Spotlight: Kathryn Gustafson

School News

Spotlight: Kathryn Gustafson

February 13, 2017

Kathryn Gustafson brings over 30 years of distinguished practice to her partnerships in two offices, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle and Washington DC and Gustafson Porter + Bowman in London. Her diverse works are known as ground-breaking, contemporary designs that incorporate the sculptural, sensual qualities that are fundamental to the human experience of landscape.


View Kathryn Gustafson’s February 8 lecture here.


How did you get into landscape architecture?

I actually started out in art. I majored in art at the University of Washington and went into fashion design after that. I’ve been designing, in some sort of creative form since I was about 13. I think my parents put me in my first ceramics class when I was in summer school and it snowballed from there.


I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and that led me to Paris. At one point, a very serendipitous thing happened when I was visiting home back in the US. A girlfriend of mine was trying to figure out what to do. I asked her what she would major in if she went back to school and she said landscape architecture. It felt like someone had just taken a bat and hit me over the head. I’d never thought of it. It seemed like the perfect thing for me. Fashion was just a little too cut-throat and didn’t have enough long-term positive impact.


It took about three years for me to research the field and try to figure out whether I was really interested or not and if I could afford to go back to school, and all that. It all fell into place. I applied to and was accepted at the Nationale Superieur in Versailles, so I stayed in France. I’ve basically been there for the last 40 years.


I opened my first office in 1980 because no one would hire me. It’s sort of understandable that no one would hire me because I’d already had ten years of design behind me in fashion and so I was way too vocal for a young employee. So I ended up just getting projects on my own and a number of friends in the field helped me understand contracts, management, process, what you’re supposed to be doing. I was able to share an office with an older landscape architect for the first three years and he really shepherded me into understanding what I should do and how to do things. And everything from negotiating contracts to establishing budgets to actual designing, which I knew how to do.


It’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. It’s absolutely a perfect fit for me. It’s been a wonderful trip and continues to be.


In 1997 I came back to the States part-time and I started getting work here. The American Museum of Natural History was my first US job. They had seen my portfolio and knew who I was. I already had seventeen years of experience and had been published. So they asked me to do a competition for the museum, which I proceeded to win. And then things started snowballing and more people wanted to do more projects and that’s when my friend Shannon, whom I had met through the field, proposed to me that we start an office in Seattle. That office opened in 2000.


So now I have two offices in the US, in Seattle and Washington DC. I moved the Paris office to London in 1997. There, I joined forces with a very good friend of mine, Neil Porter—we met working on the Parc de la Villette in 1983.


It’s very organic how it happened. Nothing was planned. I think one of the great things I got from my mother is that she had no concept of risk. You just keep going and learning all the time to modify your office, your attitudes, your life, as you learn.


Does your experience or approach differ from one office to the next?

The only difference is that in Seattle, the work’s all in English and in London it’s in about seven different languages. The London office does East Asia, the Middle East, and all the European countries. I work on something in French today and in Spanish yesterday, and then someone’s translating from Chinese. That is the hardest part for me is having so many different languages going on. I find that hard even though I do speak a couple. I have partners in Europe who speak six languages. It’s an obligation in Europe, that you speak more than one language. The London office is also full of many more different nationalities, which is also interesting.


Does your past experience in fashion ever come into the picture?

A lot of people make the reference to fashion, but I make the reference to the body more than fashion. In Yakima, Washington, for example, it’s a high plateau desert, and you can see the actual structure of these hills and they look like human bodies. They have the same curves. They aren’t rock outcrops so much as these flowing forms. I think as I got into land movement I realized that a lot of my life, from my childhood, and that I also ski, and that I constantly move through space at different elevations, that understanding of topography is in my DNA. Then the fashion thing, you’re draping the body, and I did a lot of draping, is part of it, but I think it’s more about my childhood.


How do you engage clients and what is your ideal client like?

It depends on the client and their level of experience, if they’re a professional client or if they’re sort of new to this. Professional clients have a process that they’re very good at. And they go through that process of initiating you into their world. Often, a professional client will have what they need written down. A new client will fuddle around and waste your time and you have to draw it out of them. So the professional client is much easier to deal with. They will be more demanding but at the same time, if you follow the process, you get to the end. It’s a clear process of presenting things, solving problems, getting comments, going back. It’s not a rushed process when you’re with a professional, there’s no automatic deadline because they know if they try to rush it, they don’t get the quality they need.


The Smithsonian is one of my ideal clients. Bob Kogod, the donor for the National Portrait Gallery courtyard, was my dream client. He and his wife are collectors. He’s a developer and has been in the building world all his life. So he’s got a great eye and was just wonderful to work with. He was very demanding, but his demands were wonderful demands on quality, balance, everything you as a designer want to hear.


