Interviews

Interview with Rick Rowbotham

Rick RowbothamRick has over 35 years experience in the field of Landscape Architecture. In 1980 Rick worked under the direction of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe before establishing his own practice Urban Red in 1983. His keen interests in a design led artisan culture prompted the formation and management of a design and build construction company that now operates in the UK. In the late 1980’s Rick formed a practice based in Kuala Lumpur to manage projects throughout the Pacific Rim. He now works on various projects throughout the world expanding his role beyond the traditional definition of Landscape Architecture.

I caught up with Rick early in 2013 and then again this year to get an overview on his experiences working as a Landscape Architect and the diverse roles he has played:

Initial interview: Feb 2013

Why did you pursue a career in landscape architecture?

I wanted to be an artist actually.  I was persuaded by my parents that I would never make a living as an artist, and I was interested in the natural sciences.  So, I thought, what can I do to bring the combination?  In the 70s, landscape architecture was not really talked about. But I went to a career advisory board, and they suggested landscape architecture.

I always had a practical side to me so I’ve never been shy in understanding how materials worked.  I had this intuitive interest, and I was able to focus that into my career. I became very interested in the Architectural and technical side of landscape architecture which was much more akin to architecture rather than landscape architecture.

 

Where do you think, in the coming years, has the most potential for landscape architecture?

Well, I think China springs to mind immediately.  Personally I feel it’s a difficult environment to work in.  Culturally and from the point of view of economic management, the way they work there is quite different from the way we work in the UK.  Aspirations there are different to here.

We can compete on the creative side, but we can’t compete when it comes to manpower and churning the work out. However what we can do is to bring in the creative angle and unlock the initial problems when forming a new concept design.

I there are fewer preconceptions in China about how design should be. If you’re in competition with another developer or neighbor or city, the more extravagant, the more esoteric the project becomes, the better.

 

How was your experience establishing a practice in Malaysia?

It’s not a big market but it’s a market where little gems can grow.  That’s my feeling.  When I was working in KL  In the late 1980’s there was a tremendous problem with corruption.

Political power and economic power was vested in different factions in society. In broad terms, the Chinese are the economic engine, most industrious and most prolific.  And the indigenous Malay are much more to involved with the political aspect.  I think that’s festered in the way the constitution works as well. If you’re not born and bred there and you’re not Malay it’s difficult to get into a seat of power. This was  my feelings and recollection in the 1980’s.

 

How many years did you have a practice in Malaysia?

Ten years.  It was an economic disaster for us.  We lost money, but the experience was second to none.  It was particularly good for me because I went back to my home, my birth place in Sarawak, and went to see people that my father still knew. I’m lucky for that, but we didn’t make any money there.

 

Do you think there’s too much legislation in UK preventing innovative design?

I think there are a number of points here.  Firstly is the Planning regulations, which has hugely overloaded the planning system.  A lot of decision-making is left to the inquiry process which, in effect, uses up the planning process.  Planners cannot keep up or are unwilling to keep up with the amount of demand on their local systems.  When decided through inquiry is can a long painful process.

The second point is that there are a lot of constraints in terms of building codes and regulations, which are a good thing on one hand, but they are incredibly stifling in another because they do repress the creative urge and the creative angle on all process.

The third point is the health and safety aspect which is a good thing because it saves lives in the industry, but it’s almost gone too far.  I think it’s cleaned up the building industry, and that’s a good thing, but it really has slowed up the business building here in the UK. This is really a transitional process as people adjust to new ways of doing things (for the better when it comes to safety) the system is now bedded in and moving faster.

I think actually, more than Europe, in the UK, extensively, we’re very conservative about what we really like, and it’s quite difficult to push the boundaries in design terms.  Whereas, I think in continental Europe, is a little more relaxed about what they can do, and in the Asia Pacific is also the same.

China, the Middle East and most the Soviet countries have some awful legacies of really dreadful design, but every now and again, a little gem comes to light and you can see the opening of minds and possibilities which I think is to be encouraged.  In this way I wish the UK would be less conservative.

 

What is your most rewarding project to date?

I started my career here in Guildford with Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe.   In the late 70s, early 80s, he was the principal designer, landscape architect for Sutton Place, which was owned by an American, Stanley Seeger who was a wealthy industrialist, great collector, patron of the arts, and commissioned Jellicoe.  The scheme was a tremendous introduction to the world of architecture for me.  So, that was very rewarding, and I’d say the legacy’s still there today.

