Landscape Architect and Founder of Future Green Studio
Conducted by Sheila Moloney on April 12 and April 20, 2016 at Future Green Studio, 18 Bay Street, Brooklyn, New York
Interview duration: 1 hour and 35 minutes. Transcript length: 22 pages.
Sheila Moloney (SM): I would like to start by asking a little bit about your background, your education then I want to talk a little bit about your business, professional practice, then a little about your projects, and I’d also like to talk to you about your new book.
David Seiter (DS): Oh, great, thanks.
SM: First of all, can you talk about where you were born, when, and where you grew up?
DS: Sure, I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, 1976, lived there with my family until I was about seven, then moved to Detroit, Michigan. My dad was an aluminum salesman, so we kind of, we toured the different industrial cities of the Midwest, so I lived in Detroit for a couple of years and then Philadelphia, which is where my kind of greater family lived as well, moved there around eleven and then lived there until I went away to school.
SM: Did those travels to industrial sites, do you feel like that has had a bearing in your design work?
Conceptual Drawing, Plan for Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, 2015. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Yeah, you still see those everywhere.
SM: Pachysandra [laughs], it’s everywhere.
DS: Yeah, and I think, and there’s nothing wrong with any of that stuff I think but it did inform—I also kind of pined for something else and in my early years, doing some exploring around the neighborhood fringes just with friends, the kind of troupe of kids walking around and walking down the stream and going into the culvert which was underneath the Pennsylvania Turnpike or underneath the train trestle—these kind of little remnant vestiges of this kind of industrialism that wasn’t the clean suburbia. So I was really interested in that—I even remember touring an old Nike Missile Defense base that was near my house in Philadelphia, that, it looked like people had just left the site, and nature had started to overtake it, so, there is seeds of some of the ideas that I’m still exploring I think in those early travels of my youth.
SM: So when did you kind of discover your interest in this field—was it something that started in school or was it something you always were kind of interested in?
DS: Well I think, landscape architecture as a profession came rather late to me, probably in my mid twenties, around twenty-five, twenty-six. I had always gardened with my mom and then, every summer job I was mowing lawns, or doing different kind of garden projects for neighbors and things like that, it was always something I did and then I was at Vassar College for undergrad and did my concentration in art history.
SM: Oh, okay.
DS: And I was into writing papers and critical thinking about space, and after Vassar I went out to Portland, Oregon for a year and worked in public art and I got to work on a series that, kind of curate a series as part of my internship there, and it was called Urban Ecology—
DS: —which looking back is so appropriate now and it was really a new term and people didn’t even understand what it was, this was right around 2000, and so I got to work with a landscape architect through that process, and it was like, wow, this is a really cool job, it’s creative, there’s a kind of critical thinking component, and it’s applied, it’s a kind of practical thing and it’s nice to see the tangible results of creative thinking. So I went to Japan, my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife [laughs] and I went to Vassar together and she was a year behind me so after my one year in Portland we went and lived in Japan together for about two years.
SM: And was that as a result of your being interested in landscape architecture?
DS: Being interested in her [laughs], yeah, I guess being willing to go where she was, but I had the opportunity there to volunteer in a Japanese garden—
SM: Oh, wow.
DS: —and work with an American landscape architect who was part of this villa and we did a lot of maintenance work and talked a lot about the profession and I got a sense of hey, this is really cool and started to get into more contemporary readings on landscape architecture and realize that yeah, this is the way I think about the world, and it just seemed to make a lot of sense.
SM: So then, did you then decide to go to school, did you go to school?
DS: Yeah I went to the University of Pennsylvania for a masters degree in Landscape Architecture. The first major book that I read prior to going back to school was Jim Corner, Recovering Landscapes, and so that was just really inspirational, as a text.
SM: Yeah, it actually, at least his introduction, has a manifesto-like quality.
DS: Yeah, it does.
SM: He’s really calling for what he ended up doing not too long later, a really new way of looking at landscape design.
SM: And then came the High Line.
SM: Very interesting trajectory.
DS: Indeed, indeed and so, going through the whole process of the school, I feel like there’s a lot of things I probably would have changed, but—
SM: What do you mean, in terms of the way you were educated?
DS: Yeah, I mean I loved Penn, I loved my education there, it was incredibly rigorous, you just spend three years of your life totally committed to this one thing. But, some of the kind of interpersonal things that came out in the faculty and other things, it wasn’t always the most positive environment. There’s this sense of teaching that you kind of have to knock people down somehow to kind of build them back up and it’s just a principle that I don’t agree with, and it’s funny because I think you see it still playing out in the landscape architecture profession, you know, people are not making any money, they’re working incredibly long hours, and all for the kind of gratification of working on this cool project so it’s interesting, I just don’t know if I necessarily agree with some of the process of it.
SM: And was that particular professors or was that kind of the ethos of the program?
DS: Well, I think there’s particular professors, definitely, and there’s some people that are incredibly nurturing that I walked away feeling like they were really mentors.
DS: But there’s sometimes this big disconnect between the way people write, and the way they actually are acting in more interpersonal situations.
SM: Yup! [laughs.]
DS: Yeah, so I found this as a lesson, like, hey you can be really inspired by peoples’ words but there’s also this whole other aspect, which is just the day-to-day profession and how can you create a positive working environment, especially with my own firm. Just to take a step back I went from Penn, I graduated from Penn in 2005 and went to work at Hargreaves Associates and was there for about two and a half years, and worked on awesome projects like high profile, international, cool, really interesting stuff but also felt like there was a big disconnect there, you know, I’d always been taught that site is the most important thing and we weren’t connected to the site, and nobody talked about plants.