The American Museum of African American Culture was also an ideal client. It took us nine years. You go through nine years of conversations that cover everything from image, accessibility, to technical issues to composition. It’s a very multi-layered job to design something so it has many different aspects to it that are not just about design but operational, functional, economic, and social. All the committees, the planning commissions, the friends of this and the friends of that. And you have to get through them all.


How do you start a new project?

I like to start off on a sketch book. But it depends on who the players are. If there is a team of good designers, like the museum project, you’re going to have a good architect, a good structural and civil engineer, good lighting, good landscape, so those conversations are really important. So that’s not just one person in the corner or being alone. You do go and draw alone but it is part of a bigger conversation.


What was your first project?

Morbras, a storm water reservoir in France. There was one before that, but this is the first where I was able to explore this field the way I wanted to explore it. I wanted it to be an art form. It is a land movement sculpture that has 300,000 yards of earth on it. It was an extraordinary experience. The way France is organized is that you have counties and states, called regions and departments and each has an environmental and architectural group that is governmental that watches everything happening in their county or state. This county had one of those groups who had seen some of my land movement models. They had a site where the construction was going to be stopped because of the rain. When the winter rains come it’s very hard to do land movement because everything is sticky and muddy and things over-compact.


So they realized they were paying a huge amount of dump fees to take all this soil off site and they came to me and said you have five weeks, what could you do if you kept the soil on site? So we took five weeks and made a sculpture out of clay, then we put it into drawing form, did construction documents for it and then the rains stopped and they built it. It is a very conceptual piece but it also creates these land forms that are natural but not natural. I rented a helicopter to photograph it and when I got into it I said I wanted to go down and look at this thing down there and the pilot said I was wondering what that thing was. So they could see it from the air and they couldn’t quite understand what it was because it wasn’t quite like anything else.


I lectured in Versailles last month and one of the students in the landscape school handed me a USB drive and he had just been to Morbras and he photographed it. He says it’s holding up great, it’s still there and it’s fantastic as a place and it’s a huge park around a storm water management basin. That was in 1983. I sometimes laugh because the schools are saying they’re doing these new fields of urban ecology and sustainability. I think, no, it’s not new. It’s been around for a while.


How did you get interested in land movement in particular?

It means that you’re moving earth around in a sculptural form. The reason I decided to go into this field was because I came upon a landscape in the Vincennes Park and one section of it were these sculpted landforms were absolutely extraordinary. And I stood there and thought, this is what I’m going to do and I found out it was, Jacques Sgard who designed it. He later became my mentor.


How do you intervene in the landscape?

The main intervention is where you understanding where you are and the piece of land you’re working on. What is its culture and history? What is being expected of it? Is that expectation achievable? And from there understanding what you can bring to it that is unique and that resounds with the place and responds to the expectation.


Are there other inspirations for your work?

Noguchi is one. Igor Mitoraj is another. He taught me how to sculpt clay and he gave the tools from Italy when I was just out of school. I had done clay before but he really pushed me into it as an art form. Dennis Oppenheim’s work has always been really important to me. He did a lot of things on the body and land very early on. He is an extraordinary artist and I really found him to be a big motivator. Joseph Albert, the writings as much as the art. Bachelard. There’s also Point, Line, and Plane by Kandinsky.

Art has been one of my huge inspirations. Also engineering, Peter Rice who designed the Sydney Opera House and Pompidou Center was a very good friend of mine. We shared offices in Paris and he taught me a lot about engineering, structure, and how to push the limits on things and what it looks like to push limits on the unattainable. He made this moon theatre where the entire theatre is run by moonlight and mirrors, things like that. He’s always stretched my thinking, which is really important.


There seems to be a storytelling element to your work. Is writing and narrative important to you?

There are two different narratives. There’s the narrative where you talk to yourself. I do writings that are not sentences but more like a series of images. So if you say “milk,” it’s an image. It’s liquid and it’s white. I do use words in that way. But I think there’s another narrative, the narrative that you end up using to explain it. It’s the same narrative in a way but it’s put into a format that is accessible to other people.


So some narratives are really personal and are about your creative form and others are what people need to know about the place and the piece. So there is the conceptual abstract that is there but there is also how that abstract is built and expressed.


Do you have any advice for students?

What I did was found the person I most admired in the world and I went to work for him. I found a mentor. It took me a long time to convince him that he really needed me in his office but we became good friends afterwards. Finding a mentor is really important. And by finding that mentor you are defining the direction you are taking in that field. My mentor was a very sculptural designer. Or you can try working with different groups to figure out what part of landscape architecture you’re interested in. There are so many different parts. There’s a whole gamut of where you can go. So figure out what resonates with you. Reading is also super important. And to look.  Go to museums, parks, gardens. Travel. Move. Get out of where you are and experience as many different things as possible to understand the complexity of what pulls things together. ■