Alumni Q&A / James Lord MLA ’96 and Roderick Wyllie MLA ’98, SURFACEDESIGN INC.
Through leadership and innovative design, James Lord MLA ’96 and Roderick Wyllie MLA ’98 of SURFACEDESIGN INC. have established an international reputation in urban design and sustainable landscape architecture. Founded in 2001, the award-winning practice creates dynamic parks, plazas, waterfronts, civic landscapes, and private gardens. Highlights include the Smithsonian Master Plan, Auckland International Airport, Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary Plaza, and ASLA award-winning IBM Plaza in Honolulu.
Lord and Wyllie have long-standing ties to the GSD. Lord is an emeritus member of the GSD Alumni Council. They are both active in the pedagogy for the School and in engaging their community by hosting an event in San Francisco around their fall 2017 option studio “Phantom Coast: Transforming San Francisco’s Eastern Waterfront.” The option studio considered the imaginative potential of the Embarcadero Seawall as both innovative infrastructure and engaging public space. This spring (spring 2019), they have returned to the GSD to teach the option studio “SUPERBLOOM: Shelter, Drought, and Sculpture in the California Desert” which focused on the Yucca Valley, CA, and its adjacent desert settlements. The studio is confronting the nature of shelter in the desert environment, the history of utopian modernism, and broader intersections of the aesthetic and the environmental in a rapidly changing climate.
Hear from Lord and Wyllie on their experience teaching options studios and about their time at the GSD.
1. Tell us about your background.
RW: Born and raised in San Francisco and have a BA in Music.
JL. I was born at the Queen of Angels Hospital on the 101 Freeway Los Angeles and raised in Palos Verdes Estates in CA, an Olmsted designed community. My prior degrees include a 5-year Bachelor of Architecture from USC.
2. What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
RW: The most significant thing I took away from my time at the GSD is the conceptualization of any piece of work. The spark of an idea must be honored through the process of change to its life in the world.
JL: To think big, express yourself, and make friends across the trays.
3. Looking back, what experiences at the GSD were the most helpful in shaping your career (these can be seen broadly as courses, student activities, lectures, conferences, etc.)?
RW: The design process to me feels so linked to my experience in studying music, specifically the slow persistent focus on practice.
JL: Being able to engage directly with the leaders in the field of landscape architecture such as Michael Van Valkenburgh, Gary Hilderband MLA ’85, Martha Schwartz GSD ’77, George Hargreaves MLA ’79 at the critical point within the profession when landscape stopped taking a backseat to architecture and began to lead the conversation on how design shapes the built environment. In addition, I created an independent study studio with Anita Berrizbeitia MLA ’87 where I was able to visit Roberto Burle Marx and learn from him. This also created an opportunity to meet Roderick Wylie.
4. Tell us about your professional careers.
RW: I worked for several Landscape Architects that I admire. Martha Schwartz GSD ’77, Peter Walker MLA ’57, Marta Fry MLA ’86, and Ron Lutsko. I have been extremely lucky to spend time in the studios of these people.
JL: My professional career in landscape architecture consists of 4 years with George Hargreaves, 4 months with Martha Schwartz GSD ’77, and 8 years with Peter Walker MLA ’57 all which culminated in starting Surface Design 13 years ago. Working intimately and learning from these master architects at pivotal points of their own amazing careers greatly influenced how to run a rigorous design firm and to build poetry in everything landscape from the Lisbon World Expo to the Sydney Olympic Games to the Auckland Waterfront.
5. James is an emeritus member of the GSD Alumni Council, and you both are active in the alumni community. What value have you seen in engaging with fellow GSD alumni?
RW: We have hosted many events in our office and will continue to do so. I think the connection to alumni on the west coast feels like an important contribution to maintain relationships that may feel far away. And for selfish reasons is always inspiring to see what people are doing—how their paths have evolved over the years.
JL: Connecting with different colleagues from across the design community and learning what is going on in their lives after the GSD.
6. This Spring (spring 2019), you are teaching the option studio “SUPERBLOOM: Shelter, Drought, and Sculpture in the California Desert.” What drives your interest in the Yucca Valley? What makes this studio relevant now? (see images from the studio trip below replies)
RW: The studio has several overlapping and at times conflicting areas of focus. The spectacular and extreme landscape of the desert feels like an ideal place for exploring ideas in the landscape that will push students to find their own voice—in some ways confront the elemental inspiration of design. Also, the desert provokes so many conversations about ecology (drought and the regional reality of a dry and increasingly warmer climate), culture of the west etc.
