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NY times article.

  • Subject: [cg] NY times article.
  • From: Lenny Librizzi <plantlot@rcn.com>
  • Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2004 10:44:07 -0400

This article appeared in the House and Home section of the NYT on Thursday.
ACGA board member Daniel Winterbottom is highlighted with interest for Landscape architects, rainwater harvesting, community gardens, etc.


Lenny Librizzi

New York Times
June 17, 2004
From the Ivory Tower, Lessons in the Dirt


A TEAM of landscape architecture students at the University of Washington decided it was time for lunch. So they stopped capping a wall and headed out of the garden they were building for the private Evergreen School in this suburb north of Seattle.

"Wait, you can't leave now," said Daniel Winterbottom. "We have to set those caps today, so we can grout tomorrow."

The students, grout all over their pants and boots, looked at him in disbelief. But it is one of the easier lessons Mr. Winterbottom, a landscape architect, teaches during the 10 breakneck weeks of his studio class. The class is the last requirement in a three-year program that ends, if his 15 graduating students learn to do without lunch, in a bachelor's degree.

At a time when the number of landscape architecture departments nationwide is swelling â to 76 this year from 57 in 1986 â and baby boomers are chucking law offices to learn where and how to plant an allÃe, Mr. Winterbottom's class is one of a handful in the country to offer hands-on experience.

If you build a wall, the theory goes, you learn how to talk to a contractor who is building a wall for you. The contractor doesn't care how beautifully you've drawn a wall, said Luanne Smith, a landscape architect who teaches with Mr. Winterbottom, "he needs to know the length of the wall, so he can bid the materials."

Mr. Winterbottom created the course a decade ago, when he realized that students did not understand construction. And he already knew from experience that sculpturing clay with your hands (or with a bulldozer) informs design. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before taking a master's degree in landscape architecture at Harvard.

This year, the project was to turn a soggy, poorly used lawn that sloped down to a low wall into a far more useful, open landscape. Working with $22,000 raised by Evergreen parents, the landscape class took down the wall and then excavated the slope, building a little stone amphitheater into the hill and a cedar arbor, with Japanese joinery, on top. The arbor, with a big swinging bench, is planted with the first tentative vines of Clematis montana.

A giant chessboard of light gray and charcoal concrete pavers (as in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") inspires play. Informal plantings of lavender, penstemon, ceanothus and iris attract butterflies and birds.

"We wanted some water, a sitting area, a place for contemplation," said Margaret Wagner, the head of the school, which covers pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Mr. Winterbottom's team solicited ideas from teachers, parents and students, but team members quickly realized they couldn't please everyone. Parents wanted more paving so they could hold fund-raisers; the teachers wanted a softer place, with plants.

"We wanted to build a whole rainwater collection system," said Michael Merkle, a landscape student who has also worked for a few years with landscape contractors. "But they were worried about standing water attracting mosquitoes with West Nile virus." They went with a simpler system.

Then there were the budgetary considerations. The students skipped building an expensive drainage system, but they decided to spend three times as much on recycled plastic material for a deck as they would have for lumber. "It lasts 25 years longer, so we went ahead with that," Mr. Merkle said.

Design-build landscape architecture courses are rare. The University of Oregon and Temple University offer limited courses, but most universities let the students learn construction on their own. Niall G. Kirkwood, chairman of the landscape architecture department at Harvard Design School, said liability was an issue. "But there's also a theoretical objection that students can't learn the construction trade in a few months," he said, "that it results in mediocre design work, kind of clunky."

Mr. Winterbottom is not looking for a perfect joint. "I think it's kind of charming if it's off by an eighth of an inch, or the grout isn't quite even," he said. The Evergreen garden, he added, would be $80,000 to $100,000 if done by professionals.

While his students don't have the expertise to tackle a complicated fountain, they often explore new technologies or materials. In the last 10 years they have transformed neglected public spaces and built innovative gardens in schools or hospitals. In 1999, the class built three rooftop gardens at Cancer Lifeline, a support center in Seattle. The students created a deck, with a plant-covered arbor and copper gates in the form of a tree, an arrangement that gives a sense of enclosure yet is open to the sky.

Last year the class collaborated with students in art and industrial design to build a public square and garden, the University Heights Community Park and Community Garden, near the university. A rainwater collection system waters the gardens there.

Another year it was a project at the University of Washington Medical Center, where, in collaboration with fine arts students, his landscape students created trellises covered with passion vines and wide, raised beds full of herbs and perennials. Yet another class built what they called the Garden of Eatin' from recycled materials and edible plants like grape and kiwi vines, Asian pear trees, strawberry, blueberry and artichoke plants.

But sometimes his students do nothing more complicated than teach a child how to plant a hydrangea, or to figure out which plant goes where.

"This hole has to be three times as big as that plant," said Hannah Hoerr, 13, pointing to a hole she was digging at the Evergreen School and a fat, blue hydrangea sitting nearby. "It's kind of clayey here, and that plant â um, I can't remember its name â can grow here."

Someday, perhaps the landscape architects will be able to talk to contractors too. Mr. Merkle said, "Some builder is going to come up and say, `This can't be done,' and you can say, `Oh, yes it can. I've done it.' "

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