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Landscape Architecture in Alaska

Design, collaboration, and foresight


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The newly built Nursery Greenhouse, located at the Alaska Botanical Garden, was designed by KPB Architects. Tamás Deák, Landscape Architect in Responsible Charge for KPB Architects, says the project has been underway for a few years, funded by seed money and grants from various entities. He says the building will have many uses beyond as a greenhouse, including for education and events.

Photo by Tamás Deák

Landscape architecture isn’t gardening. This seems to be a common misconception, in that many non-professionals connect landscaping with planting trees or flowers or installing a fire pit.

John Rowe, ASLA, is the senior landscape architect for Design Alaska. He explains, “Trees, shrubs, and grass happen to be a unique way in which landscape architects work with what we have, but there’s so much more to it than the soft-scape.”

Tamás Deák, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C, principal, landscape architect, and intern architect for KPB Architects, says, “One of the misconceptions about the profession is, just because it has ‘landscape’ in it doesn’t mean that you are gardening, and just because it has ‘architecture’ in it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are building, although you do both.” Steve Callaghan PLA, ASLA, landscape architect for LCG Lantech, Inc., describes landscape architecture as “part civil engineering and part architecture.” Peter Briggs, PLA, ASLA, FCSLA, principal landscape architect for Corvus Design, says, “Under state law, landscape architects’ areas of practice include irrigation, planting, plans, play apparatus, outdoor structures, and grading and shaping of land, which we share with other disciplines like civil engineering. But [as] for being a licensed landscape architect versus a landscape designer, we are tasked with protecting public health, safety, and welfare in what we do.” The Anchorage Museum’s Director of Design Jonny Hayes, also a landscape architect, says, “One of the things that is least understood [about landscape architects] is the breadth of knowledge that we do have, and then all the different ways we can apply it.”

 

Breadth of Knowledge

Callaghan says landscape architects must consider water issues, maintenance, security screening, land-use regulations, Title 21 requirements, and more. In particular, Title 21 requirements are a significant part of planning in Anchorage. “They have very specific criteria on commercial projects,” he says, which include requirements for parking lots, snow storage, access, and landscaping on the property.

Callaghan says the nature of the business has an impact on landscape architecture. A building may be located in a commercial zone, but the land-use regulations affect the landscape architecture significantly. “If you’re putting in a warehouse, you have different landscaping requirements than if you were doing an office, or a retail location, or putting in paid parking, or another building/land use,” he says.

LCG Lantech, like many Alaska firms, works statewide, and every community has its own standards and regulations. He says compared to Anchorage, projects in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley may require a project to maintain more natural vegetation if the site hasn’t been previously cleared. For example, if a project is being built on a ten-acre parcel of land and building construction requires clearing one acre of trees and vegetation, the project may be limited to clearing that one acre; additional clearing may not be permitted on the whole parcel. The Valley also has maximum height restrictions for business signs that are more restrictive than other parts of the state.

Deák says that every project, bar none, includes landscape architecture, which is why such a broad range of knowledge is important. “The thing about the whole landscape architecture idea is that it always assumes that we have to go outside the building. And I don’t look at it that way, because the building comes into the outside,” he says. There’s planning from the very beginning for any building as to how it fits into a space or environment.

For example, Deák says that KPB Architects recently completed a project for the Alaska Botanical Garden called the Nursery Greenhouse. “I say greenhouse because that’s what it’s called, but while the project includes a greenhouse component, it’s much more than that,” he says. The building is one step in the Alaska Botanical Garden’s master plan to fulfill its mission of “enhancing the beauty and value of plant material through education, preservation, recreation, and research,” according to the organization. The building also includes a support service space for volunteers, storage and work spaces, a room for mechanical systems, and “it has the first permanent, not port-a-potty bathrooms [on site]. I think that was the biggest reason why people loved this space, to be honest. Sometimes it’s felt like we’re designing a bathroom with some stuff around it,” Deák laughs.

In the case of the Nursery Greenhouse, KPB Architects had to design the building with sewer needs in mind; the site wasn’t connected to the public sewer system, and the plan was to avoid a septic system that requires “a flat, dug-up area with a pipe sticking out with grass on top,” Deák says. KPB worked with the appropriate authority to install a tank system. “So it’s all absolutely context driven,” he says.

“They ended up with a building which I think is very cool. Actually, it’s beautiful, which is step one—you’ve got to do something beautiful. And also it’s functional, obviously.”

