Landscape Architecture alumni establish a fund for equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts

During their time as students in Landscape Architecture, Rhiannon Neuville, Peter Samuels, and Jake Minden set out to establish a support fund in their department to help advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts.

UW // LA Fund for EDI, equity, diversity, inclusion

Launched in December 2020, the UW//LA Fund for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion aims to financially support a wide range of programs in UW’s Department of Landscape Architecture oriented toward justice in design education and, more broadly, EDI-oriented work within the field.

Administered by the UW//LA Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (JEDI) Committee, the fund will help bolster parallel ongoing efforts like that of the Endowed Scholarship for Diversity in Landscape Architecture and the MIG Scholarship Fund for the Design of Equitable and Inclusive Environments.

We want to thank all of the students and alumni who passionately advocated for the creation and implementation of this important fund, including Rhiannon Neuville, Peter Samuels, and Jake Minden. If you’re interested in furthering their work – contribute today!

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Alumni Spotlight: Kara Weaver, BLA ’05

For this edition of Alumni Spotlight we had the opportunity to speak with Kara Weaver, a landscape architect at Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) and a 2005 graduate of the BLA program.

Design for Hemisfair Civic Park in San Antonio, Texas.

UW/LA: Could you describe your current position and what a typical day looks like for you?

K: Right now I am the Project Manager for the Civic Park at Hemisfair in San Antonio, Texas. It’s sort of San Antonio’s counterpart to the Seattle Center, which was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. HemisFair ’68 was sited in downtown by the San Antonio River Walk. It was in a residential neighborhood that had a smaller, finer grain; and while not completely razed, it was dramatically changed to make a large fairgrounds with a controlled perimeter. Our clients are the City of San Antonio and the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), a local government organization that was formed in 2009 with the mission of revitalizing and stewarding this space as a public park. The intent is to break down the monolithic form of the park and make direct connections back into the city to draw people – not just tourists, but the residents of San Antonio – into the park. It’s a great client collaboration with an excellent vision of what it means to be a public space in the middle of a city.

In my position as an Associate at GGN, often in the role of Project Manager, much of what I do is keep the lines of communication open so that the client and design team are able to deliver the best project possible. On the Hemisfair project, GGN is the prime consultant, so we’re responsible for driving the vision and sustaining the quality of the design and documentation. In my role, I facilitate the coordination between the large team of engineering and specialty consultants. Even when we’re not prime, as the landscape architect firm, we know what’s going on with the building architects, civil engineers, and other disciplines because we approach the project and site holistically.

 

Abundant shade and engaging water features (using on-site recycled water) are important elements of the design for Hemisfair Civic Park.

UW/LA: I imagine coordinating with that many collaborators can get kind of complicated. Can you speak to your system for empathizing with everyone and weaving through all of those intentions and methods?

K: It is really complicated, and I think the biggest thing is just keeping lines of communication open and being methodical about recording decisions and scheduling project objectives. We also try to ensure that everybody feels empowered to speak up if they see potential issues with the work. Working on big, complicated projects is really fun when there’s a strongly structured communication plan.

UW/LA: Can you speak to a couple of the projects you’re working on now, or generally the types of projects your firm tackles? Have you developed a preference for any type of project that you’ve worked on?   

K: The Seattle work I’ve been involved with at GGN has touched on a wide-range of scales and project types, from the modular Chromer Parklet and Streatery that lived a short life on 2nd & Pike, to expansive urban planning projects like the Pike-Pine Renaissance Streetscape Visioning Project, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Campus, which thoughtfully uses the same detailing methods on the 5th Avenue Streetscape that it uses in the heart of the campus.

All of these projects explore the role of streets as public spaces. We have a foundational belief in building quality infrastructure that people experience, navigate, and enjoy every day.

Describing some of the detailing and design elements at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Campus in Seattle.

I’ve also worked on the Center City Connector Streetcar project here in Seattle, which is a very engineering-driven transit project along a long corridor, including the stretch of First Avenue that’s right outside our front door at Virginia Street near Pike Place Market. The project also includes Pioneer Square, a neighborhood for which I did historic interpretive planning before joining GGN. For each of these historic neighborhoods along the streetcar line, we looked for how to enhance the quintessential qualities of place within a limited design scope and budget.

