I was recently nominated to compete for the American Society of Landscape Architects’s National Honor and Merit awards. The announcement read: ‘Each year, the ASLA invites each accredited University program to nominate several of their graduating students for the awards as a part of the ASLA’s efforts to reward students demonstrating outstanding academic achievement in their landscape architecture program. Candidates must have maintained a 3.5 cumulative GPA, must demonstrate the highest level of academic scholarship, and must exhibit willingness to work with others, self-motivation, and responsibility.’ The nomination provided me an opportunity to reflect on the last three years of my life. The nomination was followed by a presentation of my work to the Minnesota chapter of the ASLA.
I began with an infographic resume I created to demonstrate the breadth of my experiences. This graphic illustrates my skills and experience with the tools of my trade from using GIS software to participating in community development programs, and from technical writing to creative photography. It also depicts the various places around the world where I have experimented with these tools. The length of time I’ve spent participating in professional and academic activities is articulated on the timeline at the bottom of the page.
Since my time as an undergraduate in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, I’ve been interested in the various interactions between culture and nature as they are observable on the landscape. As an anthropology student, I learned about adaptations to natural landscapes by human cultures in order for people to thrive amidst the idiosyncrasies of their habitations. Working as an archaeologist in Santa Fe exposed me to layers of placemaking ranging from ephemeral traces to robust architectures. One of my first exposures to the concept of landscape architecture as a creative profession was a brush with Ken Smith on the Santa Fe Railyard project. In 2005, I was excavating territorial pit latrines while he stood next to me sketching his designs to modernize the site.
After retiring from my job as a State archaeologist and owning an organic farm in the Sandia Mountains, I traveled to Africa to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I lived my daily life among people strongly tied to the conditions of their landscape. Though the small victories I had there were rewarding, I discovered that I’d like to redesign spaces to make them more sustainable, productive, and enjoyable. From The Gambia, I applied to the program at the University of Minnesota.
Upon arriving in Minnesota in 2010, my Master of Landscape Architecture Class of 2013 cohort and I traveled to Itasca, the Headwaters of the Mississippi. There we learned about the natural and constructed setting of midwestern prairies, lakes, and forests. I recall the smell of the air in the white pine forest where we received our first instructions on sketching, on ecology, and on placemaking.
This blog, Desire Lines, has been a chronicle of that journey and I called on it to help me recall all the projects I’ve been involved in. Today’s post is the 68th I’ve written in the last three years here in Minnesota. While I haven’t posted as much as I’d like to have, it has been a good way to keep track of myself and to describe what its like to study landscape architecture here.
I also described to the committee what it was like to learn how to design. I decided on landscape architecture because I wanted to learn how to apply what I’ve been learning and experiencing to the future. Much of the work I was doing as an archaeologist for example was necessarily focused on the past histories of places but only set the stage for new adaptations to those places. Learning about places through the systematic dismantling of them led me to want to think beyond simply packing those inspirations into boxes to be catalogued and stored in museums. The University of Minnesota taught me to explore landform, structure, and vegetation as maleable objects for the expression of cultural traits and values.
During my first year here, in addition to my work in the studio, I volunteered with the ASLA as they endeavored to record oral histories of important landscape architects working in Minnesota. Funded by a State Legacy Grant, we used photography and videography to capture stories of the formation and development of practice in Minnesota.
Some of the people interviewed presented their impressions of landscape architecture to an excited audience at Rapson Hall. As I photographed the event, I had no idea how many important people were in the room with me. Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of encountering many of the attendees in my professional and educational surroundings.
At the end of my first year, I was invited to present a paper at the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians Sixth Anual Symposium on the Built Environment. The topic of the symposium was ‘Living the Didactic Landscape: Changing Intentions In the Meaning of Place.” I delivered a presentation on the new design guidelines of the St Anthony Falls Historic Zone.
The first half of my second year was fairly overwhelmed with a studio project in Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis. There, we applied changing paradigms in landscape architecture to a struggling office park complex known locally as the Golden Triangle. I looked at ways that feral ecologies can contribute to the redesign of anthropocentric landscapes.
Also during Fall 2011, I traveled to Ohio to participate in a project that would eventually dominate my life as a student.
Another project I described to the committee was my 365/365 photography project and exhibit. Even as I was learning about landscape in the classroom through various studies, this self-directed project allowed me to experiment with my surroundings. Carrying a camera everyday, everywhere forced me to be aware my environment. Wanting to capture something new and unique with each passing day, I sought out a mix of the old and the new, the shadow and the reflection, the highly designed and the organic.
Eventually, on December 31, 2011, I completed the project. I hadn’t missed a day. The next part of the project found me experimenting with ways to present all of these images. Though I had posted them to social media sites and had received constant feedback throughout the year, now I could assemble them all together into a cohesive body of work. Mapping became part of the project too as I wanted to represent the viewsheds captured day by day in a sort of travelogue. My exhibit in the Rapson Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library at the University of Minnesota was installed in January and lasted through May.
