What Are You Smoking?

By Kevin Conger


I have recently had the pleasure of advancing some projects that I have been working on for over 10 years. It’s gratifying to see the promises I made to community members and clients becoming reality, and to see that the basic ideas and strategies about making social spaces, ecological landscapes and sculptural compositions are for the most part working well. It’s interesting to see how some of these just built landscapes, designed a decade ago, differ from what is being designed in the office today . . . and how they are similar.


01 Hunters Point wireframe 2006_2
Hunters Point Wireframe, 2006


02 Hunters Point composition 2009_2
Hunters Point Composition, 2009


03 Hunters Point overlook construction 2015_2
Hunters Point Overlook Construction, 2015


I would hope that the design strategies and concepts that remain constant in our work, from the past decade through today, are those which have been carefully articulated and developed as our “design manifesto,” while experiments that have not measured up to our intentions are critiqued and logged as an important layer of our body of work.


04 Headlands Center for the Arts Commons study 2015_2
Headlands Center for the Arts Commons study, 2015


It is not uncommon for a landscape project to take a long while to see built results. Designing landscapes often requires years, if not decades to get from ideas to construction, and then decades longer still to see if the ideas actually work as natural and cultural forces come to bear on the finished project, or should we say the “started” landscape. I liken this period of preparation, contemplation and negotiation to cooking a big rack of ribs in a smoker all day. It takes careful preparation, rubbing, discussion, drinking, and immense patience. If you’re in a hurry to just yank out the ribs and eat, you should order take out. The joy is in the ritual. There is a benefit to the extended ritual of landscape design, in that it allows us to think in terms longer than the fast paced trends of our culture. In fact, if a landscape design is trend-driven it’s likely that by the time the landscape is built, the trend will have come and gone.  Although some critics refer to good design as timeless, I really appreciate a design that reflects contemporary culture; a timely design. Somehow “timeless” sounds boring, or like you are using old ideas. I prefer to think of good design that can outlast trends as conceptually “durable design,” wherein the ideas and performance criteria will remain relevant for the lifespan of the landscape.


05 Bay Meadows Landing Green Park 2015_2
Bay Meadows Landing Green Park, 2015


Of course, not every project gets smoked.  Sometimes we get the chance to design and build a landscape in a just few years, or even a few months, and these circumstances provide the opportunity to test and critique our ideas on a much shorter timeline, and to learn and iterate faster. 


06 Crack Garden_landscape in a day 1999
Crack Garden, landscape in a day, 1999



07 Parkmobiles_landscape in a month 2011_2
Parkmobiles, landscape in a month, 2011



08 Annie Street experiment 2014_2
Annie Street Experiement, 2014


But at the same time, I wonder if there is some risk of being pushed too fast to deeply understand the context of the landscape or to develop the nuances of our designs.  As we just now are seeing some of our long term projects coming to fruition, we will have the opportunity to see how design duration relates to design durability.