Conceptual Drawing, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, New York, 2015. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Oh, really.
DS: No, sustainability was somewhat of an afterthought, it wasn’t the driving force behind things, and my day-to-day life was just really being stuck behind a computer and so I just felt like there wasn’t that kind of gratification of seeing the things that I was designing built, and therefore kind of understanding whether what I was designing was any good or right, or appropriate, so for me part of the process of opening up my own firm was to somewhat flip the traditional firm paradigm on its head, really both in what we do, being design and build but also in the kind of practice of what we do and the kind of day to day operations.
SM: So just the way you run the business, you’ve done it in a way that is antithetical to the way that you worked at Hargraves?
DS: I think it’s not that we’ve done it, but that every day we’re trying to do it, and it’s about the kind of connection to the materials and seeing the plants and feeling the plants and going to the nursery and having that real learning experience through doing, and then something definitely on the kind of management, we have twenty to twenty-five people so a lot of my job is more management now and so my whole role has completely shifted over the past eight years so but it’s like a lesson I try to keep that as somewhat of a mantra, of staying grounded, staying balanced in my own life. I have two kids, I don’t want to be traveling all the time or working all the time so there’s an attempt to try to strike that balance.
SM: Yeah, that is one of my questions, the ratio of time spent doing design projects as opposed to running the business—
SM: —and it seems like you’re maybe more running the business but would you prefer to do more design work?
Designers at the conference table, Future Green Studio, Brooklyn, New York, 2016. Photo: Sheila Moloney.
SM: So you started eight years ago.
DS: Yeah, 2008.
SM: And was it just you or did you start with anyone?
DS: Yeah, it was just me.
SM: Between then and now when you have twenty-five people, did it kind of grow gradually or were there ups and downs, or can you just talk a little bit about how the business has grown?
DS: It always felt like it was going really fast, but yeah it’s been a kind of slow growth if you look back, adding a couple of people each year, really, and the revenue kind of slowly creeping up and now the past couple of years are pretty steady. I don’t think we’re showing a ton of growth but we’re kind of happy with the size that we’re at, it kind of works for us now. You know my original business plan was showing eight to twelve people—
DS: —and we quickly expanded beyond that, and I took a look back at the field and really looking at more architecture precedents for design and fabrication and saw that they were a little bit bigger and had a little bit more robust staff and skilled people, so we’re still kind of building towards that a little bit.
SM: Do you feel like this is the size that you want to hover around or can you see yourself growing much larger?
DS: Our five to ten year plan looks at a staff of forty to forty-five, because right now we’re designing and we’re installing and we do some fabrication but we’d really like to shift into more fabricating products rather than just installing gardens.
SM: Products that would have a commercial viability?
DS: Yeah, at least in trade, marketed to interior designers, architects, other landscape designers, and that really comes out of a—on the design side we’re constantly looking for things that we like to use and design ideas that we want to employ but can’t always find certain things that we want, so we think it’s a great opportunity to expand our business and think about creating new products.
DS: There’s all sorts of business things to that as well—installation of gardens in New York City is a really hard business.
Green Roof Installation, Association for Energy Sustainability, Bronx, New York, 2011. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
DS: There’s many challenges and it’s stressful and you’re often dealing with bigger general contractors and they’re very aggressive and there’s a whole different dynamic to that, so if we can find a way of doing a similar amount of revenue but shifting the job focus towards more fabrication that would be really exciting and takes a lot of the variability out of the business, it makes much more a kind of calculated product.
SM: Do you see that kind of working in conjunction with design, not taking over from design?
DS: No, not taking over for design, no, it’s been interesting, my time has shifted each year in regards to how much design, how much contracting, how much business stuff, and mostly the past two years have been focused on building the design side of the business, and we’re now at roughly twelve to thirteen people which is a pretty good size for a landscape office and so that’s kind of where we think it should be and then on the install side we’re roughly twelve to thirteen people and we see that’s a kind of really workable crew. We could probably get a couple more guys or women there but then it’s really the fabrication piece that we’re thinking about expanding into to really again create this kind of controlled product and have access to that kind of craft.
SM: Right, and are these products things you want to design based on your own experience in the field or would you hire other people to be more involved in the design?
DS: Yeah, we definitely have a lot of designs that we’ve already produced, custom benches or other custom planters for different projects in the past so there’s a fair amount of the design line that kind of comes from previous projects and a style that I think we’ve created through our own work, but, we have spoken with our design staff and had little charrettes to generate ideas and come up with the direction that we’d want to see that business head into, so we’re still kind of crafting the business plan for that arm of the business. We are actually two separate companies now.
DS: Yeah, we’re Future Green Design and Future Green Studio.
SM: Oh those are the two different businesses.
DS: Yeah one’s a contracting business and one’s a design business—
DS: —and we had to do that for insurance purposes and other legal purposes.
9th Street Wildflower Corridor, Brooklyn, New York, 2014. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: I see. I want to talk a little more about the integration of craft because I feel like it’s probably not such a popular thing or such a common thing when you’re talking to designers and artists, so can you talk about how that integrates into your thinking about design in your projects?
