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Profile: Mia Lehrer, FASLA, senior principal, Mia Lehrer & Associates, Landscape Architecture

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

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Internationally acclaimed landscape planner Mia Lehrer is the founding principal of the Los Angeles firm, Mia Lehrer + Associates. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, Ms. Lehrer received her Masters degree in Landscape Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

All the disciplines went into the design for Vista Hermosa Park, Calif., including a greenroof (seen in foreground). "As a landscape planner I am a multidisciplinarian," Lehrer points out. "I agree that we are multidimensional in our abilities--thinking about complex issues, the layers of the land, understanding the air, the substrate--all the systems. I have always had the sense that landscape architects have this incredible power to make a difference, and it's nice that the profession is getting more recognition. People need to understand what we do."

Following her education, Ms. Lehrer established a base of valuable experience by working on large-scale public projects such as the World Bank Coastal Zone Project in El Salvador, as well as small, intimate gardens for residential clients.

MLA + Associates designed the Painted Turtle Camp which is a park definitely for the people. "My overarching philosophy is really about making place and re-inventing how we think about the traditional role of landscape architects designing landscapes that inspire, using technologies that sustain and creating places
that matter."

Bathed in Beautiful Landscapes

"Having grown up in the tropics in El Salvador, a lot of our time was spent out of doors. The school's playgrounds were gardens, literally. There was a lot of water of course, but the land was beautiful. The soccer field had a view of the volcano, in class you could look out of the window at giant trees with parakeets. Beautiful scenery was the norm. On weekends, nobody answered the phone because nobody was home. We all went to the beach, to the lake or climbed the volcanoes.

As with the design for this Bio Tech campus with it's walkable pond, Lehrer says, "I think that big ambitious projects that are basically visualizing or transforming large infrastructure and giving a new life to sites that are co-existing with infrastructure have become the most important area of work for landscape architects, as opposed to infrastructure that is just performing a function. It's all about how people can coexist with infrastructure."

"My father was a fabulous influence on me. He just loved the magic of nature. He was always very inquisitive, and imparted information about everything he saw, as well as his love for what you were beholding. Swimming, sailing, climbing, visiting coffee farms, riding horses, nothing was mechanized. It was a very provincial county so only once a year a Merry-Go-Round or a Ferris wheel might come to the city and that was a big deal."

"All the fruit was fresh, there were live chickens running around on the patio, so we had fresh eggs all the time. It was a very down-to- earth existence in many ways. But there was also a lot of poverty, and my parents worked hard in the community helping women with small business loans, fighting illiteracy and dealing with hunger. It was a dual life - magical, but the inequity was hard to accept."

Finding the Way...

"My father was in the construction business. He sold steel and construction materials, a hardware store. He loved going to construction sites to see who was using what materials. I loved going with him. He also visited the factories of the materials providers, such as paint and PVC, and I went too. The whole construction industry appealed to me. From early on I knew I wanted to be in building of some sort. In high school I worked for an architect for a few summers, but I hated it. Not only was it too constricting, I didn't enjoy all the rules. It was cold and boring. The worst time I had there was spending one summer doing parking lot layouts."

Lehrer has done the design and development for a diverse range of ambitious public and private projects. These include historic renovation projects such as the courtyards at Union Station in Los Angeles (top); large urban parks, such as the expansive Baldwin Hills Park Master Plan (left); challenging commercial projects like the outdoor plaza at the Capital Records building in Hollywood and artful private projects such as this residential entryway (bottom).

Lehrer went to college at Tufts University in Boston. "I created my own major called Environmental Design," remembers Lehrer. "People didn't really know what to do with planning. At the time, the major was very code and statistics based. I was continuing with my Masters Program. By then there was environmental planning concentration at Tufts, which was a joint program between Tufts, Harvard and MIT, and Herman Fields who ran the program at Tufts was very interested in taking planning to another level, taking natural systems into consideration. Kevin Lynch was one of my professors and he was one of my greatest influences. He looked at the city as a construct that is also actually a living organism." Landscape Architecture

Lehrer's interest was piqued by Lynch's seminal contributions to the field of city planning through empirical research on how individuals perceive and navigate the urban landscape. His books explore the presence of time and history in the urban environment, how urban environments affect children, and how to harness human perception of the physical form of cities and regions as the conceptual basis for good urban design.

Lehrer's firm just won the competition held by Good Magazine for re-inventing the Farmer's Market. "When I was presenting our re-envisioning of Farmer's Markets and as I was watching the guys from the Agriculture Board, who were mature passionate leaders and growers, I thought, 'My father would have loved to see this!'"

"I'd also noticed that a lot of reports were produced and just stayed in bureaucrats' bookcases. No one read them. I had gone to a lecture at the Graduate School at Harvard where they had an exhibit of Frederick Law Olmsted's work and suddenly a light bulb went on. I said, 'O my God, that's it! I don't have to be a planner or an architect. I can be a landscape architect!'"

