Large-Scale International Projects, in Theory and in Practice: Challenges & Opportunities for Landscape Architects
Yogi Berra had it right. He said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”
How does a very large and very complex project—1.5 kilometers long and more than thirty international consultants—get built?
Here’s the simple summary: there are three players. Number one: the owner—the owner has the money and property to develop the project. Number two: the consultant—the consultant does the design and engineering for the project. And number three: the contractor—he builds the project. Then the owner moves in and operates the project. Straightforward, right?
You may wonder what it’s like to work in the cradle of Western Civilization—the trading posts between the East and West, the Middle East and North Africa, and, for millennia, primarily a landscape of traders.
But first, we’ll start with something you may be more familiar with. Large nurseries like Monrovia, Keeline Wilcox and ValleyCrest often have rows upon rows of trees, shrubs and ground covers, each properly pruned, grown to near perfection and available in seemingly unlimited quantities in any size you want. Selecting plants there is the same as going down the breakfast cereal aisle in a large American grocery store—huge selections, multiple sizes of each, in massive quantities. Just like cereal boxes, the plants in these nurseries are labelled, well displayed, properly set out and all uniformly healthy. That sophistication and mastery of horticultural and logistics processes—integral to plant growth—is a spectacular achievement that some landscape architects never fully appreciate—until they worked with the pirate landscape contractors of the Middle East.
In the Western Region of Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, a large new town was under construction and street trees were part of the infrastructure work. That was the first time some landscape architects had seen—on a competitively bid, huge project scale—plants being grown in used, empty tin cans. Always rusting, the cans rarely even had drainage holes and were always stacked cheek-by-jowl to save on land rental costs. Plants were hand watered seemingly by chance. Pruning equipment? Just never around.
This is a brief review of how time, cost, and quality issues have impacted education and the practitioners’ offices in the past decade or so. Schools have been pressured to streamline, yet teach more. Practitioners’ offices have been pressured to help with education, yet reduce overheads. Who loses? Everybody, especially the students. Though internships help, they only give a narrow window for viewing and learning over a short period of time. I contend that the pressures, both in education and also in practitioners’ offices, combine to negatively influence the next generation of landscape architects. The students end up poorly informed and weak when it comes to two critical categories: what they want to do and how can they reach that goal.
The weakness comes from an insufficient understanding of how the profession works, how a project evolves, and how the work advances over time in the practitioners’ offices. This is not a new problem, but it is an exacerbated problem these days. How to correct this? Digitally facilitated mentoring.