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October 2008 Issue

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

Historic Landscapes, New York

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 academic walls.

Historic Landscapes, Virginia

Mall Brawl
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

Historic Landscapes, VA
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 months.

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 historic character.”

“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 this summer.


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