Interview - Breck Gastinger

IMAGES Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing


 Breck Gastinger earned his Master of Architecture (2003) and Landscape Architecture (2004) degrees from the University of Virginia. His graduate work was recognized with numerous honours including the AIA School Medal for design excellence and the Stanley Abbott Award for excellence in Landscape Architecture. 

Breck has worked at Nelson Byrd Woltz since 2000; he has managed a wide range of large-scale projects from university master plans and built work, to national design competitions and urban parks. Major landscape master plan work includes, Eastwoodhill Arboretum; Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia; and the multi-award winning Orongo Station Stewardship Plan in Gisborne, an ambitious plan for ecological restoration and cultural interpretation within a working sheep farm that is serving as a model for other farms in New Zealand.

Xsection: What is your first memory of place? 

BG: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I was remembering back to when my sister was born, I was three years old. It’s an old suburban neighbourhood in Kansas City with no fence lines, big trees and  shade. There are very nice street trees in Kansas City and I remember playing back and forth amongst those houses. I had to go over to the neighbour’s because my sister was going to be born, so running in and amongst those spaces. There’s also a great park legacy in Kansas City and one of my favourite places growing up is Loose Park. It’s a big English-style park built in the early 1900’s with big sweeps of lawn and chances to run and places to fly kites. There’s a little duck pond there and my dad had given us these little pond boats. We would sail them across and run back and forth. There’s a spot where there are stepping stones to cross, and one time, running too quickly to go and catch that boat, I just totally missed one and just pssshhhhhhh! Right in the pond. First memories of place…

Xsection: It’s actually amazing how far we can remember back in quite good detail…

BG: It’s something I try to watch for in my own kids, trying to imagine what they will remember. They will have memories from 3 or 4 but you never know which one. 

Xsection: They can be quite random

BG: Yes, what we think is important or special as adults is totally different for them. 

Xsection: Given those sorts of memories what do you think needs to be built into a place?

BG: I think that the notion of building “place” is a tricky one, I think in some ways “place” happens whether you like it or not, kind of like ecology. An ecology is present even if it’s desolate or empty, the term doesn’t imply a judgement on the quality or function of the ecology. Likewise, “place” is the set of conditions that describe human interaction with our environment. It doesn’t say anything about whether it’s a good place or a bad place. I guess the important question is whether or not the qualities of place are ones that inspire us, or engage us, or suggest some kind of better collaboration as human beings and so “place”… I guess “place” happens. Shit happens and I guess “place” happens. So I think “place” is one of those tricky ones - the more you try to set out and make it, the further away you can get sometimes. 

Xsection: Do you think there needs to be a lot of collaboration between people during the making and designing process?

BG: Not necessarily. I think that certainly there can be many, many benefits that come out of that kind of collaborative process and I think sometimes the process is just as important as the end result. The process can create connections that last well beyond even the park or the streetscape, or whatever the project may be; it may be more important that people actually talk to each other and start to understand themselves as a community. However,  when it comes to designed environments, there are also many examples of either places that were designed with no collaborative spirit that function as incredible places (Thank you, Jane Jacobs!) and then those that are the end result of a highly collaborative effort and they… they… 

Xsection (in chorus): just don’t work? 

BG: Yes. 
One successful example to consider is the Citygarden project in St Louis, which was the product of a commission from a private organization that paid for the design and the construction, and then gave the park to the city of St Louis. Because they structured the project in that way, there was minimal public interaction or design input. We talked with the organization about whether we thought that was a good strategy or not, but they’d seen so many situations where you open it up and then you end up with a design that can end up watered down trying to appeal to too many different people or voices. And yet the project has become a highly successful urban environment [Xsection: and it’s beautiful!] and it was a confirmation that our profession has the skill set and capacity to collaborate to create successful public places. It actually was a big team. It’s not like the project was the hand of a single ‘ ‘genius designer’; it was a huge collaborative team of consultants, the owner, and the city, even though there wasn’t a big public engagement process. One really great confirmation that this process can work is that Citygarden was recognised with the Amanda Burden (Urban Open Space) Award, which is not a just a design award, but actually a a national award that is given out to a public space for its positive social and cultural contributions to a city.

We didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s sort of interesting that the project happened with little public engagement, and yet it has still been very successful in doing all of those things that you would hope to have gotten out of that process. 

All that being said, we don’t try to model that everywhere - each project is different; we try to find ways to adapt and work in many different fashions. 

Xsection: That seemed to be the case with Young Nicks Head as well; you worked with a lot of different experts and local experts.

BG: Absolutely. Working at a great distance takes either a tonne of ego or a tonne of humility. I think we’re on the humility side of things because we just can’t pretend to be experts at everything everywhere.

Working in different locations you want to actually align yourselves with the people who really know what’s going on. The great benefit of coming at a distance is that you can ask the question that might be a little bit silly or impertinent and that’s an advantage for anyone right? To maybe turn what might be some sort of traditional thinking on its head a bit, because we can all get kind of stuck sometimes in our own patterns. 

