Campus News - February 12, 2001

Building Landscape Architecture for the 21st Century

By Carolyn Gonzales

UNM professor Baker Morrow, photo by Carolyn GonzalesArchitecture and Planning Professor Baker Morrow thought it would take only a couple years to establish a master’s in landscape architecture (MLA) program at UNM. It would take a while longer. Much like designing a cityscape, the program first required a vision, infrastructure, a few well-planted seeds and people to tend them. Morrow was the visionary who planted the seeds, the program’s new director, Alfred Simon, now nurtures the program along.

Morrow started his teaching career at UNM in 1975 and by 1977 the seeds of the landscape architecture program first sprang up in the form of undergraduate coursework in the field. For a decade, the School of Architecture and Planning offered specializations within planning, including an intensive program in landscape design.

“In 1994 then-Dean Richard Uribes gave the charge and was absolutely relentless in pursuit of this program,” recalls Morrow who gained the support of the architecture and planning faculty by telling them he would look for money without stripping existing programs.

Two strokes of luck nurtured the program. David Stuart, director of Evening and Weekend degree programs, supported the program, providing necessary funding and classes. “And when J.B. Jackson – the cultural and landscape historian – died, he left the school $3 million in his will. We were successful in persuading administration that the money should be used to set up an endowment with the interest used to support a new landscape architecture program,” Morrow says, adding that the current dean, Roger Schluntz, as well as his predecessor, interim Dean Ric Richardson, were also supportive.

The Form D – bearing signatures of deans and administrators, Faculty Senate, the Commission on Higher Education and the Governor – is the document that makes a degree program official. “For each of the 16 signatures on the document, I think we made three presentations,” says Morrow, who now displays the framed Form D like a badge of honor on his office wall.

“Gov. Johnson made the case for the program. He defended and promoted the training we could provide. He said that we could train and use the expertise in low water, high desert areas and also export the expertise,” says Morrow.

“I would not want to go through that process more than once in a lifetime,” he adds.

Morrow was happy to turn the program over to its first director, Alf Simon. Although Simon comes to UNM by way of Manitoba, Canada, he has had a long “love affair,” as he says, with the Southwest. He lived in Tempe, Az., for a year and a half and is a frequent visitor to the Sonora and California deserts.

“The opportunity to build a program is rare. Few get the chance to construct a program based on pedagogy and ideology. This is an incredible opportunity for me,” says Simon, adding that landscape architecture is not well understood as a discipline outside the profession.

“It’s not just about trees and flowers and decorating space,” he says. “In a city there is more space between buildings than there are buildings. Who designs that space? People don’t see it. The work of architects is well known and understood, but people don’t understand that landscape architects are the ones who design and place streets, sidewalks, parking lots. And parking lots aren’t just utilitarian. They can be created as pedestrian space,” says Simon.

The master’s in landscape architecture requires 50 to 60 hours of graduate level work, matching the requirements for other specialized graduate degrees in the school. Who is best suited for the program? “As with art history, the best students for the program are those with strong liberal arts backgrounds, not necessarily those who came out of an architecture or planning undergraduate program,” says Morrow. He stresses that landscape architects must be well grounded in what is socially useful.

“Judgments must be made. What is more important – a park or a street? Do we demolish 19th century homes for an office building? People whose backgrounds are in history, politics, language and culture can help make sound, well informed decisions,” says Morrow.

Simon shares this philosophy. “Students can come into landscape architecture from sociology, psychology, geology, anthropology and have the necessary knowledge about the social, economic and cultural world. In a diverse, pluralistic society, one needs to understand the values, communities, cities, subtleties and issues and synthesize it,” he says.

That foundation helps the students appreciate living space in large and small ways. “Our environment reinforces our values and needs, functioning in a natural, delightful way. The sky is our ceiling, the ground our floor. We understand the relationship between the sky and the earth. We understand the natural systems above, on and below ground. Human and natural systems can be elegantly integrated,” he says.

Landscape architects look to meet people’s needs for function, but work to create “places of delight,” says Simon, who says that they assess how people use and move through urban environments and how the landscape supports the people through layout, streetscapes and infrastructure.

Simon sees the need to work with natural systems and the environment. “We cover up a lot in the environment. Systems that control use a lot and waste a lot of energy. We are responsive to natural systems to develop win/win situations,” he says.
Landscape architects make judgments about resources, as well. “How much water will a site need to make it flourish? If you cut down on the grass, then you introduce more gravel and stone. Locally those materials are quarried in hills between Albuquerque and Santa Fe that are now diminishing. Everything has a cause and effect. How will future generations feel about what we do?” asks Morrow.

As with any new program, the MLA is resource poor, says Simon, who adds that Dean Schluntz is supportive. Although Simon is the only fulltime faculty member in landscape architecture, others from Architecture and Planning teach part time in his department. He adds, “We work together with both architecture and planning. That overlap is critical. We can’t function effectively in separate realms.”

“We are restructuring the curriculum for students coming in as non-design majors,” he says, explaining that those students are placed in a three-year program with the design studio pulling all the pieces together. “In the studio, they build skills and experiment. Design majors can do it in two years.”

“We are working to develop a program that is as competitive academically as any program anywhere. We want to attract students nationally and internationally,” says Simon, who adds that they expect the program to be accredited by 2003.
Simon indicates that the program already has strength in cultural landscape studies; environmental/sustainable landscapes, especially as it applies regionally; and in its emerging program in the landscapes of Latin America.

Simon sees the planned new building for the school as an opportunity to collaborate even more with his colleagues. “The Antoine Predock design supports the spirit of interdisciplinary studies. Shared classroom and seminar rooms will support all three programs in equal ways,” he says.

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