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Taking it to the Next Level: Newsmakers as Vanguards of the Profession

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

"In Virginia Key Beach, the design by Walter Hood is based on strands (DNA strands) that have a morphological definition. It replicates the banding of the natural systems along a coast. One can find multiple meanings through how we understand and internalize what we're looking at, and that in turn allows us to excavate further. DNA is key to identity."

Landscape architects are now in the vanguard to save our spaces and our planet. With all the emphasis on water use, invasive plants, dying lakes, devastating fires and pests, global change, quality of life and sustainability of place--matters of grave importance--Who better to lead the way than the people who have always made it their business?

As more and more of these issues make it into the mainstream news, more and more Landscape Architects are drawn into the public eye. It is their thoughts and their vision that will help frame the debate, raise issues and provide solutions that impact how we move forward as a community of nations.

An Interview with Martha Schwartz, ASLA

Martha Schwartz, ASLA--The use of her materials originated from an interest in pop art. The use of everyday objects as a way to reject the mainstream and embrace art intrigued her. Likewise, the art of earthworks interested her in the fact that they were conceptual as well as site specific.
Photos courtesy of Martha Schwartz, Inc.

As our infrastructure cries out for repair, as our natural areas cry out for protection, as our brownfields cry out for renovation, the role of aesthetics is being firmly melded into the planning. Accordingly, the social, cultural, political, aesthetic and economic requirements of the citizens are being given their proper place as Landscape Architects step up to the plate. They are quietly but powerfully changing the way the profession interacts with the global community.

Things have changed a lot since Martha Schwartz joined the profession. She's had a very interesting, though not necessarily linear, career and has often found herself in singular situations.

Located in Mesa, Arizona, the Mesa Arts Center landscape design by Martha Schwartz is being given the ASLA 2007 Award of Honor for General Design.
Photo credit Alan Ward

"I think that there are probably relatively few people who know what I've been involved with in the last five years because I've been working mostly in Europe, out of the London office.

"Our London office has been more involved with issues of regeneration, where we're focused more on urban issues and the rebuilding of cities. Resources are more scarce than in the U.S., therefore there is more pressure on the issue of resources. In Europe, sustainability is much more broadly defined than in the U.S. The development community has connected their bottom-line thinking to design. They actually acknowledge that it's not just the formal aspects of the design, but how people use space and how public space really helps define a project and give it a market edge They deal with the social issues and recognize there is an intense competition for people.

This dramatic design for the Dublin Docklands creates an interactive public space that is an urban magnet both day and night. The red resin-glass paving is highlighted with red LED bands as well as underlit to cast a red glow on the water. The planters are surrounded by green LED bands.

"European cities are trying to make themselves livable, attractive, ecologically friendly and sustainable. All of a sudden, design becomes a very important ingredient, not just the cherry on the cake. In the U.S., we build whole new communities instead of rebuilding our cities. I think my particular interest is in cities and city building. The ultimate sustainable strategy is collectivizing. Nothing can replace cities because they collectivise wealth and culture. It will be a while before the U.S. is forced to reconsider their sprawl strategy. I consider that the new urbanism is just a re-tooled way of doing sprawl, but its still sprawl. Having serial new urbanist communities is still a suburban form. It's not as though you can collectivise these smart suburbs and still come up with a city. You need libraries, theaters, universities and public transportation systems. Those things make it lively and relevant.

"Part of the issue is that the amount of energy required to maintain that kind of suburban development isn't sustainable. In Europe, there are tougher criteria: You're using too much energy if you still have to drive. I think sprawl is a real negative. We don't have any solid motivation to stop ourselves. We don't have review systems in place to start advocacy for the landscape, ways to keep it intact. All the strict developments, big box landscapes and new urbanist communities keep spreading out further and further. That's not good for us environmentally, culturally or spiritually. It is therefore imperative that we go into the cities and teach them how to retool.

New Village Green, Fryston, West Yorkshire--designed in 2005, away from prestigious city plazas and urban parks, Schwartz created a new public landscape in a deprived former coal-mining town in Yorkshire, England--part of a program of innovative urban revitalization.