Applying an Overarching Philosophy

"It's not easy when you come to a new country. You can always capitalize on and take advantage of the relationships you have in your home, but I had no one to help or connect me once I came to America. My connections were all through people I met in graduate school at Harvard. So, I made my own path."

The Los Angeles River project is Lehrer's favorite. "I've always had an ambition to work on a project that addresses all the systems--people, water, materials and energy. It's about community and people, creating spaces and places. It's incredibly ambitious and has the opportunity for changing the face of the city." (Left, as envisioned, right, as it looks now.)

Today, Lehrer is internationally recognized for her progressive landscape designs - unique amalgamations of graphic configurations, found objects, architectural pottery, rich textures and her advocacy for environmentally sensitive and people-friendly public space.

"My overarching philosophy is really about making place and re-inventing how we think about the traditional role of landscape architects designing landscapes that inspire, using technologies that sustain and creating places that matter."

The Challenges of Re-Inventing Infrastructure

"The biggest challenges I face are twofold: One is getting design ideas appreciated by non-profits, which are a large proportion of my clients. They just want to get something done. But conveying design integrity in the process and not just solving a problem is my main focus. It's all about elegant solutions; multidimensional problem solving takes time and the solutions are sometimes costly and sometimes aesthetically unconventional."

"The other challenge in my community work is watching people suffer in the inner city. They need access to parks and have to live with school environments that are unseemly for America. I find myself saying, 'Where am I? How can this be? How can I be in an asphalt jungle in the United States?' There is such a lack of attention to educational environments. All these funding crises seem to prevail in the public arena because of lack of attention. No one forgets to build roads and freeways, but they forget to put in budgets for new parks and park maintenance. It's disconcerting. It doesn't feel like the American system."

Santee Court in downtown Los Angeles is an adaptive re-use residential project which used to be a factory and is now condominiums. That's typical of what's going on in cities across the country. Says Lehrer, "My greatest joy is the feeling I get when working with the community, helping them understand the process of design, creating accessible enduring sites and then being appreciated for what you've created."

In the late 1990s, there was a proposal by the Department of Water and Power to cover 13 reservoirs, including the Silver Lake Reservoir. The communities got together and negotiated for master plans on what could be done to meet the water quality issues as well as the community expectations. They didn't want to cover the reservoir, but the reason there had been so many accidents there was because there were no sidewalks. Not only did we build a perimeter sidewalk, we expanded the perimeter for use as park land. Now it's a community gathering space, and the lake will probably be handed over as a recreation facility in the future."

She continues, "Someone stopped me in a cafe in Silver Lake and thanked me for creating the path that allowed them to jog around the reservoir without having to take their lives in their hands. It has added significantly to the community spirit."

Applying Art and Passion to Landscape

"I am an artist," says Lehrer, "but I consider building gardens and plazas as my art. I would love to get back to wood cutting and making things with clay, but I set all that aside. I am really a 3-D person. If I am planning to do large moves in a garden, we do mock ups. If I want to create a space with a huge curve, I make a mock-up using 2" x 4"s and masonite, which is a great way to communicate with clients."

"The people who have had the greatest influence on me have been, as I mentioned, Kevin Lynch, but also Peter Walker, environmentalist Joe Edmiston--who is a brilliant strategist and an amazing guy working in the public realm. And of course there is Michael Lehrer, my husband, who is a great designer, along with Andy Lipkis who founded TreePeople 30 years ago, and Adan Ortega, who is an environmental strategist, worked for MWD and now is part of many boards including the State Agriculture Board and a board member of Heal the Bay and Audubon California."

Making a Difference to the Future

Lehrer feels that landscape architects are the ones who have the power to make a difference, but people need to understand what they do. "To be fair," she points out, "if you canvassed people and said, 'What is landscape architecture?' they'd have no idea. If you asked, 'Do you know the issues surrounding our natural resources?' they would have an idea, but they need to understand that we as a profession are the ones that know how to engage with these issues. I would like the Charlie Rose Show to host Laurie Olin and Pete Walker for a talk show, because I want landscape architects to get that kind of exposure.

The bottom line is I'm energized by our ability to make a difference, and I feel our community of professionals is very important and relevant and we owe it to ourselves and our fellow humans to engage in a big way. We can't retire, now or ever."

Committed to her community and profession, Lehrer is actively involved in several organizations such as the Cultural Heritage Commissioner for City of Los Angeles. She is on the Board of Directors at TreePeople and the Collage Dance Theater. She is a member of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Hollywood Design Review Committee, and has served on the Harvard Graduate School of Design Alumni Council. Lehrer often lectures, traveling as far as Brazil and China to share her insights and philosophy on public landscape design.

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October 17, 2019, 6:50 am PDT

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