Surfacedesign: Material Landscapes

Surfacedesign is a San Francisco based landscape architecture and urban design office founded by Roderick Wyllie and James A. Lord and later joined by Geoff di Girolamo. 

Their recently published book Material Landscapes reflects a colourful, multilayered portfolio of Surfacedesign. There are many apparent but also hidden complexities that give an incredible depth to their work. They seem to be mastering all the tools and tricks from the playbook and beyond. 

The twenty-five projects range in typology, and you will find Surfacedesign handle all scales, from airport landscapes, campuses, plazas to small private gardens. In a strongly coded typology that is the American private garden, Surfacedesign is without doubt pushing boundaries. Nature can express itself close to the house; elements and materials are composed in new ways, suggesting new uses.

The book has about 300 pages; it feels compact, as with their projects, there is excellence in the design and realisation. Due to the format (8.58 x 0.96 x 10.41 inches / 21 x 2,5 x 26 cm), landscapes become in a way tangible and inviting. Full-page photos are beautiful, showing ever-changing relations between the site’s materiality, context and use. 

At the beginning of the book, Wyllie and Lord are in conversation with Anita Berrizbeitia (Harvard GSD). The debate sets the frame for the portfolio on the following pages and makes the projects instrumental for illustrating a bigger picture of the American landscape architecture and the firm’s place in the professional community. 

The discussion dives into partners’ background, interests, influences, their professional development and the zeitgeist in the West Coast across three decades. As with any creative discipline, the professional development of the designer is completely intertwined with the personal. So there are also more intimate stories and events that today inform Surfacedesign’s approach to design, to name just a few; the influence of the 1992 riots in LA, collective “happy-go-lucky” attitude of the West, Lord’s acquaintance with Roberto Burle Marx etc.

The majority of the book is dedicated to twenty-five works from all over California, especially Bay area and also a handful of international ones, spread on some 250 pages, each with an introduction, a photo essay and a site plan.

Some of the presented projects were photographed at different hours of the day, and from the photos, it seems that the landscapes are both catching and radiating an atmosphere. It is sadly often the case in our profession that a project wants to look too excited, which doesn’t work at all times, especially when there are no people or when the weather is grim. Sometimes such over-excited landscapes seem fake and context-deaf. At this point, many should learn from Surfacedesign. The same project will look quietly poetic in the morning fog and vibrant and enchanting in the late afternoon sun. As if they are, in a way, ‘vibe-responsive’. They listen and sing back in the same key. 

It is also interesting that Wyllie has a degree in music. Hence, it makes sense to say that there is a musical quality to their work. There is always rhythm in elements, melodies in shapes, mesmerising textures and harmonies both in plant and hardscape material. 

Throughout the portfolio, Surfacedesign doesn’t seem to be exhausting new tricks anytime soon. New situations are being envisioned each time. The book is a very useful insight into how materials can be involved at the very early stages of the design process as an inspiration that informs abstract thinking. As a landscape architecture monograph, Material Landscapes is, without doubt, a beautiful book to have. Recommended!

Buy the book

written by Zaš Brezar

Published on February 14, 2022

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