AN sits with 2021 Landscape Architecture Firm of the Year, Stimson

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Over the summer, the American Society of Landscape Architects announced that he would award his annual company award on the Stimson office based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The practice, founded by Stephen Stimson in 1992, produces cutting-edge work that straddles urban and rural realms. This quality is embedded in the company’s operations: Stimson and his wife and co-director, Lauren, maintain an agricultural laboratory in central Massachusetts, just north of Worcester, while co-directors Edward Marshall, Joe Wahler and Glen Valentine overseeing the Cambridge office.

A Contributor James McCown met with Valentine in the courtyard of MIT’s Hayden Library to discuss the award and think about growing the studio. Valentine had suggested the meeting place, a pleasant outdoor space designed by Stimson as a grid of nine squares on which to lay out plantings and select pieces from MIT’s collection of 20th-century sculpture. The twin curved berms gave a touch of whimsy to the space.

James McCown: First off, congratulations on the award. Tell me about the uniqueness of the company.

Glen Valentine: Sure. It is a commitment to agricultural and rural life. Steve Stimson, the company’s founder, has deep roots in New England, dating back ten generations. A few years ago he was able to buy a farm in Princeton [Massachusetts]which is very close to [family’s] ten generation farm in Charbrook. He turned the Princeton farm into a farm for himself and his family.

Earlier this year, the firm completed the landscape of Harvard University’s science and technology complex designed by Behnisch Architekten. (Courtesy of Stimson)

For Steve, it was a kind of recovery from his past. Charbrook allowed him to do new things like build a nursery and raise cattle for organic grass fed beef and lamb and really design the whole space as both a working farm and a lab for us.

So you use plantations from the farm in your projects?

Yes, we can use trees from the farm nursery. And now there’s a studio under construction there, which will be finished this fall. the [firm’s] the link with the nursery, with all the fields, will be even stronger than it already was. Everything is organic, and we can grow different species. The nursery allows us to try a species like gray birch, which is not found in the industry. Institutional and residential customers appreciate knowing where the trees come from. They know who took care of them.

How can a company with such a deep and abiding belief in rural, agrarian life achieve urban projects like the one we’re sitting in right now?

We fully embrace a modern contemporary aesthetic, but try to make it almost relaxed. We are therefore in the Cour Lipchitz, and there are three works by the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

Was it your idea, to found a garden around these pieces?

No, but I’ll take credit for it. [laughs] The sculptures were already there but were randomly placed. And we said, “They really should be in conversation with each other,” and we worked really hard to situate them. [accordingly]. It is a very contemporary space, which shows through in the grid of nine boxes which [underpins] this. At the same time, we had to consider the practicalities of growing trees. We’re sitting above part of the Hayden Library, and there wasn’t enough room for a membrane and tiling. So we raised the courtyard about 18 inches, giving you an eye-level view of the library. The garden has a contemporary look that is not overpowering [it is] a natural consequence of the reflection on certain practical aspects.

For several years, Stimson has been involved in the design of the 311-acre Hardberger Park in San Antonio. In 2021, the firm completed (with local architectural firm Rialto Studio) a land bridge over a busy highway, providing safe passage for wildlife. (Courtesy of Rialto Studio/Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy)

Name another new project that you are particularly proud of.

I would say the Pine Tree Preserve at Boston College. One of the things we are really proud of is building relationships with institutional clients. I’ve been working at Boston College for about 12 years now, on about ten projects. And they’ve all been very specifically tied to quads, buildings, and fields. But this Pine Tree Preserve is a collaboration. It’s a plot of land adjacent to a reservoir that’s been fenced off for a hundred years. It belongs to the Metropolitan Water Resources Authority. And they, in a deal with Boston College, decided to tear down the fence, open it up, and make it a public park.

Which architectural firms have you had particularly good working relationships with?

We have worked extensively with Centerbrook [Architects + Planners] on campus projects. This has been a high priority for our practice. We recently worked with Behnisch [Architekten] on the Harvard Science and Engineering Complex. Here, we really tried to make the stormwater components a strong part of the design. Lake|Flato in Austin has also been a great partner for us; we also do on-campus work with them. But we did a master plan for a 300-acre park in San Antonio—Hardberger Park [Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy]– where they also designed a building. We have just completed a large land bridge over the highway that connects the two sides of the park and provides wildlife with a safe place to cross.

A park laid out in a courtyard below
Also in 2021, Stimson completed a courtyard renovation in MIT Building 14. (John Horner)

Your website says, “We draw by hand and embrace slowness.” You don’t use computers? [laughs] And does accepting slowness scare off some customers who have a deadline?

That’s an excellent question. Slowness forces you to think carefully about what you are doing. This too [gets] in our idea of ​​growing things ourselves, getting our hands dirty. We have people, especially young people, who come to the business and start by digging and kicking trees. It’s a way to familiarize yourself with the materials you’ll be using later. We absolutely use computers – our young employees spend a lot of their time in Revit and 3D modeling programs – but we try to integrate them into a certain workflow. We have a very deliberate and determined way of working. It didn’t scare off the customers at all.

And how has the transition to remote work been due to the pandemic?

I’m not going to say it’s easy, but Zoom is pretty good. The fact that you can draw and put drawings on the screen is great. We even did a few site visits with someone on FaceTime walking around the site. We also didn’t think it would work, but it did. And of course we had to do virtual meetings for the public process. Admittedly, a certain “spontaneous” creativity is lost when everything goes digital. You lose some of the magic of being in the same office or on the same site. That said, it really gave us geographic flexibility that we just didn’t have before.

Are you planning to return to the office soon?

Right now there are about three people there at any one time. But because of the Delta variant, we wanted to leave it open to staff. Many architects’ offices are already back. We will get there. We just assembled the office for a retreat at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on the coast of Maine. I say ‘reconvene’ – we hired several people during the pandemic, so in some cases it was the first time we met in person.

A stimson-designed sunken landscape with wrap-around seating
For the redesign, the landscape architects planted nine new trees and twin berms. They also introduced continuous seats. (John Horner)

Isn’t Haystack awesome? I attended three workshops there.

We are making the master plan for the school now! Those [Edward Larrabee] Barnes buildings are so beautiful. He really knew how to build without destroying the virgin nature. We worked in the studios up there for a week. It was fantastic.

How do you think the price of the firm will change your practice? Has it made it easier to market your work? Or did you have to do any marketing at all? Do you sit still and wait for the phone to ring?

[Laughs] I would say we are quite lucky to have established relationships with a number of architects long before this happened. But I’ll be honest: the price has definitely increased the number of calls we get. It made the job a little easier.

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