Posts by darrenshirai

Still from the 20-minute documentary, “The New Landscape Declaration“, a critical, provocative, and inspirational examination of the role of landscape architecture and the design of public space.

What defines “good design”? It’s a question that eventually led me to two sources, including AHBE’s own website. There, I reviewed the following firm statement:

“The pursuit of the greater good drives AHBE Landscape Architects. We begin each project as an exploration about how the site is ecologically connected to the larger network of natural lands, open spaces and other landscapes.
Seeing landscapes through the lens of infrastructure, we take a holistic approach to solving design problems. Our commitment to sustainable design guides us to ask questions, explore new ideas and think innovatively. Out of this process, beauty and performance emerge from the landscape.

AHBE is an award-winning professional service corporation. Collectively, we have extensive experience in the technical development of design aesthetics and constructability that are hallmarks of our work.”

The language above suggests a list of values and goals important to our practice and profession:

  • a healthy environment
  • a beautiful environment
  • contribute to “the greater good”
  • connect with site’s context (ecological, networks, etc.)
  • facilitate polyfunctional networks (this is my assumption of what it means to view landscape “through the lens of infrastructure”)
  • incorporate sustainable design methodologies and systems
  • explore new ideas
  • innovation
  • performance

To further understand how our firm’s mission statement relates to our profession’s vision for itself in the first half of the 21st Century, I looked to the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s 2016 Declaration of Concern issued on June 10-11 2016. The Landscape Declaration manifesto is a synthesis of the values, discussions, and ideas expressed by a diverse group of the world’s leading thought leaders in the field of landscape architecture, one representing a vision for the evolution of the profession for the next half-century. It asserts the essential role of landscape architecture in solving issues such as climate change, species extinction, rapid urbanization, and inequity. The recommendations are relevant to all designers, underscoring the need to diversify, innovate, and create a bold culture of inclusive leadership, advocacy, and activism.

The Landscape Declaration’s aspirational vision for the profession can serve as a basis for fleshing-out our own design values and goals. There is significant alignment of the vision expressed in our firm statement and the Landscape Declaration, leading me to believe our values are sound and relevant for the 21st Century. The intent of our values requires further clarification if we want to determine how a design measures up to our stated values and goals. What do we mean when we say we value, or aim to create, healthy and beautiful environments, or contribute to the greater good, or think innovatively etc.?

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As a follow-up to a previous post investigating Post Occupancy Evaluation methodology and its benefits to the design practice, I have been thinking about the kind of information garnered from the process and what data would prove most beneficial for landscape architects. Performance-based or quantitative data is relatively easy to measure and compile, but assessment of an aesthetic or qualitative design aspects can prove much trickier.

Adhering to a checklist of design best practices assures a baseline level of design competency. However, designers ultimately evaluate qualitative design aspects through the lens of their values. Note, the term “evaluation” contains the word “value”. It is personal and professional values that influence how we judge any design.

Everyone has a different perspective about what constitutes “good” design, with context and the passage of time further adding to the complexity to their definition of pleasing aesthetics. With a body of work spanning over three decades, AHBE has an opportunity to benefit by studying the evolution of our practice’s design work against the backdrop of major shifts in professional and societal values, including the greater inclusion of ecological principles in design and the general cultural trend toward celebrating cities and urban living.

U.S. Borax Headquarters, Santa Clarita, California, Completed March 1993. Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects.

What design lessons might the U.S. Borax Headquarters project have taught us had it not been replaced by the owner? Twenty-five years after its initial installation, the design could have served as an example of the enduring nature of “good design”.

Cedars-Sinai Healing Plaza Garden, Los Angeles, California, Completed Fall 2016. Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects.

Assuming “good design” is functional, what other criteria might be used to evaluate the quality of our current design? Does the design of the Cedars-Sinai Healing Plaza Garden express a clear, unambiguous, and cohesive identity? Is it evocative and engaging? How thoughtful is the design in addressing the needs of users? The answers to these questions can clarify the core design values for our firm and serve as a clear touchstone for our design process moving forward.

Photo: AHBE

It’s the time of the year when landscape architecture firms across the nation begin determining which projects to submit for consideration for the ASLA Professional Awards. Only a small fraction of any firm’s work is ever submitted for design accolades, with only the most compelling and photogenic projects supplemented with publication-ready graphics considered. Costs related to producing submissions are high, thus only projects with the best chances of winning recognition for the firm are normally submitted.

While award-winning projects reflect our profession’s definition of “good design”, they are not always the sole measure of design quality. Design is our primary product, and we could not remain in business if most (perhaps all) of our designs did not meet the measure of “good” to some degree, at least in the opinion of our paying clients. But what do we even mean when we refer to “good design”?

There are both quantitative and qualitative issues designers must consider when pondering whether a design meets the criteria of  “good”. On one hand, many aspects of a design’s performance are quantifiable – lighting, acoustics, temperature, humidity, durability of materials, amount, and the distribution of space – measurable aspects easily evaluated. Then there are qualitative aspects of design relating to issues like sensory appeal, aesthetic beauty, and visual compatibility with surrounding context – aspects without conventional methods of measurement relying upon subjective personal judgements to evaluate.

Designers ultimately evaluate qualitative aspects of design through the lens of their values. The term “evaluation” contains the word “value”, in this case the personal and professional perspectives influencing how we subjectively judge a design’s value, failure, or something in between. These values inform our design approach, and eventually become the foundation of our personal design process.

How well does our built work reflect our design values? And how do we determine the extent to which our projects succeed? Social, economic, environmental, and aesthetic values are expressed during pre-design and schematic design. However, most projects lack any post-construction or post-occupancy evaluation (POE) and monitoring to determine if, and how well, our values are conveyed through the installed design.

