The Architects of Arbolope Studio

Posted by Leslie McCarthy May 10, 2019

 

In early March, with winter still hanging on, the first two trees were planted on the East End Transformation project, a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and a sugar berry (Celtis laevigata) near the south end of Brookings Hall. It was a harbinger of completion—the first foliage of the Ann and Andrew Tisch Park.

And watching every move made by both frontloader and shovel were L. Irene Compadre, PLA (above center), and Anu Samarajiva (above left), two Washington University in St. Louis alums with Arbolope Studio, the local landscape architecture partner to Alexandra, Virginia-based firm Michael Vergason Landscape Architects.

"We know this site inside and out," said Compadre, director of design and founding principle of Arbolope. She has been a regular visitor to the east end of campus for nearly 15 years, since her days as an undergraduate student in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

Compadre earned a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture in 2008 and a Master of Landscape Architecture in 2012. Samarajiva, a landscape and urban designer, is a 2017 graduate of the Sam Fox School's Master of Urban Design and Master of Architecture programs. "By now, we know enough about the WashU campus and the east end that we could be 'PhDs' of WashU's landscape," Samarajiva said.

The two women, together with landscape designer Xiaoqing Qin (above right), another Sam Fox School alum who earned her Master of Landscape Architecture in 2016, form the heart and soul of Arbolope Studio. The studio’s name (from the Spanish word for "tree": "arbol", and "envelope": "ope") evokes the "spirit of nature" while highlighting our role in shaping it.

The team at Arbolope have indeed become deeply familiar with the east end landscape, including each of the 269 trees that will grow there, from the different native and "manufactured" soils that they will be planted in; to the complexity of the plant communities that they will become a part of; to just about everything else that those trees and plants will need to grow, thrive, and become part of the campus' most public face. They're the ones on the ground, literally, ensuring every bit of flora and fauna that will become the Tisch Park endures for generations.

And they're remaking a piece of land they have walked, studied, and worked on for the last 15 years. "As an undergraduate, my experience of the campus was walking from point A to point B, and was centered around Givens Hall and the adjacent parking lots. But even then, my fellow students and I saw the campus as a laboratory for learning and experimentation—and we dreamed of a day when it would better reflect contemporary views on sustainable design," Compadre said.

"I remember that in one of our classes, we talked about a potential plan for remaking our side of campus and someone was like, 'Oh, you should just go up the hill, and you'll see that there are these paths and special spaces for students where people can interact and have collegial conversations.' But isolated by parking lots and roadways, that's not how I thought of our end of campus at all," Compadre said.

"And then in graduate school, we had another campus planning studio, anticipating this east end project. And I remember someone saying 'they're thinking about putting parking underground.' We thought there was no way the University would actually invest in that kind of sustainability statement and major feat of engineering."

But now that campus vision is fast becoming a reality, and the women of Arbolope are tasked with making sure it all comes together, emphasizing mobility—from pathways to placemaking. "The parking going underground, that's huge for the University," Samarajava said.

"The campus puts sustainability first, and they also placed a premium on aesthetics—What is it going to be like when you drive up to the campus or arrive via Metro? You'll see the campus. You'll see a park, the Tisch Park."

Imagining the Future

Landscape architects are part civil engineer, part artist, part sculptor, with equal parts botanist, arborist, meteorologist, and environmental scientist thrown in. It's their job to imagine, in the realm of outdoor spaces, exactly where your eyes and feet will go.

"I think people do notice when they're in well-designed spaces, but for the most part, they don't realize how much thought goes into the design of the spaces we move through," Compadre said. "In every place, from the moment you walk out the door until you get to wherever you're going, someone designed that—or more accurately, a network of people designed that."

In addition to the east end, Arbolope has had a hand in a number of WashU campus projects, including landscape architecture for two now-iconic campus sculptures, the Places blocks and Weather Field 2; the Throop Plaza and DUC Plaza aka “DUC Beach” (designed by Compadre while at a previous firm); the Lofts on Delmar; and the remaking of Throop Drive. The latter project, a focus of Arbolope's Qin since 2016, will become especially important for circulation and safety in the east end, as a former service driveway that intersects with the north edge of the project is being remade into a one-way street with a continuous bicycle and pedestrian pathway to the Bryan Hall Bridge.

For three Sam Fox School graduates to transform the east end space from a couple of buildings and a lot of parking into a park and pathways that will be used for generations of students, that's pretty special.

"I loved the allee, and I loved our Sam Fox graduation under the trees," Compadre said. "But it's an honor to create a new place and to be a part of the spirit being put into the new campus plan.

"To think that we are helping to create this active cultural space and community landscape that just wasn't there when we started, that's pretty amazing," she said.

How does a landscape architectural firm know then, that they've gotten it right?

To answer, Compadre invokes a memory of Arbolope partner Jim Fetterman, who died in January. Fetterman was also a beloved senior lecturer in the Sam Fox School's Master of Landscape Architecture program, part of the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, since its inception in 2010.

"Jim would say, 'You know it's successful when people start proposing to each other in the space,' " Compadre said. "So if you can design the kind of space where people make lifetime decisions, well, I guess you're doing something right."

And therein lies the challenge: For landscape architects, it takes time to know if they have gotten it right. Unlike building architects, they don't get to cut a ribbon, collect the kudos of completion, and then move on to the next project. Part of the process is watching as their projects grow and change over time, and trusting that the design is flexible, adaptable, and resilient—that it can reliably tie a place together as seasons change and years pass.

"We design a framework for what a space will look like in Year One, Year Three, Year Five," Compadre said. "But with a client like WashU, we're also thinking of what it's going to look like in Year 100."