by Barbara Peterson, ASLA
When did you first hear about landscape architecture? Was it before, during, or after college?
When I asked fellow landscape architects that question, their answer was frequently while in college, often in an architecture program, or after they had graduated with a degree in business, finance, horticulture, art, interior design, or, like me, biomedical science. But their common interests included art, nature, the outdoors, working with their hands, and creating things. So, why didn’t someone suggest landscape architecture before they went to college?
Perhaps because most people don’t understand what a landscape architect is or does: landscaper—yes; but landscape architect—no. Participation in workshops, summer programs, and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Landscape Architecture Merit Badge help spread the word to youth, but what about high school architectural design programs?
Wait…you didn’t know that some school districts offer architecture as part of their high school curriculum? I had no idea either, until flipping through a course catalogue with my son when he entered the ninth grade. He liked architecture and wanted to try the program to be sure.
The four-year program is taught by a registered architect. Students from the district’s five high school campuses are bussed to a central Career Center for a half-day, studio-style class. They learn drafting, hand-lettering, sketching, AutoCAD, Revit, and SketchUp; make cardboard, basswood, and 3D models; and research, design, and learn critical thinking. Projects focus on architecture but each has a landscape design and, sometimes, a planning component.
Students present their projects twice a semester during in-person critiques. An online mid-term crit is now available for the fourth-year students. They also host an Open House Student Exhibition.
Local design professionals, including architects, landscape architects, engineers, interior designers, planners, and former students in college programs, are invited to attend the crits and the exhibition. All interactions follow school district regulations.
In-person crits take about 2.5 hours and occur either in the morning or afternoon depending on when the class occurs. Project scopes are emailed to attendees prior to the crit. During the crit, attendees provide oral and written feedback, as well as suggest presentation and production grades. Those grades are compiled by the instructor and count toward each student’s project grade.
While professionals are under no obligation to attend more than one crit, it is hoped that their interest will be piqued and that they will participate again.
The program prepares students for college-level studies so by the time they are in their fourth year, they are really focused:
“Wow, their project was better than some of the ones that I saw in college.”
– Architect, crit participant
And students understand that when professionals come, they are taking time away from real projects:
“… since [the professionals] show up, they must care.”
– First-year student
Therefore, they do take feedback seriously and are excited to share what they’ve learned. They remember who said what:
“I was hoping that you would come [to the Exhibition]. I didn’t get to show you my final project but I took your [mid-term] advice, and did more research and changed this part of my design …[pointing to her new research images and sketches and to the revised area of the design]…Yeah, I like it better now…I think it’s really cool and it was a lot of fun. Thank you.”
– Second-year student
Students have a unique perspective about outdoor spaces because they actively engage with spaces differently than adults, and differently than designers: a bench is much more than a bench to a teen. Crit discussions encourage them to trust their instincts even when those appear different from the norm. That is why in-person engagement with landscape architects is necessary.
Landscape architects are invited by the instructor. I support the program and have also invited contacts, cold-called firms, and even posted requests on my Facebook page. I’d love to say that I get half a dozen responses for each crit but…well, people are initially enthusiastic when we talk but I typically don’t even get a reply to follow-up emails, not even a “sorry, we are crunching on a deadline.” Over the past four years, only three landscape architects, other than myself, have attended the roughly 16 crits, and none, other than myself, have been to one of the exhibitions.
The downside is that half of the first- and second-year students don’t get the benefit of talking to an actual landscape professional because class size dictates that each class be split into two crit groups. Low professional participation doesn’t go unnoticed:
“We need more [professionals] because the more that show up, the more perspectives we get and things to think about that we didn’t before…You get a wider range of ideas and better discussions that don’t just focus on one item.”
– Former student
Program students have gone on to study architecture, engineering, and, yes, landscape architecture. And the feedback that they receive can not only affect their grades but also sets them up for future success:
“…by the time you get into college, you are ahead of most students because you’ve had practice talking [to adults] and explaining your work.”
– Former student
Students in our school district have a wide range of incomes, races, cultures, religions, experiences, interests, and ideas. Their diversity is the diversity that we seek in landscape architecture. Programs such as these are a fabulous way to educate young minds about landscape architecture as a potential professional.
We talk about the need to increase knowledge about and diversity within the profession, so why is an opportunity to engage students such as this not hot on everyone’s radar?
I challenge you:
- to ask your local school district if they have a high school architecture program; and
- to volunteer.
My son? Yes, he finished the program in 2018, graduated, and has completed his freshman year at a university School of Architecture. He will be back at the university in the fall, but for now, he is interning with an architecture firm whose principal participated in the crits. My son interned with the firm during his fourth year of the program and was the first high school student that they hired.
Could your next intern or new hire come from a similar high school program?
So, when did you first hear about landscape architecture as a profession?
Barbara Peterson, ASLA, is a freelance landscape architect and a volunteer with the Architectural Design Program in the Lewisville (Texas) Independent School District. The program is taught by architect Chris Carson.