In late November, the University of Pennsylvania named the new chair of its landscape architecture department: the Australian landscape architect Richard Weller. The previous chair, James Corner, ASLA, had led the department since 2000 and will continue to be a professor there. I recently caught up with Weller on his wife’s cell phone and asked him about his plans for the department. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Is there a reason why you don’t have your own cell phone?
To be honest, I just don’t like telephones. I just thought that was sort of intrusive—you randomly ring up people and dial into their lives. I prefer email.
What drew you to the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania?
There has been a sequence of people at Penn who have been very influential and led the academic discipline. Penn’s always been front and center.
What drew them to you?
I have had an intellectual relationship with some of the people there going back to John Dixon Hunt. I’ve written about Jim Corner’s work. Penn’s Press published my first book, called Room 4.1.3: Innovations in Landscape Architecture, which was a very risky book because it was so conceptual. I’ve done work that tracks the entire spectrum of what a landscape architect can do. I’ve done the smallest gardens that are all about meaning and allegory all the way to large scale planning. It’s always been about what is in this project that will critically make some contribution to the discipline. Of course, the short answer is that there’s not that many people around, either.
What do you hope to do with your new position as chair?
First thing is to consolidate Penn as the world’s best design school. In many ways it’s a legendary school. It has great alumni. But the school can’t rest on its laurels. We have to guarantee that the students coming out of Penn are going to be leaders and visionaries and critics. We’re not just filling up the offices, Penn’s about leadership, intellectual leadership. I’m interested in large-scale phenomena, things like population growth, climate change.
Do you see yourself shaking things up?
I can’t help but shake things up, so I will. But I don’t think it’s productive to just shake things up for the sake of it, and I’m not going to come up with a new brand. I think there’s a historical continuity there that ought to be respected. [Ian] McHarg, [Anne Whiston] Spirn, Dixon Hunt, Corner—all those people have explored and advanced the main areas of what it means to be a landscape architect—from large scale planning to intimacy of place. What do you get when you combine those people’s views? The perfect landscape architect.
What can you do as the new chair at a well-established school like Penn?
I’m interested in taking the view of Penn’s students and Penn’s design school out of the Northeastern corridor and the handful of offices that go with that. I think we have to look at the world. I’m interested in a program that moves out into more difficult terrain and engages with more difficult issues. How do you advance and consolidate populations in mega-regions while also preserving the remaining biodiversity on a planning scale? And agricultural production—how do you fit that in without cutting down more forests? How do you retreat from sea level rise? There are 25 recognized hotspots where unique biodiversity is threatened. Why aren’t landscape architects planning those places? We know there will be another 2 or 3 billion people this century. Where will they live? Landscape architects aren’t to my knowledge speaking to those major issues, though landscape urbanism has pointed to this kind of work.
Maybe it’s romantic, but my view is you can get paid if it’s productive. Graduates should be on the front foot, almost producing work before it’s been asked for. Otherwise what are we doing? We just wait for the development industry to throw us crumbs.
What drove you to be an educator?
It’s the only environment where I could survive. The academy buys time for developing ideas…. Academics have had the luxury of time, globally, in terms of advancing landscape architecture, and I think we can be very critical of what they have done with that time.
Have you sought to bring something to your students’ education that was missing from your own?
I’ve been driven by it. I’ve spent 20 years working on one course about the history of ideas because I didn’t get it. In some ways, my lack of education has been my greatest motivator. I was inspired by one little unit that I took outside of the landscape school that really fired my imagination. I’ve built a course on different ways that different cultures have constructed their idea of nature.
You’ve put a lot of thought into Australia and creatively planning for the population growth expected there. Why move to the United States?
I’ve just finished my last work. That will be out in March. It is a planning document really about the future of all of Australia. I’m kind of done with that, so the next question for me is to see if I can apply some of the skills I’ve developed at that scale to other parts of the world.