When working on big projects, you have to figure out the conceptual frameworks first, but getting down to the point where you’re refining and translating those frameworks to the human experience is the most rewarding part for me. The fun part is figuring stuff out – I love doing grading, I love working out details, and I enjoy planting design.

I basically fall in love with every project that I work on!

UW/LA: How would you say your time in the department helped prepare you for your professional accomplishments?

K: What was most important to me was the community in studio: we had a really great group of BLA and MLA students who were super driven but also unusually cooperative. There were late nights in studio where I felt like we all pushed each other to think harder and draw better to make our projects as awesome as they could possibly be, but if someone was finishing a rendering right before pinup other people would go over and help them stipple or whatever needed to be done. I think that was excellent preparation for the profession: working collaboratively with rigor and support.

The program also taught a level of critical thinking that allowed me to nimbly jump into different situations. As a student, I sought out a quarter studio with the architecture department to do a design/build in Mexico, and I think that learning to interact and talk with people from other professions is vitally important. In my professional role it’s more likely that I’m going to be having a conversation with a structural engineer or an architect than with another landscape architect, so it’s great to see that the UW has become even better in terms of interdisciplinary interaction since I’ve graduated.

UW/LA: In the last few years Seattle as a city has kicked into overdrive with development. Having practiced here, we’re curious how that has changed and shaped your approach to design for this city.

K: As development becomes more concentrated, it’s critical to the city to have public spaces that are accessible to all. We need these spaces to have a high level of quality, with the same attention to detail and love put into them that you would have on a private terrace, so that they feel welcoming. What I find promising is that the rapid development happening in Seattle provides opportunities across disciplines for investing in high quality public spaces – and it doesn’t have to be at a high price point.

Doing construction administration for a project at 9,000 feet above sea level in Creede, Colorado.

When we were working on the Pike-Pine Renaissance Streetscape Concept Plan, our team analyzed the existing conditions of downtown and proposed simple interventions using standard materials to help unify the corridor. It was amazing to take a comprehensive inventory of all the different concrete pavings with sparkly this, swirly that, and stone accents. It might seem that a designer is adding quality to the streetscape by adding a fancier material, but novelty for the sake of novelty can be distracting – there’s a sense of civic cohesion that can get lost if every block has a different, special paving or other design approach. A better approach is the elegant consistency of simple materials. With all the development happening, what I’d like to see is designers upholding the city standards so that there is consistency between blocks, along streets and sidewalks.

I also just bought a house and I think about this a lot when I am in my own yard. I’m realizing how different it is – I have experience drawing some really refined details but when it comes down to it, keeping it simple and doing it yourself with free mulch and a wheelbarrow is very satisfying!

UW/LA: Will that be your first residential work?

K: Yes, actually! GGN does some residential work, and I’ve helped out with drawing details on some projects, but I’ve never worked on a residential project that was my primary project.

UW/LA: The last thing that we’ve been asking our alums is for any advice or musings you might want to pass on to people who are pursuing their degree. What would you say?

K: We see a tendency for design studios to have huge projects that are totally abstract to help develop complex systems thinking; that’s really cool and you should do that, but don’t shortchange yourself the time to actually design a space. Find opportunities to start with a big conceptual design, and then zoom into something that has spatial qualities and materiality. This will allow you to learn how to hold onto a larger design concept that is expressed through the detailing of design elements.

When we’re reviewing applicants, if we see projects that only provide abstract renderings, as imaginative as they might be, we can’t help but wonder if the applicant is actually interested in building work, or if they are only interested in thinking about far-reaching systems. Ideally, we want people who are invested in both scales, so make sure you give yourself the opportunity to really dig into at least one studio project.

Also be sure you foster and maintain the relationships you form through your studies, and feel confident in approaching professionals. I remember feeling really intimidated, all these fancy people working in offices, and then as soon as you start working in an office you realize your colleagues are only two or five years out of school, and they are barely beyond where you are in their career trajectory. Reach out to people and ask questions. Some people will say no if they’re too busy, but others might say yes even though they are busy as well. I think there’s a really good community here; I’m on the Professional Advisory Council for UW, which continually reminds me how much support there is for the department, the program, and most importantly the students. Seattle is a great place to go to school and practice as a landscape architect because there are good projects, good clients, and a critical mass of smart professionals in all different fields — take advantage of that!

