The key to landscape design is creating enough surprise and exploiting what is unique about a place, says William Taylor, principal at Carol R Johnson Associates Founded by American landscape architect Carol R Johnson in 1959, Carol R Johnson Associates (CRJA) established its presence in the Middle East earlier this year, with the opening of an office in Abu Dhabi.
The move consolidated three years' work in the region, which included work on the award winning Shams Abu Dhabi park under real estate developer Sorouh.
Since then, CRJA has gradually expanded its regional project portfolio, and now has approximately a third of its 70-strong US staff working on projects in the Middle East.
Our job as a landscape architect is to make the human scale and public realm memorable.
Establishing a base in the region was a necessary step, says William Taylor, principal at CRJA. "The level of landscape architecture design here is not something you do after the building is designed... it is so integrated into the infrastructure," he notes.
Having a local presence also enabled CRJA to take full advantage of the opportunities in the region, adds Chris Bridle, associate, CRJA. "I think there is a very short supply of landscape architecture firms that are very well regarded internationally [here] so we realised we could fill the hole that existed," he says.
Taylor and Bridle bring COD up to speed on their work in the region, their views on sustainability, and the role of the landscape architect on design projects.
Which projects are you working on in the region at present?
WT:Under contract we have eight projects at different stages. We are now in completion phase for our first project Shams Abu Dhabi. That is one of the largest projects that we have ever worked on.
We have 14 sub-consultants working on that and have basically designed all of the green areas, including the canal walks, and the outward appearance of all bridges. We are also working with ICT and Emaar, as well as on several islands in Nakheel's The World. We are also doing projects in Qatar and Egypt.
Can you tell me a little more about the Shams Abu Dhabi project?
WT:We won the competition for Shams Abu Dhabi by saying our landscapes will be cooler and greener than any other public space in Abu Dhabi. We achieved this through a means of passive cooling by which I mean the park does not require additional energy or infrastructure to cool it.
The design for the park included linear parks and canal walks which are eight metres below the street. The strategy is to create a cool pool of air, which is shaded so it is not blown about or diluted.
The cool air comes firstly from the canals and secondly from the adjacent retail. We're facing the parks with retail shops that are heavily air conditioned and the used air conditioned air is pushed into the park so we are constantly replenishing the cooler air where people walk.
There is also a linear park system that we are very excited about. Our client Sorouh asked us to create a landscape that would be fully integrated with the entire city. The parks are not single entities standing alone but they link together so that any child living in a building in Shams will be able to get into the park system and walk freely or bicycle throughout the city. How innovative is the cooling approach that you use in this project?WT:We've borrowed from traditional practice. It's not so much an innovation as using every device that is available. We don't say that we air condition the park, but it comes close by putting a canopy of trees over it so the warm air doesn't blow into it.
How important in this region is it to think about cooling strategies?
Motion detectors and energy sensitive approaches in the landscape are very important.
WT:It is important to move the discipline further. If the developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have given the world anything to take away, it is that we are not discouraged but pushed further so innovation is extremely important with our major clients to demonstrate that we can do something without excessive cost and also do something that radically improves the environment.
What are the main differences between landscaping here and landscaping in the US?
WT:Management of water is the most interesting aspect because of its rarity. We use the water once and then it is treated and in some larger landscape applications we try and reclaim the irrigation water as it passes through permeable soil, to collect it again and add to irrigation systems.
For example, in golf courses, it is economical to make a third use of available water so we are adding water to the plants. If it doesn't evaporate, we try and collect it again. The most important thing is to use plants that have deep roots, plants that can thrive with saline water.
There is much talk about sustainability in the region. At what stage is the region at in terms of embracing sustainability?
WT:What I get from my clients is that when we design it must be at the highest standards. There are a lot of things we can do at the ground level to reduce energy. It tends to be an overuse of electricity for lighting, security lighting and that is something we are learning more about. Motion detectors and energy sensitive approaches in the landscape are very important.
That is why we are very excited about passive cooling. If we can use things that are already without any additional energy and still cool the environment, it's very cool.
Do you think that in general the landscape architect is brought in early enough on projects?
WT:I think it's definitely early enough. I think the model is [that the landscape architect is] part of the masterplanning team. I think the last few projects we have got this year, there has been a change.
Most recently the projects we are proposing on, we are part of the masterplan team and this is something we really like because it helps to speed things up. It means we don't have to go back and change the masterplan.
How important do you think this is as the UAE expands?
CB:I think it is vital to its success. How we deal with that is up for debate. It's obviously this idea of sustainability, which is becoming more important and vital to the success of a project, its marketability and its impact on the environment. I think it is very important for us for us to try and strike that balance between having a sustainable urban environment for the person, which may involve more planting, and having a sustainable environment for the environment.
What do you think is the key to good landscape architecture?
WT:I think we have to surprise and astound people with the landscape. We have to get people out, we have to make people comfortable and every bit of the landscape needs to be contextual. And every new development has its own context and you have to develop a story out of that landscape and make it a destination.
I think the key to landscape design is creating enough surprise and exploiting what is unique about a place. Create vantage points; create paintings, something that is particular to that region.
That is what we are looking for in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is to create out of the natural resources they have an enviable, attractive, surprising landscape. I think inventive innovative design is one of the reasons people invest here and come here, it is a laboratory for this future city and the landscape can be an integral part of that future city.
CB:I would add the urban environment here is very memorable in terms of its skyline but the urban environment at the human scale is actually very forgettable, you won't actually remember anything and our job as a landscape architect is to make the human scale, pedestrian realm as memorable or more memorable.
Everyone talks about iconic buildings. Can outdoor design be iconic?
CB:That's the challenge. That is what inspires us. Whether it's as monumental as a building, you could go either way. There are certain urban environments throughout the world, landscape designs that are very memorable, some are iconic, some are monumental and some are just very subtle.
It's finding that balance between mass and space. What we are trying to do is create that perfect balance between the built environment and the open environment.
WT:Central Park in New York is iconic from satellite, iconic from being there and is surrounded by tall buildings. Parks that are not just a small space but as big as the city around it.
This is one reason that we are very excited about Shams Abu Dhabi. We have a very large central park that is down below the city and it is tied throughout to every plot.
This alone could be iconic, to have a separate layer open to the sky, passing under beautiful bridges, but you avoid the noise and the sound of traffic. It's another world. It's finding another layer in the city.