Also a lot of my rewarding work was in the Docklands, the London Docklands.  Again, that was a huge restoration project, revival of a huge industrial derelict part of London, the docks (The Isle of Dogs around Canary Wharf), in the 80s.  It was interesting from the point that there was a lot of money to be spent, new ideas to be explored in the public and urban realm.

Royal Albert Dock Piazza, Royal Docks

Royal Albert Dock Piazza, Royal Docks

 

What do you believe the most important skills for new graduates are?

 All the way through my career I have employed young graduates who didn’t know much about the elemental aspects of the discipline they were operating in.  They didn’t know anything about plants or materials, and I always implored them to go out there and build practically.  Do your own thing, whatever it is.  Go and visit the National Garden and learn your plants.  Just get knowledge of it.

Obviously, you’ve got your creative side which is something else.  However there nothing worse than somebody who comes in to a building site who knows absolutely nothing about the building process.

Also I think practices should have the capability of a workshop-type environment where they’re not afraid to experiment with materials and involve new graduates.  Build models, get the real materials together, and see how they work.

I’m all for that even if the practices can’t afford it.  There ought to be schemes where they can share machines which can help inform the design process.  They need to be much more inquisitive, pushing the boundaries in technology and getting to grips with what’s possible.  That’s actually a very exciting part of the profession.

Also if they have a particular passion for anything, get really professional about it.  Become an expert and sell it as your main specialty, and with that comes better value.  Find a way out of the maelstrom of generality of the design practice (which is I think can be soul destroying) and go into areas where you could excel and be recognized.

 

Could you give an introduction to you project in Ukraine and what has happened there.

Izolatsia is a foundation for the culture and the arts, primarily contemporary art, developed on a site of approximately 20 hectares. It’s really reviving a derelict industrial site which is polluted.  It’s decrepit, actually.  Some buildings had to come down, some are restored, and some are left alone.  It’s a very broad brief, and there aren’t very many examples of this sort of initiative in Ukraine so it’s a trailblazer, and we’re getting quite a lot of publicity.

The client wanted British landscape architects to get involved in the master plan, and they came to London and interviewed several practices, one of which was Form Associates.  Because of our connection with art and architecture, they selected us, we were taken out to Ukraine and shown the site and it developed from there.

We’re chasing ourselves in the sense that the master plan’s being developed, but, in parallel, we’re also developing buildings, restoring buildings that we know will have an established use.

I find it refreshing from the sense that, from the point of view that you don’t have this overwhelming burden of legislation hanging over you which I think docks projects here in the UK.

Izolyatsia General Arrangement Donetsk Ukraine

Izolyatsia General Arrangement, Donetsk, Ukraine

UPDATE 9/10/14

I caught up with Rick again to get an update on his work, in particularly Izolaytzia (http://exile.izolyatsia.org/en/) and also his recent success at the Chelsea flower show.

Can you give an update on Izolatzia?

The former Izolatysia site is currently a Russian stronghold, it was taken over by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.?We have moved to Kiev and. found a new sight in the old Kiev docks. Because of my experience from designing the London docklands I knew there was going to be something there. We found an existing creative community already using part of the Docklands and have found good potential for growth. Were in there at the moment and would like to develop the site further that if I can persuade the founder.

Kiev is more cosmopolitan and we are new kids on the block. If we can invest there we will put our roots down. But the big questions remain, what will happen with the former site at Donetsk. If the Ukrainian army pushes through we may be able to get it back. However the founder does not want to go back and face the mess of stolen and destroyed artwork and equipment etc. So we probably will not be able to go back for another for 3-4 yrs. Another possibility is that if a full scale fight breaks out, the army will bomb the site destroying it completely.

What is your current role in all of this?

I’m on the board of the foundation.  I have an overview of the whole process and I’m not really working as a Landscape Architect at this point. However this suits me as I am more interested in now developing a diverse skill set. It really goes to the heart of why I was interested in Landscape Architecture in the first place: A holistic view of the environment. I have always been interested in the overall response to a project. It’s just ironic Ukraine gave me that opportunity to develop these skills which help me work towards my personal ambition is to become a developer, designing and building the built environment holistically. 

