Interview: Peter Schaudt (Fall 2008)



COMPETITIONS: Environment often plays a role in what we choose to do with our lives. What was the determining factor that led you to become a landscape architect?



PETER SCHAUDT: My first goal was to become an architect. As I studied architecture here (in Chicago) at UIC, I was exposed to the great park system legacy of Chicago. We had many studios in the parks here. What actually led me to become a landscape architect was the Vietnam War Memorial Competition. I needed an art credit in architecture school, so rather than taking color theory or painting, and after seeing the poster, I approached the dean. He told me I could do it; ‘but you have to do it without an architect.’ So I teamed up with Charles Wilson, a wonderful sculptor at UIC, and I looked at that park through the eyes of a sculptor as opposed to an architect. The site in constitution gardens was a rolling site — very difficult because the competition site was half of an amoeba shape. That’s why Maya Lin’s project is so amazing. It’s because she was able to tie (her design) into the context.


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Shanghai Nature Museum and Plaza Competition – Winning entry [2007] (Rendering by Perkins + Will)


PS: I worked on it as an independent studio, made a couple of models and really elaborate drawings, and it led me to really pursue landscape more closely. Then I started reading more about Dan Kiley and his work here in Chicago at the Art Institute. I did win a merit award for my Vietnam Memorial design: there were over 1,400 entries, and they selected 46 merit award winners which I assume might have been the last day of judging and were on exhibit at the Octagon Building in Washington. As a senior in undergraduate school, that gave me an incredible amount of confidence.
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Vietnam Memorial Competition, Washington, DC – Meritorious Selection


My hero as a student was Louis Kahn, and looking at his work he very much imbedded his work in landscape, especially his Salt Institute and the Kimball Museum. Added to that was becoming more familiar with Dan Kiley through a tour in Columbus, Indiana. I returned from Columbus becoming more familiar with the landscape work he did at the (Irwin) bank building and the church by Eero Saarinen, which had the most amazing parking lot I had ever seen.
When I got a degree in architecture after my fifth year, I then said to myself, ‘I really want to become a landscape architect as an expert consultant where I could then work with all different types of architects, since I was actually more interested in the environment and context than I was in the object. After my first year at Harvard in graduate school, I felt like I had a lot of making up to do going into a new profession; so we had to work for a landscape architect  between our two years there. So I wrote Kiley a letter and actually went up to see him. It was 1983, and he said he had no work. So I told him I will work for free and just catalogue slides and drawings to absorb what he was all about. Fortunately, the first day I got there he got this big job, the National Sculpture Garden, and I got paid for every hour.
At the end of that summer he offered me a full-time job. During my final year at Harvard, I was on a team with Michael Van Valkenberg which won second place in the Copley Square competition.
Copley Square National Design Competition – Second Place team entry with Michael van Valkenburgh [1984]
COMPETITIONS: You spent time at the American Academy in Rome. Was there any particular moment during this stay that made a lasting impression on you?

PS: It was the luxury of being there for a year, whereas as a normal tourist you are there for a couple of weeks at most. What was most memorable was to be able to go to the same gardens through the seasons. Villa Lante (near Viterbo, Italy) was my favorite fusion of Renaissance garden design. I went to it seven times in all different types of weather and cataloged everything on slides. The other thing which resonated was not necessarily a moment in time, but the whole duration—being able to sketch. I did a lot of drawings, and, if I saw something I absolutely loved, I measured it — pretty much in the tradition of Norman Newton and other scholars who won the award when it was a two or three year fellowship — when they were actually required to do measured drawings. Being with other professionals is also very stimulating. But having time to sketch came from the read; the luxury of time, being in Rome, really seeing the fusion of urban design where there are no categories of  what architecture or landscape is.

COMPETITIONS: I assume you also traveled outside of Rome.

PS: I went to Spain, Provence, and southern Italy. Another thing which attracted me was the layering of Rome—the millennium of layers. My current work is a lot about historic work in modern landscapes from other designers. I love the idea of revealing the site in its cultural history, having worked at IIT and redoing the Daley Plaza in Chicago. I have a love for history, and Dan Kiley taught me that history is great, but you shouldn’t copy it, you should learn from it. He was inspired by André Le Notre and the gardens at Sceaux outside the Orley airport, Paris. Dan was frustrated while at Harvard during the Beaux Arts period where they were asked to replicate the style of the period. What Dan did was to extract historical ideas and then transform them. Every good modernist architect understands this. Every good landscape architect has a really good background on the history of their profession.


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Kent State Memorial Competition, Kent, Ohio  – Third Place [1986]


COMPETITIONS: My experience is that Europeans are more immersed in the history of their profession than we are. They seem to be more research-oriented.


