The Heart & Craft of Landscape Architecture
Lots of landscape architecture firms in the Northern Virginia region practice a design-build approach to landscape design. We’d like to think that we stand out amongst all that competition because we push ourselves so hard to achieve exceptional creativity and craftsmanship in all of our garden & landscape designs. We know how we feel about designing with nature, but what about the other landscape architects? We wanted to know. So, we asked some of our esteemed colleagues to share their thoughts with us.
It’s no surprise that we discovered we have much in common—our respect for nature and natural history is one. On the other hand, we each see in our own ways and thus take a very personal approach to design with nature.
Here are highlights from our conversations with some of the best landscape architects based in the Northern Virginia and metropolitan Washington DC region:
Guy Williams, DCA Landscape Architects (website under construction), Washington DC
Jay Graham, Moody Graham Landscape Architecture, Baltimore & Annapolis, Maryland
Mark Gionet, LSG Landscape Architecture, Tysons Corner, Virginia
Where Does The Design Begin?
You want to figure out what the site is trying to tell you so you can respond in some physical way with design. Mark Gionet, Landscape Architect
Guy Williams, DCA Landscape Architects: That process of asking questions, getting to know the clients, looking at the site is what gets me started. Always when I go to meet people at their home and talk to them, see their house, and how they live in it—I try to get a sense of who they are. Our work is contextual. That means finding and developing a particular sense of place.
Jay Graham, Graham Landscape Architecture: Walking the site is absolutely key. I get a lot of inspiration right there. That’s where the design starts because it starts with analyzing the existing conditions. I’ve become more and more aware of how water moves across a site. The topography and the trail of water tell me what’s happening on the site but also around it. It’s important to go beyond the property line and learn about the larger unit of land and how that’s impacting the site.
Mark Gionet, LSG Landscape Architecture: It always begins with the site. Nothing substitutes for the visceral response that you get from being there. Understanding the micro-climatic conditions (moisture and temperature), where the wind comes from, how much sun is there, what the soil is like, what are the views, what can you hear and see and smell—you need the full sensory experience in order to respond fully. You want to figure out what the site is trying to tell you so you can respond in some physical way with design.
Is Your Creative Process Deliberate & Methodical Or Exploratory And Open-Ended?
I’ve got to do my best work but be able to condense my creative process to meet deadlines. Guy Williams, Landscape Architect
Guy: If I were to draw a cartoon of myself in the design process, I visualize a large funnel-shaped sieve above my head that has levels of filtering in it. I toss everything into that top level and let it start filtering down through the layers. Moving down through my head, down through my arm, out my fingers and into lines and shapes on a page. It keeps changing through the process until it becomes an idea that works for that site. At the same time, we live in a real-world of permits and construction schedules. That means I’ve got to do my best work but be able to condense my creative process to meet deadlines.
Jay: It’s a little of both. The methodology part starts with collecting data, understanding the site and the program. Then it’s like fitting the pieces together—like a puzzle. You are looking for the best arrangement of the program on the site. At the same time, you are also looking for -your design brain is looking for- some magic in it.
Mark: There is a methodology that you follow. With public or corporate clients, it is spelled out for you. In other situations design is a process of exploration. Either way, you have to define the problem, then look beyond it for the opportunity.
Is Landscape Design Art Or Artifice?
I like the operatic approach. Go big or go home. Mark Gionet, Landscape Architect
Guy: It’s art, science and intuition. There’s art in a planting plan where you have color, texture, form, flower, berry, leaf, and awareness of seasonal changes. These are the paints in your palette. Then you’ve got the science: You make note of the topography, the slopes and flats, the dry areas, and where it’s shady or sunny. Knowing what will work where is part science and part your gut. If you work with things long enough you get a sense of where certain plants will be happy on the site.
Mark: It’s art but you need a little artifice to pull it off. The artifice part can’t be false or insincere. We’ve all seen those geologic impossibilities as it were… So there has to be truthfulness. What we do is a lot like stage design—like when you go to the theater. You know you are in the theater but you can still be transported. I like the operatic approach. Go big or go home. If done well, something in the design hooks the viewer and you just believe it.
Jay: Some people don’t ask much of us and we may rely on artifice. But every once in awhile, we get clients who push us and ask more of us. I think that’s when it can rise closer to the level of art. More often than not we are working with an architect on developing a home site. In that case, our work will interact with the house. We design in layers so there are transitions rather than an abrupt meeting of house and landscape.
What Have You Learned From Years In Practice?
You can start trusting your intuition after you’ve practiced for many years. Jay Graham, Landscape Architect
Mark: I’ve had the good fortune to have a career that began at a time when everything had to be drawn by hand. Now, we’ve got all these other expressive technologies to work with. It’s been an amazing period of time in our industry with the introduction of new products on the technical and horticultural side. At the same time, we’ve been rethinking our relationship to the environment and to the earth. It’s a huge amount of material to command and have at the disposal of our clients. I still have an enormous amount left to learn.
Jay: Follow the water. Look for the story. The stronger story could be the natural character of the land or it could be the cultural character. The other important thing I’ve learned is to trust my intuition. I think I was in my thirties when I read a book by Geoffrey Jellicoe, a British landscape architect. He talked about trusting his intuition. A couple of decades later I realized Jellicoe was much older when he wrote that book. And I finally got it. He was right. You can start trusting your intuition after you’ve practiced for many years.
Guy: I think I learned how to see at a young age. I am highly aware of my surroundings and sensitive to little details of how things fit together. But the same sensitivity that helps you to do good work, can be hard on you in the process of working with people and their lives and homes. You need to be able to create a reality that is partly your vision and partly your client’s vision. You start with a strong idea in your head, but it doesn’t always turn out as you planned. If you are a painter or a writer, for example, you find very often that what you set out to create, in a way, creates itself. That’s what’s great about it: The simplicity of the end result belies all of the levels of detail that go into making it turn out that way.
What you realize is that you just have to go through all these processes to get to that end result. And it’s always going to be the same. There aren’t any shortcuts. Guy Williams, Landscape Architect
There’s another point we all agree on: there are no shortcuts. Our work takes us through a process with the site and the client. The ideas go through multiple iterations, some being filtered out or dramatically changed along the way. What we as landscape architects set out to do is influenced by -and made better by- our intimate understanding of the character of the site and the desires of the client.
Our sincere thanks go out to fellow landscape architects Jay Graham, Mark Gionet, and Guy Williams for their generous and thoughtful contributions to this post.
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.