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Leading by Design explores the work of PennDesign alumni, faculty members, and supporters of the School who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Since the beginning of October, the Kroiz Gallery at the Architectural Archives has been exhibiting decades of sketches and drawings by Laurie Olin, professor of practice emeritus in landscape architecture at PennDesign and a 2012 winner of the National Medal of Arts. Through his Philadelphia-based design studio, Olin has completed prominent landscape projects across the world, including the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Bryant Park, and Battery Park City in New York; Apple Park and the J. Paul Getty Center in California; and the U.S. embassies in London and Berlin. He has taught at PennDesign for 42 years.
In November, Olin sat down in the Architectural Archives to talk with Design Weekly about drawing, writing, designing, and teaching. The conversation has been edited for clarity and split into two parts. In Part 2, Olin talks about his landscape architecture practice and teaching at PennDesign. The first part of this interview is available here. Olin’s drawings are on display in the Kroiz Gallery through December 21.
So your drawings are exhibited here at the Archives, and I want to ask you how it serves as a resource for students who are coming through PennDesign.
It’s fabulous. What’s happened is that the faculty has begun bringing students over to use the archive and look at things. Bill Whitaker has been fabulous about getting things out and showing them and taking them through various sketches and drawings. The design studios have been using the archive as a great teaching tool. As a device, it gets students excited about how designers think, and how they work.
Design is a thing where you don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. I don’t think any artist does that really. Usually you get ideas by starting to do something. You think you want to work on something and then while you start working on it, you discover it’s actually going to be about something else, or something else more interesting happens. What happens is that in bringing students over to see the drawings, they can look through Lou Kahn’s drawings and see the studies, how he starts with one thing and he does it, then he works over it, then it begins to evolve and change. You go through the series of drawings, and you discover the process of thinking, through gesturing and through making marks and reacting with the marks you’ve made. You put something down, and then that makes you think of something else, then you put something else down. The drawings are interactive, very much.
When you’re thinking about designing landscapes, is it important to you that once it’s built out it should be legible to someone who might want to draw it? That it should be sketchable?
That would be nice. It’s not always the case. Landscapes are so complex that they’re hard to draw. It’s like how they’re impossible to photograph. You have to move through them and experience them to understand them fully. It’s like real architecture that has anything really good going about it. It’s spatial and you can move through it. It’s not just an image. Part of what’s wrong with the architectural press is that it survives by images, not by experience.
Things that are spatial, like a landscape, which has so much information, and so much diversity in terms of topography and objects and extension and space, and modulation and texture … it’s just so rich that it’s difficult to draw. So you draw different aspects of it. When one makes a landscape, you’re doing a bunch of things, usually. You have multiple goals, one of which is usually safety, and some functional, utilitarian purpose. But, also, there are spiritual things you’re trying to do that are emotional and that are about beauty and those ideas. We use drawings as tools that help us describe [landscapes] to help get them made, or to help explain them to other people, but they’re always partial.
You have talked about your landscapes not being collectibles, not putting your stamp on everything.
Yes, and I’m proud of that. They’re not going to all look the same. It’s not like some painters who, if they vary from their perceived persona graphically, that’s like a drug on the market. “Oh, that doesn’t look like a Lichtenstein anymore. Don’t go there, Roy. Stay here.” Some of my colleagues who are landscape architects have an identifiable, knowable signature. They are more collectable, like some architects. But we all have handwriting and eventually, your habits, people begin to recognize that.
That’s what I wanted to ask. Obviously you’re not trying to make a landscape that screams out Olin necessarily, but …
No, we definitely don’t do that. We also don’t shy away from something that might seem obvious at times. Just because something has been done once or twice in the past doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but also, we don’t imitate ourselves. You don’t like doing the same thing twice. You don’t like to imitate yourself. That’s not fresh, and it’s also boring. But there is no search for novelty. There’s no yearning to be radical or different. Mies van der Rohe once said, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” And I kind of feel the same way. And then if it really is good, it probably will also happen to be interesting to somebody.
Design is a thing where you don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. I don’t think any artist does that really. Usually, you get ideas by starting to do something.
So are there one or two projects, or more, that you feel like come closer to capturing an expression of your aesthetic, if that is the word, than others do?
