Posts tagged interview

All photos: Jenni Zell

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is their effects upon the way I see and experience the world. Last month I viewed the exhibition, “Robert Irwin: Site Determined” at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach. The exhibit focused on the artist’s luminous and arresting drawings and architectural models. In fact, I have never seen drafting as beautiful and precise as Irwin’s. It is not for want of looking. Last weekend I saw Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes and a few of LeWitt’s wall drawings at SFMOMA. The works felt like formal and conceptual warm-up exercises to Irwin’s site determined works. Creating art that exists outside the domain of a frame and the walls of a gallery and instead in the perceptions of a viewer, is the legacy of Irwin’s body of work.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how his art continues to develop along a trajectory he set out for himself early in his career, one grounded in the philosophy of phenomenology. At 89, Irwin continues to create influential new works. His installation at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas was completed in 2015. At my ripening age his example motivates me to push myself – not toward some predetermined outcome or achievement, but to follow my own inquiry.

What I like the most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin is how it informs and guides my work as a landscape architect. Several years ago I had the good fortune to deep dive into Irwin’s body of work. I read the books, visited all the installations and exhibits, spent a week (wearing white cotton gloves) reading and looking through the Robert Irwin Papers at the Getty Research Institute. I have interviewed Irwin, and listened to and transcribed these conservations. He is a warm, approachable, and generous teacher.

One particular conservation with Irwin I transcribed took place at the University of Alabama on March 29, 2007 and remains particularly memorable and representative of what I like most about the teaching, work, and writing of Robert Irwin:

“What I am trying to test, or the game I am playing doing a garden and being an architect and all that is … what I try and do in that situation is make what I do respond to all those things which are existing cues and I do not invent or design anything. I pay attention to those existing cues and finally assemble them… the thing I am really involved with is not just changing or making a garden, but changing the whole process of how we make it a garden, conceptually to make things different in the world, and that is where I am going.”

Chuan Ding is a landscape designer at AHBE Landscape Architects and has a playful way of sketching what she sees.

Chuan draws on anything she can find. All photos by Jenni Zell.

When did you start sketching?
I began sketching when I was really young. One of my earliest memories is of my dad; he was an oil painter and would leave his unfinished canvases on easels around the house. One time I took his brushes and painted on top of one of his paintings. He still has it.

Chuan works out design details for a project.

Were you always drawing on your notebooks in school?
I drew a lot in kindergarten and elementary school, but quit drawing in high school because I spent so much time studying that I did not have time to draw. When I went to college in China, I started drawing again because we were required to for school. I went to Nanjing Forestry University and we were trained to draw classic Chinese landscape scenes with lots of decorative patterns. The sketches were very formal and took many hours to make. We did not use computer programs for technical drafting or drawing through our third year. Our end of studio exams were about 4-6 hours long and all our plans, details, bird’s-eye-views, and perspectives were hand drawn.

I am sure the process was quite different when you went to USC for graduate school?
At USC I only sketched when I was thinking through an initial concept. Most of the time I used the computer for drawing.

Chuan’s June Post-it note calendar.

Do you sketch now during the design process?
I always like to start with a sketch and then put it into CAD. I have my own style – loose and fast – and it helps me to think through ideas and organize my thoughts. Sometimes I don’t have an idea and I start drawing. At the beginning, it may not have any meaning, but eventually a shape will emerge and I can develop that idea.

How do you find time to draw?
Drawing is a stress release for me and I began sketching in meetings. I started sketching more when I burned out my hard drive at work and the spinning wheel would come up on my computer after opening Illustrator or other drawing programs.  I made use of the time by sketching. I also sketch at home. If I am watching a movie and I see a nice composition, I will take a screen shot and then copy it by drawing the scene.

Chuan’s July Post-it not calendar.

I knew you were talented at computer drawing because we work on projects together, but I didn’t know you were also talented at hand drawing until I noticed your Post-it note calendar in your work space. Tell me about your calendar?
I try to find something special, or fun about every day and I spend 10 minutes making a sketch about what I discover. Drawing is a way to express myself and if I find something inspiring, or fun, I sketch it and put in my calendar.

Do you think you will keep producing your calendar every month?
That is the plan for now.

Interview conducted and condensed by Jenni Zell.


As Principal Restoration Ecologist and co-founder of Tidal Influence, Eric Zahn is helping to grow a constituency for the restoration and conservation of the fragmented coastal ecosystem of the San Gabriel River Estuary. Through research, monitoring, and public education, his company helps to protect and restore coastal ecosystems and one particularly fascinating species, the Pacific green sea turtle.

Jennifer Zell of AHBE Landscape Architects spoke with Eric recently about his scientific work monitoring the species and raising public awareness about the importance of conservation and restoration of their habitat.

Pacific Green Turtles have been sighted as far north as the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Chile, with populations swimming as far as Japan and southern parts of Russia's Pacific coast.

Pacific Green Turtles have been sighted as far north as the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Chile, with populations swimming as far as Japan and southern parts of Russia’s Pacific coast.