So it’s been really fun to play that role of both team builder and navigator but also provocateur and asking lots of questions and putting people together that might not have worked together in various situations. Nick’s Head was a huge team, everyone from ecologists and farmers right down to the craftspeople. Incredible craftspeople. One of the great joys was getting to work with them pretty directly, in some cases bypassing many standard ways of drawing or documenting work because you were working directly with the craftspeople who were doing it. Nick’s Head doesn’t have a big thick set of working drawings in the way you might expect on other projects. 

Xsection: We were talking to [someone from the industry] the other day and he was ragging on the process that you have to go through. It seems like you completely bypassed that for Nick’s head?

BG: We don’t always get to work that way but there have been several projects where we have had that benefit. It’s almost like a really old way of working; sometimes you get some dazzle or flags, and you’re literally marking out lines in the field; it’s a really fabulous way of working. We also had really good collaboration with the surveyors. At Nick’s Head we might go and stake some points in the field and then have the surveyors mark those in and we would work further in CAD. Later we would then send back another set of points and they surveyors would stake them out, it was really great. There’s an incredible digger driver down there that we worked with, Kerry Teutenberg, he looked like he was in ZZ Top, he has a long beard and stubbies. We found out after a few years of working with him that he didn’t read contour plans like we did, but yet he’s incredible with what he does. You tell him to put in a track or a swale and he’ll do it like nobody’s business. So it was pretty fascinating to figure out ways to do highly constructed shaped land forms without necessarily a contour plan. We did do those but we were also working with the surveyor to physically stake, or in some cases, literally draw the contour plan on the ground and he would work to that. It was actually the most precise grading that we have probably ever done. 

Xsection: Do you do your designing back in the States then get over here and find you have to adjust it for a whole lot of variable of place?

BG: Sure, sometimes, but I think our training has served us well, I think that if you have a good sense of grading and topography and scale then it’s kind of amazing how it works out. There’s always a leap of faith- you’re drawing something and you think you have a sense of what it is, but I’ve been more surprised than not that it actually works out, that it feels like what you had hoped. It hasn’t happened so many times when you’re like “oh, that’s way wrong…” I don’t know quite how that works, but I keep going with it. It definitely requires some testing and staking things, practicing. I think our education did a good job of giving us good mental records of the sizes and scales of places and knowing what a hundred feet tall is or knowing what certain distances are, being able to relate it back, having a good visual library of other places that you can compare that to. 

Xsection: A spatial library I guess

BG: It’s really good knowing the length of your pace, so that even when you’re on vacation you can say’ “hmmm how big is that plaza?”. Though it makes for, sometimes, a funny way of walking (Xsection at this point accuse Breck of marching his kids across plazas while on holiday but he takes it in good humour).

Xsection: What do you think you need to know specifically to practice in NZ?

BG: Well I think that coming from afar definitely requires that humility and respect. What is fascinating to me about working here is that whether it’s cultural layers, or ecological layers and systems, or geologic time it all seems so very close to the surface and active and alive. So working here is to be quite open to hearing and learning and thinking about those layers.  It’s all very present in this place. It seems like a country that’s still so very young and becoming and figuring itself out and that’s pretty exciting. 

Xsection: So how do we create a contemporary sense of place? 

BG: I don’t know, I haven’t framed it that way before, ‘Place’ is one of those things you don’t want to look straight at, you want to catch it out of the side of your eye. I think if we feel some confidence about our values and the way that we listen to layers of ecology, cultural history and landscape, our  understanding about what makes for good scale spaces for human interaction, that that will put us in a good spot. But I definitely do not think that there’s a formula, it’s not a formulaic kind of thing. I’ve had a bit of internal wrestling with the term ‘Placemaking’; I’m still struggling with it. I feel like it’s ... you remember “The Dead Poets Society”, that movie with Robin Williams?  There’s a teacher at the beginning of the movie who lectures his students “here’s how you can judge the quality of a poem” and he has them draw a graph…It’s silly, and it totally kills the magic of poetry.  I feel like “Place” is a little bit like the poem. “Place” is something where we can do our best to set the stage, maybe prepare the conditions for good human space to occur, but you can’t make it happen, it has to actually be lived.  It’s a lived thing, it’s not a constructed thing. You can try to take your best shot at it, but you need a little bit of luck and a little bit of the right conditions and it does need to become itself. 

I think we have learned from the examples of the new urbanists: one may try to employ all  that we know of scale and place - and it should work but there are other conditions that might hold it back. 

At Citygarden there are a lot of different kinds of spatial configurations and we were really purposeful about creating a variety of spaces, but it’s not very defined about how they could or should be used. One of the really fun aspects of going back to visit is seeing something random like the Police recruits using the curving bench for doing push-ups - forty people doing pushups all on a park wall, or there might be an exercise class taking over a part of the park. I was there one time and this heavy metal band was getting their photo-shoot and just behind them there were ladies sipping chardonnay at the café and then just next to the band is a huge group of African American kids who were playing in the water having the time of their lives. If we had tried to design for that it probably would have just been a disaster, maybe it’s like the pond boat, you have to trim the sails and let it go.