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At Andropogon, humans and nature are inseparable.
By Jared Brey / Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affiliate ASLA
Darren Damone, ASLA, and Katharine Griffiths were standing on a boardwalk at Avalon Park & Preserve, in Stony Brook, New York, looking across the pond at a gang of cormorants loitering in the branches of a beech tree.
“They used to nest over here, and it was a disaster zone,” said Griffiths, the director of the preserve. “It used to smell like a bluefish factory. It was nasty. They did a lot of damage to the trees in this area.… That’s what happens. They strip the leaves to put in their nest, and then their guano is so acidic that it just burns everything. They’re kind of sloppy birds.”
It was a May morning, and the squealing songs of cardinals spilled out of the woods behind us. We took a curving path up a hill to a smaller pond, fed by what looked like an underground stream, and I asked, credulously, where the headwaters were.
“This is just recirculating,” Damone said, looking amused. “This is completely created.”
In 1996, before the preserve existed, Paul Simons, a local nature lover who liked to ride his bike on a path through the property, was struck by a car on Long Island and killed. In his honor, the Simons family created the Paul Simons Foundation, and bought the eight-acre property that would later become Avalon Park & Preserve. Griffiths was a friend of the Simons family and had just finished college in Ontario, studying political science and horticulture, and she moved to Stony Brook to lead the preserve. Creating the preserve was a way for the Simons family to grieve, she said, and it was meant to be a place that Paul would have wanted to be. Beyond that, she told me later, “We didn’t have a vision, really.”
So it turned to Andropogon, the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm, to create a plan for the property. Andropogon, which in 2018 was honored with the ASLA Landscape Architecture Firm Award as “a model of ecologically based landscape architectural practice,” returned with a plan to clear the land of invasive species and create a series of habitats that mirrored the natural diversity of Long Island. This year, as the firm completes a new master plan for the expanded preserve, Avalon is grappling with the consequences of its own success: The park has become so popular that its mission is endangered.
“One of the motivating factors of the master plan was the fact that the park is just overloved, and having more of what you have now would eventually become a problem,” said Damone, a principal at Andropogon. “It was twofold—figuring out how to wrangle people and control where people were and weren’t, and at the same time, getting back to this center point of making the park about what it was originally intended to be, which is more of a contemplative place where people who appreciate the natural environment can do that.”
In its early days, recreational gardens and arboreta were Andropogon’s bread and butter. As the firm has evolved, it has moved into more and more urban environments. But its work has been guided by its relationships with clients and collaborators over the course of the 40 years since its founding. At Avalon Park & Preserve, the firm is now incorporating its growing focus on research into ecological performance through efforts such as sound mapping to find and protect the areas of greatest tranquility. And it has sought to address the foundation’s concern that the preserve has invited too much traffic, adjusting landscapes to encourage human activity in some areas and protect plant and animal habitats in other areas.
For Andropogon, that kind of thinking is baked into its founding philosophy and reflected in its mission “to weave together the landscapes of humans and nature for the benefit of both.”
“One thing that we realized from the very beginning was that people are part of the ecology,” José Almiñana, FASLA, a senior principal who joined the firm in 1983, told me. “People are part of the system. People are part of nature. There’s no dichotomy, no us and them, between nature and human beings. But we are agents of change. And professionally, landscape architecture has this amazing capacity to really think about the world in a very comprehensive way.”
Andropogon was founded in the 1970s by Carol Franklin, FASLA; Colin Franklin, FASLA; Rolf Sauer; and Leslie Sauer, who studied and taught with Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania. It has expanded and contracted a number of times over the past 40 years, and today the firm has three principals—Damone, Almiñana, and Tom Amoroso, ASLA—and 17 staff members. Last December, Yaki Miodovnik, ASLA, a former principal who had worked at Andropogon since the mid-1980s, left the firm and is now working on a solo venture called SEEDdesign. In the spring, another principal, Emily McCoy, ASLA, who founded the firm’s Integrative Research Division and opened its office in Raleigh, North Carolina, left for a post at Design Workshop. Almiñana is fond of saying that the founders of Andropogon gave a gift to future generations by naming the firm after a group of grasses rather than calling it “Franklin, Franklin, Sauer & Sauer.” Even as the firm navigates management transitions, it remains rooted in the spirit of ecological inquiry that McHarg fostered at Penn.
In July I went to visit Carol and Colin Franklin at their home in Chestnut Hill, a leafy neighborhood in the Wissahickon Creek valley that became a part of Philadelphia during the consolidation of 1854. Carol Franklin, who coauthored a book about the Wissahickon valley called Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City, grew up in Chestnut Hill. Colin was born in England. They met each other, and the Sauers, at Penn. The worldview they developed as students of McHarg has by now permeated most of the landscape architecture discipline, but in Andropogon’s hands, the ideas retain a sort of poetic allure.