PS: Comparing our country to Europe is like comparing an infant to a grandfather. They embrace contemporary interventions much more than we do here in America.  We haven’t matured yet where we can understand the juxtaposition of old and new. It almost has to be separated.


COMPETITIONS: Except for New York’s Central Park competition won by Olmsted, landscape competitions were hardly commonplace until lately, especially when clients started asking for team participation in competitions and there were strong landscape components in the programs. What changed things? Was it the memorial competitions?

PS: I think it goes back to both the Vietnam Memorial competition and La Vilette, won by Bernard Tschumi. In fact, Rem Koolhass’ second place entry has a legacy of starting a lot of his ideas, much like Robert Venturi’s second-place entry to the Copley Square that Sasaki won. La Vilette was obviously dominated by architects; but it was a different kind of subject (for architects). Also, the postmodern era might have had an indirect impact in that it tied back the idea of the house and garden and really studying these together. I would argue that good modern architects were always doing that. For any great building, there was always a quiet consultant in the background: I. M. Pei always hired Dan Kiley; Sasaki was often prevalent.
Another reason I chose landscape over architecture when I was a student during that period of high-Post Modernism—Philip Johnson AT&T on the front of TIME—was that it was a frustrating time as a student. I felt that it was stylistically all about facades, and half of my teachers were Post-Modernists, half Modernists. That’s why I put all my effort in Landscape, for I felt that the elements and ideas of landscape transcended time. The Robert Smithson retrospective here at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1978/79 had a big influence on me. I know a lot of landscape architects my age who say that Robert Smithson influenced them.



Daley Plaza Renovation, Chicago, IL – with architects McDonough and DLK [1996] (Photo by Martin Konopacki)
COMPETITIONS: Although this has changed during the past decade, I always wondered why architecture firms were winning a lot of landscape competitions, whether it was the Olympia Fields park near here, the Seattle Museum Sculpture garden, or Downsview near Toronto. Were landscape architects weak in the planning components of these competitions? Or were the clients simply ignoring the landscape architects? How do you see that?


PS: Many architectural firms have been discovering landscape. Rem Koolhaas, in his writings over the past ten years has stated that landscape is going to make more of an impact on urban design than architecture—a horizontal type of design. Weiss Manfredi won Olympia Fields, and I think a lot of it has to do with the jury. The make-up of the jury to me is the most critical element of a competition. That gives a warning of what they are looking for—what their backgrounds are. I think juries tend to be dominated by one or two strong people.
Although it’s changing now, I think architects are able to conceptualize and communicate an idea much stronger than landscape architects. There tends to be more rigor in the presentation of ideas and more risk-taking among architects. I entered the Kent State Memorial competition in which I won 3rd Place. Originally I was honorable mention; then the first place ranked design was disqualified and I moved up (One of the rules was that one had to be an American citizen to participate. The winner was disqualified once it was determined he was a Canadian.) Good design wins competitions; but design is design, and one shouldn’t draw a line between professions.
Image is now the big thing. Sometimes architects don’t understand the idea of entropy and change, and they come up with ideas that are very static, very image-based. I would argue that landscape architects have a little more humility, that they understand their work involves some changes, and sometimes their image of the place isn’t as strong graphically.


COMPETITIONS: Team participation on big projects has seemingly opened new doors for landscape architects.


PS: Good design is good design. I am attracted to working on great architectural projects because I tell the architects we will all be part of the project. Good architects understand that.


COMPETITIONS: You recently teamed up with Plant Architecture of Toronto and others to win the Nathan Phillips Square competition in Toronto. This is a much revered space in front of Toronto City hall with an existing plaza. How did you decide to approach that challenge? Did the team come up with various scenarios before settling on one final plan?


PS: I had been there twice as a student back in the 70s and 80s; so I knew the site right away. Charles Waldheim, a friend of mine, actually introduced me to PLANT in Toronto (the lead firm). We actually submitted an unsuccessful RfP for Trinity College at the University of Toronto prior to that competition. But PLANT was interested in calling me in because I had worked on other heritage projects, i.e., the work at IIT and Daley Plaza. They wanted somebody who had worked with historic, modern landscapes. They were the prime; we were just brought in as consultants. This was the first competition I’ve ever been associated with that won first place. They approached it similarly to the work I did at IIT, where you have the inspiration of the original author. But they (the landscape architects) never realized what they were working on. In other words, Caldwell was Mies’ landscape architect. His concepts were never really fully implemented. So we had to step in, dream, and use our own ideas through the lens of others.