Alumni Spotlight: Brad Kurokawa, BLA ‘82

This month we are spotlighting landscape architect Brad Kurokawa (BLA, 1982). He currently lives and works in Hawai’i as a Principal at Ki Concepts LLC, a small landscape architecture firm.

UWLA: Could you describe your current position?

BK: I’m a principal at Ki Concepts LLC, a small landscape architecture firm with my brother Joel. Our main office is in Honolulu and I work out of a satellite office on Big Island where I live. Our focus is here in Hawai’i where we have projects on most of the major islands. Our work is primarily with the public sector, designing schools campuses, parks, streetscapes, and green infrastructure although we do some private sector work. In terms of green infrastructure, something I was heavily involved with in Seattle, Hawai’i is probably about 10-15 years behind. I’m interested in regenerative planning and design which takes us beyond conventional sustainability. I’ve studied permaculture and pursued continuing education with the Regenesis Group out of Santa Fe, focused on regenerative design and development. I’m trying to advocate and implement that approach here in Hawai’i.

UWLA: In Hawai’i, the issue of sea level rise is more pressing than in other parts of the world; is mitigation something that is becoming more prevalent, or is it still developing?

BK: That dialogue is happening because sea level rise and climate change are readily experienced here. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i is prone to hurricanes, tsunamis, and flooding–phenomena influenced by climate change and sea level rise. Resilience planning and reexamining our coastal zones in terms of disaster potential are definitely on people’s radar. As always with the larger issues, you’d like to see more action and less studying, but the studies are important so that we can measure, quantify, and strategize effectively.

UWLA: Can you outline your journey from undergrad to now?

BK: While in school, I interned and worked part time with Richard Haag and at the office of Jones and Jones. After graduating, I worked at Jones and Jones for about three years, then back to Rich’s office working with him pretty much one-on-one. After school, then living and working in Seattle for several years, I wanted to experience the “big city”, so I moved to San Francisco and worked for EDAW doing larger-scale planning and design projects for about three years. I landed back in Seattle in the late-eighties after traveling Europe for two and half months. I continued my career in Seattle for almost 25 years working for firms such as Gaynor Inc, The Portico Group, Murase Associates, R. David Adams, and Nakano Associates before finally moving back to my roots, Hawaii in 2005.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – Entry

In the early part of my career, I constantly moved around—probably every three to five years—because I wanted to broaden my exposure to the profession and gain skills by working with different people on different projects in different offices. I worked for very small firms, large interdisciplinary firms, planning firms, and design build firms, which collectively gave me a broad foundation. I am extremely grateful to have been mentored by incredible practitioners like Kenichi Nakano, Howard Altman, Bob Murase and Rich Haag.

UWLA: How do you think your time at UW helped prepare you for those positions?

BK: The UW gave me a solid foundation and exposed me to the breadth of the profession. Professors like Kenichi, Rich and Bob Buchanan along with the range of other local design professionals sparked my passion and provided guidance that is rooted in how I practice to this day. Through the UWLA practicum program I also worked while in school, which exposed me to different firms and helped me better grasp what we were learning in school.

UWLA: Did you have a favorite place on campus (or in Seattle)?

BK: What I appreciate about the UW campus—and Seattle in general—is that there is always an opportunity to visually connect to the greater setting: the Olympics, the Cascades, Lake Washington, Lake Union, the Puget Sound. It would give me an opportunity to ground myself in the larger context of the Pacific Northwest landscape. Rainier Vista and the Arboretum, two very distinct places on campus, were special places for me. I also appreciate the various neighborhoods in Seattle—neat little enclaves that hang on, each with a strong sense of place.

Growing up in Hawai’i was similar: you can always see the water, and you orient yourself between ocean and mountains. You can place yourself in that setting and contemplate your relationship to the greater landscape and nature.

Molokai loi kalo detail

UWLA: Given that the scope of landscape architecture is always expanding and you’ve been in practice for several decades, I’m curious how your relationship with the discipline has shifted both as it’s changed and as you’ve grown as a professional.

BK: When I was in school, we were just starting to use CAD. I’ve never became proficient at its use but I’m glad that I learned how to use computers but not rely on them. There is something about the design process that, for me, needs to be tactile—the convention of putting pen to paper is magical. I believe that the human brain and its ability to take in multiple stimuli, synthesize, and generate artful or evocative design solutions is something we haven’t quite achieved with technology. One of the most intriguing aspects of environmental design is that we are experiencing movement and emotion in, through and as space in the greater environment. How do you touch the soul? I think that great design happens when you use the tools and technology but seek to connect with that which is experiential.