DS: Absolutely, I think we’re really interested in stretching scales so we’re interested in approaching the city as an experiment in a way, and these large scale mapping projects, these explorations into ideas that are based not on a particular site or area but kind of a wider spread, and at the same time we’re interested in the kind of minutiae and the way the different materials come together and the kind of details of making things, and so the daily experience of being stretched in both of those directions, towards the conceptual and towards the craft and detail is what I think is really exciting about what we do and just from a day to day perspective is really invigorating, and it plays out in many different ways. Whereas in a traditional landscape architecture office, you might be designing something, and then it gets put into a CAD [computer-aided design] drawing and gets put on a construction document set and that gets sent to the contractor and they price it and come up with their questions and send those back to you, you redline those comments and send it back to them and there’s this whole process that starts to unfold, and what ends up happening is that there’s often an adversarial relationship that starts to develop between the builder and between the designer, and we acknowledge that that happens, right, because some people are more concerned with cost and constructability and some people are more concerned with aesthetics and the bigger picture of the way things come together, but what’s really exciting is that we have that process happen here, around the same table so the designer and the woodworker are sitting down and hashing out that detail, they’re able to build a mock-up of that condition, a bench, a lot of the benches outside are just mock-ups from previous projects. The designer can sit on it, they can talk about the way it feels and the experience of it and so that kind of interplay, it’s like a collaborative approach to design.
DS: It’s not David Seiter Studio and that’s intentional, you know I actually don’t even think about myself as a designer.
SM: Oh really?
DS: I mean it’s part of what I do but I mean I wouldn’t say I’m the person to come into your garden and fit it out with the right pillows and make sure all the plants match and you know, matchy-matchy, that kind of look, that’s just not my skill set. I’m a little bit bigger picture thinker and we have people on staff that do that kind of design and staging aspect to things but it’s through the collaboration of the horticulturist, the woodworker, the artist, the architect that all these kind of projects come to fruition.
DS: I’m not generating every design idea, somebody who just started fresh out of school might be generating concepts for a project and we find that really exciting. The older you get the harder it is to stay connected with some of those ideas and oftentimes people that don’t know necessarily what’s wrong about what they’re drawing, in terms of constructability or something, might have the freshest ideas.
SM: Right, right.
DS: So it’s kind of putting all those things together which I think creates something really unique and interesting.
SM: Yeah, I just want to point out, we are sitting in your wood shop—
Materials samples and wood shop at Future Green Studio, Brooklyn, New York, 2016. Photos: Sheila Moloney.
SM: Can you just talk a little about how important it is to have your own wood shop and your own carpenters on your staff and how that makes it easier for you to execute your projects?
DS: Yeah, absolutely, I mean there’s the kind of day-to-day aspect of being able to walk into the shop, and see somebody making something, smell the cedar being cut for example, hearing the saw in the background of the office, it’s just part of your kind of visceral experience of a work day and that’s all really valuable just on its own right. From a strategic point of view it’s really really hard to build a design business and to do it without money [laughs], you know, I didn’t work at some place for ten years, know everything about contracts and know everything about the industry and have clients that I can go to to start the business. I really started out after being out of school for three years and was just figuring everything out myself, one thing at a time and having the craft as a kind of component of that, in New York City somebody might spend, say, $100,000 on their roof garden, but they might not want to hire a traditional landscape architect to do it so there was a niche market I think that emerged there for design and build, especially within New York and especially within this time, post 2008, that, green roofs were really taking off, sustainability became a much more of a talking point, and the kind of livability of our cities, creating these green spaces on the underutilized spaces of the roofs and the walls and streets all were really important, and throughout the years the ability to kind of make things I think got us a lot of experience and allowed us to build a whole portfolio of projects that if I was just a designer would have taken me much longer to accomplish so, from a strictly kind of business perspective it was also really helpful just in terms of launching the design side of the business.
SM: You brought up a few things that I wanted to ask you about, I want to talk about these ideas of urban ecology and landscape urbanism as relatively new fields within ecology, so can you talk about particularly how the idea of landscape urbanism has changed the profession and how it informs your outlook and philosophy on designing for cities, because that’s mostly what you do—
DS: Yeah, primarily.
SM: —is urban projects.
DS: Landscape urbanism, it’s really interesting, and landscape urbanism is just a term—
SM: I know and it’s a very broad term—
DS: It’s a very broad term and I actually think we’re actually moving beyond it but I’ll speak to that arc. We spoke a little about Jim Corner, and University of Pennsylvania and PennDesign, you know, there was this theory that was posited that landscape architects had a lot more to contribute to the profession and to the design of cities than was traditionally understood. The practice of landscape architecture historically has really been more about gardening and it’s been architects that do a lot of the site planning, the kind of master planning of a campus or a property and then they, say here’s your box, you know, put your plants in there, right? There’s still a lot of architects unfortunately, that are like that.
DS: But I think part of landscape urbanism was shifting the whole field to understanding that landscape architecture is really uniquely situated with their skill set, to kind of pull together all of these different trades and really own everything outside the building envelope, we think about things less as objects, which I think is more about architecture, designing a thing with a skin, yeah you kind of get into it but it’s somewhat static, you design it and then theoretically it’s there, and not really changing that much. Landscape is much more systemic, right, it’s less about a singular object and more about the whole kind of field condition and the way that everything connects to one another and so therefore we’re kind of constantly—
DS: Right, so, landscape urbanism also as a kind of movement I think of fifteen years or twenty years or whatever, you’ve seen a real focus on post industrial landscapes, and taking what had been the working waterfronts, typically, of a lot of different cities, and reconditioning those into public amenities.
Planters at Carroll Street MTA Plaza, Brooklyn, New York, 2016. Photos courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Uh-huh. Now, in terms of going forward, obviously you probably have to deal with issues of climate change and how that’s going to affect not only specific sites but the whole city and plants that you’ll be able to use so do you feel like the field is responding to those kinds of issues and is landscape urbanism a way to respond or do you feel like there have to be different ways of thinking about how to proceed in the future given the climate challenges that we’re facing?
