Skills can be honed and computer programs can be learned but these attributes are usually there or not. Be sure to bring these to the table in all of your landscape architecture endeavors—academic and practice alike.
All design professions share the fact that they are generalist professions. And therefore by extension, their educational frameworks are also generalist. However, it is arguably landscape architecture that is the generalist profession among generalist professions. By this I mean that to be a complete and competent landscape architect, knowledge and technical proficiency are required in more different subject areas than in any other design discipline. This breadth, though formidable today, continues to grow at a steady clip. The late Ohio State educator Jot Carpenter made the point clearly when he stated that the length of time it takes to complete the typical undergraduate landscape architecture degree has not changed in the past 100 years, while the breadth of expertise has increased dramatically. This means that in today’s world when pursuing a BLA, we necessarily receive less depth in more areas of study.
In addition to practicing for more than 20 years, I taught for 17 years at several universities where I counseled thousands of students, collaborated with dozens of faculty members, and taught and developed both undergraduate and graduate curricula. This experience affords me a balanced outlook on (1) what universities and curricula need to offer to meet the needs of practice and (2) what practice should provide that universities are not equipped to. It may sound cliché but it’s true: a balance between theory and practical concerns is critical in our field. It is imperative that a curriculum addresses the breadth of subject areas that are needed to practice as a complete landscape architect: skills and knowledge of construction, drawing and visualization/analysis (hand and digital), theory and history, natural systems (plants, water, geology, biology, ecology), social systems (culture, process, preferences, etc.), law and business practices, infrastructure and urban systems, and planning and design (the means by which the other areas are synthesized) are all important. Both theoretical and technical aspects of these subject areas should be covered. Universities, however, cannot address all of these areas with the desired depth in the four to five years that it takes to complete a BLA. They shouldn’t be expected to. That is where a Master’s Degree and/or practical training play a role in the educational process. A BLA should prepare you to either enter the profession or enter a Master’s Degree for specialization in a particular area of interest.
The practice arena is better equipped to provide depth in the practical and technical areas of construction, infrastructure, law and business practices, and knowledge from experience and case studies. Depending on the school and degree that is chosen, an advanced degree can provide additional depth in most of the stated areas above, but most notably natural systems, social systems, digital visualization/analysis and theory/history. Planning and design are honed throughout one’s career and both practice and academia offer insights and learning opportunities that can not be duplicated in the other. One of the keys to getting the most out of design classes in the academic setting is to actively engage the theoretical discourse and experiment through innovative and provocative design proposals. This is not the time to be conservative.
What we look for in a graduate that we hire at EDAW will of course depend on the role that we are trying to fill. It is important to note that there are different career paths in landscape architecture and consequently a number of strengths that one can build on to achieve a successful career; detailed design, planning, project management, computer applications, GIS, etc. Diversity in a team is a good thing and so we often look for skill sets that are not already represented within the existing team. However, it is equally important to note that if one is going to be a competent and complete landscape architect you must demonstrate a high degree of competency in all subject areas. That does not mean being an expert in everything; it means appreciating the role and value of all relevant subject areas while developing real strengths in a few. It means knowing enough about a particular subject to know that you don’t know enough and can acknowledge that you need help from an expert. For example, those who do not appreciate the value of history or theory often do not realize that their work may lack relevance and meaning. Conversely, those who do not appreciate the true value of construction knowledge may design in broad gestures that become difficult to build and may be more costly and exhibit less longevity, thus diminishing the value of their designs. A balance of technical, management and design knowledge is critical to a successful outcome in the real world.
The attributes that we look for in all new hires at EDAW are strong skills in digital media/drafting, a demonstrated appreciation for theory, and ability in design. As we look to the future, it is clear that the knowledge base continues to expand and we will be looking for more capabilities in 3D analysis and visualization, advanced knowledge of how to achieve more sustainable projects and innovative thinking. Ironically, the demand for strong hand graphics will continue to increase. The other things that are key—and no university can necessarily include these in their curriculum—is a good attitude, good judgment and a strong work ethic. Skills can be honed and computer programs can be learned but these attributes are usually there or not. Be sure to bring these to the table in all of your landscape architecture endeavors—academic and practice alike.
Alvarez is Managing Principal of EDAW’s Atlanta and Miami Beach offices and has been a practicing landscape architect for more than 20 years. He holds the M.L.A. from Harvard University and his B.S. in Architectural Technology from Florida International University.
His non-for-profit, public and private clients include the City of Miami Beach, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Miami-Dade County, and Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. He is currently working on the Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami with Cesar Pelli and Associates and Balmori Associates. Alvarez has been actively involved in academia for over 17 years. From 1994 through 2001 he was a tenured faculty member at the University of Georgia’s School of Environmental Design. Prior to coming to UGA, Alvarez served as Director and tenured Associate Professor for FIU’s School of Design where he inaugurated and led the development of the only accredited graduate program in landscape architecture in South Florida.