Landscape architecture – what happens when an architect embraces the landscape

sketch-plan Rose Buchanan Landscape design

“We lost the tender because we don’t have a landscape architect”. Sorry, a what? I stopped my notebook doodling and immediately recovered from my 8am Monday morning stupor. What the hell was a landscape architect? How had I studied architecture, enduring 5 years of creative awakening, sleepless nights and various model-building severed finger tips and NOT heard of landscape architecture? My immediate associations included something along the lines of a Heidi-inspired backdrop complete with rolling hills and mountain goats…with…architecture? How?

Back at my open plan desk I minimised my browser and candidly (yes, before the days of smart phones!) began to google. Perhaps if my life had background music something along the lines of the Hallelujah chorus would have played when I stumbled upon a website called Weirdly enough this website doesn’t exist anymore, but this simple url changed my life more than Pinterest or Facebook could every imagine. Unlike episodes of “How I met your Mother”, I seriously cannot remember the exact details, but what I read was one of those “this is totally me!” situations. I had always loved the idea of urban design and the broader view of the built environment, but quite frankly after adding coordinates to 500 odd lamp poles and benches, the idea wasn’t that exciting. But what if it didn’t just involve streets, paving details and “urban markers”? What if it involved something far more complex: the landscape.

So within 6 months I had uprooted my dog (and my other half) from Port Elizabeth and moved to Cape Town to study landscape architecture at UCT. I remember driving my tiny Yaris over Van Staadens bridge, trying not to freak out over the wind that was definitely going blow my car off the edge and listening to someone on the radio speak about new beginnings and change. Yes! On to the rest of my life and my awesome career as a landscape architect!

Okay, to cut the story short, it wasn’t quite that simple. What followed was another two years of creative awakening, sleepless nights and more model-building severed finger tips. For two years some people thought my other half had an imaginary girlfriend while I was processing concepts I’d never dreamed about. Terms such as “ecological urbanism”, and “phenomenology” become my lingo as I learn about the relationship between social, urban and natural processes and how as a landscape architect we can design spaces to facilitate this symbiotic relationship. Yes, I can see your glazed-over eyes and no, don’t close the browser just yet. While these things seem all theoretical, they’re the key to a rather important effort: the future of our planet. Yip, landscape architects are here to save the world!

Which is where I insert this meme:

Right, so what the hell do landscape architects actually do?

Let’s start with top left. Firstly, that’s not quite my design vibe, but we’re not here to do a design crit. Secondly, yes, I do a lot of this. In fact, this is where I make the majority of my income and I love it. I love going to clients’ homes and being bowled over by their giant-sized dogs. I love the look on people’s faces when they describe their favourite plants and their joy when they first see my design proposals. I love making a difference environmentally no matter how small it may be. No, this isn’t the definition of what landscape architects do (and my parents wouldn’t have funded a second master’s degree if it was!), but it’s still a very real and important part of the profession.

Images two and three: I kind of feel like these should be swopped around. As an architect I’m allowed to criticise and say that far too many architects have slapped on a green roof or made their building “emerge from the ground” and called it landscape architecture. The emoji with the slap to the face comes in mind. Image three: let me explain it to you this way. Does an architect cast a concrete slab? Nope? Well then, I don’t personally plant my trees. A landscaping contractor does that. And for the reference: “landSCAPING architecture” is not a term (laughing crying face emoji).

Image four: hahahahahahaha – add some wine, travel and a run and I’m there!

Image five: okay, unless you live under a bridge, this is the High Line and, in many ways, it is a bridge. This project in New York took a dis-used railway line and managed to create a linear green urban park that connected the city, created positive public space and combatted CO2 levels with greenery. It also made for a kick ass tourist and selfie-taking spot. I won’t go into all the technical speak about it, but basically it does something that architects can’t do: it responds to the urban, natural and social processes and connects them. Yes, that’s what I’d love to, and will do one day (grinning smiley face).

Sixth image: Story. Of. My. Life.

I’m pretty sure you still have no idea what landscape architecture is, but I hope this entertained you if nothing else. My story has only just begun (cue background music) and yes, if it’s a tiny drop in the ocean or a flower in the garden, I’m going to do my bit to save the planet.

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