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State of Nature

Rolf Sauer & Partners has built its practice around designing traditional indigenous landscapes that repair the earth as they reveal its beauty.

By Kim A. O'Connell

Not far from downtown Phil-adelphia, the University of Pennsylvania campus – with its Collegiate Gothic buildings and manicured lawns – seems like the wrong place for a naturalistic landscape. This is especially true on the southern edge of campus, where one can find the Nursing Education Building, a 1972 brick behemoth whose entrance was once walled, paved and banally planted with a few containered trees – hardly the right advertisement for a field devoted to nurturing and health care. Today, however, the Nursing School entrance has been enlivened by a surprisingly complex landscape that mimics the forest, complete with ground cover, shrub layer and canopy trees.

Designed by Rolf Sauer & Partners, a landscape architecture and ecological planning firm headquartered in Philadelphia, the Nursing School courtyard is not the most dramatic project and certainly not one of the largest. But the care with which the firm designed the space is evocative of its approach to sustainable design. The firm promotes sustainability not just as prescribed in checklists such as the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system, but as a true environmental ethic that understands the connection between soils, water and vegetation – and also between how we use the land and the quality of our lives. The firm provides master planning and site design for a range of clients, including university and religious campuses, parks and open space systems, and corporate headquarters. Its diverse portfolio is united by the firm's commitment to preserving open space, restoring native ecosystems and celebrating a site's intrinsic qualities.

"What we're doing should be considered traditional landscape architecture, because it acknowledges what's unique about the American landscape," says Rolf Sauer, ASLA, who founded the firm in 1999 with Tavis Dockwiller, ASLA. At the same time, Dockwiller adds, "I think we're progressive. I call this work a break with the traditional, because even though we should be, a lot of the landscape architecture profession isn't doing this."

Common Threads
Growing up in northern New Jersey, Dockwiller remembers learning the species of the various indigenous trees she saw while riding around her hometown. Now, when she goes back, these trees have often been crowded out by invasive ornamentals. "When you think about landscape architecture, we're supposed to be really close to the land and working with natural systems and bringing humans and nature together in a meaningful way, but that's not usually what happens after you get your degree," she says. "Often you end up doing parking lots….So I think that environmental ethic was always there in me."

Sauer and Dockwiller worked together for several years at Andropogon Associates, Ltd., the renowned ecological landscape architecture firm. Having received his master of architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 amid the burgeoning environmental movement, Sauer co-founded Andropogon three years later, going on to direct many of the firm's most important planning and design projects. Among others, he guided the development of a master plan for Louisville's Olmsted Parks and Parkways, helped craft a landscape management manual for Civil War battlefields and directed the reconstruction of the promenades in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Dockwiller earned her professional degree at Pennsylvania State University, where a combined love of art, science and the outdoors led her to landscape architecture – incidentally the same field her grandfather had chosen. After graduation, however, she worked for a civil engineering firm, which taught her exactly what she didn't want to do. "The vice president of the firm was a landscape architect, but they were still doing what I call 'raping and scraping,'" she says. "I had this big dream to work for someone like Andropogon, because I just didn't want to do conventional work." Among other projects with Andropogon, she served as project manager for the National Environmental Education Center in Tinicum, PA, and the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia.

After nearly 25 years, Sauer realized he was doing more management and administration at Andropogon than hands-on planning and design. When he decided to start his own firm, he brought Dockwiller with him. The four-person company – and the principals intend to keep it that small – now operates out of modest rowhouse in the historic, vibrant Manayunk neighborhood northwest of downtown Philadelphia. Both principals live nearby, so they can walk or bike to work, instead of sitting in the chronic interstate traffic headed downtown like everyone else.

Splendor in the Grass
In its lectures and on its website, the firm likes to quote author and activist Albert J. Fritsch, who once stated that too much of the world had been carpeted under a perfect green lawn, costing us plenty in terms of maintenance, air pollution and chemical treatments. "In a world that needs a diversity of plants," he said, "a lawn is a rather unimaginative monoculture, a symbol of sterile environmentalism." The firm's principals often encourage clients to embrace naturalistic planting schemes such as meadows or native grasslands that are more ecologically robust, while allowing them to save money and time spent on maintenance.

In southeastern West Virginia, for example, the firm's landscape management plan for the Sandstone Visitor & Orientation Center at the New River Gorge National River, a national park unit, employs a system of grasslands and vegetated swales to reclaim the site of an old quarry and landfill. On a 13-acre parcel located on the southern end of the 50-mile river corridor, Rolf Sauer & Partners crafted a site plan that includes outdoor environmental education exhibit areas and restored native landscapes, along with pedestrian paths, vehicle parking and overlooks.

Landscape restorations like this are difficult for some clients to accept, at least at first, because the site often takes time to grow and fill in, Dockwiller says. "When you do a restoration landscape, the danger is in its appearance over the first few years, because it's not the Home Depot landscape," she explains. "Even if we're modeling after a forest, there is still this maintenance period because it's not mulched beds. At Sandstone, it was hard for the client because they had to contract for all these plants before the project even started. Once we planted, however, they sprang to life and the Park Service saw that right away."

