Designer Profile: Andrea Cochran

Acclaimed American landscape architect Andrea Cochran believes brilliant design requires both persistence and a very high standard for excellence. “I just don’t give up,” she says of her approach. Andrea is a very high achiever with a finely honed aesthetic and sensitive eye; like few others she manages to distill the essence of nature within her projects – whether a small residential garden, public park or art museum. The resulting spaces convey a rare elegance, simplicity and poetry. Andrea is one of the masters of modern landscape architecture.

Please tell us a little about your design practice, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture (ACLA).
I founded ACLA in 1998 after practicing landscape architecture for almost twenty years. I had worked for architects and landscape architects on the East Coast and in Europe before moving to San Francisco in 1981. Prior to starting my own firm, I had been a partner in a design-build firm for about ten years, where I learned a great deal about building and construction.

When ACLA first started out, I was working on my own. Since then, we have grown to a firm of about fifteen. The studio is located in the formerly industrial neighbourhood of Dogpatch, which over the last 18 years has evolved into a really dynamic, creative neighbourhood. Working in San Francisco has been an invaluable part of my creative process.  The culture of innovation and the rich palette of plant life has allowed me to make my best work. The mild, Mediterranean climate also helps facilitate the indoor-outdoor lifestyle that puts a premium on well-designed exterior space.

Our work is a mixture of residential, commercial, institutional, and art-related work. I find that the balance between residential work and public work creates an exciting cross-pollination of ideas. We are able to experiment on the smaller, residential scale with excellent contractors and great clients. The fast schedules are great for increasing our essential knowledge of craft and bringing up the younger staff.  What we learn from our residential work allows for greater risk-taking and informs our innovations on the civic scale, so we try to keep the firm balanced between the two.

What does a typical day involve for you?
From week to week, things look very different depending on the jobs we’re involved in and on my other advisory commitments as a landscape architect.  I would say my role within the firm is to act as the principal art director. However, our studio is very collaborative and we work together to develop the designs; I work with everyone from the least experienced to the most experienced.

My favourite days are when I am on job sites watching the work being built and interacting with the clients and the contractors. When I’m in the office, the majority of my time is split between meetings and reviewing project development with the designers at their desks. Generally, I give feedback on the work and guide the principal vision of the project. At the same time, I also am involved in more detail-level conversations – everything from how a railing is coming together to paver layout and art placement.  The day goes by very quickly.

What initially drew you to landscape architecture?
I come from a long line of women who worked, and I think the impulse to work is ingrained in me in that way.  When I was applying to college, I wanted to go to art school, but my parents told me that I would need able to support myself after college. They didn’t think that being an artist would allow me to do that.

In addition to loving art, I also love the natural sciences and animals – so I went to Rutgers to study veterinary science. During that time, I accidentally ended up in a general survey course about environmental topics. One of the speakers for the course was the chair of the landscape architecture department at Rutgers, and I found out about a profession I had never heard of before. I figured out that landscape architecture was a way that I could still work as an artist but have a more secure future, and also engage my interest in the natural world. So, I changed my major to landscape architecture, and then later attended graduate school at Harvard.

Andrea Cochran. Image by Joe Fletcher
Stone Edge Farm. Image by Marion Brenner

How would you describe your work/what’s your design philosophy?
I believe a well-designed landscape can alter our perception of the world around us. And, as a partner in a design-build partnership for many years, I am very interested in the craft of building. I believe that a strong continuity of vision from the initial concept to the execution of the details is central to the integrity of the project. These details and their material expressions imbue a sense of value, and can alter our perceptions about the world around us.

My hope is that ultimately my work initiates a deeper respect for the environment and for nature.

To me, this is an incredibly powerful notion: that by drawing attention to the aspects that are delicate and fleeting, we can change larger attitudes. Craft is so essential to this philosophy because, like art, the materials themselves can start to suggest or illicit more emotional and gut-level reactions.

Restraint is a word that always comes to me when looking at your work. I think most people find it quite hard to know when to stop. Is this something you’ve developed over time, or just how you are?
It took me a long time to find my voice as a designer. In many ways I consider myself a late bloomer.

