Historic Landscapes, New York
Historic Landscapes, Virginia
Historic Landscapes, New York
Travel as Creative Fuel
The lessons of great places are best learned through “design immersion.”
By James Richards, ASLA
You’re a young designer. You want to become good—very good—at what you do.
Or perhaps you’re a seasoned professional, hoping to rekindle that fire in
the belly that has driven your best work. A word of advice: Travel. Frequently.
Widely. I know of nothing short of cutting a deal with the devil himself that
will jump-start passion and accelerate creative skills faster than packing
a bag and, in Mark Twain’s words, lighting out for the territory ahead.
Many academic programs offer “study abroad” programs, affording young designers
the opportunity to pursue course work while immersed in a foreign culture.
The traditional “study abroad” model has its undeniable benefits, and many
have grown immeasurably from the cultural immersion experience. But the travel
model that’s been most beneficial to my work as a designer has been a different,
more intense kind than typically offered by customary travel/study programs.
I call it “design immersion.” Its fundamental characteristic is rapid exposure
to the most instructive landscapes and best creative works a region, country,
or continent has to offer. These trips are characterized by an ambitious itinerary
and almost-perpetual motion so that the traveler is immersed less in a particular
culture than in the visual language of design, which cuts across time and cultures.
It is, in my experience, the designer’s single best avenue of growth outside
A controversial project in Charlottesville, Virginia, aims to revitalize
Halprin’s Main Street Mall, one of the few successful pedestrian malls,
which is beginning to crumble due to deferred maintenance.
By Daniel Jost, Associate ASLA
Photography by Lauren Noe
Few cities have embraced their pedestrian malls as strongly as Charlottesville,
Virginia. Cities across the country are removing 1970s-era pedestrian malls
that never lived up to their promises, but in Charlottesville there are no
plans to return cars to the Main Street Mall, designed by Lawrence Halprin
and Associates, which opened in 1976. The mall is a thriving scene with offices,
shops, and restaurants. Its outdoor cafés overflow with people during the summer
However, a lack of maintenance has led to problems with the mall’s brick pavement.
Failing mortar has caused some bricks to crack and makes it very difficult
for women to walk the mall in heels. Most people agree that the city needs
to do something; however, there is a great deal of debate over what should
be done. How closely should improvements follow Halprin’s vision?
The plans presented this spring by MMM Design Group, a multidisciplinary firm
from Norfolk, Virginia, with a satellite office in Charlottesville, were not
completely faithful to the original design. They proposed adding elements to
the mall, tweaking its light fixtures, and changing its brick paving. This
led Lydia Brandt of Preservation Piedmont and Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA, a
Halprin scholar at the University of Virginia, to label the mall a “landscape
at risk” on the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s web site. They gathered community
support to “save the downtown mall from cosmetic upgrades that threaten its
“It seems strange to change something that’s working,” says Meyer. “It is
a designed landscape by a very significant American landscape architecture
firm, and it’s one of the few pedestrian malls that is still thriving. As a
piece of our cultural heritage, I think it should be respected.”
Though MMM’s plans had been developed with a great deal of community input,
the new grassroots campaign convinced the city to change the plans, eliminating
many of the new features planned for the mall. However, what will happen with
the mall’s brick pavement remains unclear; controversy over replacing it continued
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