Well, I would say that the project that we did here at the Barnes I feel expresses some of our ideas about space and texture and movement and the recall of the memory of other places, and that sort of thing. I’m interested in those things, so the work I did at the Getty, or the recent project we did for Apple at Apple Park, which is not a copy of nature, but it reminds people—there’s a memory of the California landscape in that built landscape. It’s hard to say.
I guess it’s unfair to ask you to rank your projects.
That’s OK. The urban projects, you have your favorites, and you try and think, why are they favorites? Sometimes it’s because of how people come to them, use them, and like them that makes you feel good, because you produced a social space that’s working, like the one in Portland at Director Park. You can tell you’ve done a good thing. People like it. It feels good to them—the proportions, the materials, and what the water does, where you can sit, and how comfortable you are. But you know, it’s tough, it’s a tough urban space.
So, do certain of your projects more than others capture some way you see the world?
How I feel about things. Yeah. The Getty is a good one. Director Park is one. The Barnes is one. They’re urban places that are very rich and bring aspects of certain qualities of nature into the city, without pretending to be natural. They’re not pretend-nature. They’re cultural, human places, but they have aspects of nature that feed our spirit and make us feel good. The way water moves in the sunlight. The way leaves and colors and forms are juxtaposed are things we enjoy in nature. Bringing those into the city is a refreshing, good thing to do.
You’ve written a little bit, too, about students in design schools having to piece together the history and theory behind a lot of their practice without the benefit of a class or a survey that gives the full sweep to them.
We do have a problem with that. We probably have a broader cultural dilemma about how we transmit the wealth and riches of human experience and thought to the next couple of generations. Traditionally, it’s been done by older people telling younger people, younger people having the trial and error of experience. You have to be in the world awhile, have some experience, read, think, have people tell you about things, travel. It’s kind of hard when you have students who haven’t done much. For a while we had all these students who grew up in suburbia, and they were really pretty limited in their world view. They’ve seen a lot of television, but they hadn’t traveled. They hadn’t read much. They didn’t know or like cities. They didn’t know or like the wilderness. They knew nothing about agriculture. So they were kind of difficult to work with because you had to feed them a lot.
Some of the older students sometimes are in some ways more rewarding because they’ve had more experience for you to help them with. They’ve got stuff that they’ve been processing, and you can try and get them to pull all this stuff out of their memory, and use it, because they’re full of knowledge. I do tell young people who are in their 20s, you know, “You’ve been alive for 20 years. You’ve had a lot of experience. Now you have to figure out how to use it. Pull it out in some orderly way when you need it to answer questions.” How do people want to sit? Where do I want to go? What do I do here? Usually there’s a lot of data in people’s brains, if they would get it out and use it. So, helping them do that is part of what we do.
How does that impact the way you teach students?
We try to take them somewhere where they’ve never been, so that they’re off base. So that everything is new, and they have to learn everything from scratch. They can’t assume they know about it. About the ecology, the culture, the problems of that particular place, and those people. That’s usually good, because then they’re kind of sponges and they’ll soak up a lot. If they are in a place where they have to read and learn and study about it, they will actually end up knowing more about it than they probably do their own hometown.
The students I took to the Pueblos or in the Czech Republic—they just dove in, and they got all this stuff, and they came away knowing so much. It helped them, when they got home, to look around and think, “Oh, I guess there’s more going on here than I thought.” That’s useful. Those immersive experiences in places that seem different, they turn out to have the same problems: Social equity, health, education, economics, you name it. The same problems are everywhere. But, we don’t think about them in our own world with the clarity we do when we go somewhere else. Isn’t that funny? But then that helps you when you come back because then you say, “Oh, a-ha.” A little more questioning, and you get a bit more factual basis, rather than just your own emotional habits.
Has that work with students fed back into your design practice in a way that you can articulate?
Well, we hire a bunch of our students. Off and on, for many years, we’ve had a lot of our students come work for us either temporarily, or for a number of years, or for their lives. We get students from everywhere else, too. Teaching has been enormously helpful to us in the practice, because it forces us to think clearly and critically about the work we’re doing in a way that a lot of practitioners don’t. We’re always criticizing everything, criticizing the students, criticizing other work, so then we criticize our own stuff. There is a self-awareness that a lot of people don’t strive for that comes from teaching. Our office has always been involved in teaching. There’s never been a year when we haven’t been teaching and practicing. At this point, most of the partners have taught, or several are teaching right now. Several associates are teaching. There are young people in the office who are teaching.