Desert Bloom

Ten Eyck Landscape Architects reimagines the campus at the University of Texas at El Paso.

By Mark Hough, FASLA

Thousands of tons of boulders were excavated from the site and used on slopes and in drainageways. Photo by Adam Barbe, ASLA.

Christine Ten Eyck, FASLA, recalls driving across Arizona in the summer of 2012, talking on the phone with one of her clients at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). It was about a dream project: the opportunity to redesign the landscape of a historic university and create a major open space as its ceremonial heart. On the call, she was making the case to Greg McNicol, the school’s associate vice president for facilities management, that her firm, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, based in Austin, Texas, should lead the project rather than be subconsultant to an architecture firm as had been the plan. Her argument was simple: The scope of the work was almost entirely landscape architecture.

Ten Eyck successfully persuaded administrators to give her firm the job, even though they were skeptical at first that a landscape architect could lead such a complex project. Notable among the people she won over was Diana Natalicio, who had been hired as UTEP’s first female president in 1988. During her tenure, the school had grown dramatically and become a top research university. Because of her leadership, Time magazine named her as one of the “100 Most Influential People” in the world in 2016.

Natalicio was the main champion of the project, which became known as the Campus Transformation. It ultimately cost around $25 million and opened to the public in the spring of 2015. The new landscape provides the UTEP community with beautifully designed and detailed plazas, lawns, water features, pedestrian ways, and plantings, all displaying the regional and ecologically responsive aesthetic for which Ten Eyck’s firm has become known. Getting there, however, was not easy.

The project began in late 2011 when the university released a request for qualifications. A recent master plan by Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects had outlined the project, but, McNicol says, “It just wasn’t a bold enough vision.” The new RFQ would cover conceptual design and cost estimation for nine open spaces in the core of the campus. Although the project area accounts for only 18 of the school’s total 366 acres, it contains the academic, social, and administrative heart of the campus. Tying the transformation to the school’s forthcoming centennial celebration was seen as a good way to get it paid for.

From the beginning, Natalicio understood the project needed to be ambitious if it were to succeed. Administrators knew generally how to improve the campus, but, she says, Ten Eyck “was the key in terms of putting the meat on the skeleton of the ideas” they had formed. “She is a remarkable person,” Natalicio says of Ten Eyck, “and is as driven as I am.”

Ten Eyck went to the campus for the first time on a Friday before the interview and spent the weekend sketching design concepts. “A lot of times you really kick yourself for bringing preconceived ideas to an interview,” she says, “but this time we felt like we really had to go for it.” The sketches helped her get the job along with the architecture firm Lake|Flato, with which she had teamed on this and other projects. They also look remarkably similar to what was eventually built.

UTEP Infrastructure AUG 30, 2015 - 03
The heart of the parking-focused campus was transformed into an ecologically rich public space. Image courtesy of Multivista Construction Documentation.

The concept plan was centered on the goals of creating a pedestrian-oriented campus and re-establishing the landscape’s native ecology. Although earlier plans had suggested restricting vehicles in the campus core, Ten Eyck’s proposal went a step further and eliminated them altogether. Broad, tree-lined pedestrian corridors replaced the network of roads with what Ten Eyck describes as “tunnels of shade” running across campus. The signature design element—Centennial Plaza—was envisioned as an approximately two-acre open space dominated by an oval-shaped lawn panel that would create a student-focused activity space while also organizing the disparate arrangement of surrounding buildings.

Ten Eyck also proposed creating a series of arroyos to channel water from the mountains down to the Rio Grande, with smaller swales known as acequias added to collect and direct water from the edges of paths. El Paso averages fewer than 10 inches of rain per year, and when it does rain, it comes down hard and is gone quickly. “Having lived in the desert, I appreciate every little drop we get,” Ten Eyck says. “We wanted to let the water soak in, and to create these special places.” Rebuilding the natural drainage patterns would allow people to become more connected to the landscape and to the water that shapes it.

For Natalicio, adapting this ecologically focused mind-set would help the university “really walk the talk on environmental stewardship.” Nearly 100 years of campus construction had replaced the native desert vegetation with pavement, patches of sloped, unusable turf, and generic nursery plants. Most of the stormwater had been directed off-site through gutters and underground pipes. This project presented the opportunity to correct that. “Christy’s work and her sensitivity to the fragility and resilience of the desert environment made her the ideal person for the project,” she says.

Image courtesy of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Inc.