It was only after having worked for more than a decade that I feel I really began to have a sense of what good design was.

Through trial and error, I discovered that I was much more satisfied with my designs as they became simpler. I think there was something about that early work in architecture, together with my love of art, that gave me a framework to build my ideas around.

A lot of my influence around the time when things really began to “click” came from minimalist artists, principally Robert Irwin. Irwin’s ideas about scrim, layering, and perception are essential to my work now. These notions seemed to build on the architectural sensibilities of space-making that I was drawn to, but allowed me to make dynamic environments that built on the ephemeral phenomena of the natural world.

By making places simpler, the permeable and mutable properties of the natural world are amplified.

As I mentioned above, your landscapes are restrained and elegant, yet also incredibly evocative. How do you ensure you hear what the site is telling you, in order to imbue your built response with such feeling and emotion?
Landscape architecture begins with a site. That first experience of reading a site, by virtue of being there and feeling out my gut reactions, is essential to forming the big ideas that the design revolves around. It is the beginning of a conversation about how the site wants to feel or what it wants to be from both a programmatic and material standpoint. And, later, it is crucial to have that experience of going back to the studio to think about the project away from the everyday physical and practical constraints of the site. I find that I can free my mind and be more creative with this back-and-forth dialogue.

Of course, this intuitive understanding of what a site wants to be is made more complex by the desires of the client. I try to negotiate between the client’s desires and what feels appropriate for the place. In doing so, I can ensure that whatever is designed is both elegant and in accordance with the client’s vision for their use of the space. Being deeply familiar with the site, really listening to the client, and being willing to have that dialogue are key.

Stone Edge Farm. Image by Marion Brenner

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a young graduate landscape architect about to start their career?
I would highly recommend young graduates to pursue opportunities where they are more closely involved in the construction of their projects. In a design build firm, you learn so much in such a short amount of time because you are actually physically interacting with the elements of construction. In this way, you can cultivate a greater understanding of the limits and possibilities of different materials because you also are responsible for the fabrication of the project. It raises your bar for the integrity of the construction.

I also found that as I was going to nurseries or suppliers, I got a better sense of how the materials related to one another. This was pivotal for my development as a designer. I was able to be more artistic because I was arranging the materials, assessing the relationships of their colours and their textures, taking a step back and drawing more informed inclusions about what the design would be.  I found that this was especially important for my understanding of planting design.

I also highly recommend building a visual library – from art, architecture, design, gardens, etcetera – from which to start to get a sense of your taste. The more you see and collect, the more material you have to choose from in developing your own voice.  Having a library of books with visual material that interests you is a great start. Even just having a catalogue of the things that inspire you will help you refine your palette.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
Someone once said good design takes a modicum of talent and a lot of hard work. I agree. I keep working at it until it’s right.

Excellent design requires both persistence and a high standard for excellence. I just don’t give up.

When we start a project, the initial ideas really come at that first site visit. The process of going back and forth between the site and the office is crucial.  As we study more and receive more information we refine our thoughts. We model the site and our design ideas as early as possible, and consistently use the model to test our ideas. As a very visual thinker, this allows me to react to an idea almost as I would at the site.  It’s a repetitive loop of adjustment and readjustment, from the finest details to the overall vision.  Throughout it all, the persistence is constant.

Stone Edge Farm. Image by Vicky Sambunaris
Ackley Residence. Image by Marion Brenner

What draws you to plants?
I appreciate plants because they are essential to characterizing a place.  I think in some ways, because plants are regional, they begin to illicit memory or draw associations, both cultural and personal.  Our reactions to plantings are practically hardwired in our DNA: they can elicit strong responses that are both personal and powerful.

I think planting design is one of the hardest aspects of landscape architecture. To arrive at the right feeling takes a lot of experience. In some ways, it is similar to painting, but it requires more imagination because you are drawing from your memory as you choose the plants. There are more practical restraints such as soil conditions, sun, shade, and space. As you are forming the structural and material aspects of the design, it is crucial to consider the changing, mutable colours, textures, and clusters of the plantings in relationship to one another. The colours of the greens are crucial. And then there’s the consideration of how the plants are changing seasonally. As you are designing, several parts of your brain are working at once. It can be exhausting!