“If you pick up a handful of dirt at the seashore,” Carol said, “it is totally different than if you pick up a handful of dirt in the Wissahickon or if you pick up a handful of dirt in the rain forest. And it is utterly revealing. You can build the whole forest from that handful, or you can build the whole landscape from that handful of dirt.”
When I arrived, Carol was preparing a full English breakfast for Colin, who has Parkinson’s disease. She grilled tomatoes and sausages on a stovetop on the kitchen island and scrambled eggs in a pan. She made coffee with foamed milk and set out three kinds of sugar. I sat across the table from Colin. Carol sat once, for about five minutes, in between waxing the floor, taking phone calls, retrieving books, and talking with a niece and nephew who stopped by to run some errands. Ribbons of flypaper were dangling from overhead lamps and sunflowers were shining in a vase on the kitchen table. We talked for two and a half hours, pausing a few times to observe a red-bellied woodpecker that landed on a bird feeder outside the window.
At the time they started the firm, the Franklins told me, their understanding of the ecological crisis was completely different than it is today. The environmental movement was focused on clean air and water, and Andropogon was building projects that were meant to respect ecological systems and reinforce connections between people and nature. Colin attended an international conference on climate change in the mid-1980s, around the time when the apocalyptic scope of the current environmental crisis started to come into view.
“Gradually we came to realize that there might not be a world in 20 years,” Carol said.
“Ten,” said Colin.
“You think 10?” she replied. “Jesus, Colin, we’ll still be alive in 10 years. That’s the awful thing.”
She looked at me and laughed. “I’m just waiting for our demise,” she said.
The Franklins retired from Andropogon in 2010. In 2014, the firm won an ASLA Honor Award for its work on Shoemaker Green, a college lawn at the University of Pennsylvania that is designed to keep stormwater from escaping the site and is rigged with monitoring devices to track its performance. But its imprint on Penn’s campus and the surrounding area goes much further back. In the 1970s, when most of the founding principals were teaching at Penn, they were asked to help create a Landscape Development Plan for the campus. They injected a unifying palette of green space throughout the network of iconic buildings designed by architects such as Frank Furness, Horace Trumbauer, and Louis Kahn. And they cleared the streets from a now-idyllic part of the central campus called College Green, which, the former university architect David Hollenberg told me, often gets mistaken for the historic core of the university. Among their collaborators on the plan was Laurie Olin, FASLA, of OLIN, which is also based in Philadelphia.
“One of the ideas that we had that just seems so obvious to everybody today was that the city is a landscape, and it just has a lot of buildings,” Olin said. “It’s an urban landscape. We felt that it was as important to do as anything in the suburbs.”
The firm’s tentacles have crisscrossed Philadelphia—for last year’s ASLA convention it produced a brochure with a map of its projects alongside its favorite bars and restaurants—but its influence is concentrated in University City. In 2012, it completed a campus master plan for Drexel University, which is adjacent to Penn and connects to it in various ways. It also designed two common areas, Korman Quad and Perelman Plaza, at the center of the Drexel campus, with planted gardens, sloping granite seating areas, and a large grass terrace that manages stormwater.
Drexel prides itself on being part of the fabric of the city, and so its self-fashioning has followed the trends of urbanist thinking. In years past, Tom Amoroso told me when I met him at Drexel in May, the school wanted to let cars get as close to the buildings as possible, and that came at the expense of providing a clear sense of place. Now, he said, “They want to create these dynamic, open spaces.”
While I sat outside the campus Starbucks waiting for Amoroso to arrive, I noticed a robin nesting in the eaves of the Korman Center building on one side of the plaza, and watched a student wearing shorts and a hoodie spit into the terrace as he walked past. It was a gray morning, and the semester was winding down. It was too bad we weren’t there on a sunny day, Amoroso said, when the benches lining the plazas are teeming with kids. He pointed to a garden and explained the complications of planting design. If you plant material that will do well in the shade, it might cook in the early days, when the trees are still small, he said. But if you plant hardier shade material, it will start to fade as the trees get bigger.
“So you know, you can’t walk away from these landscapes,” he said. “They’re not static. They sort of evolve. It requires a little bit of coordination with the grounds crew, and education of the client, letting them know, ‘Hey, you can’t just walk away from this.’ It’s going to change out as stuff grows.”
