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5 Questions with Barbara Swift

January 26, 2015

Barbara Swift, FASLA is the founder of Swift Company LLC and has built a practice that focuses on designs responsive to the circumstances and patterns of place. She is known for consistently pressing for solutions that result in wholly innovative strategies. Barbara is consistently active in the Northwest community and was instrumental in establishing Seattle City Design.


What are you drawing inspiration from right now?

A superficial answer is easy, but to really address the question, I had to think about it.

The first source of inspiration is the power of the open generous transfer of information fuelled by the explosion of the internet. This content-rich tool and its influence on the ability to effect rapid change in response to critical issues such as climate change is inspiring. The feedback loop is increasingly rapid, and young professionals with their capacity to integrate compelling design with a fluid sense of systems interaction is powerful. I am inspired by the capacity and open nature of young professionals. This gives me great hope.

The second is a project. The master plan for the Oregon State University Cascade campus, a new four-year university, is in a closed pumice quarry in Oregon’s high desert. Wrapped by a Ponderosa Pine forest, the 40-acre canyon sits 100 feet below the surrounding landscape within a mile of the historic downtown. The residential university plan locates educational facilities on a south facing white cliff with cascading stairs, water and landscaped terraces dissolving into a moist meadow of native forbs, grasses and groves of Aspen – think Canyon de Chelly. The quarry becomes a classroom focused on high desert restoration and systems integration, an extension of the core academic program. The site offers the primal experience of a rich sensory environment with the classic animal needs of prospect and refuge. This as a learning environment coupled with the academic commitment to collaborative inter-disciplinary innovation is a source of inspiration.

Finally, I am inspired by the leadership, curiosity and the innovation growing out of design. This is a profoundly challenging time, and the increasing leadership role of the design process in testing strategies and opportunities to find well-rounded solutions is a source of hope.

What potential for sustainability most excites you on one of your current projects?

I am seeing a rapid obliteration of walls separating vibrant curious people. I am seeing collaborative leadership resulting in the quick shared testing of ideas — for example (and interesting from the perspective of leadership), the private development sector attention to the public realm and street, the use of stormwater strategies that push the limits of a typical financial pro forma, the integration of blackwater and the pursuit of energy districts, and finally the integration of the arts including performance, temporary installations and commissions. This really moves the opportunities for integrated design forward.

Again, the Oregon State University-Cascades campus master plan brings the best and brightest of disciplines into a team with the client to willingly explore smart risk and engage curiosity in a rigorous design effort. The client is actively engaged in discussions, which ties the pedagogy with the design process to create a fully integrated framework. It makes for an ultimately richer product, vision, and process. This is an educational institution walking the talk.

Checklists are giving way to integrated systems strategies and thinking. Increased data and metrics support the successful argument for strong landscape strategies that serve a diverse range of functions — and which are poetic. The increase in landscape metrics has been a profoundly powerful tool in making successful arguments for the role of site and landscape. 

What do you need to know, but you don’t know right now?

The answer is endless. This is the joy of landscape architecture. The things I don’t know right now have more to do with data and the understanding of systems interaction and less to do with a creative problem-solving process.

Here are some things I need. I need rapid feedback from case studies, science, etc. to help move change forward. It doesn’t matter if the feedback is preliminary or somewhat tangentially related. I need it now. I am impatient. I have a handle on the basic craft of practice, and while landscape architecture is a lifelong constant endeavor, there is a lot to get done. To develop an exceptional practice requires constant steady effort and new information. This is what it takes to craft functional, resilient poetry.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders in the profession?

Generous smart collaborative leadership is critical and is required of all participating in any aspect of environmental design. Creating an open questioning platform for exploration, innovation and the creation of profoundly soulful places is essential in achieving success.

So, my advice is: Go, absorb, evaluate and create as rapidly as you can. Make it your life work and evaluate what you see, create and experience — day in and day out. Strive to be smart, fearless and humane. If we could all live 300 years there would be more time, but we don’t, and the complexity of the issues and media we work with demands real experience. So build your depth of experience as quickly as possible.

Generous vigorous leadership is needed no matter where you are and what you do. Landscape architects are exceptionally well trained to lead. Build your leadership skills. Draw from other disciplines.

Finally, this is an exceptional time. The need for leadership by those who respect and are engaged in the complexity of systems issues is profound. Go.

What challenge would you give to emerging leaders in the profession?

This question suggests that there are leaders and followers, which is an old paradigm in which some are active and others passive. I fundamentally resist this thinking. The challenges are too critical, the opportunities too great and the potential impact of landscape architects in leading change is too powerful. This is a time when each of us has a leadership responsibility no matter where we are, what we are doing and the context in which we currently operate. This is a time for “all hands on deck” and a time for exceptional, generous, rigorous teamwork. It is everyone now with generous leadership and a depth of experience that can make for fundamental change.

Swift Company is a team of landscape architects and urban designers focused on the design of the public realm in the west. Established in 1982, the firm has earned a valued reputation for design excellence, innovation, successfully implemented solutions, and effective facilitation involving diverse interests. Swift intentionally pursues work that involves clients engaged with providing essential services, public or private. The firm is committed to context driven designs that build on a fundamental sense of place. This interest in complex social, cultural and ecological issues has fueled a broad range of successful work from wildlands restoration to urban design.

Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.

LAF is grateful to the many individuals and organizations that provide financial support towards fulfilling our mission to support the preservation, improvement, and enhancement of the environment.

Much of what LAF is able to accomplish would not be possible without the thought leadership and financial investment of our major supporters, including ASLA, which provides over $125,000 of in-kind support annually.