Kapolei Community Center Site Study (Ki Concepts)

I’ve always enjoyed the breadth of the profession, from the smallest scale up to the regional and global. It never gets boring! The issues that face our society—climate change, rising sea levels, peak oil—are critical, and I think it has always been important for the profession to consider how we engage with nature and coexist in a hopefully harmonious way. This motivates my particular interest in sustainability; we need to be more holistic, more integrated. We need to realize that we are not separate from, but a part of Nature. We have to learn how to become creative partners within Nature. When I think about it, this knowing has been behind my interest and passion for the profession, then and now. It’s all connected.

Two generations of Kurokawa at UW – Brad with son Kyle, UW BLA 2015.

Alumni Spotlight: Barbara Deutsch, MLA ’97

This month we are spotlighting Barbara Deutsch, a 1997 graduate of the MLA program. She currently lives in Washington D.C. working as the CEO of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF).

UWLA: What does a typical day look like in your position?

BD: No two days are the same but there are cyclical work flows during the year to lead the organization to align decision-making by a board of directors with programs and operations.  My position requires me to run a business by making a profit as well as showing a return on investment toward achieving the mission to all stakeholders. The LAF is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization with a mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment by increasing the influence of landscape architects through investments in research, scholarship, and leadership programs.

We have a staff of six highly talented, passionate people—four are landscape architects, one is an environmental engineer, and one has a business background. We work in downtown Washington D.C. and I ride my bike to work 4-5 miles each way most days of the year.

I spend about two thirds of my time in the office, working with staff on programs, strategy, fundraising, operations and evaluation. The other third of my time is spent speaking at conferences and visiting landscape architecture firms, like-minded nonprofit organizations, and agencies to figure out if and how we can work together towards achieving our shared interests and respective missions.  I love learning what others are doing and promoting what we do as landscape architects to a larger audience.

Facilitating a discussion about the expanding role of landscape architects.

Welcoming over 700 to LAF’s 2016 Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future.

UWLA: We are interested in the wide breadth of professional activities in which our alumni engage. What has been your professional journey from graduation to today, and what types of projects you have worked on—perhaps in your case, campaigns and building relationships?

BD: Post-graduation, I worked in Hong Kong with a private landscape architecture firm for two years. I was interested in growth issues– that as long as there are people, they need a place to live, work, rest, and play and how fun would that be to design and build places that were better for people and better for the environment. In Seattle I had volunteered for my neighborhood planning process–  where would we put another 1,000 people in 20 years and do the master plan.  In Hong Kong I was on a multidisciplinary core team for Government designing a new town to accommodate 200,000 people within 10 years. The change in scale was powerful.  I also worked on infrastructure plans to develop road and transit corridors, conservation strategies to protect areas of high scenic and landscape value, tree surveys, and a visitor signage strategy with the Hong Kong Tourist Association that was right that has been implemented throughout Hong Kong.

After Hong Kong I taught in the landscape architecture department at the University of Washington for two years and helped the department develop a strategic plan and an identity focused on urban ecological design. I loved teaching and learned so much from students and other faculty and delight in seeing UW alumni doing great work all over the globe!

I then moved to D.C. to work in the nonprofit sector, beginning with a new environmental non-profit organization called Casey Trees. We worked to develop a GIS inventory of 140,000 street trees to give to the city as a management tool. We did this through a citizen-based data collection model, using a GIS enabled handheld device to evaluate the health of the street trees and identify opportunities for planting. This was before smart phones!  35 college students, community volunteers, and high school students helped collect this information; over half were landscape architecture students who were passionate about nature and also about understanding how the city works from the ground up and good with working with people.

I worked to build the first green roof on a high elevation commercial building in D.C.  This led to a research grant with the EPA called the Green Build-out Model which quantified the stormwater management benefits of trees and green roofs at different coverage scenarios in DC. I worked with environmental engineers who did the modeling for the $2.5 billion underground storm water tunnels that were coming to D.C. What would happen if we put a tree or a green roof wherever we could? Could that make a difference in managing our storm water, and offset investment in these tunnels, which don’t provide all the multiple benefits that green infrastructure solutions do? We did the modelling, and it helped inform stormwater planning here in D.C.

