Founded in the early 1980s by two couples – Carol and Colin Franklin and Lesley and Rolf Sauer – Andropogon set out to push the boundaries of the profession for the benefit of both humans and nature, talking about issues such as ecology and sustainability before these became common considerations.
Over the years they have worked both in the US and internationally to create a strong portfolio of work, incorporating green strategies which have stood the test of time. Last year the firm was awarded the 2018 Landscape Architecture Firm Award, the highest honour which the American Society of Landscape Architects can bestow on a firm.
As the firm takes on a range of new projects, we talk to principal José Almiñana about creating landscapes, dealing with dramatically shifting environments and the benefits of a diverse workforce.
What is your background?
I trained as an architect in Venezuela and went into landscape architecture in order to be a better architect – by understanding the ground the buildings stand on. However, after joining Andropogon in 1983 when the firm was a few years old, I ended up forging my career in landscape architecture.
How would you sum up the philosophy of the firm? What unites all of your projects?
Our goal is to understand and express the essential character of a place and tell its story – what it is and what it could become. We strive to expand the boundaries and seek collaborations with local professionals, who have the same attitude and approach, all within a transdisciplinary integrative design process.
We are committed to the principle of designing with nature: beautiful and evocative landscapes inspired by the observation of natural processes and informed by the best environmental science.
How do you approach each new project?
At the outset, we like to find out about the natural history and the recent history of the site, to understand the legacy and bring this into the design, considering the footprint of the design process in a conscientious way, and the impact on the land and the landscape.
There are also practical considerations, such as contamination issues with brownfield sites and the regulatory framework. We like to work within the capacity of the living systems, including living systems under the soil, and we research the eco-region to understand the specifics of the area and appropriate use of plants.
One example of how we worked with the history of the site was an airport redevelopment in Colorado, which was being redeveloped as a community. There had previously been a creek on site which had been paved over for the runway. Daylighting the creek restored the landscape to its original state, allowing us to deal with storm and rain water, and also become the backbone of the open space system of the development, which was a significant benefit.
Andropogon is a certified minority business enterprise. What does having a diverse workforce bring to your work?
From the outset one of the firm’s principles was the practice of a participatory design process. This is a fundamental tenet of our work as we approach every project from a systems perspective.
In doing so, we find the design solutions rise out of a collective and diverse understanding of all points of view, which demands an appreciation of diverse interests, objectives, opinions, and contributions. The designs are informed and crafted from a broader and richer perspective and there is a sense of ownership shared by the project team.
Therefore, it is only fitting that we foster a diverse staff from different cultures, backgrounds, and nationalities. Having a varied workforce makes for a more productive, inclusive, and fulfilling work environment, as we all learn from the collective wisdom.
Why is it so important that our cities incorporate high quality green spaces?
Green spaces and nature have an impact on how people live, feel, how they relate to others and their health, and therefore are a necessary part of urban life. Humans have to satisfy their housing, work and biophilic needs, so nature has to be embedded into the design of our cities.
What are the biggest challenges currently facing landscape architects?
One challenge of our work is that we are dealing with life: landscapes are never static, they are evolutionary. Also landscapes are dependent on inputs which are outside of our control.
But perhaps the biggest challenge we are facing is the shifting environment, which is unfolding in a way which we have never experienced and nobody is sure what will happen. Climate change is creating chaos with extraordinary weather, such as droughts and atmospheric rivers, chains of storms and cloud bursts, which create unprecedented infrastructure problems about how to manage waste water. The only way that we can look at this crisis is as an opportunity; we must seek for landscape integration solutions to this new normal.