On May 4, 2011 the Department of Landscape Architecture welcomed back one of our own as Michael Van Valkenburgh presented the annual Sasaki Day Lecture. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1973, Van Valkenburgh attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and received his MLA in 1977. In 1982 he founded his own firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., and began teaching at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) where, today, he is the Charles Eliot Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture.
Van Valkenburgh’s influence on this Department is multi-generational. Two current members of the LA faculty—Elen Deming and Stephen Sears—remember studying with Professor Van Valkenburgh as graduate design students themselves. Our newest faculty member, Rich Hindle, recently worked for MVVA as a consultant. And no sooner had he stepped foot in Temple Buell Hall than Van Valkenburgh was embraced by two of his former professors—Professor Emeritus Robert Riley and Sue Weidemann—for an informal chat and reflections on changes to the profession and to the Department of Landscape Architecture. Their topics ranged from locust trees and McHarg’s diagrams to remembrances of Van Valkenburgh’s time at UIUC, when the Department was housed between Mumford Hall and a small house on Nevada Street.
The morning discussion was rich, affectionate, and unrehearsed, and Van Valkenburgh took time to engage several of the graduate students, assembled for the 2011 thesis exhibition, in lively conversation. Following the conclusion of the afternoon Sasaki Day competition and jury, Van Valkenburgh presented his evening lecture on “Recent Work: Parks and Campus Landscapes.” He opened with a close look at the design process for Bailey Plaza, designed for his undergraduate alma mater Cornell University (Ithaca, New York). This was followed by three other projects: the George W. Bush Presidential Center (Dallas, Texas), then Teardrop Park in New York City and finally Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York. Each of these projects is highly visible from a variety of different vantage points, speeds, and distances, and yet each is meticulously detailed with a feeling for the particular region and unique site context in which it is grounded.
Van Valkenburgh frequently punctuated his lecture with anecdotes and highlighted the importance of ecological principles in landscape architecture today. He pointed out that, when he was in college in the 1970s, both education and practice in landscape architecture were closely aligned with the pedagogy, theories, and practice of architecture. Today, Van Valkenbugh sees landscape architecture as much better integrated with ecology because, as he explained, in many instances, “we are making things out of what the earth already made.” In these recent projects, Van Valkenburgh’s work sometimes seems to have emerged directly out of that earth.