Later on, I consulted with a charitable organization in London and worked with developers to implement a sustainability action plan for BioRegional’s OnePlanet program. OnePlanet defines sustainability as an ecological footprint of one planet’s worth of resources and provides a method for achieving it. In North America we operate at 5+ planet’s worth of resources, in Europe it’s 3+ planets, in United Arab Emirates it’s 7+ planets.  We only have one planet and this program provides a method to live within our fair share. There are ten principles with which the developer and design teams set stretch targets such that when the project is built and operating, it uses up to one planet or less of resources.

This experience, along with my landscape architecture experience, helped inform the LAF Landscape Performance Series: the strategic long-term research initiative here at LAF to quantify environmental, social, and economic benefits of exemplary projects and show the value of sustainable landscape solutions.  The transformation we are achieving is to integrate the basic business practice of performance planning, measurement, and evaluation into design practice to innovate and reach a wide array of decision-makers.

The award-winning Landscape Performance Series: landscapeperformance.org (2015 ASLA Professional Award of Excellence in Communications)

UWLA: Reflecting more directly on your time at UW—not only as a student but also as a teacher—is there anything especially relevant that you learned here, that has carried through over the years?

BD: The UW Landscape Architecture Department took a chance on me.  Before coming to the UW, I worked at IBM and didn’t have relevant design experience, plus I started the first quarter half-way through because I was working on a congressional campaign. UW provided me with a topnotch education that was values-based, innovative, and helped develop my critical thinking skills. I was strongly influenced by the department’s ethos and culture, ecological focus, cultural intelligence, and community engagement and service. They encouraged me to follow an unconventional path and introduced others who have done that to support me. I definitely have a warm spot in my heart for UW’s landscape architecture department.

And every now and again I can still recall some of my studio crits from Iain Robertson. He’s always had a constructive, positive way of getting to the heart of everything which is a valuable skill.

UWLA: Please tell us about a pivotal moment from your time here at the University of Washington.

BD: There were three courses that really influenced me, and I recognize and appreciate the faculty who made that possible.

The first was the GIS class in natural processes, using GIS as a critical thinking, decision-making tool rather than simply a representation tool.  The class was taught by Boykin Witherspoon and has directly informed my work at Casey Trees ad LAF.

The second was the history class with David Streatfield. I never liked history until this class.  When he started talking about women in landscape architecture, a light bulb went off!  I felt included and recognized.  It suddenly became real—it’s not only about dead old white men on horses. I think this is still relevant and compelling today given our current state of affairs and desire to be innovative and diverse.

The third was the professional practice class with Sally Schauman, where I learned there are many ways to practice this awesome profession. When she brought in landscape architects who worked for federal or state agencies and nonprofit organizations, I was so excited!  I thought that was fun and realized that I ultimately wanted to work for an environmental nonprofit organization.

Interview with Jean Ponzi for a podcast for the USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter (September 2017).

UWLA: We find the scope of landscape architecture is ever expanding and always in flux—how has your relationship with the discipline evolved over the course of your career?

BD: My relationship with the discipline over the last twenty years of my career has greatly evolved. I continue to grow in appreciation for what it can do. We’re not going to save the world on our own, but we do have a critical role to play, and we need more of us to help solve the defining issues of our time. We’ve seen the age of architecture and the age of engineering, and this is the age of landscape architecture—this is our time. But it doesn’t just happen by itself.  We need to make it happen and I am so happy to be where I am at LAF to help.

A key point in The New Landscape Declaration, is that it’s not good enough to just be a good designer. You need to be an active designer, in whatever way, shape, or form that takes. We need to work on not just our ecological literacy and intelligence, but our cultural literacy and intelligence as well—and I think this goes back to the strengths of UW.

Barbara with LAF Board Immediate Past President Jennifer Guthrie (BLA ’93) and President Adam Greenspan at the 2017 LAF Benefit in Los Angeles. (photo credit: LAF / Lovelight Studios (lovlght))

Alumni Spotlight: Steve Moddemeyer, BLA ‘89

This month we are spotlighting Steve Moddemeyer (BLA 1989). Steve works in Seattle and is a principal with CollinsWoerman, an architecture and planning firm. His work focuses on creative planning and policy strategies that promote urban resilience and sustainability.