 

Unique and Long-Lasting

Rowe says landscape architecture is unique in terms of the timeline. “When you finish an architecture or civil project, the best it’s going to look is when the building is complete: it’s brand new, it’s shiny. Landscape is different; it’s typically not at its best when it’s installed because we’re dealing with organic material. Especially with plants, we have to understand when we put stuff in what’s going to be the impact and how it’s going to look in five, ten, twenty, or one hundred years.” He says that kind of forward-looking vision makes a huge difference.

Recently, Design Alaska completed street­scape work in Valdez. Rowe says they made a major upgrade to Egan Drive, the main road in Valdez, “including a bunch of pedestrian issues, such as seating areas and crosswalks.” Rowe says they also completed a gateway arch that spans the Richardson Highway as it comes into the city.

“It’s really our job to create spaces outside; we’re architects for the outdoor environment,” Rowe says. “Our job is not just to make safe environments outside, but to give people a positive experience—to understand what’s wanted out of that space, what it needs to accomplish, not just physically but emotionally.”

Hayes agrees that understanding the purpose of a space is important for a project to be successful. He says, “I really see my job as a sort of translator, or an interpreter, to understand what behaviors people want and apply it to a space.” He uses Muldoon Town Square Park as an example: Phase I of the project, which is slated for completion in the fall, includes a playground, ice skating ribbon, pavilion, and a space for the Muldoon Farmers Market. In a community park, in which a variety of people use the space for many different activities, something as simple as a bench can be complex. “It may be a seat—it’s also an obstacle, it’s also a skateboard opportunity. Benches can suggest behavior. Take a rest. Take in the view. Tell a story. Eat a snack.”

In addition to the “human side of the equation,” the actual layout of the land is important to understand, such as “what is the land doing, where is water going, how do you get there, how do you leave... The seasonality of a space is really interesting to me in the sense that any one day is different than the other in Alaska, so you have to be thinking about that all the time so you’re not creating dangerous situations,” Hayes says.

Hayes also expresses that landscape architecture is a field that requires far-forward thinking. “The life of a building may be forty to fifty years; the life of a landscape architect project can be so much longer than that,” he says. It’s not many professions that implement a project and expect to wait ten or twenty years for it to fully come to fruition. “There is a certain level of patience required,” Hayes says.

 

Community and Collaboration

Briggs explains, “When we design for public health, safety, and welfare, not only are we applying codes and requirements but we are taking all seasons into account.” This is especially important in Alaska: long, dark winters are accompanied by persistent ice and snow cover. “We make sure things grade properly, that you don’t end up with ice in the winter that people might slip on, proper deck designs, handrails, and a big one—an undercurrent to pretty much all we do—is accessibility.” He says the discussion has moved beyond wheelchair ramps to the creation of places that anyone can use in an equitable fashion, regardless of age or physical ability.

Corvus Design is currently working on planning for the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Juneau, which includes almost six thousand acres. That project is unique because Corvus Design is challenged to design an experience that works for thousands and thousands of cruise ship visitors during the tourism season yet remains pleasant and comfortable for Juneau’s residents. “Monday is typically when most of the [cruise] ships come in,” Briggs says. “So on Monday the place is crazy; it’s like Walmart’s Christmas parking lot.”

It is issues like these that make collaboration so important. “For Corvus Design, and for myself, collaboration is everything,” Briggs explains. “Our conditions can be so strange or extreme in Alaska because it’s a combination of climate, people, location, everything.”

Briggs says building spaces for a community of people is one of the aspects of his job that he loves, particularly playgrounds. “Play design is important to me because it’s an indicator of social equity,” he says. “If every kid has the same opportunity to play and interact with each other, we don’t have any of these barriers that suddenly create a ‘you’ and ‘me.’ So those projects are pretty important, and they’re fun.”

Rowe also says that his favorite type of projects include public involvement, “any project where I can talk with a lot of people, because it gives me an opportunity to really engage with the people that are going to be using the space and [to] make a difference.”

KPB’s Deák says landscape architects train to be collaborative. “They’re very much trained in school to be looking at the world as a complex and multifaceted thing, and you can’t just run it on your own and pretend it’s all you.”

Callaghan enjoys landscape architecture, in part because he likes collaborative design, “the idea of working with people to solve problems; looking at all these issues and then coming up with a solution.”

Hayes adds that he enjoys the design process. “You will always run into personalities, or history, or politics, or otherwise, and you have to overcome that. The fun part of design is to figure out the appropriate solutions and not hope for the best but apply our knowledge in a positive way.”

 

 

This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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