POE can be described as a process of evaluating design by studying built projects in a systematic and rigorous manner after the project has been opened for use. My initial research into the subject revealed POE can be a very complex, time-consuming, and expensive process that, in some cases, has evolved beyond evaluations focused primarily on the performance of projects. For example, Universal Design Evaluation (UDE) focuses on a holistic, process-oriented approach to project evaluation, including an analysis of political, economic and social forces shaping the built design.

Motivated by a personal desire to learn more about the value of the POE methodology and its professional application, I recently visited the Monrovia Station Square Transit Village. One of AHBE’s most recently completed projects, the Monrovia Station Square Transit Village offered a test case for identifying and integrating the POE methodology into our design process:

Monrovia Station Square Transit Village: Myrtle Street streetscape (view north toward 210 freeway and San Gabriel Mountains) May 2013, before project ground-breaking. Photo: AHBE

Monrovia Station Square Transit Village: Myrtle Street streetscape (view north toward 210 freeway and San Gabriel Mountains) February 2018, two years after project installation. Appears to be an improvement over what once existed here. There is more living biomass sequestering CO2, planting areas adjacent to the parking lot and street receive urban run-off, trash receptacles help keep the community clean, furniture and seatwalls provide opportunities for visitors to linger and get to know one another. What design lessons does this design provide that can be used to elevate the design of our next project? Photo by Darren Shirai

Monrovia Station Square Transit Village Amphitheater: February 2018, two years after installation. It was a clear, sunny day in Monrovia. Temperature in the mid-70s, 11:00~11:30am on a Saturday, President’s Day weekend. Is this space an example of “good’’ design. How do we know? I only observed one other person besides myself inhabiting the space during my 30 minutes survey. Which metrics should we apply to evaluate a design?

Monrovia Station Square Transit Village Amphitheater: February 2018, two years after installation. The only other person observed occupying the space besides myself was this fellow. How clearly are our design values revealed through the projects we pursue and the way we design them?

Many of us wipe our hands clean after the handover of a project, considering it the final stage of our involvement. However, we should not cease caring about the condition of our built work after opening day, noting some of the most valuable lessons about design coming to light only after a project’s completion. Verifying whether an installation is performing as intended is a major contribution to a firm’s professional expertise, delivering feedback about identifiable successes to be repeated with future projects, or conversely, aspects of a project that did not meet expectations. Evaluations also reveal and identify whether innovations are missing their targets. By collecting data from several projects landscape architects can improve their understanding of experiential appeal in general, while also providing the foundation of an updated thesis to inform future design decisions.

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

An AHBE Lab post I remember as particularly memorable was a piece written by my colleague Jessica Roberts. Her post “One Neighborly Prickly Pear” tells the tale of a prickly pear cactus growing over her neighbor’s fence, its growth instigating a personal journey of discovery leading to a deeper understanding of indigenous food culture and the niche edible plants can occupy in urban ecologies.

Jessica’s opinion of the prickly pear cactus adjacent to her backyard isn’t adversarial, but considered as a plant that “isn’t dividing, but uniting neighbors”. Her observation highlights even when there is a need to separate neighbors, there are still design solutions capable of mitigating alienation, deter seclusion, and bring people together. What the story highlights well is the potential efficacy of these design solutions when they are grounded in contextual and cultural relevance. It is through these shared, tangible experiences that designed landscapes can become relevant, meaningful, and beloved.

The cactus in Jessica’s post not only grows next to her home, it also produces edible fruit sold by her local market, an integral ingredient of the culinary culture of others in her community. In this case the cactus is not just an arbitrarily selected landscape element with little relevance to the community. The prickly pear cactus is meaningful to the local culture and ecology in a variety of ways, with the power to evoke a sense of connection to the natural and cultural environment that is not easy to disregard or ignored. It is through these shared, mutually-beneficial experiences where bonds between people are established and the foundation of sustainable communities are built upon.

The original post here: One Neighborly Prickly Pear

The East Courtyard, looking northward toward the San Gabriel Mountains, October 2017. All photos AHBE Landscape Architects.

As AHBE Landscape Architects’ newest employee, there is much about our design legacy that is still a bit of a mystery. Recognizing this gap in knowledge, I thought it might be beneficial to acquaint myself with AHBE’s body of work by visiting projects close to my own home in Pasadena. The projects that I visited, including the Pasadena City College Technology-Arts Building, may not be highly publicized projects, but I immediately recognized cumulatively the firm’s 30-year body of work has made a positive impact upon numerous communities and the people nearby, including my very own.

The campus of Pasadena City College is open and accessible to the public, and nearby residents love the access to its safe, well-maintained outdoor open spaces. Pasadena residents, students, and the college faculty all use the campus at all hours of the day. The paseo running along the south side of the Technology-Arts building is a popular route for joggers and power-walkers from nearby residential areas. The paseo route plays a significant role in building a sense of community, an outdoor space where neighbors get to know their neighbors across its entire distance.

Before joining the team last month, I had no idea the space was designed by AHBE. However, now more than ever, I know firsthand the work my firm has done has left a positive impact across Southern California. During my research I discovered some pictures in our project archives revealing what the initial installation looked like back in 2013. I’ve collected a few to share below, showing the states of “yesterday” versus “today”, also proud in recognizing I’ll be contributing to AHBE’s “tomorrow”.


The views of the Paseo before and after, 2013 vs. 2017.


Paseo plantings detail, before and after, 2013 vs. 2017


Concrete seat-wall, before and after, 2013 vs. 2017.


North courtyard, before and after, 2013 vs. 2017.