The following excerpt comes from the upcoming “Designing Places for People and the Environment: Lessons from 55 Years as an Urban Planner and Shaping the Global Landscape Architectural Practice of the SWA Group,” by former SWA CEO Kalvin Platt, published by ORO Editions. Do you agree with Kalvin’s estimation of the profession? Comments are most… Read more »
The following excerpt comes from the upcoming “Designing Places for People and the Environment: Lessons from 55 Years as an Urban Planner and Shaping the Global Landscape Architectural Practice of the SWA Group,” by former SWA CEO Kalvin Platt, published by ORO Editions. Do you agree with Kalvin’s estimation of the profession? Comments are most welcome.
A year after heading west to California, it was in Berkeley, living right near the University of California campus, that we started to recognize that the San Francisco Bay Area would become our permanent home. The work was exciting and Berkeley itself was equally exciting as the Free Speech movement was going on right near us. We could walk to the campus at lunchtime to hear Mario Savio speak. By 1967 I was established as a planning consultant, but I still felt I was not where I could do my best work. I missed being able to use my architectural training, and now that I better understood city planning and to some degree urban design, I became anxious to move beyond planning and get to designing and building places.
During my time on the San Francisco Zoning Study, I had the opportunity to work with Peter Walker and Dick Law of Sasaki, Walker Associates. I remembered Pete from his association with Hideo Sasaki at Harvard; they started Sasaki, Walker Associates in nearby Watertown while I was a student there. I had come to appreciate the approach this fine firm had established, integrating planning and urban design within its landscape architectural practice in the building of cities and places. And so, though I had studied and practiced architecture, city planning, and civil engineering, it was with landscape architects that I would find the practice that put all of these together so effectively.
Growing up in a Bronx tenement, I understood what it meant to go to the Bronx Zoo and Botanic Garden as a child. Before I knew who Frederic Law Olmsted was, and before I knew what that founder of American landscape architecture believed about the civic and social purposes of Central Park, I rode my delivery bike through the park in the evenings and understood what made New York so livable.
When I moved to Coral Gables, I found that I also loved living in this garden suburb that was itself a reflection of Olmsted’s work at Riverside and elsewhere, not to mention influenced by the American “City Beautiful” as well as the English “Garden City” movements. Both New York and Coral Gables were uniquely American, one built on the technology of the skyscraper and subway, the other built on the technology of the automobile and trolley.
My studies in Florida introduced me to Frank Lloyd Wright, the other American genius who deeply influenced me with both his “Organic Architecture,” which emphasized design with nature, and with his plan for Broadacre City, which embodied the spirit of American individualism through its embrace of the single family home and the farmstead. Olmsted and Wright were my earliest heroes.
Charleston, where I spent my brief Navy career, immersed me in the European roots of our American towns and villages with its common use of the riverfront and a delightful integration of architecture and gardens that clearly expressed its unique natural environment. I was reminded of this European influence during my 1961 honeymoon “Grand Tour” with Janne, during which we visited London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Munich, Zurich and finally to Milan, finishing with a drive through Italy to Rome. One could really see how the public realm of streets, parks, waterfronts and civic places worked with each city’s unique architectural vocabulary to make them great. I wanted to participate in the creation of that public realm, and came to realize that landscape architecture was where it happened.
More recently, living in the San Francisco Bay Area had accentuated how wonderful the contrast between urban environments and their natural settings could be. San Francisco gloriously spilling over the hills between the contained bay and limitless ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge connecting the sparkling “white city” to the green headlands of Marin, the Bay Bridge connecting to the fog-cooled Berkeley Hills and through the tunnels to the hot valleys. It is no wonder that this was the center of the ascendance of the environmental movement in the 1960s.
This led me to remember that landscape architecture, the design profession that brings nature and culture together, had originally been the home of city planning in academia. The strong ties between physical city planning, urban design and landscape architecture had once existed at Harvard, having evolved from the practice and teaching of Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. Something had been lost when physical planning, the translation of policies and politics into the essentials of the natural and built environment, first became secondary to policy and politics, and then disappeared entirely from the curricula. In fact, as a graduate of both the School of Design and the School of Government at Harvard, I saw firsthand the tensions between planning, design, and policy. After seeing how mired in policy and bureaucracy planning could be in academia, I was determined to seek out the physical relationships between urban design and the public realm in the real world.
It was apparent that the planning and the building of American cities in the 20th century involved both public and private enterprise, with the private sector leading the way in many cases. City building was an economic, environmental, sociopolitical and physical process. I realized that none of the physical design professions, whether architecture (including architect/planners and architect/urban designers), engineering, or government or consulting planners put together the key elements of building places in cities as well as landscape architects. Landscape architects, unlike the others, embodied an environmental approach to the planning and design of the public realm in cities and communities. They also took leading roles in campus planning, not only for educational institutions but for the complex groups of buildings and facilities for employees that new business typologies brought to the information economy. As a planner, I saw how this could make enormous differences in how people lived in urban places.
Landscape architects also had a scope of work that was far broader than other professions. They worked for the private and public sectors (and sometimes both!), on both large and small projects in urban, suburban, rural, and open space contexts. I wanted to expand my role to include the private as well as public sectors and working with landscape architects would open that opportunity to me. The public realm of streets, public buildings and works, parks, waterfronts, open space reserves, and conservation areas was expanding via the construction of large and complex private developments that created substantial public use and open spaces on private land to meet city criteria or enhance their amenities for people in those developments. Though not understood well by the public, landscape architecture went far beyond the soft elements of plantings and trees and included the planning and design of hard elements including sidewalks, plazas, and vehicular pavements, walls, steps, fences, shelters, fountains, outdoor furnishings for seating, lighting and orientation, all within the public realm.
This was powerful community building, and landscape architects were taking the lead. From contextual master planning to site planning to site design, all the while working closely with the architects, engineers, and contractors, landscape architects really did design “everything outside the buildings.” This kind of site land based design involved not only the design of the spaces but working closely with the architects it set how the entire site would be configured including the arrangement, grades, and even configuration of the buildings. Most importantly, landscape architects recognized that the spaces between and outside buildings could become as important or even more important in creating a sense of place and making cities more livable than the buildings themselves.
Having come to this realization, I saw that no landscape architects merged physical planning, urban design, and built work in both the public realm and private sectors as well as Sasaki, Walker Associates. This firm had revitalized the stodgy landscape profession, which had moved away from Olmsted’s pioneering private sector work since the depression and the world wars, taking refuge in public work instead. This aversion to private development work even continued into the boom years of the 1950s and 60s. Sasaki, Walker Associates brought the great potential of the profession back into its historic and rightful role as a central player in physical planning and the design of cities, communities, and places, in both the resurgent private sector and the public sector. They sought out architects and developers and businesses that shared their passion for good planning and responsible development.
To put it simply, Sasaki, Walker Associates was where I wanted to be. So I walked over and talked to Pete Walker at his house near mine in the Berkeley Hills, and joined the firm in August 1967. I had finally found the right place to do my life’s work.
Aerial photograph of Long Beach, California, by Jonnu Singleton.