One of my favorite bloggers is Patrick Smith’s Ask The Pilot at salon.com. Nothing excites him more than the notion that airplanes, nowadays, actually are so computerized that they fly themselves. Smith feels driven to defend his profession. I do, too, but sometimes there’s nobody behind the door, no matter how many times you ring the bell. Unlike Smith, though, I do know what design illiteracy is all about.
Before grad school, I had a sneering attitude towards design, thinking that ’designers’ were silly people spending far too much time ’feeling’ how to decorate. I do bump into this attitude now, sometimes, mostly in annoying and testing clients. It’s more than ’everyone has an opinion.’
It’s an attitude of ignorance. And one might fairly ask, if that was my attitude then, why matriculating in design school was appealing at all. Fair question.
I don’t know.
I wanted a professional life. I knew the parts about wanting the respect that came with a postgraduate degree. I knew in my own heart that self-respect was part of the package. I knew that I wanted to go back to school. I wanted desperately for Mom and Dad v3 to admire my life choices, although certainly I would have denied it at the time. And now, after nearly 30 years of marriage, I understand that men are largely driven by the need for respect.
On a more conscious level, there was great appeal following in the shoes of Tommy Church, Frederic Law Olmsted, and Kevin Lynch.
A huge skill set
And as it turned out, the modern LA skill set is wider than recognized by me then and by the general public now.
Like a lot of things that seem simple when you know very little about them, landscape architecture has unplumbed depths. I had experienced life-changing revelations in school: in calculus and statistics, for example. Landscape architecture brought this surprise: design is not opinion.
Yes, many disagree with this assessment, including colleagues, but they are wrong. Design is a process in which one first understands the problem, or site, and then winnows the possible solutions until the correct direction becomes apparent. Engineers understand this well. With planting design there is very little difference, really, except that plants move the heart in ways that heating coefficients do not. Regrettably the heart is fickle, easily confusing charm with enduring quality.
This does not mean that design is devoid of magic. It is all about magic! I teach my design students one very simple thing about planting design: your garden design is not a process to locate a home for a favorite plant. It is a process of finding the best plants for each home. Yes, we have favorites — my own gardens are full of well-loved plants with no apparent home. Still.
I am often asked, especially at an initial meeting, to name some plants for this place or that place. In some ways, this demeans the process and limits the solution. Why? Because what is wanted is a list of all plants that would work in each situation. We want to know, from more than 3,000 available plants, every plant that will thrive. We want a similar, but likely different, list of every plant that will thrive in the adjacent space. This is the part of design that is not opinion but requires huge knowledge; I suppose this explains the drive to write the definitive plant book.
The next design step is where the brilliance happens — a skillful designer will choose from each list, creating enduring and stunning combinations.
This is the essence of the LA skill set: the ability to see the Big Picture, to break things down, understand how they work together, and then make rational choices.
Of course, I learned this the hard way.
You know how many designers it takes to change a light bulb? Answer: does it have to be a light bulb?
One project in fourth year design involved a project in Jamaica called Oracabessa. This required a huge drawing, 3 inches x 6 inches, and of course we felt quite full of ourselves. Hundreds of acres! Wow! I was busy in my lab one day, dutifully working on this huge drawing. I did the logical thing: start in the lower left and work out. Jon Emerson was the instructor. He came to me last that day, and explained that I’d never be an intuitive designer and that I should stick to research.
I was traumatized of course. As it turned out, my furor was misdirected. Perhaps more importantly, I’d underestimated him as a human being, too, given how things worked out.
Do you have design problems you would like to discuss? Michael Spencer will respond by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).