In Toronto, we were very serious in approaching this with a lot of reverence, in respect to Revell and its basic symbolic quality. Technically, we approached it very light-handed, and kind of took some of the spirit from some of the initial sketches that Sasaki completely changed. We wanted to make more of an environmental impact on the square, and Revel had done a sketch of very loose groves. We wanted to infuse the whole block with a kind of urban forest edge, wrapping the site like a doughnut, then clearing up the center. The intention was to bring the square back to its beauty of being this wonderful open space. Revel died before the project was finished, and the funding for the square wasn’t there, and all the money went pretty much into the building. We approached it from a very respectful modernist point of view. We wanted the final product to be the fitting tribute, but also looking to the future without detracting. Some of the other schemes were a little ego-driven, and I think our project was a bold, but modest intervention. The brief also mentioned about bringing it up to current technology, while honoring the original site. These renovation redoes to be almost as challenging as doing new sites. In the case of Nathan Phillips Square, we had enough confidence in our abilities go at it in a modest way; and I think it takes experience and understanding to not do too much. I’ve always told students that it is not only what you add to the landscape; it’s what you don’t add.
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Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Canada – with PLANT Architects (photos: courtesy PLANT Architects)


COMPETITIONS: You did the landscape masterplan for the Illinois Institute of Technology with Michael Van Valkenberg several years ago. I visited that campus yesterday, and it is amazing what some plantings can do for a site. I can recall seeing that campus when it was really hard surface. I know that landscaping there is still a piecemeal operation, as money becomes available. Is this pretty much what you visualized when the masterplan was being created?

PS: As for the IIT site, it’s relentless there—flat as a pancake. In one city block there might be less than six inches of grade change. There the intention was to give some sort of topographical relief to the flatness and create an intramural place next to State Street, where it creates an intimate space where people felt somewhat enclosed. Mies also planned a building there, about the same shape as the neighboring buildings. So it has some multiple reads to it. I placed the limestone benches in the slope to exaggerate it, thereby enhancing the slope.

COMPETITIONS: You spent a lot of time in North Carolina, and still have projects going on there. Vegetation- and color-wise (the earth is red there), the area around the Research Triangle looks quite different than the Midwest. Is this a factor when you conceptualize a design for this area? Isn’t there always a temptation to somehow take advantage of that rich red earth color peculiar to that region?

PS: Other than the red earth there, what is amazing is the amount of growth. I worked with Dan Kiley on the Carnegie Center in Charlotte where we unfortunately never anticipated the rapid growth and planted the trees very close together. I’d bring the same thing I bring to every project, and that’s ‘what is apt or appropriate for that region.’ In North Carolina there is just much more palate to work with. Sometimes when an outsider comes into a region with eyes wide open, they sometimes reveal the condition of a site better than the locals, because they take it for granted.


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IIT, field north of Crown Hall and Federal Street Plaza, Chicago, IL  [2000] (Photos by Leslie Schwartz)

COMPETITIONS: At the recent memorial service for Walter Netsch, a lot was made of his tenure as Chicago Parks Commissioner and the reforms he brought about while he was there. Are you comfortable with the parks system as it now functions here?

PS: Starting with my return to Chicago in 1991 after I returned from Rome, every project I touched here has been because of Mayor Daley. I give the Mayor more credit than the parks system, because the parks system reacted to his leadership. Since there is a financial squeeze, there is an effort underway to find ways to creatively finance projects. Chicago is actually in need of more park space per capita. There needs to be a desire to invest in poorer areas in the south. A  lot of the Olympic strategy is to revive Olmsted’s  south park. If there is any city in the country now to practice landscape architecture, Chicago is a hotbed.

COMPETITIONS: The greening of this city has now moved to the rooftops. Has this movement pushed by the city fathers, really raised the level of consciousness; or is it just cosmetic? In other words, are developers following suit?

PS: I think they have to. I believe that Chicago has more green roof square footage than any other city, and it has had a major impact with storm water. But success sometimes tends to dilute the whole purpose of it. There is emphasis where there shouldn’t be green roofs; but there are green roofs. I’m hoping it’s not a rubber-stamped policy, but carefully thought through. If we’re not careful, it could be quite a cliché. There is a tendency to feel that green roofs are the only major impact, where in fact, we need to spend more time on urban forestry work—the city still has a lot of hot spot areas which could use tree canopy cover. But green roofs have now almost become part of a traditional (mindset). Only ten years ago, I had a hard time convincing an old-timer architect to do a green roof. In the last ten years the mindset has changed. Chicago’s history in the modern movement is predominantly flat roofs. So what better place to do green roofs than in Chicago.


Gary Comer Commmunity Center “Vegetable Green Roof Garden,” Chicago, IL – with architect John Ronan [2006]