DS: Sure, I mean I think that especially post Hurricane Sandy you’ve seen landscape architecture take somewhat of a lead in addressing coastal resiliency, and planning, at the same time I think as a culture we’re incredibly apathetic in our response to climate change. I think there’s a general feeling of like hey, we don’t want to hear it, and I think that probably applies to the field of landscape architecture as well, I think there’s a lot of room to do on kind of every front there, I think we’ve generated this book and this website called Spontaneous Urban Plants, spontaneousurbanplants.org is the website, and what it’s trying to do is really raise the discussion around the possibility that weeds might have value. It’s not meant to be kind of preachy or didactic and say, “weeds are wonderful,” they’re not always, we really believe it’s about site specificity. My family has a house up in Putnam Valley on a lake—I would never think about leaving phragmites or loosestrife to grow there—it’s a pristine environment, we’re trying to protect it and the health of the lake is directly contingent upon the adjacent landscape. It’s not as degraded as an urban environment. And there I’m slowly reconditioning the fields of pachysandra and Japanese maple and miscanthus and all these things to a kind of more native landscape. I love birdwatching and that’s one of the things that we can start to do with landscape, make those little changes, but here in the city, everything is degraded, there’s not any virgin soil, it’s all fill. With the amount of CO2 in the air you can make the argument that everywhere is degraded, not just in our cities, and I think when that starts to happen you need to start thinking about, are native plants appropriate and if so, maybe which native plants. Of the kind of spontaneous urban flora that you see, roughly thirty-five, forty percent are actually native but because they’re growing between a crack in the pavement people don’t really acknowledge their benefit or their potential value. So in the face of climate change we know things are going to get warmer, we know our cities at the same time are getting incredibly denser, especially in parts of Asia and South America, you see the greatest amount of population growth happening in those places and at the same time you see a kind of complete and utter destruction of nature, just like, no street trees, there’s no green anywhere, so those are some of the conditions I worry about most and how can we create this more livable city in the future in the face of climate change. I think we really probably need to broaden our definition of what’s acceptable in terms of the urban flora.
Roof garden, 1133 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, 2015. Photos courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Yeah, I know there’s a strong philosophical argument against invasives and for natives.
DS: Yes, which I understand.
SM: Yes, and I do too but I also feel like we kind of have to look beyond that because as you have demonstrated in your book, there are plants that have adapted to these particular conditions and maybe looking at things that are really going to be adaptable in the future might preclude using a lot of native plants, so do you have a philosophy about use of native plants and invasives?
DS: I think it just goes back to the way I was taught landscape at the University of Pennsylvania which is really the focus on site and that emerged out of the environmental planning movement and Ian McCarg and his influence on Penn, things like that, just in terms of ecological planning, and really kind of understanding which building is appropriate for which site and now just getting into a different level of detail and we’re thinking about each particular site, what’s appropriate for that site. Is it adjacent to a landscape that is performing a great ecological value that if you let weeds grow there does it have a direct impact on the adjacent site? That’s something we really strongly consider, so I think you have to treat each site on its own. We do advocate for native plants on as many projects as we can, we do think it’s important obviously for wildlife especially, even on green roofs, which are by their very nature artificial conditions, we’re able to look at certain plant palettes regionally which might be appropriate so for example even a more exposed green roof condition that’s going to get full sun, the soil’s lightweight so it drains very well and it’s rocky, we might look to the Hudson Valley rocky outcropping plant communities, or, is it Hempstead Plains or Long Island beachfront communities, that you might be able to pull certain things from and see how those might perform because the range of conditions is appropriate, and similar to what those plant communities would experience.
SM: Yeah, in some ways I think that looking at plant communities is more appropriate than looking at single plants because as you’re saying it’s about the system.
DS: It is about the system.
[End of April 12, 2016 session]
[Start of April 20, 2016 session]
SM: You were talking about how post-industrial urban landscapes were part of your inspiration.
DS: Absolutely and I think that that foundation of landscape urbanism is what I was really trained in and even when I came out of Penn in 2005 and went to Hargreaves Associates we were working on a lot of those projects that you’d call landscape urbanism but with the rise of green roofs in particular in 2008 and a greater sensibility to storm water management in cities I think you began to see a shift that started to happen towards a kind of micro-urbanism in a way, or a use of green infrastructure in all its varied forms to contribute to the ecological productivity of the city and also a shift towards looking at landscapes as not just being aesthetically pleasing or even socially dynamic or programmatically dynamic but also ecologically productive and performative. So there’s many case studies of things that started to emerge that I think speak to that. And one of the things that I think really makes it different is the scale of the project and it comes down to looking at, you know, a bioswale, which is maybe five feet by twenty feet, its got a certain fixed dimension and scale and even green roofs, there may be a 50,000 square foot roof but that’s kind of the max, there’s a certain kind of scale and threshold to it, so those then become these little patches, and when I was in school I read Richard Forman [on] patch ecologies, was thinking about patch systems and the way that it actually not only applies to ecology but to the dynamics of the city and thinking about all of these different small scale interventions that through their aggregation actually create a larger, more dynamic system, and there’s a lot of questions that emerge when you consider it as a whole entity and not just as an isolated moment and you begin to think about: How does wildlife habitat perform? What’s the smallest scale patch that can actually be functional for a bird to live in because most often times you need larger scale trajectories for certain wildlife to feel comfortable within those zones. As our plant life has adapted to the degraded conditions of our urban environments I think our wildlife is also adapting and it’s interesting to begin to look at or think about applying performance-based metrics on how these green infrastructure spaces are working and I think that’s where we’re at now. People aren’t really funding this kind of research and we’re trying to get people to talk about and think about the potential for maybe a new urban native condition because our urban conditions don’t mimic, here in New York, the Northeast deciduous forest of the past, it’s really a different thing, and there’s a lot of people thinking about it climactically in terms of a new geologic era, I don’t know if you’ve heard this term of Anthropocene—
DS: —which I’m sure people can debunk and other people can support but I think it’s an interesting idea to consider, and to talk about—
SM: Definitely, yeah.