UWLA: Could you outline your professional journey between graduation and today?

S: My first job was working as an urban designer at a small start-up firm. I worked there for two years until the partners parted ways over the Christmas holidays. Fortunately, I was at a Christmas party and a friend let me know about an environmental planning job with a Tribe on the Olympic Peninsula. I ended up working for the Tribe for almost three years. My work focused on issues related to natural resource management, and mitigating the impacts of development on habitat. I represented the Tribe with land use negotiations, and it was an incredible opportunity to learn about and interact with every level of government. The Tribe was an incredible source of knowledge about the tensions that exist in the interactions between government assistance and cultural, land use, and environmental systems. During this time, I also had the opportunity to represent the Tribe while working on one of the first watershed plans in the state of Washington.

After about three years, I moved to the City of Seattle Water Department to help establish Central Puget Sound watershed planning efforts. Over time I started focusing more on the interaction between urban form and habitat. When several species of salmon were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, I helped launch the city’s “Salmon Friendly Seattle.” At the time, most folks didn’t want to pollute water but didn’t see protecting habitat as their responsibility, so we started thinking about how government and homeowners make choices to protect habitat in urban areas. I also worked on many issues including integrated water strategies and intergovernmental relations. During my last two years with the city, I transferred to the planning department to incorporate sustainability thinking into land use policy and government spending.

Steve led the development of the award-winding Seattle Green Factor: https://www.asla.org/2010awards/519.html

By then it had been about 14 years since my first job, and I always assumed I would make the shift back to consulting. When CollinsWoerman offered me a job, I basically said, “I want to work with cities and utilities on advanced sustainability thinking. Would you support me in developing a practice doing that, and I’ll support you in making your practice more sustainable?” We agreed, and I just celebrated my nine-year anniversary here.

UWLA: Your journey took you in quite a few directions! How did your time at UW inform some of these movements out of design?

S: I actually didn’t go to college for 10 years after I graduated high school. During those years, I was a carpenter, an artist, and a musician. By the time I got to the University of Washington, I was already my own person and the things that interested me involved nature, art, and creativity. I thought of going back to school as analogous to learning my scales—if you play jazz, you can doodle and play fun stuff, but if you know what lies underneath you can achieve more mastery. In a way, I built the foundation after I already had the music.

Another fantastic aspect of the UW was the depth of the library and the depth of the expertise. For example, I took a dance class; in learning Laban movement analysis I gained a lot of understanding that is still valuable to me today. I felt that if I was willing to keep showing up, there was no end to what I could learn.

Along Brooklyn Ave in the UDistrict. (photo credit: KUOW) Check out the KUOW Story: http://kuow.org/post/when-seattles-big-storm-hits-let-streets-become-rivers

UWLA: Can you speak to a pivotal moment in your education?

S: I was taking a wetlands design course from Sally Schauman, who was Department Chair at the time. When she assigned our first project, I asked her if she wanted me to just use what we had been taught, or to apply other things that I knew. She replied, “I want you to apply everything you know.” It was like I was suddenly encouraged to bring all of me into every part of what I was doing. To me that was just perfect—I’ve used her permission in all of my careers.

That is the freedom that landscape architecture has as a discipline and profession; it’s this wonderful mix of humans, nature, cultivated nature, technique, and the ability to weave it all into a culturally informed, artistic whole. In working with clients, translation and the cross-application of concepts has always been important to me.

UWLA: How does creativity still manifest in your career, given that design is a very explicitly creative aspect of what we do, but consultation requires other skills like flexible thinking?

S: The difference between creativity and innovation is key. Since I’m kind of a urban planner now, I’ve been exploring the concepts that frame socio-ecological resilience, asking myself how our understanding of natural system functions could be applied to our thinking about cities and their operations. I’m not creating anything new necessarily, but I’m being innovative in the sense of extracting, reconfiguring, and determining strategies for implementation. It’s a little bit like biomimicry, but what’s different is that socio-ecological resilience looks at how species adapt to changes while maintaining their individual identity.

What is it about humans that makes them resilient, and how can we apply what we know to build and manage our infrastructural systems? That’s where I’m being creative; I’m writing about “How do you do this?”, “What does it mean?”, and “What is the practical application?”

