An Interview with David Kamp, FASLA

by Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA

Sensory Arts Garden
Within a lush and safe setting, the Sensory Arts Garden fosters curiosity and meaningful interactions and is welcoming to all regardless of ability. / image: Robin Hill (c)

An Interview with David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, Founding Partner of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, PC

I am delighted to share the first of a two-part interview I had with landscape architect David Kamp, FASLA. Having followed his innovative and influential work with great interest for many years, I was fortunate to have worked with David and his team at Dirtworks to design the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden, located in Jupiter, Florida. It remains one of my favorite and most meaningful projects, one that truly meets the needs of children and adults with autism. We will talk about the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden in the second part of the interview, to be published here on The Field next week. For now, please enjoy learning about what shaped David’s design philosophy.

Personal History

Please tell us about your firm, when it was founded, and what your vision was.

Early in my career, as one of the designers for Australia’s Parliament House, I saw how design could express a sense of identity both personal and national—and do it at vastly different scales. Working for landscape architect Peter Rolland, FASLA, and a design team headed by Mitchell Giurgola Thorp Architects, the design for Parliament House drew upon an important historic concept whereby the city used its natural topography as a major organizing device. The design made little distinction between architecture and landscape. It is a triumph of the planner’s art, merging built form with landform in a way that is at once natural and monumental, seeking a balance with the existing landscape and morphology of the city.

Australian Parliament House
Australian Parliament House. Drawing upon the historic concept of the city plan, using natural topography as a major design influence, the project merges built form with landform in a way that is at once natural and monumental. / image: Gollings (courtesy of Peter Rolland)

During the project I realized that design could enhance our sense of identity, engendering an emotional connection by heightening individual experience. I became fascinated with the fundamental design challenge of creating a vast, complex government center that preserved a sense of individual identity while instilling the collective idea of Australia. Later, I saw parallel issues to my experience on Parliament House in the American healthcare system.

Australian Parliament House courtyard
Australian Parliament House. Within this vast, complex government center, a series of intimate courtyards are linked together by granite paving, water, sculpture, and lush plantings. / image: Gollings (courtesy of Peter Rolland)

The response to illness is a defining experience for most of us. Facing perhaps the most serious threat of our lives, we are often unable to maintain our own equilibrium or identity in the context of the institution and its pressing needs. I saw an opportunity to humanize healthcare through design, addressing identity within the context of illness. From my perspective as a landscape architect, I also saw the significant role that nature can play in modern healthcare delivery systems.

In 1995 I formed a design firm to explore this idea and called it Dirtworks. The name was based on the philosophy that dirt works, that nature can provide balance in our lives. It was a humble beginning. Working out of my New York City apartment, I set out to explore how design might help reinforce a positive sense of identity during times of illness and crisis, when balance and continuity are threatened. In the process, essential questions, questions that would form the foundation of my life’s work, came forth: How can design help address the sense of vulnerability and isolation that often accompanies illness? What is the efficacy of this concept when faced with the realities of complicated health conditions and complicated attitudes?

How did you become interested in healing gardens? What was your inspiration?

The first project I undertook at Dirtworks sought to address one of the most profound health crises of the twentieth century. Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, a long-term care facility in Spanish Harlem, was one of the first in New York to care for individuals with HIV. A portion of their building, euphemistically named the Discrete Unit, was set aside to care for infected individuals. The center’s director of therapeutic programs wondered if I might provide guidance on developing a barren rooftop adjacent to the Discrete Unit. The center hoped to build a garden. I immediately accepted.

AIDS stripped away one’s identity as it diminished one’s choices. I saw an opportunity to enrich and possibly expand those choices. Design could counter these challenges with individualized responses, providing opportunities for each visitor to engage with nature on their own terms, in their own way, and at their own pace.

