Alumni Q+A: Andrea (Andie) Cochran MLA ’79
Andie Cochran FASLA, MLA ’79 has been living and practicing landscape architecture in the San Francisco Bay area for over 30 years. Born in New York City, Cochran attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and lived all over the northeast, with short stints in Colorado, Tennessee and Athens, Greece, before moving to California in 1981. After working in collaborative partnerships for over 10 years, she founded Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture in 1998. Cochran’s 15-person studio has been the recipient of international recognition in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a wide-range of design publications.
Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture is distinguished by its diversity—the firm tackles a variety of project types and scales. She expounds on the diversity of project type in a recent interview posted on the ASLA website, “About half our work is high-end residential work, and the other half is institutional and commercial and affordable housing projects. What we learn on the residential side allows us to develop our craft of building things, because all our projects are built. We’re working with clients that are willing to take risks. We’re able to try things out in an area that’s safer, and the risks are understood. We’re then able to apply what we’ve learned to public projects that can’t afford to take risks. The scale is different. If a plant were to fail as a mass planting, say, a plant you hadn’t tried before, that would be a big problem.”
Cochran has received well-deserved recognition over the past decade—she was inducted as a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2007, was named a finalist for the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award in Landscape Architecture in 2006, 2009 and 2010, and in 2009, Princeton Architectural Press published a monograph of her work. In December, we asked Cochran to pause from her work and holiday adventures to respond to our questions about her time at the GSD, her professional ascent, and her career today. Her delightful answers reflect the energy of woman engaged in her life’s work.
When did you realize you would be a designer? What inspired this choice?
I always loved to draw and make things. As a kid we built forts in the woods in New Jersey where I grew up. Maybe this inspired my interest in my future profession.
If you weren’t a landscape architect, what profession might you have chosen?
I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian—I started school as an animal science major because my parents would not let me go to art school. Fortunately, I got side tracked into landscape architecture.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
The annual Halloween party and dancing in the studio late at night before a deadline with my classmates—we even took dancing lessons to improve our skills.
How does your experience at the GSD impact your work life today?
The GSD network is much more valuable than I ever imagined when I was a student. Some of my best friends and colleagues are people I met at the GSD—we are still close and collaborate occasionally.
What GSD faculty, critic or fellow student had the greatest influence?
Peter Walker for design. Carl Steinitz for how to approach solving complex problems.
What object(s) most inspires your work? Why?
I am not inspired by objects, I am inspired by spaces/environments, not things. I am drawn to the mutability that comes from the interaction between space, time and light. I draw inspiration from the work of artists like Robert Irwin and Donald Judd that diffuse the boundaries between sculpture and context.
When do you feel most reactive?
When I work with other people to solve a problem, I find the exchange inspires and excites me.
Tell us about your favorite collaborators, be they clients, consultants, colleagues, or children.
I believe that in the best projects, the site and the architecture are envisioned as a whole. My favorite clients challenge us, but also respect us enough to give us the space to rise to the challenge. These are the most fulfilling collaborations. I try not to bring preconceptions to a project so we can tell the client’s story in our work. I think this is what distinguishes architecture and landscape; we are trying to create the appropriate setting/environment and this means stepping back and allowing ego to be secondary to the site context and the environment.
What’s your favorite city or place? Why?
I love the energy of New York, but Rome is the city that I am most drawn to because of the light and this intangible sense of belonging there. But San Francisco has been the best place to practice landscape architecture because of the forgiving climate that allows people to live outside and the spirit of innovation that exists here. It’s not surprising that Berkeley in the 1960s, as a place that fomented social change, and Silicon Valley, as a place that changes the way we live with technology, both happened here.
Tell us about your travels. Where have you traveled in the last year? What was your best trip ever? Where do you still hope to go?
I just got back from a vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico—great food, rich culture, a culture of crafts, beautiful scenery, and perfect weather. I would love to go back. It may be one of my best trips ever. We have a project in Hong Kong, and I traveled there in the fall for the first time. I’ve also spent a lot of time recently in Austin, Texas, and I have become a real fan. There are so many places left to visit, but definitely high on the list are Africa and Machu Picchu.
With whom do you share your life? What’s your favorite activity outside of work—tell us about a typical evening or weekend?
I share my life with a wonderful man, Jerry Doyle, without his support, I couldn’t do half of what I do. We have a huge vegetable garden in the wine country of Sonoma. My favorite event of the week is going to the farmers market—I love to cook and to eat.
Tell us what makes your home and/or office special?
Our office is in an old warehouse with 14-ft ceilings, 80-feet of windows facing the bay, and the old working waterfront of San Francisco; it’s filled with natural light all day, and this feeds my soul.
Is there something about you that might surprise your clients or colleagues?
My own garden is nothing like the ones I create for others, it’s definitely the shoemakers’ children having no shoes in my garden.
With work so based in the natural world, how do you use technology in your work? Do you miss the analog era?
We design with 3-D digital modeling—we use Sketch-up to understand spaces. It’s a critical part of our design process. It’s faster than physical models so in that way I don’t miss analog.
We then check it in the field because the natural world and site context can be difficult to model.
What advice would you have for young GSD alumni?
Remember that your career is a journey and there are no wrong decisions. It’s important to know that you need to try many things to find the path that best suits you. Always follow your passions and it will lead you in the right direction.