’s hardly a well-known engineering, computer technology, or environmental science department that isn’t in some way teaching design thinking now.
What they’re after is out of the box thinking. They are trying to help their students not only follow linear systems, which is the tradition in engineering, but to break out and bite the blue apple. I know one faculty member used to say: “Take that risk, try something that has not yet been prescribed.”
Landscape architects are deeply connected to the environmental sciences. We have been working with environmental scientists through the entire course of the profession. It has become more precise because regulatory requirements have become more complicated. There is still a lot of our population that is aware that when you build a project, it will have impact on the local bay or river, the ocean, and air quality. Because of that awareness, we have clients, particularly government agencies, that want to understand the impact of making a particular decision.
For the most part, all of the good, strong, creative design firms in the country rely on specialists — sometimes landscape architects who have also studied some aspect of ecology or someone who started in ecology and maybe studied landscape architecture or environmental planning. Nobody does anything by themselves any more; there are very complex teams.
As educators, part of what we have to do is to help people find their place. We help them understand the breadth of possibilities and the complexities. Everybody — even if they are the most technical, nerdy kind of person doing very specific things — wants to reach outside the box to solve a problem.
We must recognize each site is unique and you have to solve a situation for a particular site. I’m tired of seeing Portland green infrastructure details appearing in projects all over the country. Every time I go to see a student project somewhere everybody’s thrown in the images of Portland. There probably is a better solution someplace else. The ability to craft things to the unique situation is really important.
How does landscape architecture education need to evolve to meet the needs of increasingly diverse student body and a diverse society?
Undergraduate and graduate landscape architects need to recognize that other people, particularly those in other cultures, see the world differently than they do. People have different value systems. Just because you think it’s wonderful to have a coffee shop on the edge of your project doesn’t mean everyone does.
Now, I think most educators think, “Well, then you do community projects.” But there are other ways as well. Classmates can learn from one another.
I taught the large architecture and landscape architecture urban studies courses with 140 students at University of California at Berkeley. These young freshman are trying to figure out what they want to do in the design world. And talk about diversity — it is Berkeley, where white males are in a minority, and there’s everybody — Southeast Asians, lots of Latino students, African-American students.
They learn from one another if you set up a situation where they’re working in teams. I used to do an exercise where one student makes a collage. If they were going to design a park, they would make a collage of the images of their ideal park. Then we would draw names and someone else would design for this other person’s park. Well, if you grew up in the valley of California of Latino background, your images were quite different from the preppy from New England. I did this years ago at NC State. There, I had a guy from West Texas and a woman from Massachusetts. All of her spaces were enclosed in green, and all of his were vast and open. They had trouble making the transition to the other’s spatial value system.
Community projects are one way to do it, but they’re very complicated, and it takes a sophisticated teacher to do them. They’re best done after students have some experience and build up some skills because there’s often the danger of both disappointing students and the community. They can be excellent experiences, but an experience in which students realize not everybody sees the landscape exactly the way they do.
Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, has called you “sublimely practical.” Do you believe the devil is in the details? How do you teach students to care about the details when they are making something?
Materials are design opportunities. They are the opportunities where we can be the most creative.
Many of our design leaders just do an extraordinary job now. But they didn’t 40 years ago. When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania 40 years ago, it was asphalt with wood trim and brick-banded concrete and that was pretty much what we learned. Poured-in-place concrete. We’ve broadened out quite a bit.
The best way to teach and for students to learn to be creative is through observation. I taught a field trip course at Berkeley. All we would do is go to projects where my colleagues in practice in the Bay Area were very generous to show them projects under constructions, talk about the choice of materials, source of the materials, the problems in installing them, how they worked.
The students would also do a post-material construction evaluation — go to projects and make their own observations, take notes, keep a detail notebook. They would go out with some kind of measuring device. I have them use notebooks with grid paper. They would have to draw-to-scale sketch– not hard line, just draw over a grided scale, a detail of a bike rack or curb edge. They would keep that notebook throughout the semester.
What I was trying to do is give them a new pair of eyes. It’s been very rewarding when I have a student who years later says, “Oh, I still do that. I still go out and look, measure, and try to understand.” We can’t possibly teach in school what you need to know about materials and detailing. What we can do is get people excited about them, make them curious, and give them a new pair of eyes.
The other thing I do in the field trip course is go to offsite manufacturing, so students become familiar with how things are fabricated. The digital age has given us so many different ways to produce materials, with all of the laser cutting and digitally-run equipment that are creates in shops and then installed in the field. These trips also armed students with building techniques they then used in my design-build class.
What’s the worst construction errors you’ve ever seen? And the worst mistake in the application of materials?
I’d be hard pressed to pick one project. I did a lot of work for speculative developers in the D.C. area who were not prone to spend a lot of money. They had some very basic ways of building: poured-in-place concrete, three-inch pipe rail. You’ve seen some of the work over at Crystal City, Arlington, Virginia. They built in pre-cast concrete.
