beginning in school and continuing into practice, site planning is frequently reduced to its tactical minimum, focusing principally on pragmatic concerns such as slope and soils, circulation, and access. according to landscape architect michelle delk — partner and landscape discipline director at architecture firm snøhetta — this narrow view squanders an opportunity to elevate the experience of a place. delk says that if architects and landscape architects work together early in the design process and treat site planning as a creative venture, it’s possible to transform this critical phase into an exciting embrace of the possible as much as the practical.
‘working together from the beginning is a way to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to establish shared goals, to unearth opportunities, and ultimately, to offer new outcomes,’ michelle delk tells designboom. ‘when architects and landscape architects set aside the hierarchy that is so often present between the disciplines, they have the potential to impact our world in a powerful way.’ in this in depth interview, delk expands on the theme of site planning, discusses the importance of outdoor space in terms of health and community, and tells us more about some of snøhetta’s ongoing projects. read the interview in full below.
designboom (DB): can you please start by briefly explaining your role at snøhetta and what it involves on a day to day basis?
michelle delk (MD): I am a partner and the director of landscape architecture for the US offices. I essentially divide my time between firm leadership and strategy, the development of new business through relationship building, and design leadership on projects with cross-disciplinary design teams. our office focuses primarily on architecture, landscape architecture, and interiors, so I’ve found myself investing a lot of energy into engaging how we work across these design disciplines to expand and improve collaboration and communication as a basis for innovative design.
every day is wildly different — even when working from home on zoom for hours every day. one minute I may be researching a potential project to learn about the unique site qualities or talking with collaborators about how we might assemble the most strategic and robust team, and the next I may be working directly with a design team. in short, my days are always different as I move quickly between many projects, questions, and ideas.
what I really enjoy about design, and the role that I have at snøhetta, is that there is never a singular answer to any question. there are so many scales of thought. the constant exploration and the opportunity to go to new places and get to know people through the connection we all share with our environment and landscape is what attracted me to landscape architecture to begin with — and it’s what keeps me engaged.
calgary public library on opening day | image courtesy of snøhetta
DB: how important is it that architects and landscape architects work together early in a project’s design process?
MD: there are many examples of great buildings and of great landscapes that were created with the support of others who didn’t work together early in a process; where an architect began the idea generation and others joined along the way to support and influence the design (or vice versa). that said, working together from the beginning is a way to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to establish shared goals, to unearth opportunities, and ultimately, to offer new outcomes. coming together early in the design process is only worthwhile if everyone is willing and driven to cross boundaries and strive to be comfortable in unfamiliar territories. each person at the table, regardless of their design discipline, must be willing to ask questions and to contribute to a collective exploration by letting the perceived boundaries dissolve. I find it simplistic when someone perceives this as working merely to erase the distinction between buildings and landscapes; rather, reducing disciplinary hierarchy is the first step to inviting pluralist outcomes in the work we create together.
true collaboration is about recognizing that we can achieve greater goals if we work together. when architects and landscape architects set aside the hierarchy that is so often present between the disciplines, they have the potential to impact our world in a powerful way. make no mistake, this is not easy, but bringing together the unique knowledge and perspectives that comes from these two closely related, yet distinct, design disciplines is worth the effort!
calgary public library (section rendering) | image courtesy of snøhetta
DB: many projects you work on take years to complete. what do you find to be the most rewarding stage of a project?
MD: you’re absolutely right, the work we’re doing takes considerable time. I’ve always found joy in the entire process; from exploring, to imagining, to creating. but I really enjoy beginnings. for me this is the exploration of the place, the research of the histories, and meeting the people who are closely connected and invested in the project. but another type of beginning is the opening of a completed project. it’s incredible to see people begin to arrive at a new place and to see its next phase of life begin. we’ve set something in motion.
maybe it goes without saying, but patience is a prime requirement in this profession. it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the disappointments and compromises that we face along the way (and dishonest to pretend that doesn’t happen). incredible patience is also necessary because the landscape is constantly changing; our work simply sets the next phase in motion. a newly constructed building can be quite lovely and expressive, but a newly constructed landscape often means that much of your effort is buried below ground or covered by vegetation that may still be a bit gangly or awkward! it’s full of potential but has to do a lot of growing!
I am both a pragmatist and an optimist and I see each step as an evolution of an idea, that each challenge leads to something more — I love this about landscape architecture. too often we can be impatient; I hope we all remember that there is no real finish line to the race and that there is much value to be found in appreciating and immersing ourselves in the journey.
calgary public library (rendering) | image courtesy of snøhetta
DB: can you talk about the skill of site planning, and how important this is for a project to be successful?
MD: when I was a student, site planning was one of the few classes architects and landscape architects took together. the approach primarily focused on basic problem solving: from the pragmatics of how to access a site, to considerations of changes to the topography and water management, with maybe some minor conversation about views or sunlight. all are important factors for both disciplines to understand, yet too often are seen as things to get out of the way so you could move on to ‘real design’.
transdisciplinary thinking has a place in this discussion, but in and of itself, it doesn’t go far enough. beyond simply collaborating between disciplines, the open exchange of roles that we often call ‘transpositioning’ is the working method where participants are invited to break from their professional discipline and switch perspectives with others in the group. of course we’re also collaborating with clients, community representatives, and other consultants (such as engineers, artists, or historians) in this fluid and integrated process that allows us to understand the objectives and interests of all stakeholders. this is a critical beginning that promotes the positive benefits of moving out of one’s comfort zone to ensure that multiple voices are represented from the onset of the project. we should be earnest in our understanding of the value of this approach for idea generation, yet recognize the need for disciplinary knowledge to both inform and help carry forward the transformation of ideas into reality.
the ‘planning’ of a site is the physical and intellectual territory where design begins. relying on, and bringing together, unique expertise from both landscape architecture and architecture can activate either great possibilities or constant struggle. planning is where buildings and land physically come together. but it is also where the past, present, and future lives of a place intersect. it is the platform, the point in time, where we can be aspirational and look to find unanticipated opportunities and outcomes. to me, this is quite possibly the most important opportunity we have as designers. it is not simply ‘planning’, it is the beginning of design, and our job is to imagine how we can address a program or functional considerations while also expanding and uncovering something more. in our work, examples like the new central library in calgary, the national norwegian opera and ballet, or the theodore roosevelt public library are examples that embody this way of working.
michelle delk | image courtesy of charlotte bodak
DB: we’ve seen over the past year how important outdoor space is in terms of health and community. has this changed snøhetta’s approach to any of its ongoing projects?
MD: it’s reinforced and elevated what has already been crucial to our design conversations and inspired us to keep deepening our knowledge and understanding through questioning, research, and experimentation. our work is very contextual and responsive to the many qualities of the site itself — from physical place, to the people interacting, to the histories that are embodied. what’s really changed is the degree of interest clients and the people we engage with now have in how we design a project. they are asking more questions and are more open to, and interested in, how a project interconnects to the larger world. they’re also interested in how we can be considerate of, and proactive in, reducing environmental impact to improve connections to and understanding of people in adjacent communities and habitat health. in other words, we’re seeing an emphasis on social infrastructure that’s tied to landscapes, biodiversity, and broader ecosystems.