Spontaneous Urban Plants: Weeds in NYC by David Seiter with Future Green Studio, 2016. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: This idea of ecological services, is that something that’s hard for people to understand, and realize, like, the kind of services that street trees provide other than just being beautiful and giving shade?
DS: Sure, well the actual term ecological services comes out of the field of ecology so we wanted to draw on the classification system that they already use for the rest of the native flora and try to apply that to spontaneous vegetation.
SM: I wanted to quote from the introduction to your book, because you quoted from Peter Del Tredici, and I just want to read what you quoted from him and maybe we can talk a little about that.
SM: The quote is “The real ecology of the cities is all about the dominance of invasive species while the cultivation of the native species that once grew there seems as artificial as a French knot garden.” It’s kind of what you’ve been talking about but it seems like a radical view especially in this climate of, this mania for invasive species removal and destruction rather than thinking about how they can be used, how they can provide ecological services, can you discuss this conflict a little bit?
DS: Right and I know it’s a sensitive thing and again for me it really comes down to site specificity, if I’m going to be somewhere out of the city, I might not consider the spontaneous urban plants with the same lens that I do here on more urban sites and each site even within the city has to be looked at critically, independently and on its own. But the basic premise behind that quote is that all landscapes in the city are very disturbed and there is no native condition and so trying to recreate a flora of the past, I think there’s all sorts of problems with that kind of recreation. It’s one of our society’s good intentions that happen in all sorts of different ways, culturally, socially, but also ecologically, we want to pin something down and say, this is it. What time period do you choose for being native is a big question that’s asked. My question is, let’s just analyze the site on its own, you know, I want to be contextual, I want to find things that are emanating from the site, and a sense of history, and if that’s a pristine soil, by all means, let’s plant a native garden.
SM: You use a term, psychogeography, in your book—can you explain what you mean by this and is this a term that you came up with, or is this a recognized term?
DS: This is a recognized term, and I’m not sure who first coined the term but I discovered it within the context of the Situationists and Guy Debord, I guess mid-sixties, late sixties France, and there’s this idea of the strategist and the situationist, and the strategist being the planner, that was kind of dislocated from reality in a way, and determined the constraints and actually designed the city for the people that lived there. The Situationists really considered themselves within the situation, they were the people who were experiencing it and so they were creating their own kind of city through their own investigations of the territory, and creating maps and leading themselves on group walks to discover the city, and they had this idea of the dérive, which was this sense of wandering without intention, and that was one process that they used to free themselves up to discover the city in new ways. So I’ve always been interested in, from high school days, interested in urban wandering, and remember going to Europe when I was seventeen, by myself, and just feeling so free to just walk and explore without necessarily knowing where I was going, pre-iPhone days, [laughs] and this sense of boundless freedom and exploration that you could have, so in order to recondition ourselves in our approach to the city, which becomes so normalized by our daily habits. We were interested in this idea of psychogeography, which is reading the terrain of the city in a way that draws on your intuition and your sense of spatial experience, and social dynamics play into that, and perhaps ecological dynamics play into that, and then also at the base level some sense that your eidetic memory. It’s a term that we’ve explored with our design work around memory, but the sense of, not photographic memory, but the smell of lavender might bring you back to the sense of being in your grandmother’s garden as a child, these things that are beyond symbolic.
SM: I wanted to ask you again a little bit about education and the state of landscape architecture education today and whether it matters where somebody has gone to school or not in terms of what that means for you in terms of somebody’s background, particularly in terms of a background in sustainability and green design?
DS: Right, sure. Fortunately sustainability, I think it’s somewhat implicit to what design programs are doing, they’re incorporating the ideas of sustainability, they’re maybe not getting so deep into the technical aspects of it, but I think that’s okay, that comes through practice. Most landscape architecture schools are really presenting the conceptual backbone of landscape architecture and I think there are particular schools that we look to for new hires, and it’s often because they’re generating the best portfolios and the best graphic work that show a range of ideas and hopefully a range of scales. I think the students themselves are really driving the sustainability agenda, and it’s what people are passionate about so they’re wanting to incorporate that into their own projects, but again they may not be getting into the actual technical ways of making those things work but I think in general the field is headed in the right direction there. It’s even beginning to touch a little bit on ecology in the ways that it started to take over parts of architecture, or planning, in the late nineties and early two thousands so more and more people actually want to get into the almost environmental engineering aspect of landscape architecture so it’ll be interesting to see the way the field goes in the future as in general we get the ability to apply more metrics to landscape to evaluate the way they’re actually performing.
SM: Now when you say metrics is that just like measuring the actual result of something?
DS: Exactly, yeah, so for example, for a green roof project, you might establish the green roof as a test plot where you use particular types of sedum in one area, you might use a native-adapted planting palette in another area, you might use weeds in another area, and understand through a plot analysis how successful those different regions are based upon all these different parameters. You might set up weather stations, small green roof test plots for example, that might look at the amount of storm water per square foot that’s captured, the temperature at the different levels of the green roof, really understanding how it’s contributing to the urban heat island effect. There are great studies coming out of Columbia now about biodiversity on green roofs and which particular birds are finding them and why, so there’s a whole range of performative metrics that can be applied now that we’ve got things like cameras or listening devices that can hear the birds and be able to track when they were there and what type of bird it was and all sorts of things like that so it’s a really interesting time but it is leading the field a little bit more towards engineering, a lot of students you find especially are interested in those aspects of it.