To restore the site, which had been partially filled with rubble from nearby highway construction, the firm established successional grasslands that would eventually merge with the surrounding hillside forests. The firm partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to specify the most ecologically correct plants for the site. Vegetated swales cleanse and retain stormwater from paved areas, and a rain garden near the center's entrance provides additional runoff management. Local sandstone was used in exposed aggregate concrete walks, paving stones and boulders.

Like several other Sauer projects, the Sandstone landscape plan is in the process of becoming certified under the LEED system. Although supportive of LEED, the firm's principals are wary of its potential for superficial applications. "For the industry, LEED is tremendous," Dockwiller says. "It has led to a lot better products coming out for the industry. But also there's all this greenwashing. Sometimes people will call and want us to come in at the end of the project and help 'make it green.'"

A Higher Purpose
Because LEED or other "green building" checklists are something of a double-edged sword – engendering a broader understanding of environmental design but not necessarily a deeper one – Rolf Sauer & Partners enjoys working with educational institutions like the University of Pennsylvania or religious campuses that are by their nature curious and contemplative. "A lot of our work has to do with education," Sauer says, "so working with campuses where they're interested in the educational aspect of sustainable design or want to influence our collective cultural focus is what really gets us excited."

The firm has conducted planning, site design and landscape restoration for three major religious campuses. Its master plan for the botanical garden at Mep-kin Abbey in Moncks Corner, SC, for example, called for a diverse and subtly didactic series of historical and natural landscapes. These spaces trace the site's history from Native American times through 19th-century African-American rice harvesting to the 1936 design of the Mepkin Gardens, commissioned by Clare Booth and Henry Luce. Other elements included a pedestrian path system, an organic herb and vegetable garden, restoration of a historic cemetery, a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment and the establishment of new meadows.

At both the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, MI, and the Felician Sisters Convent and School in Coraopolis, PA, the sisters had wanted site improvements that would make visual and emotional connections between sustainability and spirituality. At the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the firm suggested an ecologically vibrant mix of meadows, wetlands and oak savannah habitat for the 280-acre campus, while creating both quiet courtyards and places with sweeping vistas. The site includes both wet meadows and swales for stormwater treatment and constructed wetlands designed specifically to treat greywater from the facility. (See Traditional Building, December, 2005, page 34.) At Felician, the firm converted extensive lawns to low-maintenance meadows, while including the Stations of the Cross along a new allée of trees, as well as an intriguing "prayer labyrinth."

At first, Dockwiller admits, it was challenging to convince the sisters to let go of their ingrained attachment to the standard lawn aesthetic, but they eventually came around. "They have a larger philosophy," she says. "If we could get places held by large landholders, such as schools, religious orders and governments, to look different, then maybe we would have a different land ethic."

Dynamic Forces
Well before the first sketch is drawn, Rolf Sauer & Partners spends considerable time studying a site's natural and cultural history. In North Charleston, SC, for instance, the firm is bringing this historical sensibility to a master-planning partnership that is charting the future of 2,800 blighted acres in the state's storied low country.

Called the Noisette Sustain-able Redevelopment Project, it encompasses a large New Urban-ist community at the former Charleston Naval Base along the Cooper River, including 7,000 new housing units, 3,000 rehabilitated housing units, commercial and retail space, and a waterfront park. As the environmental consultants on the project, the firm is charged with planning and designing a new network of parks and greenways throughout the community, developing stormwater management strategies and reclaiming historic landscapes where possible.

"We always approach a project from the vantage point of the site's history and look at how the natural systems used to work," Dockwiller says. "At Noisette, we discovered that part of it was an Olmsted park. [Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.] had made these historic maps that talked about what had originally grown there."

When it built the base, however, the U.S. Navy had dredged the natural tidal marshes to create docks, a golf course and other facilities – compromising the native ecosystem. As Olmsted had done before them, the firm first created a map of the circa-1900 vegetation layer to illustrate where tidal marshes, freshwater wetlands and oak-pine lowland forests had once been found – as well as another map locating where natural watersheds and drainage ways had been piped or channeled. In addition to the restoration of native marshlands, some piped streams will now be daylighted as part of the overall master plan, which last year earned an award of excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

"When you look at the likely growth of North Charleston over the next few years, reclaiming and redeveloping this area is a quality of life issue," Sauer says. Already, tidal marshes have bee n preserved and the riverfront park is complete, but realizing the whole drainage and multi-use trail system will take decades.

Yet the firm has a profound understanding of the notion of time. Although they may be choosing to restore a landscape to its traditional appearance, they also plan for the fact that landscapes are meant to change. "Someone said that engineering work is meant to stay static, as in, the mark of a good bridge is that it never changes," Dockwiller says. "But landscape architecture and this integrated site work is meant to stay dynamic. It changes all through time, because everything has to grow and adapt and evolve."

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the firm is changing its name this fall to Viridian Landscape Studio – a recognition of the "green" nature of its portfolio, of course, but also an acknowledgment that its work engages natural systems and forces that will hopefully outlast any one person who works for the firm. The firm's designs are not simply lush, picturesque landscapes for beauty's sake, nor do they emulate history purely for historicism's sake. These projects strive for loftier goals – celebrating indigenous landscapes, fighting sprawl and advocating for a seamless marriage between building and site and humans and nature. "Our work really is a combination of design and ecology," Sauer says. "When you're dealing with natural sites you sometimes want to be didactic with it. We're doing work that restores the natural environment, and if you want to call that traditional design, that's what it should be." TB

 

 

 
 

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