A Case For Interns

Research Internships in Landscape Architecture Practice

words Fraser Stuart
 mla. Oregon., BA, Calgary. Intern at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects

IMAGE Lauren Vincent

Landscape Architects share a common a relationship to the space, land, and ecology of landscape. The experience of the landscape is mediated by a further interpersonal exchange – the culture of a society, profession, or the office. Yet this second kind of exchange is often ignored. In a professional landscape architecture office with multiple projects and associated teams it can be a challenge to maintain focus on production and simultaneously explore the narratives of history, ecology, culture and place. Individual projects can generate tremendous amounts of information that often remains unexplored for the sake of expedience in the core part of the project work, despite the potential value of this information. There are ways that firms attempt to capture this kind of information: office libraries, specific file systems, and specific staffing roles that focus on organizing work. A research intern can be one such model, whereby they become the point of exchange for knowledge and information within a landscape architecture firm. In such a role, an individual can gather, discover or translate the findings across multiple projects within the firm. Such findings can be a valuable catalyst for design as it re-enters the design process or could explore patterns that relate to the general direction and mission of the firm that otherwise remain unseen.

The primary role of a research intern is that of discovery, focused on expanding the knowledge around projects. Students of landscape architecture, recently engaged in the practice of research during their studies, provide an ideal alignment of blended learning through research that directly engages contemporary practice. A unique position within private practice, a research intern has the ability operate independently, as well as collaborate within the office. One element of the research intern position is a timeline that differs from that of the dedicated design team, and allows for a deeper investigation into hypothetical design propositions, and may enrich a narrative of a given project. Outside of the project schedule the research intern has the chance to look at geologic and natural system timelines with a view to greater geographies. Through this process of investigating and documenting projects the research intern is another individual in an office that has seen how all of the various and diverse information is being compiled and organized across a range of projects – and can begin to articulate elements connected to the broader scope and themes of the firm for internal discussion. As such, a temporary but dedicated position can be an important resource for a forward-looking firm, as exchange may provide a catalyst for the firms future direction and goals.

When internally focused research is paired with project development, elements of the design process itself can be assessed and collected. A research intern is in a position to give focus and energy to critical questions of research where more senior staff may be better suited dedicating their time to a design problem. The continuous focus on research by an individual creates an opportunity for new information to be inserted into design development. Further, a research intern can collate and organise this information in various ways that are still relevant to the design process. Perhaps most importantly it is the availability of the research intern to assist active projects, as design is being developed. This objective process may in fact flush out new ideas that can be re-introduced to the client and project at a later date, and identify potential pitfalls and opportunities.  A research intern can also follow experimental tangents identified during design that would otherwise be too risky and expensive to spend on the time of design staff. A research intern’s information-gathering is enhanced by working with various members of the firm on a daily basis. Direct collaboration with design team members facilitates research being inserted into developing projects as appropriate, highlighting the connection of the project with the natural and cultural history of the site and connecting people and place. While each project identified for review may be directly impacted by the findings of a research intern, it is the larger picture of the firm and its work that becomes unique and valuable. From this type of internal research the opportunity to reveal larger patterns that may be developing within the firm is possible, creating a potential opportunity for previously unseen linkages to be made between separate projects, further enriching the firm’s mission.

The role of a research intern described here is as a temporary position yet has tremendous potential as a permanent position in landscape architecture firms, as technical expertise is developed in an office. While a permanent position may not be viable, the position could become a permanent role in the office, with interns invited to participate each year, further enhancing the idea of exchange within the office. The work of a research intern functions at various scales, from individual research questions which answer specific project oriented inquiries presented at design development meetings to broad theme detection and definition of the firm itself. From this internally focused exchange of research and synthesised information comes a stronger grounding for the external exchange of ideas.