You also won gold at Chelsea garden show this year, how did you find that experience?

We entered under LDC, my company based in Guildford run by my business partner based here. We were awarded “Best Fresh Garden”, “People’s Choice” and a “Gold Medal” for “The Mind’s Eye” garden designed for the RNIB in partnership with Countryside. My business partner Nigel Prince with help from me drove the project whilst 2 young Landscape Architects, Alex Frazier and Tom Prince fronted it.  It was quite manic but a good experience. We had about 5 months to complete the design, build, test and fabricate offsite and then bring everything onsite.

2014 Chelsea Flower Show Garden

2014 Chelsea Flower Show Garden

Further information on the award winning garden can be found here:

http://www.ldcgardens.co.uk/gdn-chelsea-2014.php

What does the future hold for you?

My final ambition is to start painting. My brother and sister in law are immensely successful artists  and I am quite envious. It is something I have always wanted to pursue. Also as previously mentioned I would like to become a small time developer to realize my ethos, a holistic approach that brings together all my experience across disciplines. The trick is getting a margin of capital between you and reality. Building up collateral to allow yourself some space to take risks. Now, I have a bit of margin so I will try and pursue those goals.

Canary Wharf, London Docklands, UK

Canary Wharf, London Docklands, UK

 

Interviewer: Andrew Slater

Interview with Jasmine Ong

Jasmine_Ong

Jasmine Ong

A former director at Martha Schwartz Partners, Jasmine Ong, has experience running projects of all scales from concept design through to site overview of construction works as a Landscape Architect. With a career that has spanned across Australia, China and Europe, she holds a unique perspective on the differences of working in the Asia Pacific Region and the EU.

I was fortunate to meet Jasmine and ask her a few questions about her experience as a Landscape Architect. In this interview she shares her thoughts on what Landscape Architecture means to her and the difference of working on projects in the UK and China:

 

 

What was it that brought you to landscape architecture?

Since young, I’ve been drawn to Japanese gardens, particularly the promenade garden (kai-shiki-teien) and small courtyard garden (tsubo-niwa) styles. I was fascinated with the beauty achieved through replication of nature in a miniature form, as though you are wandering through a 1:10 model of what you would see in the natural wilderness. I was also impressed at the level of perfection sought, whether it was the still reflection of water in a lake or fallen leaves in position. I also wanted a career that combines environmental sustainability with design.  Both are important to me and I wanted to combine the two in a profession that would keep me passionate for a lifetime.

When you graduated, did you go straight into working for a Landscape Architecture firm?

I started working while I was studying because I felt the need to apply what I was learning at university. I was fortunate enough to work at a small landscape design and build firm, which gave me the opportunity to see my designs being realised and understand the practicalities of construction. This helped form a good foundation for my landscape architecture career.

When you started off what type of projects were you working on?

My first job was at Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Melbourne, Australia, which was hugely inspirational in its design process. I worked closely with the director Perry Lethlean, building models for parks and residential developments. I then moved to work on private residential gardens for a design and construction firm. And then felt the urge to explore the world and ended up in the UK, where I worked on a mixture of residential, commercial, recreational, institutional and urban projects around the world, with my last workplace at Martha Schwartz Partners, focusing mainly on business development in China to expand our Chinese portfolio.

Are you currently working on any projects in the Asia Pacific region?

Fengming_Mountain_Jasmine_Ong

Fengming Mountain

As Projects Director at Martha Schwartz Partners, I was overseeing most projects,  predominantly mixed-use developments in China. My recent projects in China included Beiqijia Technology District, which consisted of sunken courtyards, a large central water feature to cool the site in summer and gateway structures; and Fengming Mountain, a sales centre/ demonstration zone within an urban escarpment park with a visitor route sign posted with cloud pavilions.

How do you find working on projects in China compared to the UK?

Chinese clients are big into branding and the design narrative, often focusing on how they market their developments. This means signature designs and a more experimental approach.  They also set demanding time frames, which relies on excellent project management to avoid abortive work, but the advantage of that is you get projects realised at a much faster rate than you would in the UK where statutory bureaucracy can sometimes constrain innovation and prolong time frames. I find the development ethos in China slightly unnerving, in that the rate at which development is coming up does not always respond to demand, and the way in which development sites are acquired often lack consideration for existing residents and cultural heritage of the site. In general, the pros of the design process on UK projects, are owing to a more generous time frame, allowing thoroughness and careful design consideration and better coordination between consultants.

