USD: As we know Sasaki has won three 2007 ASLA awards which include a landmark award and two planning honor awards. Could you give us some comments on the three projects? What do you think about the ASLA award?
Pieprz: The ASLA recognizes and rewards excellence in our profession while keeping standards high and acknowledging the complexity of the process of design. The awards for both Penn Connects (University of Pennsylvania Urban Design Vision Plan) and University of Balamand were in the Analysis and Planning category, and were as much for Urban Planning as for Landscape Architecture – we were recognized for doing extensive research and analysis of the complex urban conditions on the sites.The Landmark Award for the Charleston Waterfront Park is a completely different level of recognition. It is given jointly by the ASLA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is a very influential organization. The Landmark Award is given only to a project that has stood the test of time. It is one that, after a minimum of 15 years, has in the ASLA’s words "retained the integrity of its original design and significantly contributed to the public realm of the city in which it is located." These two elements – integrity of design and adding to the public realm, are absolutely fundamental to our mission here at Sasaki.
USD: The landmark award was given to the Charleston Waterfront Park, which is considered “A Great Urban Promenade” and was recovered from a brownfield to an urban space. To create an urban space for people, and to recover ecological environment are the two aspects of an urban space that people are pursuing, but at the same time, to some extent, there are a couple of conflicts. How do you create an urban space that balances people’s needs and sustainability? Does SASAKI Associates have any design concepts obligatory for similar projects?
Pieprz: There is tension in readapting a former industrial site for use as a public park, but therein lies its potential. The very act of replacing open parking lots and rotting piers with green space is regenerative and ameliorates the "heat island" effect. The restoration of a habitat of salt marsh grasses and shallow estuarine waters along the park’s edge allows visitors the opportunity to appreciate the area’s marine ecology and wildlife. But beyond these gestures, a carefully designed public park also promotes sustainable urban lifestyles. As the neighborhood around the park improved, more and more people were able to adopt healthy pedestrian habits and live in racially diverse neighborhoods that combine residential with retail and commercial. We believe that some of the most profound design decisions can be made at the planning level – in other words, it’s not just sustainable building materials and processes that must be brought to the fore but also overall thinking that promotes healthy lifestyles and a culture of sustainability in all of its forms.
USD: Two of the awarded projects are campuses. Could you summarize the design concepts for campus design?
Pieprz: The two awards are for vastly different campuses, one an Ivy League campus here in the northeastern U.S. and another a private university in the Mediterranean Middle East.Sasaki’s work in campus design is so varied that there are no set approaches or formulas. At the University of Pennsylvania, as with at many other leading American universities, our designs seek to further a vibrant interaction between "town" and "gown." Major institutions like Penn can and should nurture—culturally and economically—their surrounding urban contexts, and vice versa. At Balamand, the challenge was to express the institution’s mission and core beliefs. We designed a landscape deeply rooted in the local culture while also proposing an array of solutions that enhanced the relationship between the buildings and the landscape.There is tension between the American tradition of a pastoral, green campus and the urban vibrancy that often surround such campuses. There is an emerging imperative here in the U.S. that colleges and universities, as the engines of economic growth in emerging fields like research and bio technology, must promote healthy surrounding urban neighborhoods in order to attract the best and brightest students and employees. It is our duty as designers to improve the surrounding public realm and while nurturing and expressing the individual architectural and landscape character of each institution.
USD: The theme for the University of Pennsylvania campus design is connection, like the Living/Learning Bridge, the Sports and Recreation Bridge, the Cultural and Health Sciences Bridge, the Research Bridge. How did connection become the design concept?
Pieprz: It came straight from the top – in her inaugural address, University President Amy Gutmann, who has personally overseen every step of the Penn Connects process, called for the university "to engage, locally and globally." Penn Connects is a blueprint for growth over the next half century as well as a means to connect the campus both to the Schuylkill River and to Center City Philadelphia. And so "bridge" became a natural and apt metaphor.A "Living/Learning Bridge" reestablishes a strong Walnut Street axis and connects to Rittenhouse Square Center City; A "Sports/Recreation Bridge" proposes a dramatic new pedestrian-only cable-stay span and incorporates student life programs like a series of sports and recreation parks along the river adjacent to the existing stadium; A "Health Sciences/Cultural Bridge" at South Street and future "Research Bridge" accommodate health care and research endeavors that are critical for both the university’s and city’s growth. The plan celebrates East Campus’s industrial history while establishing a real physical presence for Penn along the banks of the Schuylkill.
USD: The design for the University of Balamand follows your design solutions that are, as you have said, “a synthesis of rigorous analysis, economic realism, environmental responsibility, and cultural awareness.” In the Balamand project statement you said, “The plan re-directs the physical form of the university to establish a civic realm to encourage communication and interdisciplinary learning.” What methods do you use to set up the realm?
Pieprz: The University of Balamand is atop a dramatic hilltop site near Tripoli, north of Beirut. The school’s trustees wanted an ambience that bespoke the grandeur of an educational mission but without any obvious religious symbolism, owing to their commitment to inter-faith relations, especially between Christians and Muslims. There are three main axes: An Entry Promenade is planted with a grove of sycamore trees where pedestrians are accorded a priority although the reality of motorized transportation is accommodated, without allowing it to dominate. The Core Area contains numerous courtyards and places of meeting and quiet contemplation. Finally the Path of Learning completes a triangular path back toward the Olive Court and main entry. Purple, pink and green native plantings contrast against the lighter building masonry and paving. The Path of Learning is both an actual and metaphorical link, seeking to bridge the sacred and the secular.
