Kathryn Gustafson: Designs for Body, Mind & Soul

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain - Hyde Park London. Photo: Jason Hawkes

Kathryn Gustafson PLA, FASLA, CLARB, FRIBA Photo: Kyle Johnson

At the recent Australian Landscape conference distinguished American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson dazzled Australians and New Zealanders with the beauty and breadth of her distinct sculptural designs that are located in sites of cultural and historic significance around the world.

City Center Washington, DC Photo: GGN

City Center Washington, DC Photo: GGN
Her designs are described as "about movement," "possessing organic qualities that respond to the seasons, as well as air, heat, sun and wind." Her compositions combine light, water, earth, stone and wood and "complex elements both visible and otherwise, such as sound, light and atmosphere." Moving water and mutable reflections give her work a dynamic quality that taps into all the senses - body, mind and soul.
Zeytouneh Square Gustafson Porter Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Gustafson, Porter +Bowman

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC Photo: GGN

She brings thirty-five years of practice to two award winning firms of which she is a co founder: Gustafson Porter + Bowman (GP+B) in London and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, USA. She works with nine partners and the studios share a strong design ethic in their code of practice. There is respect for the cultural, social, historic and environmental context of each project and a collaborative work ethic that also encourages individuality and diversity.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington USA.Photo: GGN

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington USA.  Photo: GGN

National Museum of African American History and Culture Detail. Photo: GGN

Gustafson projects span the globe. They include the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial, Hyde Park, London; Old Market Square in Nottingham; Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam; Seattle City Hall Plaza; the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the landscape design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC; Marina One in Singapore and Taikoo Place in Hong Kong.

The distinguishable Gustafson style - sensuous, fluid landforms and soothing water - mask the complex set of multi-layered challenges that arise in the realm of high-profile civic sites.

She shares with us her thorough methodology. There is detailed research - historic, cultural and environmental - that precedes the conceptual and design development process. She promotes the professional capacity to listen to all stakeholders, to take time and the need to balance client and public expectations with budget and site realities.

Ultimately, it is her strong composition and artistic vision that distinguishes her work.

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain Detail Photo: Hélène Binet

At one moment she is the consummate landscape architect and, at another, she is the creative artist - the ground-breaking sculptor engineering the flow of water and capturing a "feel - fundamental to the human experience of landscape." Her integrity lies in her deep respect for the uniqueness of culture, place and habitat.

Unified Ground: Union Square National Mall. Washington DC Photo: GGN

Her story begins in the terrain of her childhood - a high-plateau desert (Yakima, Washington) where she describes "the bones and the softness of the mountains" and a place that relied entirely on irrigation - perhaps the starting point of her fascination with the power of flowing water in the landscape.

It is in France where she encountered her most influential artistic and design influences. In the 1970s she settled in Paris where she transferred from fashion to landscape design, graduating from the L'École Nationale Supérieure du Paysage, Versailles in 1979.

Here she experienced the monumental gardens of the Palace of Versailles resplendent with its extravagant pools and fountains.

In France she met landscape architect Jacques Sgard a proponent of an emerging 'landscape urbanism' - 'a greening' and reclamation of disused industrial sites for public use. Sgard defined the role of landscape architect as a "mediator between man and nature."

Shell Headquarters, Paris. 1992 Photo: Kathryn Gustafson

In her formative works in France where she worked between 1980 and 1997 those influences were manifested in her strong sculptural designs with highly innovative elements such as the 'roof garden' for Shell headquarters in Paris, the water features in the Rights of Man Square, Evry and the award-winning Gardens of Imagination in Terrasson-La-Villedieu.

Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire, Terrasson-La-Villedieu, Dordogne France 1996 Photo: GGN

Gustafson pays homage to Japanese-American landscape architect/designer, Isami Noguchi, who is associated with the 'biomorphic' movement that evoked nature while still exploring the futurism and abstraction of modernism. His powerful clay and bronze models are clear precursors to the organic style of the clay models that underpin Gustafson's method of design and her distinct aesthetic.

Isamu Noguchi Amphitheatre for Pay Mountain Riverside Park Bronze Model for Children's Playground 1961-62 Photo: Isamu Noguchi Museum

Vancouver Community Connector Clay Model by Kathryn Gustafson Source: GGN

On a conceptual level she acknowledges the controversial New York performance and land artist Dennis Oppenheim who pushed the boundaries of the early land art movement and exploited emerging media technologies. On a practical level she expresses gratitude to monumental sculptor and her friend, the late Igor Mitoraj, who mentored and up-skilled her in the technique of sculpting in clay and encouraged her to value her clay models as sculptural artefacts in the manner of Noguchi.

While these days the GGN and GP+B studios transpose clay models into 3-D renders and digital designs, modelling in clay still enables her to maintain a material connection to the earth and the act of shaping landforms.