Unlike its Texas counterparts Dallas and Houston, El Paso is not a hub for high-profile design. It has a population of almost 700,000 people and is situated at the far western tip of the state next to Ciudad Juárez—the large city on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande border. For centuries, the two cities were combined as part of the El Paso del Norte (the Pass to the North) region, but were split bi-nationally as part of the 1848 treaty that ended the Mexican–American War. A 15-foot-high border control fence now separates them, but the two municipalities still share deep cultural and economic connections. Thousands of people legally cross back and forth across the border every day.

The landscape of the region is dry and craggy and cast in muted shades of gray and brown. There is hardly anything green, and it can all appear rather bleak to those used to being surrounded by trees. El Paso sits in the Chihuahuan Desert and climbs the lower slopes of the adjacent Franklin Mountains. It is a tough environment—one that likely inspires more poets and novelists than travel writers. At dusk, however, when the setting sun paints the surrounding hills orange and purple, the beauty of the city’s desert context becomes undeniable.

The city itself is not particularly beautiful in any traditional sense. From above it appears as a sprawling mass of strip malls and suburban developments spread across the valley floor. At ground level, there is little in the way of parks or public open space readily found within city limits. The built landscape consists largely of concrete, asphalt, and bland architecture. Many of the city’s most interesting buildings have been built at UTEP, which had spent far more money on the design of its architecture than its landscape. Most of its buildings display the Bhutanese style of architecture. That’s right, Bhutanese.

The school is proud of its architectural heritage. The inspiration for it came from the wife of the school’s first dean and an article on Bhutan she had seen in a 1914 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Although the buildings do appear a bit kitsch and overdone when you first see them, the style, as exemplified by massive battered walls, low-pitched red tile roofs, and narrow punched windows, actually fits well into the desert context. The consistency in scale and materials also establishes a unique and cohesive identity for the campus far more than the designed landscape ever did. Ten Eyck says her impression of the campus on her first visit was that “the last thing they needed was more buildings; they needed landscape architecture.”

After a successful fund-raising campaign, Ten Eyck’s firm was hired to get the project designed and built, but still as subconsultant to Lake|Flato. By this point, the scope of work had been reduced from the nine planned open spaces to five. The architecture was limited to one shade structure, which prompted Ten Eyck to make the call to McNicol. She showed administrators the résumé of her senior project manager, Kent Sundberg, ASLA, who had come to Austin from Philadelphia, where he had previously worked at Wallace Roberts & Todd. “The best thing I ever did was to hire someone like Kent,” she says. His experience managing complex projects assured them the firm could do the work.

Ten Eyck put together a large team of 12 subconsultants. Along with typical firms such as lighting, irrigation, sustainability, and engineering, Biohabitats was hired for its stormwater expertise, and Tom Ryan, FASLA, of the Waltham, Massachusetts, firm Ryan Associates was brought on to provide peer review and offer advice on the set of technically complex construction documents. “When you’re small like we are,” she says, “you draw on resources where you can.”

Site construction began in the spring of 2013 but quickly stalled once engineers realized the scope of utility work had been grossly underestimated. McNicol says many of the campus utilities had been installed in the 1930s and were crumbling. Nearly everything beneath the nearly 12-acre site needed to be replaced—adding a year to the construction schedule. “Those were the dark days,” remembers Ten Eyck. “Every time we dug, we found some new surprise.”

Another shock came when the general contractor requested that someone from Ten Eyck’s office be on site seven days a week through the duration of construction. The contractor had far more experience constructing buildings than landscapes and was not comfortable with the intricacies and precision of the design’s detailing.

Ten Eyck set up a team of four people, led by Sundberg, to oversee construction. They would be at UTEP five days a week, and Lewis Wright, a landscape architect in El Paso, was hired to be on call on weekends. Ten Eyck remained active throughout the whole project and visited the site often, as well. She keeps her firm between 10 and 13 people, and this project significantly stretched its workload. Not only would someone need to be in El Paso every day of the week, but there would be one fewer person in Austin working on all of the other projects.

Sundberg says working days on the site would start with a kickoff meeting at 7:00 a.m. and last until at least 5:00 p.m. After that, they would have to write a report to prepare for the next morning’s meeting. “It was easily 12- to 14-hour days,” he says. “It was not just managing the project in-house but also managing the entire team.” He estimates working more than 60 hours per week on the campus alone for more than two years. The stress on the firm was significant, and there was turnover among the staff.

The design of the site and plantings better integrates the campus with the surrounding natural landscape. Photo by Adam Barbe, ASLA.

