Designing the Future

Five alumni clustering together at Harvard’s prestigious Graduate School of Design describe the essence of urban planning and landscape architecture. And, no, they’re not learning how to mow lawns and weed gardens.

Sarah Canepa ’12

Whitman: Studio Art

GSD Program: Master of Landscape Architecture

Sarah Canepa - Tidal Land, 2013. A Photoshop collage imagining a designed salt marsh at Fan Pier, a segment of industrial waterfront located on Boston’s Inner Harbor.The final meeting of my landscape history seminar this spring ended with a question: “Is ‘landscape architecture’ the appropriate term for our discipline?” To those of you unfamiliar with the many facets of what are collectively called the “design professions,” it may seem a curious and even unnecessary exercise to ponder the label attached to one’s field of study. But focus on the image that appears in your mind when you read these words: landscape architecture. Do you see a coastal city, Jersey City or New Orleans, developing infrastructure to combat rising ocean levels? Or perhaps you think of Central Park in New York, and the man considered an integral figure to the discipline, Frederick Law Olmsted. The response that I am most often faced with when introducing my chosen career path to friends and family is, “Oh, I didn’t know they did that at Harvard. Do you think you could redo my backyard once you graduate?” If I’m feeling self-righteous I might respond with something along the lines of, “Actually, Harvard has the oldest landscape architecture program in the country, founded in 1900 by…” You get the idea. But what I usually keep to myself is the desire to exclaim, “No! I will not waste my time weeding your garden – don’t you know that landscape architecture is going to save the world?”

This is, admittedly, a dramatic statement, but it is a sentiment that I strongly believed when I applied to graduate school and one that I still try to take seriously one year into my education at the GSD. The truth is, all of the ideas that popped into your head a few sentences ago fall under the umbrella of landscape architecture, as do many more. This summer, for example, I am very excited to be working with one of my professors at the GSD, Zaneta Hong, whose research focuses on the development of innovative architectural materials and technologies and who is a principal at the GA Collaborative, a nonprofit group of artists and designers whose most recent project engages a community-driven approach to designing and building low-income housing in Masoro, Rwanda.

Lara Mehling ’11

Whitman: Environmental Humanities

GSD Program: Master of Landscape Architecture

Lara Mehling - Urban landscape from the view of a reptile and bug. When people ask me what brought me to landscape architecture and I tell them that I studied environmental humanities, I am often met with a slightly inquisitive expression. To me, however, it is not a puzzle as to how my interest in studio art and this major at Whitman brought me to this field. What surprises me is that the modes of learning practiced within a liberal arts education translate into an entirely different academic experience. Whitman’s innovative program Semester in the West instituted in me a belief that “doing” as a mode fosters creativity. And Phil Brick, professor of politics and environmental studies – his approach to teaching, which involves much fieldwork and encourages individual initiative, continues to hold relevance in my daily work as a design student. I came out of Whitman knowing that I wanted to work in and for the environment, but I also knew that I wanted to approach this work through art and design. Under the steadfast guidance of Don Snow, senior lecturer of environmental humanities and general studies, I completed my studies at Whitman with an interdisciplinary, visual thesis that spanned the departments I knew best.

Jason Brain ’08

Whitman: Studio Art and Philosophy

GSD Program: Master of Landscape Architecture

Jason Brain - Character casting and costume concepts for Dream Meridian, a conceptual film project.This past fall at Harvard I was very lucky to have an introduction to Ralph Eggleston, who is a production designer (chief art director) at Pixar. Over dinner with Ralph, I was surprised to hear that many production designers come from architectural backgrounds. I didn’t need much convincing that storytelling by way of expressive design was the way to take professional ownership of my art practice that I began back at Whitman. I’ve since worked as an art director on a feature animation, as a concept designer with 20th Century Fox, and currently have my sights set on the territory of pre-visualization production houses. A day in the GSD reveals that the once hard-delineated traditional design fields have now all succumbed to identity crises, unsure of who has authority over which territory. Taking advantage of the disciplinary bedlam, I excitedly wear all the hats at once depending on the nature of the project.

Jason Brain - Color keys of a scene for the animation Hightailed, a conceptual film project.Professors who acknowledge a student’s earnest desire to work with their own voice are rare, but thankfully available at Whitman and Harvard. Such championing faculty members don’t always come from the department one might expect them to come from, hence the importance of a liberal arts education. Philosophy professor Tom Davis and foreign languages and literatures professor Akira Takemoto, who are not studio artists, nonetheless led me to the GSD with their caring support of my burgeoning love of art and fiction. Whitman and Harvard are springboards of unparalleled potential energy, but the jump into professional design can only come from the kinetic volition of your own calling.

Alan Waxman ’08

Whitman: Anthropology and Japanese

GSD Program: Master of Landscape Architecture

Alan Waxman - Willow garden landscape.In my second year at Whitman, Akira Takemoto, professor of Japanese poetry and art, introduced me to chanoyu (the art of serving tea). Around the same time, I began studying the Ichishkiin language (a Native American language) and learned to build and care for a Cayuse ritual bathing house. I teamed up with Mary Keith from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla and Wes Jones, a local craftsman and ritual bathing expert. As my understanding of these beautiful webs of tradition has deepened, I continue to realize that fragility and weakness are at the heart of community-making. We might call this healing.

These practices and traditions form the core of my landscape design practice. My master’s thesis, titled “Neighborhood Doctor,” is about fragility, strength and imagination among neighborhood groups in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

As work unfolds, I advocate that no matter how powerless or powerful we appear to be in society, we can still knit together our families and our shared places if we can become aware of the hidden suffering of our friends and relatives.

Landscapes are a powerful medium for visualizing these points of poignancy that move us. We might say that landscape architecture is an applied environmental humanities. We might say that the program at the GSD is an appropriate complement to the Whitman education.

Together, this education has provided some sense of the human nature of suffering. Now, the garden we make together, in which we share this knowledge, is ours to imagine.

Will Stein ’11

Whitman: History

GSD Program: Master of Urban Planning

The complex environmental, social, economic, spatial and designed inputs that shape the cities we want to live in don’t fit into easily distinguishable boxes, or for that matter, disciplines. Urban planning is oftentimes thought of as a go-between; we communicate and add a unique perspective between scientists, architects, engineers, policy makers and capital. The challenges facing our cities, whether it’s increased urban flooding or equity concerns in radically changing housing markets, are all urban planning. One of my professors of urban planning, Jerold Kayden, often says, “To plan is human, to implement is divine.” As I move on from the GSD, my planning colleagues (and, I think, I myself) are better prepared to contribute new ideas as well implement the ideas of other talented designers and hopefully make cities even greater.