Amazing Firms in Southern California

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Amazing Firms in Southern California

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    Emily W.

    It seems like people can easily list the “hot” LA firms in places like SF, Boston, and New York – but what about Southern California? Why do Los Angeles and San Diego seem to be less of a hotbed for cutting-edge LA than the above cities?

    Brent Jacobsen

    Interesting question Emily – I am curious to hear people’s answers as I am about to move to Los Angeles. I know that there are some excellent firms in both cities, and that firms like Mia Lehrer and ah’be have won awards on the national scale for some forward thinking and comprehensive projects. I don’t know if there is less cutting-edge work or just less coverage of the cutting-edge work going on, at least when it comes to Los Angeles.

    Trace One

    I have been writing in a few posts how California LA is really different than east coast (sorry to raise the usual xenophobic hackles, on both sides…) I find the profession in California is much less environmentally conscious and act much more like decorators..I think it has to do with the year round climate, which causes plants to have a larger permanent prescence…that is just my own theory – everyone says the Cal Polys are really teaching enviornmental (sustainable) design…

    I think Spurlock/Pourier is pretty good. I was amazed to see a huge project out of UCSD actually used Andropogon, my favorite Philadelphia firm…

    Brent Jacobsen

    Spurlock/Poirier is a very good firm, as are some other design firms in both San Diego and LA. I guess the question is what is “hot” design, and is that necessary good design? Being “hot” is usually associated with being more avant garde or leading edge, which tends to be represented by bolder or flashier designs. However, the Cal Polys and many SoCal firms are doing both good and progressive work, but I would guess that it is less bold or flashy than in New York.

    Also, “hot”, or avant garde design tends to be found more in large art centers. While I would imagine LA would have more “hot” designs than it may appear it does because of its art scene, San Diego is a lot less of a major art scene, and probably more of a traditional market. The fact that firms like Spurlock/Poirier have been so good at pushing designs farther is a testament to them because they may not have the same client base as other cities.

    June Scott

    To address the comment that (Southern) California LA’s act like decorators, one reason for that perception may be Los Angeles’ reputation as a fundamentally “private” city that lacks open space despite its beautiful setting–there are simply more opportunities for high end residential than for public work. Firms like Mia Lehrer and Ahbe as you mentioned are changing that perception, just as Gehry and others did for Los Angeles architecture. To your list I would add Rios Clementi Hale Studios, Pamela Burton, KSA, Dry Design, Melinda Taylor, and Orange Street Studio. (I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting.)

    The “much less environmentally conscious” comment is just wrong. Every firm that I know of is incorporating sustainable practices into their firm, and the UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture program and Cal Poly both have a strong environmental emphasis.

    Michelle Derviss

    My particular professional interest lies in innovative residential and resort landscape design so I tend to have my eye geared towards that end of the profession.

    I find a tremendous amount of cutting edge talent in Southern California and try to visit S.Cal. as often as possible to view innovative new works of sculptural landscape architectural design.

    LA based firms such as Jay Griffith, Nancy Goslee Powers, Mia Lehrer, Marmol Radiznier, and many others are small to modest sized firms and may not have a dedicated public relations marketer sending out marketing information in the way that the behemoth firms do.

    Or possibly these fabulously talented firms aren’t competing in the arena of high profile civic projects so these LA firms are not recognized in the same way as the tried and true big dog regular contributors ?
    Let’s face it, the way to get recognized is to have your firm profiled in the media repeatedly and that is usually after the firm has be recognized for an award winning project in the urban civic arena.

    Duane Border

    Interesting points have already been served up on this topic. But working in Los Angeles for almost a decade now has given me a closer perspective. One of the issues is SF, Boston and NYC are served by prominent Landscape Architecture programs at Berkeley, Penn, Harvard etc. These programs offer opportunities to connect with a large percentage of the publishers and editors of publications and books that feature the newest, “hottest” work. LA doesn’t have the academic community that you find in NoCal and the Eastern Seaboard. Although USC is committing resources to build a MLA (and future BSLA) program to their renowned School of Architecture.

    LA also has a design culture that is architecture heavy. Project teams are assembled by architects, which results in landscape architecture becoming a part of a larger design composition focused primarily around buildings. This provides opportunities for a great number of firms, large and small, to take part in work and thereby reducing the influence of a select few groups. Also, the urban quality of our site conditions (yes, LA is quite urban) make for compact and efficient designs, reducing the opportunities for large landscape design moves that photograph so well in those glossy sheets of LAM and the like. However, they make for great innovative and well detailed work.

    Only recently have there been opportunities for open space design work in the city led by landscape architects. We’re looking forward to more in the future. Melendrez recently completed the Santa Monica College Quad in Santa Monica, Rios Clementi Hale has designs for a civic park in downtown LA that is waiting on funding (hope, hope) and Mia Lehrer + Associates opened Vista Hermosa Park near downtown LA a couple of months ago (the first planned and designed new park in LA in nearly 100 years!)

