Putting the cart back with the horse: Collaboration across disciplines moves us toward better design.

 The High Line: NYC (photos from their blog)
It seems to me that the field of landscape architecture and design is starting to inhabit the appropriate place in the making and remodeling of the built environment.  How exciting!  Maybe it's an upshot of an ever-growing environmental conscience, a recognition that the built environment is intrinsically linked to the landscape, and a desire to be reconnected with the natural environment, even (or especially in) highly urban settings.  Likely, also to a desire for genuine experience in the broader sense.  The widespread attention of large public landscapes outside of the horticultural world (e.g., The High Line, The Lurie Garden) has likely precipitated a lot of this movement.  Of note, lauded Designer Piet Oudulf is a plantsman, not an LA.
High Line with Astilbe in flower
Almost weekly I'm reading about a project in which the built space came about through a collaborative effort in which the unique perspectives of each member of the design team could be fully utilized.  Instead of bringing on one after the other in isolation and therefore to some extent in opposition, the landscape design team was consulted at least as early as the architect, helping site the best spot in the available space, helping contour the grade to best utilize the natural elements, to optimize energy, provide appropriate screening, etc.  For a nice overview, see Charles Birnbaum’s piece in the Huffington Post on a recent “Top 10” from the field of Landscape Architecture.          

Lurie Garden, Millenium Park: Chicago
By my lights, such a turn has been a long time coming; this will ring especially true if you’ve passed by an impressive new or renovated building and find little to no thought was given by architect or builder (or sometimes landscape architect) to the relation of building to exterior space. (By saying “little to no thought was given,” I’m intending to be generous, as I would hope that conscious thought didn’t yield the dismal results that are much more the rule than the exception in the surrounding landscapes). This has been especially apparently in recent years, as 2008's market crash curtailed many development and renovation projects.  Big efforts have been more notable.

Atlanta, for instance, is starting to amass a population of contemporary residential, corporate, and public architecture.  This is exciting and especially tricky, given the nostalgia woven into the architecture of a place like Atlanta. It takes a subtle hand to make it work, and there are a mounting number of good examples about town. It’s disappointing, however, to find that many such innovations are fronted by the same old tired landscapes.  It’s not enough to modify these static, formulaic designs with a few “natives” getting scorched in the sun, then call it “modern” or “native.”  Using Equisetum or Fothergilla does not a contemporary nor native space make.  Often, these landscapes, which may only differ from their suburban counterparts by being a bit starker or simpler, are in no way modern nor reimagined.

Any design/build project, contemporary or otherwise, requires a thoughtful approach to space and scale with a command over available materials, a sense of design within three-dimensional space—not merely in a CAD drawing—and a sensible approach to how it will be inhabited and sustained. When such aspects are carefully considered, I believe a greener approach comes naturally—not with buzz words or by meeting municipal quotas for natives in a callous planting design.  So it seems especially important that as the building and development world become more open to bringing landscape design and architecture on board, that the field of landscape architecture and design be up to the challenge.  It’s not enough to only know about grade and code (though these are essential!). A designer must be willing to step back from ego and design tricks, and step into the space, becoming part of it, before picking up the academic toolbox.  This isn’t easy an easy feat to achieve, especially when the intangible skills are hard to monetize.  I know I have some work to do!

         Yet these skills are the key substance behind these collaborative efforts.  The landscape design team should bring an understanding of exterior space and scale and the relation of nature and artifice to the conversation in a way that tethers the built environment to its surroundings and generates context.  Contemporary thinking and materials translate in the landscape and in a garden differently from inside, and it’s not enough to plant some bamboo in zinc planters and call it contemporary.   Good design on the outside is always the result of a careful conversation between natural elements and the constructed universe.  So on these exciting collaborative projects, landscape architects and designers role is to translate and interpret this conversation as the concept is burgeoning—not after the architect and builder have set a template.  The more decorative and signature elements of the design—often the most memorable and most notable—aren’t then placed as an accessory or disjointed overlay onto the structural, spatial, and functional elements of a designed space; instead, they are conceived along with them, and therefore the design, of building exterior, interior, and garden space are better integrated, better edited, and more graceful.

Take, for example Andrea Cochran’s description of the subtle process in the Sustainable Cities Collective blog and ASLA's The Dirt, wherein she describes the best LA's work as the part that's often hard to discern.
Andrea Cochran, widely-acclaimed Landscape Architect, is one of the few in her field who often is retained in the process before the architect.    It’s perhaps her excellence at editing and reading a space before a design ever emerges that has motivated patrons to enlist her expertise so early in the process.  Consequently, the building and the landscape blend seamlessly into their surroundings, and the landscape isn’t at odds with or detracting from the building.  I am inspired by this process and hope the field continues to move in this direction.

A final point:  on large scale projects (e.g., cityscapes, public gardens, large buildings, large estate projects) that enlist teams of engineers, architects, LAs, I’d like to see more plant-savvy landscape/garden designers commissioned to weave a finer level of detail into the scape and to help select the perfect plant palette—and not just after the hardscape plan is done—in conjunction with the design/build teams.  This is not meant to sound like the common harangue of the landscape architect by a garden designer.  Not at all—rather, it’s a effort to say that a good planting design, drawing from broader plant palette and a unique perspective on use of three-dimensional space and intangibles like light, wind, etc. bring us closer to a better design.  It certainly doesn’t benefit landscape architects to plan a space and then have an unsuccessful planting scheme or the kind of place that looks good in CAD but isn’t welcoming or habitable in practice.

I’m curious what others think about the subject.  What examples of this process have you seen?  Solutions for a more integrated process, especially at the municipal and public level?


  1. thanks for the huffington post link... great post!

    1. Thanks...I never saw your response, but I hope you enjoyed the link...


Post a Comment

Popular Posts