DW Legacy Design®
History of DW Legacy Design®
As the firm grew, it became necessary to define the comprehensive Legacy Design approach and to make it more tangible and teachable. In a board retreat in the 1990s, the partners came together over questions of how they could structure the concept. “Comprehensive” certainly meant considering the widest possible context but it also meant getting under the surface of a project. The partners wanted to give designers the tools that would allow them to “go deep.” By this, they meant that while a project's “surface” conditions would identify the critical question of any given project, “going deep” would define the core of that question and lead to investigations into deeper meaning, which could yield synthesis of all aspects and more profound results from the planning and design effort.
In formalizing this idea, the board grappled with the emerging idea of sustainability, which was focused narrowly on the environment. What their approach brought to the equation was a broader consciousness of who we are, a broader accountability than what we used to see. Board members agreed that this formal version of the comprehensive approach would encompass the traditional elements of landscape architecture (art and environment), but also include community and economics – significant aspects of the profession of landscape architecture that often are not acknowledged.
These four elements bear similarity to those of triple bottom-line accounting, which began to emerge at about the same time (see Cannibals with Forks by John Elkington). But it broadens the idea by insisting that beauty is essential to human meaning. To represent this element, the word “art” was chosen as a more tangible term than “aesthetics,” which can be understood as perceptual study or philosophical exploration.
To get at the essence of the idea, board members distilled it down to a single paragraph, using simple, accessible language:
We believe that when environment, art, community and economics are combined in harmony with the dictates of the land and needs of society, magical places result, places that lift the spirit, sustainable places of beauty, significance and quality. We are dedicated to designing extraordinary landscapes that leave a legacy for future generations, creating such places for our clients, for society and for the well-being of our planet.
The name of the approach was drawn from this description, using the word “legacy” to acknowledge the temporal character of design, the idea that such work should endure and sustain itself over a long period of time. The idea is symbolized by four overlapping circles, one for each element. The center of these rings, where the four are in balance, is the ideal profile for a project. If the work begins with a heavy emphasis on one element, the process seeks to move it as close to the center as possible.
“What the Legacy Design rings diagram and dialogue really created was a target,” says President Rebecca Zimmermann. “It was a way to focus energy and effort. As we're working on projects that have an environmental emphasis or an economic emphasis, we keep our consciousness in bringing those projects closer to the middle and integrating the other elements into the project. This helps us take projects that at first lie outside some of the rings and moving them more towards the center. Will they be Legacy projects? Maybe, maybe not. Have we made them better because we were thinking about it? Absolutely.”
Legacy Design grew out of the idealism of Design Workshop's academic origins. One of its goals was to bridge the rifts that divide the profession into various factions, which begin with the education process.
“The fragmentation of design values and skills begins in the Academy,” says partner Todd Johnson, the firm's Chief Design Officer. “At Harvard, there were those professors who were oriented to form and composition and those who were oriented to problem-solving. These biases created polemic schisms among impressionable students. Form givers dressed in black, read certain magazines and talked a common language. Problem solvers were less predictably attired and focused more on science and rational thought processes. Students, being impressionable, get caught up in the rightness of certain values at the expense of comprehensive problem-solving connected to highly resolved formal solutions. The trap is always to enslave one set of skills and values to the other. DW Legacy Design® acknowledges the difficulty of holistic solutions yet strives to make the connection between high purpose and form.”
The idea is grounded in personal values and beliefs. In some measure, it is an act of faith. It recognizes that the few designs that have stood the test of time did so by bringing together elements of environmental sensitivity, economic viability and community values in a manner that raised the executed work to the level of art. Such places represent the noblest strivings of our profession; their very existence forms part of the legacy upon which modern civilization is built. While many emphasize one Legacy Design element or another, they go a long way toward fulfilling all aspects. Prominent examples would include New York's Central Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the intensively “green” island of ÆrØ in Denmark, Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson on the Great Salt Lake of Utah and the new communities of Columbia (Maryland), The Woodlands (Texas), Seaside (Florida) and Verrado (Arizona).
At the inception of this idea, board members recognized that Legacy Design is essentially a theory. It asserts that creating a dialogue among these four elements during the analysis process leads to synthesis and integration of all aspects and produces the most viable response. At the same time, although efforts to achieve these ideals can be measured, it is not possible to fully prove that balancing art, economics, environment and community will leave legacies for future generations. The firm persists in applying this approach because the results so far are encouraging and the process itself has yielded a great store of knowledge. In the view of the firm's practitioners, DW Legacy Design® is the future.
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