    There are very innovative, environmentally focused, design oriented firms in Los Angeles, some of which have been mentioned already. To add to the list: Melendrez, EPT, SWA and EDAW are represented in Southern California as well.

    Hope this helps.

    Emily W.

    thanks for the insightful replies everyone! living on the Westside of Los Angeles, I see a lot more of the high-end residential stuff, much of which adheres to a cookie-cutter “Los Angeles garden” look – but there is the creative and unique stuff out there too. Every time I go downtown I am amazed by some of the public space work that is going on. Anyone else see the movie 500 Days of Summer? I loved it for showing off downtown LA and its architecture – not the normal Beverly Hills and palm trees stuff you usually see in LA-based films.

    Also, I’d imagine that a lot of Los Angeles work has to be much more team-structured – when it comes to both individuals and multiple firms collaborating – when designing around concerns like earthquakes and wildfires. Maybe that’s why SoCal LAs sometimes are relegated more of a “decorator” role, as someone said above.

    Brent Jacobsen

    Some good comments, especially about the issue of public landscapes in LA and the importance of the image in marketing projects. The issue of public land is a big challenge in many western cities, so large-scale, notable public projects are few and far in between. And, western cities present an interesting design challenge because of their development character. I feel like a lot of “hot” work on the East Coast is focused on retrofitting the post-industrial, towering built landscapes of East Coast cities into more ecological spaces. This definitely makes for dramatic contrasts of new ecological interventions against a rusting steel infrastructure. On the other hand, I feel like the challenges of the West are related to resource efficiency (water and energy) and the increasing need for density. Many projects focus on restoring more natural landscape processes or attempt to create an urban fabric to encourage people to return to the urban core and reinvest in a denser existence. But these projects, such as small pocket parks or “naturalistic” designs do not come across as vividly or as boldly as some of the challenges in the East Coast environment.

    I think it opens up the issue of how we cue the viewer into the a designed space, especially in more ecologically oriented work. This is a huge problem with restoration projects because they often do not look like a design intervention to many viewers. People may not understand the complexity that went into the design or the difference between a restored landscape and non-restored landscape. In fact, some may argue that a properly restored, or designed, landscape should look as though it have always been there. However, I think one of the new challenges is how to market restorative designs to the general viewer, or implement enough of a cue to trigger people’s engagement with the “naturalistic” landscape. That is one of the great successes of the Lurie Garden in Millenium Park (not to switch regions too much) because the hardscape and design efforts engage people with a wide range of native plants, whereas a typical prairie plant project probably would not capture the imagination of nor engage the general viewer as much. It also benefits from a great backdrop for some dramatic photos as well.

    Bob Luther

    I think the first key is the fact that the area of southern California includes LA, Orange County, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, not just one city, there are a huge number of firms in SoCAL reducing the amount of great opportunities to do great “hot” work.

    Second “hot” avant garde work is like art, it is eye of the beholder stuff, and as someone mentioned it is at the whimsy of book authors, photographers and magazine or book publishers to expose us and ultimately name the “hot” desingers. Some of these hot LA’s are getting great cuddos for placing a sculpture in a field, or using a new product in a different way or doing things that someone loves. I always cringe at ASLA magazine because they always seem to be promoting art in the landscape versus landscape design.

    Third the type of work in SoCal for the last 20 years has been residential development, it is not flashy. Very few housing tracts win awards. Very few freeway interchanges win awards, do Home Depot parking lots, or palm lined boulevards catch the eye of the design world? Some of the greatest LA work in southern California has been habitat restoration and fire damage mitigation and re-vegitation, the sucess of these programs is that the LA gets no credit because you cannot see the design, it blends in too well. Is this wrong, no, but these types of projects are not sexy and exciting. That is the majority of Landscape design in Southern California in the past 20 years, there are some great spaces by Halprin, Walker, Sasaki, and other greats of a past generation of desingers dot the spaces of downtown Los Angeles, but those are in the past, they are not the”hot” designers of today

    So in a nutshell maybe what works in the “artsy” cities just does not work in SoCal, and I think that most designers are fine with that, if you walk into any LA firm you will see their “wall of fame”, projects that they designed, and most often you will be amazed with what you see, you have never seen it before, because it is not in a book, and was never publish in a design magazine, but it is great design, inspirational design, maybe even “HOT” design but it has never been exposed to the design public. That is our loss to leave the ideals of hot desing up to the publishers and photographers and not the industry itself.

    I would love to get a list of who’s hot in landscape architecture to see where the pinnacle of landscape design is today

    Thomas J. Johnson

    This might be better with bullet points / lists of hot SoCal firms.

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