Conversation with Ken Smith

Xsection & Ken Smith

New York-based Ken Smith is best known for traversing the boundaries between art and landscape. Ken has also taught at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. His practice WORKSHOP: Ken Smith Landscape Architect was established in 1992 and recently expanded into Southern California to facilitate the massive 'Orange County Great Park.'


We have noticed that your portfolio of work has been for a variety of clients at a variety of scales, how to you begin to identify and priotritise the influences for each site when you start a design


 I think first of we have always taken almost all work that’s come our way, which is why there is a great range to the projects, and we’re not exactly what you would call a theory driven practise, in that we don’t have a kind of singular viewpoint that we try to push through every project, that’s not to say that we are not interested in the theory because we are, but generally each individual project Is dealt with individually so we  look at a project when it comes in and basically sum up what we think is  the opportunity of that project or some aspect of that that is of interest, so I have generally found some thing that I think is the core that I am going to push on with that particular project. And then even with other people working on the project I tend to kind of drive that through


So with that where do you generally start, is it anywhere or is there a particular process you go through for how you start? Such as drawing?


Sometimes it is looking at precedents, often times its understanding the site in some way, we don’t really have a formal process, we don’t do like site analysis and then alternatives you know, at the end of the day you can step back and say that we did touch on those things but we don’t hav a formal thing, the other thing is that I was taught in school the formal classic top down deductive method of research  and analysis and the moving toward a pland and then coming up with an idea and then all the deails followed down from that but then in practise we as often as not use inductive, the bottom up process that there often times something about the particular of a site that is of  interest and that starts to shape a larger idea or there is something about the client that shapes the larger idea. In most projetys in  the end are a combination of both deductive and inductive thinking.

XS: I was quite interest to read that you worked in collaboration with kennedy and violich architects in the east river ferry landing project, I was wondering on large scale projects such as that one and also  the orange county project, how do we teach that collaboration and how important is that within landscape architecture.

KS: As the projects get bigger and more complicated you just have to work with more people unless your going to organise your practise where you are going to go to battle and fight about everything, you have to collaborate, its just how it is, generally you want to  find people that you want to work with, people that you share ideas and agenda with and so, s*shear and fono* were great because we were colleagues from Harvard and know each other, we’ve also done a lot of work with shock architects recently and we get along as colleges and that has been very good working relationship, I think you have to  pick your collaborators carefully

XS: I think that rings true at this level aswell, doing group assignments

KS: Not everyone can play in the sandbox right

XS: So is that how we teach collaboration in class, making them work in groups, and to choose who they work with?

KS: That’s the traditional method, when I was teaching I generally did projects where they were generally individual projects, because I was more interested in someone trying to find there own identity and attitude towards design, but then at the same time at this school there were faculty who were organising group process, and there would be a lot of kind of collaboration gaming going on, not exactly as nasty as survivor on tv but the would set up situations which would test the dynamics of the group and force people to come to some kind of concesus

KS: I think for a lot of landscape architects, traditionally landscape architects have been too nice, and accepting of other people leading things and I think that landscape architects as a group need to be a little more assertive in these group situation because we bring a lot to the table and we need to be equal among the other people at the table, and I think thats a challenge, and its an ongoing challenge to the profession but its probably a challenge of each generation to kind of get your place at the table and be part of the decision making

XS: I’ve heard that kind of true about our crit sessions here and a couple of lecturers have told me to go and sit in on an architecture crit and just see the difference, and theres a lot of niceness and softness about the crits in landscape and then you go to architecture and there a lot more brashness and everyone’s standing up and really announcing that their designs the best and then everyone try to cut them down, and then we’re like up there saying it kind of nice don’t you think and everyone’s else is like yeah.


You do have to defend yourself especially when you get into public process or something, it can work, being nice actually does help in situation like when your working with a group of neighbours or something to make people feel comfortable, but on the other hand, you do need to know when to be assertive and push an agenda

XS: If its important to your design I suppose

KS: If you want to get it built and realised

XS: Another thing we are interested in is how do you, or do you think we should, stay connected and engaged in the human scale of things while working at large scales such as diagrams and plans, how do you remain connected to your project? In those initial stages and through to completion?

KS: I used to fairly regularly sit in on designer reviews at the university of pensilvania, Jim Corner used to invite me to sit on the jury and they were very interesting because Jim would always have his students simultaneously doing diagrams, and then montage views, and there was always this connections between this kind of larger idea and the quality of the space that it was creating with scale people in there and that’s the thing I thing you are talking about is how you get those two to work and that is difficult on all projects because it is very easy to  especially with the computers to kind of get sucked into the box at one scale and not really understand what your doing so in  my office we move very quickly to computers, we don’t draw  very much any more but then we do a lot of  visualisation, computer views, but we also build a lot of models, we built traditional models to kind of see  what the thing looks like, but we also   do full scale mock-ups,  last week we did a full scale mock-up of a seat to see if it was comfortable and we do things like we were trying to do a slope, and the  client was having great difficulty understanding the slope and so we found a big room and we took string and we executed the entire slope on the wall and they looked at it and the said “oh fine, no problem” so we often times work at full scale in some way in trying to understand and make that connection. Today at the end of the first lecture im going to show you a vine screen we are doing in Brooklyn, its tall, its 55ft tall, and we printed out a portion of it full scale, we have 12ft ceilings in our office and we put up a full scale drawing of a portion of it, just to see what it actually felt like, how big the pieces actually were, because often times you don’t know when your detailing something, how big is that, horizontal thing there so we try to make that connection. And also we spend a lot of time just looking at how people use spaces,  when I was teaching I always had my students read the William whyte, social life of small urban spaces, which is a really good book about how people use space, sit and people watch and stuff, and we kind of bring that social agenda to all of our work.