"Because climate change is going to raise a new series of issues, living in cities is much more sane. We are now an information society and a service culture, cities want to attract people who are well educated. People are living all over the place and working together across time zones and countries. Those people have choice and people who have choice require another level of infrastructure. We aren't reinvesting in our infrastructure or making any headway in terms of city planning with a bigger environmental agenda. America needs to invest in its infrastructure. Our cities neglect the cultures that are already there. Our lack of foresight, our short-term thinking and our greed are getting the better of us. There's all this deferred maintenance and sadly, we have a very short timeline in which to catch up. We mustn't aim at the lowest common denominator. Our job as landscape architects is to create the future. We can bring something new into the world.

"In Europe there is a very strong environmental ethos and it is imposed on the planners who take it very seriously. People need to understand that places that are beautiful with a compelling visual quality are places where people will want to live. In Europe's marketplace that doesn't go unnoticed. People need places that are functional, safe and attractive.

"The whole field is just starting to crack open in a major way. I don't get out of bed without consulting with a good environmental engineer, without someone who knows the most specific technologies that are up to date. You can end up making something really great with workable systems, air, drainage--you name it. All of it gives you something new to work with. Of course, it's complicated, but it's thrilling to work in teams. Furthermore, it's not just about landscape. It's about how people live, live together, make new communities and what people do when they're old or young or new to the country.

"Landscape Architects have to be thinking about more than just making landscapes. We're thinking about making lives for people. The environment is big, but the biggest aspect of sustainability is culture. If you make places people value, which help support community, that's when it truly becomes sustainable because they'll want to keep it and maintain it. If you don't engage people, no matter what you've done, it won't last. Part of the sustainability is rooted in people's value for a landscape. Landscape Architects have to create something that will actually create its own advocacy group. Someone has to stand up and say, 'We have to save this thing.'

"Therefore, our role is political as well. The profession is so dynamic and so needed, young people should really want to go into it. The open space of a plan needs to be thought about as carefully as the buildings. We determine how space is going to be used, how to make connections, how to create areas where people from different cultures can come together and feel safe. We make spaces where different things can happen at the same time, and also make sure they're done in a way that is environmentally responsible, where design is critical and where there is art that's distinguished and unique so people can all be seen as individuals. The Landscape Architect's role is an opportunity for people who love the complexities and want to create areas where people can feel ownership of their public spaces.

An Interview with Ken Smith, ASLA

Ken Smith, ASLA--Ken Smith's works of landscape architecture challenge the distinction between landscape and art. In his projects and installations, Smith blends the borders of natural and artificial in the belief that substitution and hybridization better elucidate the emotive power of landscape.

Ken Smith often delivers a lecture he likes to call, "Big, Little, Skip the Middle." It is, basically, his commentary on a lot of design work today, which happens in the middle--without big ideas or attention to detail. "In our practice and in how we train our students, we should really focus them on how to think conceptually. We need to train them to maintain attention to detail as well as the craft of what we're doing. Much of what is being produced is straight out of the catalog, right out of the middle and consequently formulaic.

"If you look at the people on the ASLA Convention Newsmaker Roundtable, they are all people who break out of the formula. They are all trying to invent new things or think about things differently.

Formulas are one of the biggest problems we have in the profession. It is easy to follow the formulas--much easier to pick stuff from catalog because it relieves you from liability. To design a custom playground is much riskier.

Cornerstone Gardens: Daisy Border by Ken Smith--This border is at once artificial and natural. Made of plastic, it nevertheless registers sun, rain, and wind. Some days, the border seems to be made up of "micro-climates"; only a few patches of windmills turn in the gentle breeze. But in the spring, the wind whips all the windmills into a blur of color--just like a border of natural flowers.

"Even on the subject of sustainability, it is a lot easier to follow the LEED formula. Vis a vis sustainability, for the scale of what we're doing in the Great Park in Orange County it's absolutely imperative. This project definitely goes beyond any checklist. The problem isn't inherent in the education, it only appears during the process. When you're in school, they teach the experimental tradition and definitely encourage creativity. However, once a Landscape Architect is in a working environment, all that often gets squeezed out because formulas are more efficient and profitable. They satisfy the clients. People give up what they were taught in school. The answer, I believe is to keep to the ideals we learned in school."