The emergence of AIDS called into question basic attitudes towards medicine’s power to cure and how we, as a society, should respond. Using design to address the obstacles of fear and ignorance opened a window to nature’s true potential: addressing the human condition in all its particularities. This seminal project served as a springboard to a life-long passion to seek out projects serving individuals with complex and often multiple health conditions, including cancer, dementia, and autism, and emotionally charged settings such neonatal intensive care, brain and spinal trauma, and psychiatric hospitals. As my perspective grew, I took these ideas out of the rarefied world of healthcare and into the public realm, including public parks, schools, and brownfield remediation, seeking to heal unhealthy sites, mend communities, and fuse together larger social, economic, and ecological objectives.

Joel Schnaper Memorial Garden, Cardinal Cooke Healthcare Center. The garden offers each user opportunity and choice to engage with nature in their own way and on their own terms by accommodating varied abilities and interests, offering degrees of privacy and socialization and providing a progression of protective spaces. / image: Bruce Buck (courtesy of Dirtworks, PC)

Office Dynamic

Tell us about your office and how you structured your practice.

From its inception, Dirtworks has actively sought out projects for individuals with complex health conditions. While our work has expanded into a broader vision of health, this focus on individual needs remains at the heart. It informs every project large and small.

I am blessed with a terrific team at Dirtworks, starting with my business partner Alex Hart, ASLA. I learned early on in my career that small firms can do large projects; it just depends upon expertise, sensitivity, dedication, and professionalism. We put a strong emphasis on collaboration—within the office, with our project teams, and with our clients. And we listen a lot. Staying small and nimble, staying focused on our core values, and encouraging the Dirtworks team, individual and collectively, to grow and explore ideas, has allowed us to be selective in the projects we take on across the US and overseas.

The projects often involve large consulting teams with internationally recognized leaders in design, the natural and social sciences, and research. Clients include local, state, and federal government agencies; national and international health-based and faith-based foundations and organizations; schools and universities; regional and national healthcare providers; individual donors and major developers. Many involved extensive fundraising and grant initiatives. These efforts not only bring added value to the project, they help us distill and convey the essence of the project for our clients and those who support them.

How would you summarize your design process?

So much of the firm’s philosophy and methodology was forged during the design of the Schnaper Garden at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center. If design is a form of problem solving, the challenge of formulating a design response to AIDS was ignorance. Defining the problem became the problem; there was no design (and little medical) research to draw upon. I started simply by observing and talking with everyone I could—doctors, nurses, family members, and the patients themselves—in order to understand the physiological, emotional, and psychological challenges this disease presented. The challenges for this rooftop garden were not so much technical as something more intimate: addressing the human condition in all its particularities.

Evans Restorative Garden, Cleveland Botanical Garden. The horticultural therapy area is entered through a welcome area. Placed out of the main circulation and generous in size to meet and greet visitors, the area provides a private and quiet setting to welcome a young visitor. / image: Dirtworks, PC

Designing in health settings, whether for someone five or ninety-five years old, requires a heightened sensitivity to the needs of the individual. It demands much of designers in terms of their willingness to explore the intimacy and complexity of experience. That is the responsibility and challenge each designer is presented with.

Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden. Water spheres provide many sensory experiences, including proprioceptive and vestibular. Their placement, low to the ground and tucked into plant beds, requires individuals to squat, reach, and balance. Smooth and rigid spheres offer varied tactile engagement. / image: Robin Hill (c)

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, focusing on the Els for Autism Sensory Arts Garden, to be published here on The Field next week.

David Kamp, FASLA, LF, NA, is the founding principal of Dirtworks Landscape Architecture, PC. His forty-year career involving practice, teaching, writing, and advocacy has been dedicated to promoting health through design with nature. A Harvard Loeb Fellow, MacDowell Colony Fellow, member of the National Academy of Design, and University College Falmouth (UK) Honorary Fellow, David’s work has been internationally recognized through awards, publications, and documentaries. He is working on a book about his life and career, which will be published by the Library of American Landscape History.

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, is is Co-Communications Director for ASLA’s Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN), Principal of design+cOnsulTation, and Lecturer in the occupational therapy program at Boston University. Her work focuses on collaborative design, programming, and research of outdoor environments for underserved groups. A Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Amy presents and publishes widely on topics relating access to nature. She is co-author of the award-winning book Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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