- the majesty and fertility of Willa Cather's prairies in O Pioneers & My Antonia
- the harsh New Mexican desert beauty in Cather's lesser known Death Comes to the Archbishop
- The stress and calm extremes of city life in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, typified by noise and nature.
- The long urban rambles in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, mind and city reflecting each other's chaos
- The wild, familiar, warmth of Wendell Berry's Kentucky farmland and river valleys, in his books and poetry.
- Carl Sandburg's poetry of Chicago: the beautiful, maddening city and the many lives and stories unfolding there
- Lord of the Rings and the landscapes of myth and journeys.
I was reflecting upon my book collection the other day, and how, were it not for a last-minute discovery of the profession of Landscape Architecture, I may have ended up pursuing an English degree in undergrad. That's a different story, but for now, I noticed how many of my favorite books have a very strong element of landscape in them. In some, the landscape is even some sort of character - changing and reacting and acting as a foil against the other characters. I decided that if I ever wanted to teach a college course (which I really don't, teaching is not a skill I've mastered), I would teach a course on landscapes as seen through literature, and their design implications. A cross-breeding humanities and design course (maybe my time at UVA has something to do with this inspiration). Here are a few examples of the books (and their landscapes) that have inspired me:
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to spend a week job shadowing and getting to know (at UVA the term is "externing") with a landscape architecture firm in Denver, Colorado.
I am grateful for this chance to get a glimpse of the practice in a completely different context than the east coast landscapes to which I'm accustomed. One of the designers talked to me about a project of theirs in an east coast setting, and she kept using the word "lush" - she was amazed at the variety and vibrancy of the plants and designing spaces with them. In the meantime, I was considering what it means to practice landscape architecture and urban design in a place without trees, shrubs and gazillions of perennials that grow to fill a space in just a few years. It made me think that landscape architecture in such a context is more akin to sculpture: space creation using the form of the land itself as the only medium. Of course, that's always a part of landscape architecture and, in fact, grading and designing with topography has always been one of my favorite aspects of the design process. There's so much that can be done, so many types of environments and emotions and conditions created with just a few steps or slopes or walls. But I've always considered it in context of the four-dimensional growth of the trees (particularly) as well as the shrubs and perennials: what kinds of qualities can be created in different seasons and as the years pass. I like this context though: without the lush plants, the design and landscape need to be evocative. The land is brutally honest and the harshness cannot be quickly softened away behind quickly growing foliage. Don't get me wrong, lushness can't fix a poor design, and it's obviously more complex than that: of course there are trees and plants that grow in Colorado and are included in designs here. And I love my lushness - in undergrad a class memorizing several hundred native & ornamental tree species that grew in NC was perhaps my favorite. But I enjoyed considering the challenge that designing in this context poses. It's food for further thought.
Over the spring semester and into the summer (and, now, on into the fall semester!) I have had the privilege of being the landscape architectural intern at the University of Virginia Office of the Architect. I have greatly enjoyed the work I'm helping with here. I've assisted with small improvement projects around Grounds, coordinated materials for committees and meetings selecting artists and designers to work on larger projects, drafted designs and planting plans, created graphics, documented conditions and landscapes, and more. It's been super interesting to learn how the university functions in many ways like a small city, and how the many projects are accomplished. I've also particularly enjoyed getting to see an aspect of landscape architecture that few practitioners do: the longterm management and upkeep of such treasured, historic landscapes. Learning how the university evaluates the success of planting installations, integrates new designs with historic ones, and deals with new and ongoing issues (like periodic droughts, invasive species, or plant blights) has been invaluable. Also, I get to explore and photograph this beautiful place as a part of my work while in grad school here!
For a week at the end of May, I was one of 5 UVA School of Architecture students sponsored to participate in the Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum. It was an incredible and intense week of exploring the field of "public interest design," which is another way of saying designing for the greater good, or social impact design. It often centers around community engaged design in under-resourced contexts.
I was super excited to be a part of this forum, as my 5+ years experience at the Natural Learning Initiative before coming to grad school involved a LOT of this work, but I learned about it as I worked and had not known much about the larger field and professional network of Public Interest Design. [Contextual sidenote: at the NLI, we typically worked in child care centers in under-resourced rural and urban neighborhoods across North Carolina, rallying the community around the benefits of integrating nature into the child care outdoor play spaces, designing the spaces through stakeholder workshops, and finally assisting the community to implement the design on their own].
Being at Design Futures, surrounded by both student and professional peers from across the country with similar passions and questions was incredibly encouraging, challenging, and stimulating. There was far too much I learned to go in depth in a quick blog post here. To give you an idea, here are some of the questions we posed and explored, together:
Grad school is keeping me on my toes, even more than I anticipated. Thankfully, this weekend I made some time to get my creativity flowing. One of my favorite things about art as a hobby, especially art media where my taste outpaces my skill (spoiler: that includes all art media), is the capacity for messing up. A natural perfectionist, the potential that I'll mess up a painting or drawing often intimidates me, but pushing through it and trying anyway is a grit-building exercise for me. Risk for the sake of beauty, even imperfect beauty, is worth it.
I've started my graduate student career this fall - studying for a Master's of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. I relish the historic grounds and buildings and the idiosyncrasies of Charlottesville. It seems like there's always somewhere new and beautiful to explore. I especially appreciate the ways the community wrestles in the tension between the beauty of parts of its history and the darker, messier aspects of slavery, racism, and classism. The scars are still here, running through these neighborhoods and grounds. How the beauty can be deepened by honoring its whole history - and all peoples who were a part of it - is something I hope to learn more about while I'm here. I think it's a pretty great place to be.
Well, not perfect. First try at painting an urban scene with acrylics. This whole teaching myself a new skill thing is pretty awesome, even as the perfectionist in me wishes my ability matched my taste. I painted from a photograph I took in Cambridge. I painted from a black and white photo, to try to force myself to consider value first, and hue/saturation second. It's easier with some kind of hierarchy to think about, I've found. Here's to having an even better grasp on the next one!
I visited the Blue Ridge Parkway again this weekend. It's one of the earlier projects designed by landscape architects in my home state, and I've always loved it. Landscape architects were part of the design team from the beginning in 1933 - see this article from the ASLA for more history about the project. I love the simple elegance of the roadway weaving through the mountain ridges, detailed here and there with local stone walls and wooden fences. The Blue Ridge Parkway exemplifies one of my favorite design approaches: the constructed design is the frame and the majesty nature is the artwork.
Here's a truth: things don't always get built the way the designer had in mind. In grant work that supports causes without a whole lot of independent capital, that is especially true.
"But we are designers!" (I probably should capitalize that "d", forgive me, design professors, for the heresy) "What we envision is supposed to be created the way we envision it! We are the experts! That's what people pay us to do!" Yes, yes, I know. It's true. Those designs, fully realized, are our best spaces. How can we expect a design to succeed if it is never actually implemented correctly and given the chance to be a success? I understand all of this. And we shouldn't stop fighting for our designs to be enacted the Right Way. We should always keep designing, and keep holding tight to the details that make all the difference in the way a place is used and perceived.
But it's worth celebrating the little victories, too, even when the big victories aren't visible. One flower, one tomato plant, one new tree in the ground. Did they put it in the right spot? Maybe. Will it make a difference? Definitely.
It's a success when a three-year-old grabs your arm to give you a tour of their garden. When four-year-olds have to be told to wait and not eat all the sweet peas right away because they won't have a chance to grow big. When a child absentmindedly leans on a redbud, pausing in the shade for a moment.
Here's to the small successes.