The Orange County Great Park, of which Smith is the Master Designer, is almost twice the size of Central Park and will include extensive natural areas and open space plus recreational and cultural uses. The iconic orange Great Park Balloon was just inaugurated. Seen here carrying LASN staff members (left to right) designer Guy Nelson, Kim Schmok, publisher George Schmok, and managing editor Leslie McGuire, The balloon can take 25 passengers 400 feet up for a spectacular view of the site.

A Landscape Architect of urban areas, Smith is convinced that "creating livable, renewable, and inspiring urban areas is one of the best ways to limit sprawl and the waste of natural resources."

Smith creates distinct, often playful environments designed to improve the quality of urban life. While he has a love of natural resources, he is conscious that landscape architecture is about creating "synthetic nature" and incorporates recycled materials such as glass, rubber, and artificial rocks into his work.

An Interview with Walter Hood, ASLA

Walter Hood, ASLA
Photos courtesy of Hood Design

Walter Hood says he doesn't think about being a newsmaker, he appreciates that his work is being articulated to the larger public and as a result, some of the ideas are being looked at by the public.

"That keeps you motivated. What interests me is how all the various fields in the arts, nature and science come together and shape our experience. We exist in an environment and experience it, whether it is a cultural setting, a process or natural things. That brings something out that is specific, something that opens up a door, something that doesn't come out of a natural perspective. If you are interested in nature, you have to be open to the phenomena of that process, which is ever changing. We are just one part of the process. How we fit into the framework is where the questions arise.

"The "Shadowcatcher" at the Virginia Foster Homestead and Cemetery is new and unique, but because of its ability to create an oculist we get a different view of the past. It was an interesting way of thinking about landscape. Design is never the same twice."

"We understand even more today where that leads our society. Designers now have an expectation in their work to aestheticize and make all this more visible to people. However, it takes a very sensitive and rigorous study. At the end of the day, we can begin to look at the work not as a product but as part of the process. We can begin to bring in the environmental concerns that will transform what the site was before, and be revelatory. It will be a different kind of beauty that we find as we bring out the fact that the particular landscape is not what it was before.

"If one creates a fountain that is a natural habitat, one is setting up a condition. In 10 or 15 years, it will have a story to tell. It existed before but people placed turtles there. The fountain takes on a life of its own. The designer has just excavated the past in a different way.

"In Virginia Key Beach, the design is based on strands (DNA strands) that have a morphological definition. I was interested in DNA's relationship to culture and how, through an experience, you can inform people who already have a history with the site. The design is constantly changing from dune to mangrove to hardwood hammock. The changes occur in stripes, or bands when formally articulated. The ecology is different for each user. People do different activities within different strands, so one can always identify your experience. The wildlife changes in each strand as well."

The new De Young Museum is a building layered with greenery and draped by intricate folds of trees and shrubs. The landscape scheme is composed of several different spaces. The Sculpture Garden, a lawn area designed around specific pieces of sculpture also creates a transitional bamboo edge between the existing Japanese Garden and the building.

Hood is interested in working in places where he feels the issue lie.

"First, we have to be able to understand and articulate how we want to remake our urban places. Can we continue to make them in the same ways? Are we bound to those typologies? Is it time to move on? Secondly, how we begin to articulate and aestheticize the environment is something really critical, something we need to be better at. Third, we need to be more open and less closed and change the places we look to find inspiration, to find challenge. Am I only going to look at other landscapes or am I going to do something completely different?

"Landscape Architects need to ask a different kind of question. Perhaps one that is inspired by music, or literature or wind, not just ones we arrive at through our own community. We need to be able to articulate that a lot of what we do is so personal that it moves us out of art and into this open process which informs the design.

"The challenge is to take projects that you don't know the answer to. The struggle then allows you to find new ways of finding the answers. Ask different questions to get to the right answer. Find other ways to understand our environment. Where am I? What am I looking at? What should I make here? Those are the real questions. There is no correct lighting fixture in a catalog. It is easy to blame budgets, but if you are constrained, that only means you have to be more creative.