Do you find clients you have worked with in China open to sustainable design?

There is a desire for sustainable design, but more for a marketing tool. As there is minimal statutory requirement to adhere to environmental sustainability, this desire is quickly lost once we discuss associated costs. If more sustainability champions are involved in projects, and more sustainable projects are successfully built and maintained, this could lead a trend or benchmark that others will follow. The Chinese are competitive and want each project to be the best, which is incentive for constant improvement. An argument needs to be formed where the client/ funders of the development have a stake in the post-construction management regime and subsequently the longevity of the project, for the benefits to be understood from a financial point of view. It is challenging  to engage international ecologist or sustainability consultants in a Chinese project, however, as they usually have concerns over intellectual property rights and tendency for ideas to be replicated without permission. As introducing sustainable ideas, such as Sustainable Urban Drainage strategies or water harvesting, proved difficult, our main objective on most Chinese projects was to use local materials and create a robust design that was fairly straight-forward to construct and maintain, with the objective to improve people’s life, create better communities and increase the value of the area, which in turn lends itself to a sustainable development.

What type of projects are you working on in the UK?

I am currently working on a high-end residential development in central London, consisting of ground and podium landscapes, a sun deck and a sunken courtyard, with challenging weight loading and buildup restrictions.]

What is the most rewarding project you have worked on?

Beiqijia Technology District, as mentioned above, is one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on at Martha Schwartz Partners. It had an extremely demanding time frame that required us to rethink our project management process and methodologies in order to keep up with the client’s expectations. The systems and project management tools we developed for the project set a benchmark for the studio and ended up being used for all projects that followed.

beiqijia_technology_district_Jasmine_Ong

Beiqijia Technology District

Beiqijia is a mixed-use development incorporating Sustainable Urban Drainage systems (SUDs) to comply with LEED Gold accreditation. The site is 60,000 sqm, including a demonstration zone with accompanying show garden. The benefit of having a demonstration zone with a faster timescale for completion than the rest of the site was that we were able to test our palette of hardscape and softscape materials in a smaller area before applying it to the rest of the site.  This allowed us to see what materials and plants worked well together, and to fine-tune the design and construction of bespoke furniture and structure. The demonstration zone phase of the project was built within 12 months of commencing design, which was gratifying. The most difficult part of the project, which is often the case with projects in China, is being confident about construction quality as our role in this stage of works is limited. Chinese clients prefers to be the central point of contact for all consultants, so communication is subsequently disconnected or miscommunicated as the right people are not speaking to each other to sort out technical issues.

beiqijia_technology_district_Jasmine_Ong

Beiqijia Technology District

Another rewarding project was Tooronga Village in Melbourne, Australia, where I worked at Murphy Design Group. This was a mixed-use retail, office and residential development that created public spaces for visitors and a private communal garden for the residents, blending street level to podium using a complementary palette of materials. The design and coordination processes were very thorough.

Tooronga_Village_Jasmine_Ong

Tooronga Village

Do you have any other interests that intersect with your work?

I practice Feng Shui, which is a Chinese traditional science that dates back over 7000 years and engages in the essential creation of good chi energy for living in harmony and balance with our surrounding environment. I am now a certified Feng Shui practitioner, you can find me on www.yingyangtian.wix.com/fengshui. I have applied Feng Shui principles in several large mixed-use landscape architectural projects in China to meet client expectations and the needs of the end users.

What is the most exciting thing in your career?

Making a difference in people’s lives. A well designed landscape has the power to  psychologically change people’s impression of spaces, how they use it and interact with each other.

Within a team environment, the things that motivate me are good interpersonal relationships, and an understanding of team members’ skills, values and how they work. Having a strong team with relevant experience and skill set are crucial, but so is having fun while working to maintain good team morale.

What is the most challenging for you?

The most challenging thing I find is combining the clients’ aspirations, sustainable design principles (as part of our responsibility as landscape architects) and the needs of the end users in each project. Sometimes it takes a bit of persuading to get clients on board for the latter two aspects.

What are your plans for the future?

To maintain a balance between family, career and spiritual life.

 

Interviewer: Andrew Slater

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