Can you please tell us about one project you really enjoyed?
I really can’t pick a favourite project- it’s like picking your favourite child. I have enjoyed different aspects of all our projects, and I take great pleasure in knowing that both private clients and the greater public enjoy the spaces we have designed for them.

I think residential design is given short shrift because it is so personal. But there is incredible opportunity here to create something spectacular. In general, I have really appreciated residential projects where our clients have both pushed us and trusted us, and I am fortunate to have had several great clients over the years.  Together we are able to elevate the experience of a project to a level we couldn’t have created without mutual trust, willingness to take risks, and a collective desire to make something truly remarkable. It’s a very delicate balance that has cultivated some of the best work.

And of course, there is a totally different process with projects for private clients and for broader civic spaces. I think of our residential work more as designing gardens, and our public work more as designing landscapes. A garden is a personal expression of the owner of the garden: you either make it yourself or you have someone help you make it.  A landscape is a broader cultural amenity.  In many ways, arriving at the narrative is a lot less direct, because it requires satisfying a greater number of people.

I am also interested in the expanded role of the landscape architect as designer. For example, we just recently released a collection of modern lounge furniture with Landscape Forms. I want to see the field have more influence in the world, and by creating excellent work we move toward higher standards and a more influential role within the realm of design.

What is one lesson you have learnt from the natural world?
Our world is incredibly fragile from an ecological standpoint, and increasingly so. We need to value it, protect it, and be humble in the face of these daunting ecological challenges. We can’t control nature – we need to learn to work with it rather than resist it.

Right now we are losing our wild landscapes at a rapid pace. At the same time, there is an enormously expanded potential for nature in urban areas. In my work, I try to convey that we need to value, protect, and be sensitive to the natural world as a whole.

The experience of nature becomes increasingly important as we spend more and more time in developed places, and by capturing it we preserve it and underscore its value.

What are you passionate about?
My passion is my office and the work that we create.  My office is comprised of an incredibly talented group of individuals, and together we strive to create meaningful designs that raise the bar for what landscape architecture can be. We have amassed an immense body of knowledge that is the foundation for what we do and allows us to do it well. This core project work allows us to be involved in work that I feel more drawn to on a personal level.  Work that is related to community, food, and art is especially gratifying to me.

Ackley Residence. Image by Marion Brenner
Ackley Residence. Image by Marion Brenner

What other landscape architects/artists/creatives do you admire?
I have immense respect for Cornelia Oberlander, who at 95 is still going strong. I strive for that level of tenacity. Another person I really admire is Piet Oudolf. There are very few people who do planting design well, and he has raised the bar for that aspect of landscape architecture.  His work demonstrates an incredible balance of knowledge, simplicity, and embrace of the wild.  In a similar vein, I admire Fergus Garrett for his passion for plants and his great energy.

What media resources do you look to for inspiration? Could you please list 3-5
NY times Art/Design, Architectural Record, Metropolis, World of Interiors, Gardens Illustrated, among other sources.

What is your dream project?
It is hard to say. I am often excited and surprised by the diversity of projects we are approached with. My dream project would be a confluence of many variables: a collaborative team with shared values, mutual trust and goals, and a program that enriches our relationships with nature, with art, and with the soul. There are so many great opportunities out there. I am excited to see what will come in the future!

What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to expanding our portfolio of work and, in the vein of Cornelia, working a lot longer! In many ways our firm is still young. At this point, we have a body of work that has earned us a certain level of trust. But we are still pursuing knowledge and larger, more complex projects.

I want to see landscape architecture changing cities and elevating the experience of everyday life.

This will require a continual improvement of our craft and a sustained commitment to seeing our practice as an artistic practice. It’s not easy work, but it is deeply satisfying.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
An oak, strong and sculptural (and getting better with age).

Check out Andrea Cochran’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM

All images supplied by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Ackley Residence. Image by Marion Brenner