SM: And do you think that that student interest is going to eventually have an effect on really transforming the way the schools teach landscape architecture?
DS: Absolutely, absolutely, I think any academic institution in my experience is somewhat slow to adapt and change and I think there’s a lot of embedded faculty that may not be on board with all these ideas, I think it is a slower evolution once you get into the institutional side, but there are a number of schools that are teaching some of these ideas, PennDesign is doing a great job, University of Virginia, University of California Berkley, Harvard GSD [Graduate School of Design], RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], we find a lot of our staff is coming with those backgrounds and they tend to be strong critical thinkers, have a lot of the project management responsibility, they’re responsible people in general, but yet have this great creative side as well, they’re really well-rounded in the skill sets that they offer.
SM: When you hire new people do you take into account where they’ve gone to school?
DS: I do, yeah, I particularly care about that, I think I just know the value of my own education and the way that it’s set up certain ways that I think about landscape architecture, and because my process of design probably emanates in a large way from the way I was taught to design. People who have gone through a similar design process, there tends to be more ease of them getting adapted to the office and things like that. That being said we’ve hired people from all over the world, many of which didn’t go to any of those schools, it’s always about the personal interaction and understanding someone’s skill set, what they can bring to the table. I’ve learned slowly that it’s not always about hiring the rock star person and that actually building an office is about adding people with different skill sets and some people are better being the administrators or some people just really want to focus on the technical details of things and there’s other people that maybe want to have a broader scope to what they’re doing. So we’re trying to fit the office dynamics together like a puzzle and have the right kind of balance of all those different things.
Rooftop Garden Commission, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan, New York, 2014. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: I’m going to move into talking about some of your design projects, beginning with, first of all, you have a lot of different types of projects you work on, and I’m wondering is there any particular type of design, whether residential or museum or school that you prefer to do or that is your favorite type of project?
DS: Sure, I’m really interested in landscape and art and the way that those two fields intersect, so projects that touch on that, the museum-related projects are always really engaging and interesting from a conceptual vantage point. I’m really excited about all sorts of different scales. I love doing gardens too, and the intimacy of that and working and thinking about plants. I’m also thrilled about engaging the public sphere, we’ve got a really exciting project down in DC, a public streetscape in front of the Washington Nationals stadium, there’s going to be thirty thousand people there on game day, and the ability to have that engagement with the public sphere and build consensus with different ownership groups, with the building improvement district, with the city as a whole, I really just appreciate that process of building a project, so it’s less sometimes about the end thing, it’s really about your day to day process and the ability for me personally to jump between all these different scales is what makes it really engaging.
SM: So you would prefer to do that than specialize in one type of design?
DS: I mean, I think we have specialized in one type of design in that we’re kind of urban focused for the most part, but yeah, I do appreciate that diversity of day-to-day experience.
SM: I know each project brings different challenges and rewards but do you have a preference between these public projects which really do touch a lot of people as opposed to residential projects which are much more private and for a much smaller set of people?
DS: To be honest, I do appreciate them all, they all offer their own unique opportunities, and I think I for the most part can find joy most days in doing both. The ability on a residential garden to just get up close and personal with the materials, with people, and their own kind of sensibilities, with the plants and being able to select each plant and have an intimate sense of scale in the way that those plants are going to affect you and somebody, that’s thrilling in a lot of ways. To be honest I never really thought when I came out of school that I would do residential gardening, or even do new development work, but part of the process of building a business has kind of opened my eyes to that type of work and the benefits of it. When I first came out of school I only wanted to work on public stuff but I also saw the holes in that process and I think if you can look at it holistically there’s really benefits and advantages to both types of work and if you can find a way to do both there’s a certain gratification on your own quality of life.
SM: So you don’t actively seek work in one particular area, just whatever comes your way, you’re happy with or do you try to market yourself to certain types of projects?
DS: We would love to be this kind of go-to firm for dynamic urban landscape projects that focus on art, I think that’s where we see ourselves and where we’d really love to be, but at the same time there’s a real strong social mission to what we do, and there’s also just the economics of running a business and needing particular projects to continually feed work to our design staff and give us some flexibility from a profit standpoint to be able to focus on other projects like research and creating this book and website and things like that. There’s a little bit of a kind of Robin Hood sensibility [laughs], being here in New York and being able to take profits from projects that are new developments or high-end residential and being able to use that towards our own explorations in the field.
SM: You had mentioned earlier participating in a design charrette and I’m wondering if you can discuss this kind of collaboration and how it might be different, a design charrette is more for the projects on the larger public scale but also collaborating in terms of smaller residential projects, can you just talk a little about your involvement and how that process works, because it is so collaborative?
DS: Yeah, I can think of a couple of different examples of types of charrettes, there’s the type around literally just your office staff that you might have after going to a new project meeting and seeing the site for the first time and understand the client’s intentions, it’s really discussion oriented, it’s based upon the plan and maybe some of the site photographs and there’s a generative discussion that happens there. There’s other charrettes that I’ve been a part of, for example, I was part of an AIA [American Institute of Architects] Booming Boroughs charrette that looked on aging in place in New York City, and paired a landscape architect with an architect, with a city planner official, with a gerontologist, and with a senior citizen case worker, and had them, through that team, generate ideas, that is so engaging to have different experts in the field be able to lend their credibility and present possible solutions to an issue, it’s so thrilling.
SM: Do you ever find that your work radically changes or your ideas radically change as a result of being involved in a design charrette with lots of different types of people?