LB sea turtleShortly after moving to Long Beach, I was riding my bicycle along the San Gabriel River trail when I spotted what at first I thought was a piece of carpet. I then recognized it as some sort of mysterious sea creature moving gracefully through the brackish waters. It was a Pacific green sea turtle! How did you first learn about the sea turtles in the San Gabriel River?
Back in 2009 I was teaching a class at Cal State Long Beach and one of the student group projects was to create a monitoring plan for a special status species living in the Los Cerritos Wetlands. We contacted Dan Larson at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) because we learned he was following the population of sea turtles in the San Gabriel River. We organized a tour and he showed us where he goes to see the turtles, and that was my first experience [seeing the sea turtles]. That group of students wrote a citizen scientists monitoring plan, which was tested and refined by my students the next year, and is now the monitoring plan for these turtles that is currently being used by the Aquarium of the Pacific.

What brings the turtles to this particular location?
We know a lot about these turtles, like where they are and what their ages are, mostly juveniles. But why they are here is still a big [unanswered] question. The easy answer is that they are attracted to the warm water discharged from the AES power plant, and there is some connection to sea turtles that follow a pattern of warm water. However, it is likely that the remnant estuary has always provided refuge for this species. There is an extremely active population living in nearby Anaheim Bay, which is a much larger and protected natural estuary. The other day I was doing wildlife monitoring there and took a lunch break and sea turtles were popping their heads up all over the place.

People seem to love turtles, we anthropomorphize them like “Crush” in the movie Finding Nemo. What is it about the animal that is so compelling to humans?
They are mysterious. People can’t easily interact with them and seeing one is like seeing a mermaid. You have to go with them into their native habitat. At the San Gabriel River, people wait for long periods of time to see one pop up their head for a second. People can also see them at an aquarium, but it is a rare opportunity to see them with your two eyes [in the wild]. Because of the gaps in knowledge about their life history, scientists also see the species as mysterious. We call these gaps the “Lost Years”. Scientists don’t know where the turtles go to do their breeding. We know where the females go to nest, but we don’t know where the males and females go to mate—important information to know in order to protect their breeding grounds.

Do you think the turtles gives you an audience to teach about the local wetlands ecosystem that you would not otherwise have?
Yes, 100%. They are a charismatic megafauna that can be experienced right here in the Los Cerritos Wetlands and this is a conservation species that we have adopted. We give tours and get 100 people to come out. The tours are very popular and this enthusiasm enables us to show what we are doing to actively protect and preserve the species, like what properties are actively being acquired to increase habitat. It is critically important to restore the turtle’s natural habitat and people definitely get that message on our tours.

You are passionate about edge conditions between highly urbanized landscapes and remnant pieces of coastal ecosystem habitats along the urbanized coastal zone of Southern California versus somewhere distant, like the Galápagos Islands. How does your work with Tidal Influence feed your passion?
As a resident of Long Beach, I see the needs of humans as important. I also see myself as needing to speak for species that cannot speak for themselves. As a community member, I am not coming from the outside and telling the community, “This is how this should look,” or “This should go here.” But, from my position within the community I can say, “Here is where the two – humans and wildlife – can commingle and on these edges is where that happens.”

People can come to the wetlands and see a sea turtle or heron, and they get excited. Then we are able to teach about the ecological phenomenon that is happening further at the core of the habitat, and what needs to be conserved, and which sensitive core areas need to be protected. It is during these moments people become stewards.

Is there a message, or call to action that you train your employees to include in presentations, tours, and community events?
The call to action is for people to become more aware and to learn about the Los Cerritos Wetlands, and what is down the street from their home.  We have these pockets of habitats where species exist, and we want people to go out and learn how to help in the places where they live.

For years I have been trying to work up the courage to trespass and get on my standup paddle board to get an up-close look at the turtles. Do you want to go with me?
I would be happy if I never touch the river. I’ve seen the color the water turns after a rain; the San Gabriel River has become a glorified storm drain capturing pollutants from the entire watershed. The necessary BMPs have not be put in place upriver, and the rains bring trash and pollutants that you don’t see. I would love to go into the river after the upriver communities have taken the necessary steps to make the water clean and I know the sea turtles would appreciate the clean water as well.

To learn more, visit the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust and Tidal Influence. A special thanks to Eric Zahn for this interview.

JZ_mug shot

Jenni Zell is a recent addition to the AHBE Landscape Architects team. With 14 years of experience working on a wide range of projects – including residential, commercial, public parks and retail projects – Jenni has been a licensed Landscape Architect in California since 2000, and licensed in Louisiana since 2008. She has lived in Baton Rouge Louisiana and taught in the landscape architecture department at California State University, Pomona. And perhaps equally impressive, she has swam across the cold waters between Alcatraz Island to San Francisco!

When, and in what context, did you first hear the words Landscape Architect[ure]?
It was the recommended profession for her when she took an Occupational Aptitude Test as a junior in high school.

What has been the most rewarding project you have ever worked on and why?
Perkins Road Community Park in Baton Rouge. The park included a fishing pond, velodrome, skate park and picnic areas and was enjoyed and well used by her neighbors whom she knew personally.

What professional tool must you always have at your office desk?
Scale (and Altoids),

What is your favorite local landscape project?
Huntington City Beach.

If you were not a landscape architect, what other profession might you be in?
A florist.

What is the last movie you saw at the movie theater? Recommend it and why or why not?
Pan. Though I love the original story, I think the movie’s narrative was too fragmented and do not recommend it.