XS: How do you remain connected to the project, do you remain connected right through to completion

KS: We try to take all of our projects all the way through to construction. I really don’t like having other people execute the design work

XS: So do you remain on as the project manager?

KS: How the office is organised is: There’s me and I have a senior associate who looks over across the board of  all the projects that are going on. And then there’s a series of project managers. Each time a project comes in it will be assigned to a project manager and they will stay with the project right the way through, and I am involved in all projects, not on a day to day basis like the project manager but I help set the direction for the project initially, and I follow all the projects along, all the way through. I am interested in the construction documents and I always go to the construction sites, well I like the construction sites, but also a lot of stuff happens in the field and if you are not paying attention during construction things can go sideways. That’s not good.

XS: What’s the most rewarding aspect of the process for you?

KS: Generating the ideas is always the most fun, the very beginning.  Probably the worst part is in the middle of the project where you are trying to keep the thing going in the right direction. The are so  many forces trying to push and pull the project sideways or make it something else, but then construction is always fun also, as you start to see the thing happening in real space.

XS: I was just intrigued, going back that you like to observe people and how they use space. Do you often go back to projects of your own to see how people are actually using the space?

KS: I always try to go back to my projects, over time, whenever I can. The Yardville Park in Toronto I have been back a number of times, most recently about a year ago. And people really do use it. They sit everywhere, they have a very good social life there,  how they use it. So I do try to go back to see what people are using, what works and maybe what doesn’t work as well as I thought it might have and try and learn from that.

XS: Do you ever get a chance to refine those things when you see them not working?

KS: Sometimes you can, other times; you just have to learn from it for your next project. Some things you cant actually change after the fact.

XS: You have mentioned you use Photoshop extensively in the design process. Do you think the use of these digital design tools influences the outcome? Or is it just a tool?

KS: Its not just a tool, the tool is actually shaping the design, because you can do things quickly now that were very difficult before, so its making different kinds of design. I still draw sometimes, but I tend to work in photoshop first. I do diagrams in photoshop, kind of dumb diagrams but I’ll tend to layout a project in photoshop diagrams and then some kind of montages, that’s usually the first part. I find that the montage-ing, often times at some level, influences the look of the project, because you start designing that image. So then you find out that this actually looks better than that and then you take that back then into the plan work and it changes it. We are using more 3D software now and that’s also useful, to find out, well that’s too tall and you can start pushing things around differently.

XS: Is that with CAD or video software aswell?

KS: We are using Rhino in the office now and the thing with that, in terms of fabrication, more and more, the CAD drawings go directly to the fabricator. So there’s a much stronger connection, a kind of industrial design connection between how things are built and design that is changing. The products, the forms are more complex than they were 20 years ago because the computer allows us to do that.

XS: We notice that you don’t have a website?

KS: No. Havent gotten around to it.

XS: Your online presence seems to be very carefully controlled, is that intentional?

KS: Part of the reason to not have a website is that, well it would never be up to date because we are just terrible at that, our office brochure was last updated in 2008, so we don’t even use it anymore. But the other reason, is, early on, people would call if they wanted information about the office, and that’s a 2 way conversation: you find out what it is they are interested in and then you can actually frame the material you give them in way you probably cant do with a website. We will probably have one in a few years.

XS: Where do you see the future of social media technology within landscape architecture.

KS: We haven’t been doing that very much but it makes sense that that would be the way you would do it, you are not going to mail a postcard to anyone these days, it doesn’t make any sense. So the interactive aspect of that where people respond is a very useful way of getting feedback. I would say it could be a major tool in the future for public participation.

XS: Do you think social media could be a useful tool in the Orange County Great Park project?

KS: Yes, Orange County is a good example of that. It has been very media savvy. The park itself was born out of vote initiatives, ballot initiatives. There were people who wanted to build an airport there and there were people who didn’t want an airport. The people who didn’t want an airport did a great deal of political polling, and what they found out was that people wont vote against an airport, but they will vote for something else, so you have to have a positive thing to put out there. They polled and they found that people would vote for a park. Even the name The Great Park had a great deal of appeal to people and that is why it is called that, all a result of political poll taking. Even during the competition they had websites and a lot of interactive measuring going on to see what people like and that was part of how we got selected for the project. So already that is happening in contemporary projects.