DS: Absolutely, yeah, definitely, and it’s really valuable to work on for example, that charrette, a lot of those ideas that came out of those discussions have informed other projects that we’ve done where we have senior citizen populations that we’re designing to. They may feel comfortable with a different bench height, they may feel distracted by varied paving patterns, or reflective elements within paving, there’s all sorts of different parameters. I learned certain distances along a path that you might provide a bench for people to stop and rest, so that’s what’s thrilling about landscape architecture because you get to interface with all of these different trades, based upon the site and what the intentions are and draw from their experience and find ways of hopefully poetically weaving it into a built form.
SM: Several of your projects have been gardens for these international garden festivals and I’m wondering if you can talk about these events in general and also your involvement in them and how it might be different designing for something like that which is strictly on a temporary basis as opposed to something more permanent?
DS: Absolutely, yeah, that we look at as like a treat [laughs], basically, it’s like an art garden with no client, and you’re really able to explore a conceptual idea so we’ve applied in a couple of years to the Metis Festival, never won a plot there unfortunately [laughs] but we did win a plot at Chaumont-sur-Loire—I’m totally butchering the phrase [both laugh] which is horrible—which was really exciting, it’s a festival in the Loire region of France, at a beautiful chateaux, they have twenty-three garden plots. The theme was Dante’s Divine Comedy so we were exploring this idea of purgatorium and the path that one would take, to a kind of inaccessible, majestic space, trying to draw some analogies to Dante’s ascent up the hillside to partake this sacred landscape so it’s just really fun, it’s just exploring ideas and using a garden as an art form and as kind of a crystallized sculpture piece that someone can experience, so that was also really fun. We got to send four of our staff to go over and build the first phase of the project and then I went over with our business manager, David Goldberg, who’s also my best friend, we grew up across the street from one another—
SM: Oh wow!
DS: —and do all the planting and close out the project so that’s really fun.
The Purgatorium, Festival International des Jardins, Chaumont-sur-Loire, France, 2014. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: But is it something that you do because you think it might lead to something remunerative in the future or do you just want to play?
DS: I think there’s a strategy in there, for sure, there’s a sense of building up a portfolio of that type of work and having yourself as the client where you can really do ideas that you really have been wanting to do or that maybe are appropriate for that particular place, so there is a general strategy but it’s kind of like a soft strategy. It’s like, hey, let’s just do what we love to do and I think if you generally do that in life it leads you to good places.
SM: And is this something that you want to continue to try to do?
DS: Yeah, I would put the garden festival in the same category as a design competition that may be unpaid or even as the book, to be honest. We calculate out a couple of projects each year that we feel like economically we can afford to do and we spend a considerable amount of money on our payroll charges to be able to execute the projects, so we’ve got a sense of what we can do within our general business structure and profile and try to choose a couple of projects each year to play a little bit, to keep our staff really engaged, but also, I think it does seed ideas and it creates, it generates ideas which undoubtedly work their way into other built projects.
SM: Your company is named Future Green, so is this idea of sustainability and green design something that you latched onto in the very beginning or was there some inspiration along the way that kind of led you in this direction?
Conceptual drawing, 345 Meatpacking, Manhattan, New York, 2013. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Can you talk a little bit about a project or projects from the past that you feel particularly proud of, that you feel really represents your design ethos and your work, and maybe just talk a little bit about the process of creating those projects?
DS: Right, there’s so many, actually what’s really interesting is looking at all the projects over the last eight years, there’s roughly 250, and looking at this kind of patchwork all over the city of these different entities, that in itself is really exciting, and to me, the thing I’m proudest of is actually building the business and the staff and just the day to day life, it’s somehow less about the final product of the design and about the actual process. But that being said, there’s a number of projects, Pool Farm, MTA Plaza, 41 Bond, 345 Meatpacking, Nowadays, all projects I think probably really highlight a lot of the ethos of what we do. Just to pick one, Pool Farm is a rooftop garden space that’s retrofitted into a pool that was not used, it’s on the nineteeth floor of a hotel in midtown, it’s just like, okay, here you have a pool, in midtown, what can you draw in terms of the site for inspiration, but they actually have a farm to table restaurant there and Adam Block, the owner, had worked with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, out in San Francisco and had a long lineage of creating restaurants based upon local food and so he had this idea of creating a garden within the old pool space. At the same time he was ripping up a lot of this interior wood flooring, which happened to be Ipe wood and he was throwing it in the dumpster and I said, Adam, that’s $10,000 worth of wood and we can take that back to our shop, we can mill it, it had already been pre-aged for a couple of years, beautiful, and repurpose that, and that’s your project. So we came up with this idea of this kind of bamboo sushi mat that had flexibility in one geometrical direction and rigidity in another and created this kind of folding tapestry of wood slats that became planters, that became walls, that became the floor, and a bench, and then we worked closely with a rooftop farmer and the forager who’s on staff at the restaurant to curate a planting palette that could be used in different meals at the restaurant, and then we built that whole project as well, so we literally took the source of the project, created something that was distinctly our own within it, and repurposed it and at the same time collaborating with these different experts in productive landscape, so that has a lot of the pieces of what we do. It’s an amazing little tiny garden space with a beautiful view.
Dining space and Green Wall at Pool Farm, Manhattan, New York, 2012. Photos courtesy of Future Green Studio.
DS: I mean I think you’re always looking at adjacencies, and depending on who the architect is, because they really set the tone, I think, in a lot of ways in that type of project, you’re really trying to be contextual. I actually see it as almost landscape’s role within certain projects like that to make it contextual and tie it in to the fabric of the city, so that project was really inspiring in a lot of different ways. The concept really emanated out of a trip to a bluestone quarry, seeing the spontaneous vegetation that was growing up between the sedimentary layers of the rock, and using that as this vision to recreate the façade.
