Posts tagged landscape architect

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.

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Creative Commons photo by Adam Allegro

Creative Commons photo by Adam Allegro

I came to landscape architecture later in my life, yet, in retrospect I can see that the roots of my journey to this profession stretch back far into my life.

As a young girl growing up in Southern California, summer vacation meant two things to me: spending time with my friends at the beach, and exploring nearby expanses of undeveloped land on horseback. Fields of native grass under the shade of oak trees offered plenty of opportunities to canter our ponies and lounge on boulders where we dreamed of the life ahead of us. The invariably startled local wildlife – red-tail hawks, deer, and rattlesnakes – were common and filled our days with the adventure of discovery and the excitement of endless potential, emotions common in youth. I understand now that these early experiences laid the groundwork for my lasting connection to the land as a source of both comfort and personal growth. The outdoors, in essence, as home.

Following a move east for college, I stayed on to pursue a career as a classical musician. While the New York metropolitan area has plenty of wild areas, I seldom made the time to seek them out. As I hit my mid-thirties and started taking a hard look at my musical career, I found myself once again seeking the solitude and space nature provides to ponder new career choices and grieve the passing of a dream. At this time, I was fortunate to have friends introduce me to New Jersey’s Rails-for-Trails system, a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines. Many of these repurposed rail lines once transported produce from rural farms to the states urban centers, such as Newark.

Raritan River at the Ken Lockwood Gorge Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Keith Survell.

Raritan River at the Ken Lockwood Gorge Wildlife Management Area. Creative Commons photo by Keith Survell.

On bikes, these trails quickly took us through the state’s surprisingly diverse natural and built environments: through forests and swamps, across streams and gorges, through thriving towns as well as the skeletons of defunct industrial centers. With each passing mile, I felt this ribbon of land revealed an intimate and far more accurate window of the state’s communities and resources than those commonly seen on a street or from a car. The experience of the land as a window and a link awakened an interest. Curious and intrigued, I enrolled in landscape design classes.

But it was a visit to Paley Park that brought me fully into the realm of landscape architecture. Listed consistently as among the finest urban spaces in the United States, I’m thankful that my initial introduction to this park was as an uninformed visitor.

Creative Commons Images by saitowitz

Creative Commons photo by saitowitz

Located on 53rd Street in Midtown Manhattan and fully visible from the street, within steps into the park I was immediately struck by a pervasive sense of comfort and refuge from the city’s relentless, churning energy. I noticed too that elements, common within and outside the park, were used and achieved dramatically different results: intimate (urban) oasis vs. impersonal urban experience; soothing sensory stimulation (water) vs. sensory overload; material (rough nub of granite) as evoker of earth vs. material (granite) as impersonal walking surface; small space with spacious feel vs. small space with constricted feel. After relinquishing myself to the peace and calm pervading the Park, I left with a sense of wonder at the craft used to develop this small park with such an enormous impact.

That was when I began my studies to become a landscape architect.

The landscape gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphry Repton, esq., being his entire works on these subjects : ...with historical and scientific introduction, a systematic analysis, a biographical notice, notes, and copious alphabetical index by Repton, Humphry, 1752-1818; Loudon, J. C. (John Claudius), 1783-1843

The landscape gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphry Repton, esq., being his entire works on these subjects : …with historical and scientific introduction, a systematic analysis, a biographical notice, notes, and copious alphabetical index
by Repton, Humphry, 1752-1818; Loudon, J. C. (John Claudius), 1783-1843

“So, what do you do again? Something to do with gardens?” asked my Aunt politely during our last family Christmas get together.

Being on the complete opposite side of the political aisles, I was trying desperately to avoid any conversation with her about anything related to Fox News or the actual citizenship of our current sitting president.

“Yeah, kind of, Auntie. I’m a landscape architect. I do…uh…ummmm…” [pause].

The problem with being a landscape architect is that defining the profession defies the “elevator test”: if you can’t explain an idea to someone in an elevator by the time they get to their floor, the idea is too complex and will not be memorable. Considering I’ve been practicing landscape architecture for over 25 years, and I see my Aunt a couple of times a year, I think we can safely say the elevator test certainly applies to her. So, what can I tell her to keep the conversation going while avoiding any mention of Sean Hannity?

Let’s begin with how the American Society of Landscape Architects defines my profession:

“Landscape architects analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture the built and natural environments. Landscape architects have a significant impact on communities and quality of life. They design parks, campuses, streetscapes, trails, plazas, and other projects that help define a community.

Sure, that’s an elevator definition…if we were taking an elevator up to the moon! “Nurture the built and natural environments”? How exactly does one nurture a built environment? I am working on the clock here!

Let’s try Googling the profession and let Wikipedia help define the profession:

“Landscape architecture is the design of outdoor public areas, landmarks, and structures to achieve environmental, social-behavioral, or aesthetic outcomes.”

Sure, but there are landscape architects that design residential landscapes and gardens, not just “public areas” and “landmarks”. Hold on…landmarks? We design landmarks? Huh? I’m not sure we are getting any better! I can imagine my Aunt losing interest with every passing minute and wordy description.

What do I tell my mom, someone who always has had trouble explaining to her friends what I do?

“Mom, you know how architects design buildings? Well, I design everything outside of the building, from the roads, walkways, plants and trees. Um, except when either a civil engineer or an architect does it. Yes mom, I do think you made a good choice to send me to the university. I think my father would not have been disappointed.”

Okay, that isn’t going to do it, either.

What do we do that’s special? What do engineers and architects rely on us to do for them? We do know and understand plants. We also seem to be really good at understanding dynamic, living systems, and utilize that knowledge to create environments with a sense of design and order, complementing the buildings and structures they surround. Our work mimics and ideally enhances a natural environment. But how do you say that all before the elevator stops and the door opens?

“Landscape architects design living systems, Auntie,” I blurt out.

“Oh, that’s nice, dear! Now, did you know that Obamacare authorizes death squads that kill old people?”

*Sigh* Drat.