Unfortunately, I would enjoy that milestone for only a few weeks. I left Minneapolis at the end of February for the UMN Cities on Water tour of the Netherlands and Venice. There I worked with professors, fellow students, and professional planners and landscape architects to research, analyze, and design new solutions for various landscape problems. In Almera, the Netherlands I worked on an urban design charette and in Lelystad I proposed solutions to siltation of an empoldered lake.In Venice, I studied the cultural landscape of a UNESCO Heritage Site. Considering the depth of tradition and the importance of maintaining continuity and ‘sense of place’ crystalized for me the role that modern designers can play in the historic landscape.Upon returning to Minneapolis from Europe, I began my internship with Global Site Plans The Grid. There, I blogged about design and redesign in Minneapolis. My writing was focused on projects that explored connections to history ranging from the design guidelines of the historic St Anthony Falls to the new interpretive center at Coldwater Springs and from Hmong urban agricultural ventures to the slow process of brownfield remediation on the riverfront. One article allowed me to more fully investigate the historic preservation problem of Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.
My interactions with that place involved interviews with homeless people who were living there and discussions with City employees about maintenance problems. I spoke with people named Eagle Eye, Yoshi, and Patch about their experiences with violence, police brutality, and mosquitoes in this highly publicized urban park plaza. Peavey Plaza has lost much of former attractiveness for the City but has become a home for wayward people.My intimacy with that site plus my interest in cultural landscape conservation eventually led me to work on a World Monuments Fund nomination of Peavey. Listed on the National Register but threatened by City neglect and poor maintenance, the modernist park-plaza has taken on a life of its own. I employed my documentary skills to better understand the context of its modern identity. Being able to talk with people about their own experiences there I began to understand that this site is about more than just the historic preservation of a modernist space. The complex overlays of placemaking are not limited to simply describing the palimpsest of history there. Issues of social responsibility, public process, and democracy are often entangled in our built environment. Sometimes, I find it difficult to know what to focus on while exploring design.Other fascinating issues of the preservation of landscape include climate change and cultural tradition. Though I have worked in marginal landscapes in both New Mexico and The Gambia, West Africa, my journey to the Republic of Kiribati for the UNESCO World Heritage mission really allowed me to observe the potential implications of my own work.
Though acknowledging places as having historic importance is important to me, exploring modern landscapes having complex pasts with an eye to the future is the real focus of who I am becoming. In my work, I hope to strike a balance between conservation of tangible and intangible culture and issues of sustainability, integrity, and adaptability. My background in anthropology combined with my training in design and documentary work have allowed me to experiment, explore, and to understand.
Exotic places aside, my work has also provided me opportunities closer to home. My current internship with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has been a great chance to understand the complexities of working with local government. For over one hundred years, designers and planners in Minneapolis have been developing a unique cultural landscape of lakes, rivers, and skylines. Over 50 miles of parkways and 6000 acres of park land comprise our incredible recreational space called the Grand Rounds. I am presently writing a cultural landscape report for the National Register of Historic Places to help conserve this important resource.
Over the course of the Fall semester, I collaborated with two architecture students – Danica Kane and Jessica Adrejasich- on a project in northern Minnesota. Studying the balance between resilience and vulnerability, we looked at systems of extraction in the Iron Range and in the Port of Duluth.
Utilizing drawing, mapping, and modeling, we compared the movement of earth related to local, regional, and global economies. We produced a soundscape that informed our research and utilized GIS mapping to more fully see the layers of complexity here.
Our project eventually became one that designed a more sustainable future for extraction. In the Port of Duluth, one of the most active harbors in the USA, we looked at securing wildlife habitat, increasing greenspace, and managing risk for the transportation of raw and processed goods. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, we designed an infrastructure that maintained shipping channels while capturing silt from the many streams that drain into the Port. Finally, I had the opportunity to describe to the ASLA committee my capstone project. I’ve been very excited to move along the research and design process of this important space. Returning to the work I did at the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio during my second year in this program, I’ve been designing an interpretive landscape that describes the amazing geometric earthen architecture in Ohio.This project has allowed me to really look deeply into the past as I explore the processes of placemaking and cultural landscapes. More than 2000 years ago, the people now referred to as the Hopewell became the first landscape architects in what is now the United States. Employing the vocabularies of landscape- namely earth, water, and vegetation- the Hopewell designed many places for civic and ceremonial functions.Being an Ohioan by birth, my connection to this place is strong. My desire to explore the poetic landscapes of the past is one I cannot fully articulate. My future of work in landscape architecture is driven by my previous experiences as an anthropologist and documentarian. Developing my skills as a storyteller with the tools of landscape architecture has been an exciting pursuit. Now, as these three years as a graduate student come to a close, I am happy to have this opportunity to reflect back on all I’ve done. My life has changed drastically since coming to Minneapolis. In that time, I’ve lost people who were very important to me. I’ve grown older. My health has suffered from too many late nights and the poor diet of a graduate student. I’ve done embarrassing things and made a fool of myself in Rapson Hall on more than one occasion.I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m proud of the work I presented to the ASLA. I appreciate the University of Minnesota Department of Landscape Architecture for their nomination for this award. I acknowledge all of the people- fellow students, professors, and collaborators- who have helped me get to where I am. I congratulate the other candidates on their own individual achievements.I look forward to the future following graduation. As I begin to explore the possibilities for work that lie beyond this degree, I am excited for all I can do. There are so many opportunities. I feel very fortunate. I recently received the Garden Club of Virginia’s William D. Reiley Fellowship to research and write about the birthplace of RJ Reynolds in southern Virginia. Upon completion of my capstone and graduation, I’ll be leaving the city that has been a great home to me for the last three years and beginning a new chapter of this adventure. Though I’ll miss the friends I’ve made here and am sorry that I won’t experience another beautiful Minnesota summer, I look forward to the next landscape I can explore.