Escaping Good Design

Landscape Architects Must Mindfully Contradict Some Principles of ‘Good Design’ in Their Work

December 11, 2019

Founding Partner, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Landscape architecture is popularly known as a gentle and passive field, staffed with pleasant people who are content to take satisfaction in the benefits inherent in our chosen media of plants, pollinators and playgrounds. To some degree, this “nice guy” impression is true, as confirmed by walking through the earnest and agreeable discussions between competitors that fill the hallways between sessions at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) convention each year. But this benign image of landscape architecture could not be more deceptive in its misrepresentation of the rebellious,  unpopular and conflict-ridden work that is often required to produce the most gentle, seemingly effortless, public landscapes.

I frequently warn landscape-architecture students about this when I visit schools, knowing that the most well-suited of them will not be put off but further engaged and excited about the challenging and, at times, lonely work in front of them as responsible landscape designers. Young landscape architects are prepared to make heroic arguments for trees, stormwater and greenspace — preaching to the choir in many contexts today — but they rarely imagine themselves making arguments for uncool and seemingly draconian design measures, like blocking desire lines, fortifying edges, controlling sightlines and restricting entries into a space.

These underappreciated aspects of landscape design are crucial to gracefully guide movement, create suspense and delight and shape the human experience, but they are often ill-received during the design process. In our era of user-centered design, this designer-imposed, intuitively driven, spatial aspect of landscape architecture has not been as popularly appreciated as the programmatic amenities that get dropped into the design, like play structures or food-truck parking. As a result, some landscape architects don’t talk about their important spatial-design work in their presentations and public meetings, for fear that it will be characterized as needless design impositions upon the users of the future landscape. But spatial obstacles, containment and peculiarities in landform are timeless, crucial ingredients in the most satisfying, stimulating experiences of the authentic, site-specific landscapes of our communities.

The tension in communicating the need for assertive, contextually driven landform — creating a legible place, with local character — in balance with the need for user-driven programming and “people amenities” has been heightened by today’s public expectations of function-driven, user-centered or “people-friendly” design values. User-centered design is an overdue and reasonable, primary expectation for the design of workplace furniture, baby carriers, Toto toilets and aircraft cockpits, but, I often plead, not for public space.

With much of our designed environment now offering instant gratification, we need the landscape to withhold its reward. We need to be reminded what it feels like to physically earn a view — even if only by a few extra steps — and to feel the achievement of physically discovering something. To “conceal and reveal” landscape also makes it more humane and interesting than keeping it entirely open, despite what may look better on plan to many viewers. Why walk into a park or plaza, for instance, if one can see every sun-baked square foot of it, in a single glance, from the edge? Good landscape design should block some views.

Good landscape design should also block some desire lines. The most enjoyable, humane landscapes, in the world’s most beloved neighborhoods and wild areas alike, do not become soul-fulfilling or iconic places in our memories by their achievements in pass-through convenience. While encouraging easy passage through any public landscape is important, the design should slow people down and festively register its entry and exit moments, with a thick sense of nature and the particular textures and pace of the local landscape.

Omitting some obvious shortcuts and adding some offsets or corners in a route through a space will always strike some people as the landscape architect treating function frivolously or with naivety toward the needs of the users. “People will always cut corners,” we are reminded, usually with the anecdote about the sage designer of the college green who simply paved the short-cut paths across the space. We’ll take that reminder (and agree with it), but we will do our best to create a place that is for stopping and resting as comfortably as for rushing through.

Good landscape design should not be too cool. We are all being flooded daily with the latest, impeccably photographed design references and planting styles from all over the globe. A commitment to designing authentic, contextual landscape often means a limited palette of plants and materials that are tied, timelessly, to the site’s location. This restraint comes with a high risk of being labeled as boring, especially by locals who have lost the ability to see the unique beauty or esteem in their common landscape. However, I tend to find that limiting oneself in such a way, to locally common influences, actually helps to produce a more distinct and novel landscape and detailing regime. This, in turn, helps both local people and visitors to see, sometimes for the first time in memory, the beauty and value of a local commonality. For instance, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, locally native “weed trees” like Big Leaf Maple and familiar, native shade plants like Sword Fern and Salal are cheerfully incorporated into the clean-lined campus landscape. This bog-inspired landscape offers daily contact for the employees with their home’s unique natural history, unmistakable foliage color and ecological context. We are regularly asked what tree species the Big Leaf Maples are in the campus, as some people hadn’t noticed their stunning foliage in the same way along roadsides and greenbelts. We incorporated the beautiful texture of common Hardstem Bulrush into the rainwater gardens — an ethnobotanical storied plant that was long considered a weed around the surrounding lakes — and it is one of the other, most asked-about plants by campus visitors.

Celebrating the common, designing to be somewhat inconvenient and delaying gratification: the real landscapes we need today require the designer to advocate for breaking some rules of user-centered design, in order to provide opportunities to interact with a scale of landscape, community and history that transcends our own. Landscape architects must advocate at times for providing a more assertive experience from the common landscape, incorporating raw and peculiar influences like the natural history and ecology of its place, or the cultural patterns of local community.

Unlike other forms of good design, the landscape we need today shouldn’t disappear elegantly before us, in deference to our desire lines and shortcuts. It should stand in our way, present something back to us that we did not ask for, and take us on an unscripted journey — even a small one — when we traverse it.

Banner image courtesy LoggaWiggler/Pixabay.

Gates Foundation sketch courtesy Shannon Nichol/GGN.

Gates Foundation photograph courtesy Timothy Hursley/NBBJ.

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