On a different note, I play the tuba and write music for a brass quartet. So in the most traditional sense, that is probably my most creative outlet. When engaged in writing music, it’s like sensory deprivation; everything else goes away. You go into this place that you’re creating and because it’s music, it’s emotion, and there’s a form and language to it.

UWLA: Given you have been in the field for quite a while, how has your relationship with the discipline evolved?

S: When I was going to the UW there was an emphasis on aesthetics; most people were studying the art of landscape architecture. I really liked that perspective, but was also happy when we began to integrate technology and knowledge of the ecological and physical sciences that underpin it all. Aesthetics are important as is a deep understanding of landscape processes and human dynamics.

Landscape architecture is a fantastic field with an extremely powerful essence, but I would like it to be rebranded. I stopped telling people I studied landscape architecture because they would just jump to the conclusion that I was going to redesign their backyard. I would say if there was a marketing challenge that would be it. How do we reframe the profession to the larger public? How do we get people to understand that landscape architecture has the right tools that can help our world to understand and manage the dynamics between nature and society?

UWLA: Our last question is somewhat in line with that, but more spatial and localized within Seattle. Given how rapidly it’s developing and changing, how has your work gone along with that process or have you had to adapt to it?

S: My first thought has to do with how we’re building all these high-rise buildings where too many will be teardowns after the next big earthquake. We just built a new generation of buildings in South Lake Union to a minimum life-safety standard to withstand earthquake shaking. Life safety is good as more people will survive.  But if the building itself is unusable, think of all the months and years it will take us to recover. We shouldn’t externalize the recovery to the survivors.  Yet that’s what we do when we do not include recovery in our design.

Experience shows us that the longer the recovery the greater the suffering for surviving individuals, families, and local businesses. We should be thinking seriously about building to a higher habitability standard instead of this minimum.

Presenting at a conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Socio-ecological resilience thinks about designing cities and human habitat with as much resilience as salmon habitat.  This is completely doable and doesn’t necessarily require new technology, just a different perspective on how we develop and manage our city. The key difference is that we currently design systems to resist —a storm of a certain size, or an earthquake of a certain size—we just resist change up to a certain level, which is great when the things that knock us back are rare. But with climate change, meteorological change, and earthquakes, things that are only designed to resist are going to be breaking down more often. We ought to be redesigning our systems to recover quickly and to respond adaptively and flexibly when change does happen.

Ultimately, how our city changes and emerges over time needs to incorporate insights from the way nature adapts to change. As landscape architects who are already working at the intersection between natural and built systems, we have the skills and capacity to do that, if we choose.

Alumni Spotlight: Shu-Kuei (Tako) Hsu, MLA ’14

ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT is a new department initiative to connect our prospective and current students with the diverse career trajectories and professional work of our graduates. We are extremely proud of the accomplishments of our alumni, and enjoy the opportunity to learn about the directions they have taken their career, whether short or long.

The interviews are organized and conducted by our students. Over the next academic year, we will provide a new alumni spotlight on a monthly basis. Check back often, and let us know if there is someone you would like us to bring into the spotlight. Special thanks to Rich Desanto and Lauren Wong (both MLA ’19) for conducting and compiling these interviews.

This month we are spotlighting Shu-Kuei (Tako) Hsu. Tako came to the University of Washington with a previous degree in landscape architecture from Chung Yuan Christian University (CYCU) in Taoyuan City, Taiwan. He graduated from the Master of Landscape Architecture program in 2014, and currently resides in New York, New York working as a project manager with !melk landscape architecture and urban design.

Could you outline your professional journey between graduation and today?

After I graduated from UW, I worked for Thomas Balsley Associates (currently SWA/Balsley) for two years. I then took a project management position with !melk.

Mr. Balsley is an ASLA Design Medal recipient, and is one of the greatest designers I have ever had the opportunity to work with. He has a great team and an elegant style of design with a design touch on the landscape that is poetic. His work is so detail-oriented and specific to the place. I learned a lot about what it means to be a complete designer from my two years working in his office.

I recently joined !melk. This position has been a large departure from Mr. Balsley’s design process. I believe this to be the most actively innovative environment I have ever had the opportunity to engage with. We don’t design with a formula; every project is unique to its own context. We break the boundaries of landscape architecture, continuously challenging preconceived perspectives of the field. We work hard, play hard, think further, and bring art and identity to the site. Every day, every project is a new challenge for us, because much of our design emerges as we work our way through the project.