USD: Could you introduce the design philosophy of SASAKI Associates?
Pieprz: Sasaki is an interdisciplinary design firm where collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas are at the very center of our firm culture. In our landscape architecture practice, our aim is to make enduring landscapes - significant places that will last for generations. This practice is integrated with civil engineering, urban design and architecture to create new designs on diverse and challenging sites including urban waterfronts, college campuses, sensitive environmental areas, and brown-fields.
Time has a different meaning for landscapes, which unlike buildings, must grow and mature to reach their potential. Because Sasaki expects our projects to be in use 50 years or more, we don’t design for instant impact or in the style of the moment; our designs transcend style to incorporate lasting qualities and an understanding of the site. Working closely with clients is fundamental to Sasaki’s design approach. Clients and larger stakeholders articulate the human needs that are at the basis of any design work; their questions and concerns help us explore many alternatives before reaching the most appropriate landscape solution. We have a deep and abiding respect the public realm; we believe that people need places where they can gather, observe, play, celebrate and feel connected to each other. As a result, public spaces…a city square, a campus quadrangle, a corporate plaza…form the organizing focus of many of Sasaki’s designs. Sasaki also collaborates with artists to integrate art into our designs, often immeasurably enriching the public environment.
USD: While looking into the works by SASAKI, we found your designs to be more about functionality and realism rather than being merely stylish, modern, or flamboyant. What is your opinion? How do you encourage landscape architects to be innovative?
Pieprz: We believe that innovation is born of exploring ways to solve problems presented by a site, program or set of client needs. It is often during the rigorous process of inspecting and researching a site that ideas will come as a result of the cross-pollination that takes place among our landscape architects, civil engineers, planners and architects. For example in a waterfront site there might be historical drawings that indicate the presence of a long-abandoned industrial canal. Such a fact can spur a design idea to bring back the canal and have it serve a practical function such as being a storm water collector or a mooring site for kayaks, as is happening at one of our waterfront projects. Often innovative ideas come only after a problem is presented.
USD: SASAKI plays the leading role and urban planner in quite a lot of projects. As we all know SASAKI was a landscape architecture firm, but has become a multi-disciplinary company. How do you think landscape architecture influences planning and urban design?
Pieprz: Landscape architecture deals with land and thus underpins all work in the built environment. It is the topography and vegetation of a particular site that is often the starting point of design thinking and that sets the stage for the Interdisciplinary collaboration that is at the heart of our firm. At Sasaki, no one studio dominates. Each contributes multi-perspective approaches to solving design problems. Firm principals, charged with direct client contact and accountability, orchestrate and inspire the team while tapping into the vast knowledge base within the firm. For example, our Landscape Architecture and Planning and Urban Design inform the work of our Architecture, and vice versa; an Interior Design solution in one project might hold the key to sustainability in another; current work we are doing in China might inspire a creative approach to a project in Cleveland. Supporting this interaction is the firm’s balanced ownership structure, which is unique in the industry. While each project is different, each is approached from the unique perspective of a company that has designed things across the full spectrum of the built environment.
USD: SASAKI won the competition of 2008 Beijing Olympics and you are the principal landscape architect. What do you think of the regional and cultural identity of China?
Pieprz: Obviously an important part of the task of an urban designer is studying history and culture and city-building. China evolved the grid and applied it to the planning, construction and ordering of its great imperial capital cities, including Beijing. The idea of the city gate or entry, the principle of the city pole that facilitates orientation, methods of arranging buildings to maximize human comfort and the fostering of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature are representative of city planning ideals that have their genesis in China, and have found application throughout the world. Chinese city planning embraces the principle of a civic order, formed in large part by the creation of open spaces planned and executed at a grand scale. This sense of order, of seeking balance, is manifested in the great landscape and garden design tradition of China. From this rich matrix, there are many ways in which the urban designer, landscape architect and architect can find inspiration, whether or not the project is located within China. Our Beijing Olympic concept is very much tied to the context of Beijing, to the particular urban districts that are adjacent to the Olympic site. The long-term integration of the Olympic site was a key goal of our urban design concept – it must become a living part of the city and thrive well beyond the events of 2008.
USD: SASAKI has lots of projects in China. What do you see in the future of landscape design (both the practice and the business market) in China?
Pieprz: Each project we do in China is unique and is reflective of a particular site and culture, and as designers we must become enmeshed in these specifics, and that requires working closely with clients. Of the numerous competitions we have entered for work in China, we have won almost every one. However, we have generally found this format frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying because of the lack of direct client contact at the critical early design phases. When we have a good, long-term relationship directly with the client—as we have now with a number of Chinese firms—we are able to get at the particulars of the site, the program and the larger contexts of region and culture, tapping into China’s rich landscape history for inspiration and guidance.
Because China’s economic growth and rural-to-urban migration presents such great challenges, we believe the future of landscape design lies in its integration with the other major design disciplines, especially urban planning and architecture. Landscape architecture is deeply ingrained into our firm’s 54-year history. But our interdisciplinary firm structure allows us to take a holistic approach – our experience shows that the most profound and effective design decisions can and should be made in the early planning stages. With the rich history of landscape architecture in China, and our own roots within the landscape architecture discipline, we are very enthusiastic and excited about continuing to be involved in major design work in China.