What we tried to do in the Crystal City Water Park is use the materials as best we could so the developers were comfortable using and maintaining the park.
Some of the biggest mistakes are made when your budget and your ideas about what can be built are misaligned. One of the construction field trips we used to go on visited Ron Herman’s very high-end residential projects. They were wonderful to see, because Ron would work with granite that had been cut so precisely to a quarter of an inch. Students could understand the tolerances that he was able to work with, because he had the money. Then we’d go to a public bid project in Berkeley where they were doing poured-in-place concrete. There, you shouldn’t have the expectation that you were going to have the kind of precision that Ron could have.
You learn and observe, but you’re not going to do that while you’re in school. All you can do is set people up to ask: what kind of craftsmanship can I get in this particular situation? Who are the local craftsman? How can I bring them in?
Maybe landscape architects and architects are not very adventuresome about finding the local craftsmen and getting some real bargains out of them in terms of crafted benches, detailing in the landscape. But others are. Many of our most creative landscape architects — even with modest budgets — do this.
You gotta craft to your situation. That’s where I see the worst mistakes: an expectation that every line, every joint is going to line up. If it’s going to the low bidder in a public project, it’s probably not going to line up.
Should all landscape architecture educators practice and all practitioners teach?
No, but some of them should on both ends. Every landscape architecture faculty should include people that have practiced or are actively practicing. That doesn’t mean bringing in the local practitioner to teach a materials class. We need a number of people on the full-time tenure-track faculty who have a role in running the department and developing the curriculum with experience in practice.
Departments also need people who strictly do research on speculative, creative projects like Alan Berger at MIT, or James Corner, ASLA, at the University of Pennsylvania, when he started out. If you have that range of people, then they begin to start conversations with each other.
It takes work on the part of faculty to integrate practitioners who are not being paid. Many of them are very generous, but they really have a time squeeze. I mentioned the construction field trip course. I couldn’t do that without participation of practitioners. But I had to cultivate that relationship. Full-time faculty have to cultivate relationships with local practitioners.
What was it like to be the first woman to run the landscape architecture department at Harvard Graduate School of Design? Did you feel supported or like you had to overcome sexism?
When I studied architecture, I was the only woman in my class. I did not have a woman colleague until I went to the University of Pennsylvania to study landscape architecture. Not only did I have a women student colleagues, but Carol Franklin, FASLA, was one of my instructors. That was a whole new world.
I have my #MeToo stories, believe me, because I was the only woman. I was pretty accustomed to dealing with those kinds of situations.
My colleagues on the landscape architecture department were wonderful. I was the only woman. Well, Anne Whiston Spirn, FASLA, was there when I first went, but then she left, and there was just me, and then I hired Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, who became chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Virginia and later dean of their architecture school. I have liked having women around.
It was a little more difficult with some of the architecture faculty and administration who put me in a girl box. The girl box is helper-mate. Good administrator; take care of the problem. I’m not saying that my landscape architecture colleagues were like that. Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA; Carl Steinitz; Laurie Olin, FASLA; and Peter Walker, FASLA were all terrific to me. They appreciated that I took care of the administrative crap and tried to do it well, but I never felt that they put me in a box.
The first year I started teaching at Harvard, Carl warned me that I would have nearly 90-year-old Norman Newton teaching in the first semester studio with me, even though he’d been retired for 30 years. Norman was known for dismissing women. He was often criticized that his history book didn’t even cover Beatrix Farrand in any comprehensive way. That just kind made me more determined to reach out and develop a bond with him, which I did through an exhibition of his work on construction details. It was also good for me, because it sent me in a whole new direction of how to teach construction. That was the inspiration for me teaching students to go out, observe, and measure existing details.
There are more high-profile women landscape architects and educators than ever before. How has it changed for women practitioners and educators over the past few decades?
It has been terrific because we support each other. With the commissions I sit on, I have been in the position to advocate for women’s firms to be hired. It was no compromise on my part, because we’re talking about Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) and firms like that. But I’ve found you still have to advocate. The more of us out there, the more we can advocate for each other. There’s now a significant old girls’ network.
There are still obstacles. I know women-owned firms where the heads of the firms, even some of our most talented people, struggle to get the interview for a project. The obstacles are more subtle and much less than they used to be.
I want to give thanks to people like Thaisa Way, FASLA, who has writing about the many women from the 1910s-1903 who were doing significant work and were never talked about. At Landscape Architecture Magazine, from Grady Clay up to the current editor Brad McKee, there has been a real effort to make sure women aren’t shunted to the side. Grady Clay was very good when he put Martha Schwartz’s Bagel Garden on the cover of the magazine. When he hired me as construction editor when I was in my 20s — rather than some of the other people who applied — he was a rebel.