Inside the !melk studio in New York City. image credit: Shu-Kuei Hsu

What types of projects have you worked on?

From my previous to current office, I have worked on projects across the globe—many in New York, others in Las Vegas, Texas, Toronto, China, Middle East, and Russia. The scale has been rich, ranging from large urban projects like waterfronts, plazas, and urban parks, to smaller scales like commercial spaces and residential projects. The projects I have spent a lot of time on are a waterfront park in New York City, a hotel roof terrace, a commercial space in China, and numerous design competitions.

Zil Art Park under construction (Moscow, Russia)
image credit: !melk

Do you have a preference for the type of project you work on?  

I like public parks—specifically highly urban public parks. It is an amazing feeling to watch people and families actively enjoying and using the spaces created through your design work.

Zil Art Park (Moscow, Russia)  image credit: !melk

Suhewan Park (Shanghai, China)  image credit: !melk

When you think back across your career, how do you think your time at the University of Washington prepared you?

I think UW provided an open and creative environment for me to think freely, forcing me to engage beyond the boundaries of the site. I was able to build a strong foundation and learned an approach to design that was creatively inspired yet focused and methodological. An example was a studio I took with professor Ben Spencer. Working with an informal community outside of Lima, Peru, we designed and built prototypes for fog collectors in a greenhouse and did experiments on different materials and structures, looking to understand which were the most efficient and cost-effective.

The Scan|Design studio with professor Nancy Rottle took us to Copenhagen, where we visited many firms and learned about green infrastructure. I also took a design/build studio with professor Daniel Winterbottom. We built a community garden in a Japanese-American community center in Seattle. That was a tremendous experience and the first time I got to work through every stage of the process from community meetings, to concept development, and eventually construction. The studio and classes were all very hands-on and interactive, and taught me skills that I’m using every day in my office: from virtual model building to design visualization to construction drawings.

Building on that, can you reflect on a pivotal moment in your education?

Back at the University of Washington, I made a lot of friends; we were young and passionate designers with bold ideas. We always wanted to do more. I often worked with my peers on competitions with the help of professors like Nancy Rottle and Jeff Hou. Many of the competitions I did mainly because I saw the call for entry and had a feeling for the site, or was interested in the scale or subject (global warming, sea level rise, or post-industrial sites).

We were lucky to win a few of the competitions, so we were invited to travel to many places to exhibit and present our design schemes. This amount of recognition was a huge encouragement for us, giving us more confidence and determination to pursue urban ecological design. When we got to travel, we met with juries and other teams. You really compare your scheme with other schemes—what are the good ideas you didn’t think of? How are they represented? How should we do this the next time?

Seoul Urban Design Award with Youngsuk Jun (MLA ’15) and Janice Chen (BLA ’14)

Our last question is about how the scope of landscape architecture is ever expanding; has your relationship with the discipline evolved at all through your years as a professional?

We are leaving the earth even warmer than before, but I think the concepts and active practices of sustainable design, green infrastructure, rainwater recycling, etc. are deeply integrated into the profession of landscape architects. Landscape architects actively work with architects, engineers, and ecologists hoping to better integrate sustainable strategies into the design and operations of our built environment infrastructures.

Issues of social and economic sustainability are two topics I think landscape architects should continue to build into their practice. How do we create identities and raise awareness of the environment in neighborhoods? Many of the projects we see today are more and more similar. We are subconsciously building on the success of others without reframing the ideas in new contexts. How do we initiate the creation of public space through an approach that gives it its own identity in relationship to the neighborhood? How can we, as designers, work to help communities engage in and recognize the power they have to create places they are proud of? I think that is a very important thing for us to do too.

Any last parting thoughts or words of wisdom?

(laughing) No, I don’t think I’m at that level yet to provide words of wisdom, but I think landscape architecture is a really dynamic field. It’s difficult, but it’s a lot of fun. It makes you think and act creatively; that’s what I like about it.

 

UW LArch alumnus Harley Pan’s Floating Wetlands documentary

For the past two years, MLA student Matthew MacDonald (2016) has been studying the viability and effectiveness of floating wetlands to improve local water quality. The research has been conducted in partnership with UW Larch / UW CBE and Green Futures Lab, with support from King County, Washington Conservation Corps, and Society of Wetland Scientists. The video was directed and produced by Harley Pan (MLA 2012).