KS: The Orange County Park is a good example of that. It’s been very media savvy and because the park was born out of vote initiatives , ballot initiatives, because there were people who wanted to build an airport there and people who didn’t want an airport there. The people who didn’t want an airport did a great deal of political polling and what they found out was that people won’t vote against an airport but they would vote for something else so you have to have a positive thing to put out there. they polled and found out that people would vote for a park. Even the name, they did polling and they found that the term ‘Great Park’ had a great deal of appeal for people, and that’s why it’s called that, as a result of a very sophisticated poll taking. Even during the competition they had websites and a lot of interactive measuring that was going on to see what people liked and that was part of how we got selected for the project, so, already it’s happening in contemporary projects.

XS: What other sort technologies do you see influencing the disciple of landscape architecture in the near future, as far as [new software/ hardware interface e.g laser cutter, 3D modelers etc] How do you see that influencing the ways we design?

KS: Well, it’s all part of our means of production, and that is changing the profession. but I think that probably another thing that might be  an influence, is the research models that come out of other professions. I mean you see it certainly  in the ecological aspects of the profession, that you don’t have to be ecologist to adapt a model for community sampling or species diversification, and then you apply it to a project and I would expect that we would use research findings from public health and other related fields as design form-makers in a way, where we are starting to apply other kinds of models into the work that starts to shape the design.

XS: I suppose GIS the big influence there?

I’m not sure. I think the organizational models, spatial models, performative criteria I think those things we will borrow. GIS is really a different scale -  big scale - right? We don’t really do planning in America so we don’t’ know anything about that!

XS: So do you think there is a danger in GIS-based or ecologically derived design?

KS: No, no. I think it makes sense a big scale, but it is a very coarse scale and when you get down to the specific site it won’t tell you how to plant or to grade, or make things work. It doesn’t tell you how to make the interaction between the ecology and the culture work. That’s a different kind of endeavor.

XS: How do you see nature in the future?

KS: Huh. I don’t know. It changing, right?  Well, humans are a part of nature, we’re a pretty active part of nature and we’ve pretty munch manipulated the whole nature of the planet at this point. Including the melting of the icebergs. There isn’t any reason to think that humans are going to be less active in manipulating nature so we should perhaps be better managers that we are.

XS: What would be you number one piece of advice for students entering the industry?

KS: I don’t know. Just to learn as much as you can and to get out there and start practicing as quickly as you can. Learn from your mistakes. You shouldn’t be nostalgic; the world is changing very quickly and you should jump onto the changes and go with them.

XS: What was the biggest challenge you were dealing with when you were teaching? What did the students find the hardest to grasp?

KS: I think scale has always been a difficult thing. Understanding the scale of what you’re working on, and the scale for the person within it. That, and actually figuring out how to take ideas, and how to apply them in design.  The development of an idea. Coming up with a idea is easy, but the development of the idea into a design, there’s a real rigor to that. I think with my design students, I didn’t really care what the idea was, if the student had an idea then fine we’ll take that. A lot of people would anguish all semester over the idea and never actually do anything - that’s probably fine.  But in my studio we were really much more focused on taking the idea and seeing how you would go about developing the idea into something that’s a real design. I think that is a rigor and an art and something you need to learn.

XS: Outside of LS arch, what influences you at the moment?

KS: I go to art galleries all the time. For the past twenty years I have gone to galleries several times a month just to see the new ideas. Because artists are always quick to present new ideas in a big range of things and that’s interesting. The whole level of imaging within the arts, the impact of photography, and digital photography  - digital means -  is really apparent in the art world and that’s interesting. At one end people do very sophisticated things with imaging and digital things and then at the other end you have people doing entirely rigorous, crazy craft things with found objects and you find both of those things happening at the same time and that’s interesting, yet they’re both contemporary.

XS: The MOMA project must have been pretty close to heart for you then?

Yeah, that was a good project - it was fun. It was a good client. They pretty much let me do what I want.

XS: And that was originally a temporary installation?

KS: Well, that’s still not clear. It was designed with a 7-year life and were at 7 years now, so there’s been a little bit of restoration on it, but it’s not really clear.

XS: You mentioned earlier that you have a couple of smaller installation project coming up. Are they more arts-based or permanent interventions?

KS: Well, they’re done at no profit to the office, we do them because I’m interested in them. We always have one or two residences that we’re doing,, and we loose money on those. But they’re small scale and interesting and I like doing them and I like having the small scale in the office. We have some sort of art installation in Metis, Quebec, []  and then we have a really silly one in Hamburg Germany for the International Garden Show 2013, where they give you a little plot. they assigned me, well they told me what to do, they gave me a theme that was really stupid. My theme is the ‘American Dream’, and then they went on and gave me the description of what the American Dream was. Usually the ideas come pretty quickly, but with that one I think it took me about 6 weeks to come up with an idea. We’re doing a gameboard, like a walkable gameboard and it’s based on Monopoly, which I guess is the American Dream –speculation, greed and money and all that. It’s called ‘Dream-opoly’. So it’s a little cynical. But it’s hard not to be cynical when you’re given an assignment like that.