JL: The power and serenity of the desert have always fascinated me since I first camped there as a boy. Understanding that something so harsh could be so fragile at the same time. As the world gets warmer and our environment changes, the desert is a perfect opportunity to investigate living on the bare essentials and adjusting to radically different conditions that are in constant flux.
7. The studio trip will align with Desert X, a contemporary art exhibition in the Coachella Valley. What do you hope students will take away from this experience?
RW: The students’ ability evaluate the function of art in the landscape—politically and formally.
JL: Understanding how scale and integration of a landscape through art can expand interpretation of the design on multivalent levels.
8. Your studio is open to both Landscape Architecture and Architecture students. What benefits do you see in bringing these disciplines together?
RW: Our office is populated by architects, landscape architects, furniture designers, graphic designers, etc. Our work is essentially collaborative. In my opinion, contemporary practice needs to embrace a cross-disciplinary approach.
JL: The idea of shelter is one that crosses over both disciplines (landscape and architecture), how that engages with the seemingly vast scale of the inhospitable desert provides a mechanism where both professions need to utilize the full spectrum of their design experience in order to survive.
9. In fall 2017, you taught the option studio “Phantom Coast: Transforming San Francisco’s Eastern Waterfront” considering the imaginative potential of the Embarcadero Seawall as both innovative infrastructure and engaging public space. What was most memorable about this studio?
RW: The students’ diverse approach to addressing the complex and very real problem of sea level rise in San Francisco. No two projects were the same but all incredibly imaginative.
JL: Seeing the design diversity and innovation the students brought to the reimagining of the sea wall and how the Port of San Francisco embraced the ideas and carefully influenced them in thinking beyond a wall.
10. About what design problems are you passionate?
RW: Design problems that integrate intuition, pragmatism, and poetry.
JL: Rethinking all the standard approaches to the built environment. Each site and location has its unique voice that should be celebrated and amplified. It is only by listening to the stories of each place that we truly connect to the history and poetry of a place—one should know that they are in Auckland rather than Oakland, and vice versa.
11. Who or what inspires you and your work?
- Gardens—traditional and contemporary an endless catalogue of places that constantly inform our work—we are passionate about the contribution that is found in the study or gardens:
- Such as Lotus Land in Santa Barbara, Iford Manor in Wiltshire, Gambaria outside of Florence, Brecy in Normandy, Sitio Burle Marx…..
- Contemporary art—so much to list:
- Painting of Laura Owens, Jonas Woods, Pat Steir, Jonathan Lyndon Chase…Sculpture of Edmund de Wall, Sterling Ruby, Carol Bove, Ugo Rondinone
- And for me music—more and more realizing how connected my design work is to music
- Contemporary music—David Lang, La Monte Young, Alva Noto, Julia Holter…
JL: The entire world around us is a constant source of inspiration, however true inspiration comes from traveling and spending time in new places, seeing art, meeting people. Also, my partner Roderick Wyllie and the rest of our office is inspirational to me.
12. How has the GSD changed since you were a student?
RW: The digital design process is a huge change.
JL: On the design side not much has changed, there is still an amazing rigor and dedication to innovation, but is a kinder space than I remember for sure.
13. What about the GSD currently excites you? (Could be activities, events, research, lectures, etc.)
RW: Focus on social practice—digital design process
JL: The students
14. What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
RW: I think it is important to trust your unique design voice and at the same time to be generous to the creative people that surrounded you.
JL: Be inspired and don’t hold back. Opportunity is out there.
15. Where do you go to feel inspired?
RW: Travel—exploring cities.
JL: I close my eyes and dream. I also visit galleries and gardens, wherever there is culture.
16. What would surprise us about you?
RW: I play clarinet in an ensemble inspired by Greek Rebetiko music.
JL: I can do the Haka.
17. We’ve heard that you are currently working on a monograph of your work (Monacelli Press) featuring a chapter by Anita Berrizbeitia MLA ’87, Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture. Are you in a place that you can share more?
RW: The book is in many ways a conversation (with an actual conversation with Anita) about the practice we have created. It is a moment in time not the final word by any means but a snapshot. Anita has inspired us to locate some of the ideas and themes that are found in our work.
JL: We are currently working on a Monograph that will include some of our built works with Monacelli Press, which includes a series of interviews with Anita.