SM: In that case, is that bluestone cladding over an existing façade?
DS: No, that’s all new construction.
Façade of 41 Bond, Manhattan, New York, 2011. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: In that case it seems like you’re almost recreating a quarry site, in terms of the façade of the building material with all the planters and all the plantings that you have and I assume that’s kind of the idea but can you talk a little about working with the architect and working with the building design to create the planting design?
DS: Yeah, sure, the idea is it’s based upon a found condition, and you’re taking that found condition and you’re weaving it into a modern, New York context, and the idea is that again people are drawn to the post industrial site with nature overtaking this abandoned structure and so there’s a sense that landscape can somehow situate a new project and make it feel like its always been there, like it’s a part of the block. That’s what a lot of people say to me when they go by, “It feels like it’s always been there.” It could have been an old building that had gotten reconditioned almost. So there’s that genesis of a conceptual idea which came out of a site visit and the focus on the material of bluestone and a study of that, and then there’s the way to actually artificially create some sort of analogy or parallel to that condition which is the façade as twenty-four integrated window boxes, they’re all slightly recessed into the façade and each window box is roughly ten inches wide by ten inches deep by four feet long. Getting the irrigation there, getting the drainage out of there, finding ways of maintaining it in a cost effective way, there’s a number of technical complexities to recreate this kind of condition.
SM: Green roofs and green walls are common in a lot of your designs. Can you talk a little bit about using those and maybe also some of the other techniques of sustainable design that you use in your own work?
DS: Great, yeah, there’s so many different individual typologies that I think that we’ve tried to explore and experiment with, green walls being one of them, green roofs, bioswales, a lot of vertical green screens with vines, things like parapet planters, planters embedded into buildings in different ways, it even gets down to paving choices, and permeable paving, it could also be using rooftop rainwater storage and detention, all of these are different small scale green infrastructure interventions that through their aggregation create the whole picture of the project. There’s positives and negatives to each one, for example, green roofs, like your typical sedum green roof might be pretty low cost, have a low structural load to it, pretty lightweight overall, but might lack real biodiversity, and lack wildlife habitat in a real substantive way. There’s other project types like green walls – they look beautiful, they’re very expensive, they’re very hard to maintain, it’s not a natural found condition, it’s a very challenging type of installation, so used in the right place it can be very effective but it takes a lot of maintenance, it’s not the most sustainable of interventions. Things like vine screens and other things like that are much more sustainable ways of achieving a similar desired intention.
Green wall, Waverly Place Penthouse, Manhattan, New York, 2010. Photo courtesy of Future Green Studio.
SM: Are there projects that you’ve done in the past that you would look back on with a critical eye, and think that, I can’t believe I did that—
DS: Of course!
SM: —or, I wish I had done that differently?
DS: Oh yeah, like all of them! [both laugh.] Definitely, there’s something to the designer’s process that in the end, part of me kind of hates each of them a little bit. [laughs.]
SM: Oh really?
DS: Yeah, I think you kind of work through such a process, that you always are kind of finding holes within your own design. I do like to think each one, sometimes in their own way can be experiments, where you can really learn a lot from what you did right and what you did wrong, and hopefully we’re pushing the envelope on the type of landscape design we’re doing, we’re not being safe, I guess is what I would say, we are trying to challenge. For example we just finished the Met Breuer installation at the old Whitney Museum, and there we’re using quaking aspen trees. I mean I’ve never seen anyone use quaking aspen in New York, especially in a garden environment like that and they’re all planted a foot or two feet away from one another, which is wrong, by certain botanical standards, but it’s an art installation as well and so you’re kind of pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and I think in doing that there’s certain to be failures, you wouldn’t be doing your job if there wasn’t.
SM: Okay, that’s honest.
SM: How important is the idea of utopia in your design process, or is it, or is it something you think about?
DS: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, definitely, as a designer, you look at the series of architectural phases or architectural disciplines, they all had some sense of utopia as a driving force for them, trying to either respond to or create these different sensibilities. I mean I think that also leads to just, failure, but I think it’s also important to have those ideas out there. You know, just speaking to the New York presidential primary yesterday, you just gotta believe in idealism, you just gotta go for it, and it may not work out but I think you’ve gotta to stick with what the best ideas are. But I think if we’re talking about spontaneous urban plants [laughs], is there a sense of utopianism in there? I don’t think so, maybe it’s more like dystopia [SM laughs], really, and the sense of, we’re never going to create a utopia, and how comfortable can we get with our own dystopian future?
SM: In talking about the future, I’ll wrap it up here by asking you what are some of the projects that you are working on now, or that you would like to work on in the future going forward.
DS: Yeah, absolutely, there’s a lot of really exciting projects that we’re working on now, everything from Taylor Swift’s garden—
SM: In Rhode Island?
DS: In New York City, to the Half Street Streetscape down in Washington, DC in front of the Nationals’ stadium, working on a really exciting project in Journal Square in Jersey City, establishing a new park within that new transportation hub, we’re working on a rooftop sculpture garden adjacent to the High Line, we were lucky enough to design the landscape for the Zaha Hadid building in Chelsea, which now has even more significance than it originally did, I’m just really excited to be a part of that type of project as well.
SM: Did you collaborate directly with her on that?
DS: With her staff. By the time that we got involved in the project she herself was not attending the meetings, but yeah, we did a long collaboration with her team.
SM: Okay, is there anything else you want to add that I haven’t covered or that you would like to get out there?
DS: No, it’s been a pleasure talking with you.
SM: Yeah, you too.
DS: We’ve covered a lot of good stuff.
SM: Yeah, definitely, definitely, thank you so much.
DS: Cool, thank you. [both laugh.]
[End of interview]