You have to want to be creative. You have to want to make things that are new and different. Lots of times either people don't want to, or they are inspired and informed by other requirements. They want to make wonderful things, but they want to save the fish even more."

An Interview with Laurie Olin, FASLA

Laurie Olin, FASLA
Images courtesy of Olin Partnership

"Inspiration comes from many sources. In my case, it's in places, art and people. The things that get you going when you are young are the beautiful, powerful places. I grew up in Alaska. I was supposed to be learning about nature, but I fell in love with cities because I realized I couldn't separate architecture and nature from cities. In the 1960s, I discovered by accident that in 1938, Levi Strauss had written that cities aren't an architectural problem. They are a cultural and ecological problem.

"A city is a landscape. There is the richness, diversity and complexity you see in nature. People don't realize that the world doesn't need us, we are the ones who need the world. Once you realize these simple truths, you know that nothing in nature is out of place.

"When I got to teach under Ian McHarg, everyone in the department had already gotten the whole point of natural systems. Cities need natural systems, too. But there's a slight anti-cultural and anti-art bias. I lobbied for a Ministry of Art in landscape design. Culture is about trying to present life again--the same old stuff, birth, death, regeneration--fundamental things. It's about how to make old things fresh again. Art is about life, and experiencing, and about how to make the contact with being alive fresh. Art also teaches one how to know what matters and see the difference between trivial and important things.

The construction of the J. Paul Getty Center complex presented one of the most complex landscape design problems today: the installation of verdant gardens and water features atop a structure, in this case, museum archives housing priceless artworks and rare manuscripts. The outside of the Center is as much of an artwork as the works of art inside the display pavilions. At the far south end of the complex the cactus garden looks out over the entire Los Angeles basin.

"Every culture that has evolved is different. All the great designers such as Olmsted, Kiley and Halpern have produced things that are beautiful and they move us. They worked in large-scale terms, but also knew they were doing this for people. It's important to create space as a work of art. When Landscape Architects are really cooking and doing their best work, it is art.

"I have worked with quite a few artists when doing sculpture gardens for the National Gallery and the Cactus garden at the Getty. It was a collaboration, certainly. But our work as Landscape Architects is also art in itself. There is such a long and rich history of people modifying the earth for their own purposes and that's what has made the planet an interesting and beautiful place. But we also have a lot of devastation and destruction.

"I am very involved in helping people make places that are physically sound and ecologically fit, but are also socially just and open and accessible. They need to be open and useful for kids and old people as well as spiritually moving. People will spend a fortune to go to a natural environment that moves them. They also spend vast sums to go to handsome cities from the past for same reason. That is where the concept of sustainable places comes in. In addition to fact that they don't fall apart and don't use energy, people tend to take care of them because they maintain things they respect, and love, and think are beautiful.

"If you have a Lamborghini, you take care of it. The great churches and cities are remarkable because they resonate with us spiritually. We look after them because we love them. Sustainability is also about caring for places you love. It's the purpose that is very important.

The National Gallery of Art's central fountain in the Sculpture Garden is a great place to cool off in summer and doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter. It is also a perfect example of how a sustainable place is one that people respect, love, use and interact with on an everyday basis--and also one that is beautiful.

One of the things that happened to me, at the bedrock level, is discovering that nature moves me. But it's the absolute beauty of the earth its creatures and processes that inspires me. But great cities also move me with their lessons of diversity, inclusiveness and their enabling properties. They enable the lives of many people. After all, we're primates. People like to dine outdoors and watch people, they like to eat, drink and talk to people. That is why cities really are great landscapes. Landscape is not a verb. It is a noun. A landscape is also the street, the house, the hill, the sky and the landscaper.

"The purpose of a city is for people to be together and interact-commerce, trading and safety are what they provide. Along with planting things and getting the harvest in came collective living. I haven't got much feeling about the suburbs. Actually, I have no sympathy for suburbs. As long as they're there, we won't have great cities. I work in the hearts of great cities. We need to make our cities beautiful, safe, healthy and stimulating, or people will run away and we will end up ruining the rest of the landscape.

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December 7, 2019, 3:49 am PDT

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