Landscape architect Grant Jones, co-founder of Seattle-based Jones & Jones Architects + Landscape Architects + Planners, begins from a simple premise: The land tells stories. From this seed sprouts a holistic design philosophy rooted in concepts of resilience, adaptation and the principles of evolution.
Edward C. Wolf: You have called landscape architecture an “American invention.” Who were the profession’s founders, and what did they have in mind?
Grant Jones: The best known is Frederick Law Olmsted, who sought to bring nature back into cities. Public parks were Olmsted’s major mission. He won the commission to design New York’s Central Park in 1857.
Olmsted’s contribution was to recognize nature’s civilizing effect, creating parks to bring ordinary men and women and their families closer to nature. Olmsted, of course, was also deeply involved in creating the country’s first National Parks.
His fellow Bostonian Horace Cleveland, the brother of US President Grover Cleveland, saw a need to design American cities ahead of the speculators, railroad barons and European investors who were seeking to make the fastest buck in the West. Cleveland sought to use the features of the land – the escarpments, ridges, rivers and lakes – as armatures for city design.
The profession they shaped embarked on a grand purpose: To lay out whole communities and road systems aligned with curving patterns of the natural features that would express the identity of a city and its region.
ECW: And something you call the “intrinsic landscape” lies at the heart of that grand purpose.
GJ: In every language that I’ve checked, the definition of nature boils down to “what-is.” The intrinsic landscape is the what-is landscape, the landscape that has evolved, adapted to the climate and remains part of the larger organism of the whole earth.
The intrinsic is everything to me. Let me explain.
Picture the spinning earth. If you look down from above the North Pole, it’s spinning counter-clockwise. The influence of the Earth’s rotation on weather patterns and ocean currents is known as the Coriolis force. From a landscape point of view, the force generates physical features that are intrinsic expressions of regional watersheds: trade-wind-eroded sea cliffs, oxbow lakes, laterally striated slickensides, coastlines and canyons, curving island chains. In the Great Plains, for instance, southeast-seeking tributaries bound for the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico are the handiwork of this force.
The Earth’s spinning motion creates form, a sort of “speciation” of places. Each landform is built from watershed segments where life adapts to the climate and grows in the medium of the geologic earth. The plant communities and the animals that adapt to them form partnerships that consequently simply have to take place.
Everything we know carries the intrinsic trace of this planet-scale partnership between process and form.
ECW: LEED standards and certification launched the green building revolution. Do standards have the same role to play in design disciplines besides architecture?
GJ: Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I am really against standards! I think standards are the enemies of creativity. To put it another way, they are the enemies of adaptation.
Landscape architects are keenly concerned with adaptation, with the Earth and its intrinsic responses to processes, forms and outcomes. We ask how every place is unique and how the people of that place are different than the people of other places. The diversity is the essential gift that makes it all work.
Ultimately our role as designers is to create something that fits. You have to ask the earth to teach you to design the project. The earth itself has to supply the standard.
ECW: What is your alternative to LEED?
GJ: Rather than a LEED checklist, I ask three questions. I ask first, “Where am I?” What is this place? What are its animals, its flowers, its plants? What are its soils, what is its weather? What are its songs, stories and history? What words describe this place?
Second, I ask, “What can I do to increase the health of this place?” The answers establish criteria for a design process.
Third, I ask, “How can I connect people to this place and to the forms I have designed?” How can my efforts as a designer cause people to fall in love with this place and take care of it?
ECW: Language seems to play a special role in your design process.
GJ: Language is as wild as the landscapes that inspire it. In my experience, the wild has proven to be the most evolutionary, the most adaptive, the healthiest element for sustaining civilization.
Our spoken languages didn’t come from books. Languages came from landscapes where the human species adapted and coevolved. So many of our words describe the look and character of the land: the rocks, the trees, the seasons, the life processes, the great occasions of birth, marriage and death.
Writing poetry has helped me to connect with the intrinsic because I have to let each place tell me its story. Poems evolve from situations, and the poems themselves become instructive—it’s scholarly research of a different form. I’ve treated poetry as a tool that gives me a better chance of working responsibly as a partner with a place.
ECW: Resilience has emerged as a goal and ideal amid the new reality of climate disasters. What role does resilience play in your work?
GJ: I’ve always considered it a responsibility of the landscape architect to help visualize resilience and to expand its continuum. Let me give you an example.
One of our early projects at Jones & Jones was a plan for a river, the Nooksack River in northwest Washington State. The Whatcom County Park Board was looking for new lands to add to a park system along the river. The Park Board wasn’t our only client; we felt the river itself was our client.
One of our first steps was to investigate the health of the river: to map and describe the places where it strongly expressed natural process and form, where rare examples of that expression had been damaged, where the river remained pristine.
The questions we asked the Nooksack River included many related to resilience. Where could the river absorb change? Which segments and reaches offered resilient corridors for animals, including insects, microbes and fungi? Questions of resilience were an integral part of what it meant to design for – and with – a river.
ECW: From financial chaos to superstorms and rising seas, our times pose unprecedented challenges to the design professions. What’s ahead for the new generation of designers?
GJ: Well, the design professions face a global dilemma. We know what science is telling us, but what is the plan? The opportunities for designers of all kinds are immense. Landscape architects are best equipped to contribute place-based knowledge. Compiled and shared, place-knowledge can provide great continuity that links the world.
When we’re in touch with place and with each other, we can evolve. If we pay attention, I do believe the land can teach us how to live with the current catastrophe and how to love what’s left.