6 Questions for San Francisco Landscape Architects Surfacedesign
Lauded for inventive landscape architecture and urban and master planning, San Francisco’s Surfacedesign has emerged as a leading international firm. Its three principals—James Lord, Roderick Wyllie and Geoff DiGiralomo—may all be California natives, but their wide-ranging work spans the globe. We spoke with Wyllie about their stellar projects, which include the Fort Point Overlook, Lands End Lookout, the current commission for the master plan of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
How would you describe your style? Our approach and how we deal with materials embraces a modernist tradition, but we enjoy seeking out an eccentric project type that is site-sensitive and doesn’t speak to the strictness of our modernist training. It’s a fun collision of being imaginative and not constrained by the ideas we were steeped in. For example, for a Tribeca penthouse space where nothing could grow, we created frames that indicated plant material. And for a garden project in Los Angeles, we installed a large screen that was an abstraction of the freeway system.
What do you mean when you stress “material authenticity”? We look at a material as something that has infinite possibilities. When we see concrete, we’re not trying to make it something else, we’re trying to celebrate what it can do to push the limits of the material. For our Pier 9 project, the firm created custom benches for the outdoor waterfront; using digital modeling to explore new technologies of concrete and created gigantic barnacle-form benches, complex forms that speak to the history of the site.
You’ve earned many accolades; most recently, your IBM Honolulu Plaza in Waikiki won a 2015 American Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award. How does it express your approach to design? The existing midcentury modern building had a patterned concrete facade that we reflected onto a large-scale water feature. The fountain tells the story of the native Hawaiian “descendents”—the design incorporates an ancient story of how man arrived on earth to nurture the taro plant. The landscaping, which features native plantings like taro, hala, pili and hibiscus, also captures the light’s ephemeral beauty from sunrise to sunset.
You’re currently working on important public projects, including the master landscape plan for the Smithsonian. What is your vision? We’re proposing rich, horticultural gardens with the historic plants and flowering trees linking one part of the campus to another. We’re not wiping the slate clean but honoring what's there.
Surfacedesign also creates spectacular residential gardens. How is your approach to public and residential projects differ? The functional requirements so essential to public space take a back seat at a garden or estate where the narrative is attached to that particular client. Often gardens aren't the kind of thing people know a lot about—they’re familiar with the kitchen, they know how to use it. But the use of a garden is more esoteric—it’s a place to dream, explore, get away, interact with nature. So you go on a personal journey with the client to find how the garden can reflect what they like.
Is there a project in San Francisco you’d like to get your hands on? I love the ruins of the Sutro Baths on the Pacific Ocean side of town. They have burned down, but there’s an opportunity to create a public experience of those ruins that could be amazing. I’d love to be able to extend a landscape experience into the site!
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: An Innovative Nature.