Ten Eyck says in hindsight she should have hired two more people. She, however, could not have predicted the amount of time the project would take. On top of that, they were closing their Phoenix office, which added its own level of stress. “It was just crazy,” she says.

The design elements are grounded in the cultural and ecological history of the site and combine to create an intriguing juxtaposition between polish and rusticity. Ten Eyck’s firm took what they learned from the design process and created an extensive set of design guidelines to ensure consistency for future work on campus.

Everything emanates from the oval at the heart of Centennial Plaza, which was pressed into the earth at one end to make it flat enough to accommodate many uses. A series of concrete seat walls with wide grassy treads make up the grade change, creating an amphitheater of sorts. Amphitheaters can often seem like trite and obvious features, but here the monumental scale makes it all work. Everything in the space reinforces the formal geometry, including stand-alone seat walls and beautifully detailed water features.

In contrast to the precision of these elements, roughly laid boulder walls help to transition the deceptively steep slope. Large, local andesite boulders are interspersed with desert plants to visually tie the project to the surrounding mountains. Sundberg estimates that more than 12,000 tons of boulders were excavated from under some four acres of removed asphalt and reused on site. The same demolition process, he says, produced approximately 230 tons of concrete paving that was used to create the pervious surface along many of the paths. Slabs of concrete were placed within fields of decomposed granite to emulate the precedent of stone plazas seen in both Bhutan and Mexico. “It was an excuse to reuse all of this paving that kids had walked on since the 1930s,” Ten Eyck says.

As with many of the firm’s other projects, weathered steel is used to great effect across the site. Particularly good examples are the simple, elegant footbridges placed across the swales and acequias to facilitate the cross circulation of people and water. The guardrails on a larger bridge are detailed as woven rebar to mimic a straw bridge Ten Eyck had seen in a photograph from Bhutan. The steel is also used to create large fire bowls in gathering areas overlooking Centennial Plaza, making the spaces comfortable and popular on cool evenings.

Sketches for the initial interview for the campus project established the project’s concept. Image courtesy of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Inc.

Not all of the applications are as successful, however. The 40-foot-high poles used to light the expansive lawn, which Ten Eyck selected because they reminded her of the indigenous ocotillo plant, are interesting as sculptural elements, but because the LED lamps emit such a bright white light, contrasting with the warmer, more ambient lights used elsewhere on site, the lawn feels more like a sports field than a campus space at night.

Light is a big issue during the day, too. Minus a few minutes in the morning and late afternoon, the glare from the sun can be intense. This is exacerbated by the use of light-colored manufactured concrete pavers in many of the walkways. Ten Eyck had wanted to use a richer, darker color, but the lighter pavers were ultimately chosen as a means to reduce the heat island effect.

Shade is an important part of creating comfortable spaces in most hot climates, but it’s particularly critical in the desert. Ten Eyck addressed this problem by planting hundreds of fast-growing native mesquite trees along the walkways that run through campus. They provide relief from the oppressive sun, but also add vibrant ribbons of color that enliven the otherwise muted landscape. The trees support the strategy of planting native and indigenous species to blur the lines between the campus and the surrounding terrain. Ten Eyck said when she started the project, there “was not one plant that looked like it could blow in the breeze.” Now, the diverse plantings add texture and visual interest, while also educating the community on the value of using native species.

Ten Eyck has been thrilled by the positive response she has received from people at UTEP, especially the students. “It means the world to work for a group that is so appreciative,” she says. Of the more than 23,000 students who attend the school, more than 80 percent are Mexican American, and another 5 percent cross the border from Juarez. “It was important to connect them with their culture and the place they’re in,” she says. In 2014, the average annual family income of the graduating class was around $30,000. Providing higher educational opportunities for this population is at the core of UTEP’s mission. The school has been recognized for several years by Washington Monthly magazine as the top school in the country for social mobility—meaning it best succeeds at providing access to college to first-generation and low-income students.

Natalicio says that students use the space “in large numbers day and night, throwing Frisbees, talking to one another, sitting by the water features, in the shade of trees,” and that “families from the surrounding community come in the evening to walk around the oval.” It has become a center of activity for both the campus community and its neighbors. “The campus now has a life that it didn’t have before.”

Mark Hough, FASLA, is the university landscape architect at Duke University. He writes about campuses, cultural landscapes, and professional practice.

One thought on “Desert Bloom”

  1. Nice article , thanks for high lighting this work- a good example of chasing autos ouT and building greens.

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