As the ecological thinking that its founders pioneered has become more common, Andropogon has tried to stay ahead of the curve. Almiñana helped formulate the tenets of the SITES v2 Rating System as part of the Technical Core Committee. The firm’s work at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh has achieved virtually every metric for ecological performance there is. And it’s pretty to boot, said Richard Piacentini, president and CEO at Phipps. “It’s a really nice contrast to the conservatory, which is a building that was designed to grow tropical plants from around the world,” Piacentini said. “And here’s this contrast with everything native and ecologically correct for this region.”
The firm increasingly hangs its reputation on research. Before she left the firm, Emily McCoy told me that the idea behind formalizing its research practice into the Integrative Research Division, which was created in 2012, was to have research questions baked into every project that the firm took on. Lauren Mandel, ASLA, a landscape architect and integrative researcher at Andropogon, told me that for now, she’s working on only a subset of the firm’s projects. But every time the firm starts a new project, the team talks through what opportunities there might be for research and how viable it is, environmentally and financially.
“It’s the idea that everyone is building on knowledge over time and collecting knowledge all the time that can be used by everyone,” Mandel said.
The research takes different forms. At Shoemaker Green, the stormwater performance is monitored by the university maintenance crews and by faculty researchers. At the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, Andropogon designed a green roof with hydrologically isolated plots containing different soil mixes, which are monitored by researchers at the school for how well they handle stormwater and support native plants. In 2016, McCoy and Mandel, who also writes for this magazine, coauthored an article for the Journal of Green Building looking at the viability and ecological benefits of growing native species on green roofs.
At Avalon Park & Preserve, the firm is using soundscape mapping to evaluate the environmental health of various parts of the property. Before completing the new master plan, Mandel said, researchers looked into the average decibel levels of different types of sounds that could be found on and near the preserve. They estimated ambient human-made noise near the site based on traffic counts and speed limits on nearby roads and the volume, along with natural sounds like wind in the trees and birdsong. Then they surveyed the site using handheld sound monitors at different times of day to test the estimates. And they have enlisted middle school students enrolled in educational programs at the preserve to assist in the mapping. The results helped them decide where to place various features of the plan, to protect the areas with the least human-made noise.
“To me, what’s so interesting about the soundscape mapping is that it provides a tool for more effectively creating a biophilic environment, where it’s appropriate,” Mandel said.
At Avalon, which was created by a wealthy family foundation, the conditions are ideal for research. Other clients are resistant. McCoy told me that creating the Integrative Research Division was also part of a business development strategy—something that the firm could use in marketing to maintain a competitive edge, rather than just doing research for its own sake, which during the early years was how it often worked. Carol Franklin said that for several years the firm toyed with the idea of starting a stand-alone nonprofit dedicated to research. They never took any steps to actually create the nonprofit, but when they were daydreaming about it, Franklin said, they referred to it as “the Andropogon Conspiracy.”
“We knew how important research was, and we knew the projects wouldn’t pay for it, which is why we were making 50 cents an hour while we were charging outrageous prices,” Franklin said. “We spent more than we made—particularly on research. If we were interested in something, we would just go and pursue it. It was hard for us to be businesslike, for the hippie generation.”
Even before McCoy left, Amoroso said, transitioning the firm to a new generation of principals had been “complicated and messy.” The foundational ethos was “absolutely brilliant,” he said, but “there wasn’t a lot of structure in place in terms of business protocols and transition plans and stuff like that.” The challenge now is to make the business agile enough to weather the ebbs and flows of the economy, and hold onto its foundational mission without being put into a narrow box as “the sustainability folks,” Amoroso said.
Olin said, “Landscape firms, because they’re value-based, and the people who come in quite often are interested in process and value and share that, they tend to go on. Because even if there are strong personalities that get them going, they tend to attract people who understand the ideas of those founders and then those people become attractive to other people later.… The landscape firms like Andropogon or, hopefully, our firm, try to be around the values and the ideas, not necessarily the person, no matter how bossy or charming or whatever.”
Damone and Griffiths were walking down a great hill, trading trebly impressions of Carol Franklin. The marshy beaches of Stony Brook Harbor were laid out at the bottom of the hill, where Andropogon has recommended building a habitat observation deck. Damone assured Griffiths that they had checked the tidal patterns to make sure the deck wouldn’t be inundated regularly, and wondered aloud what parts of the plan Franklin would say were ridiculous. Griffiths pointed out that Franklin would never be that blunt.
“If she was going to say that, she would be like, ‘Darren, this plan is wonderful! Remove the entire observation deck,’” Griffiths said.
“She’d be like, ‘Darling!’” Damone said. “Usually you were in trouble if it started with a ‘Darling.’ It’s like, where’s the other shoe?”
Griffiths turned her attention to a gaggle of baby geese. “Look at these little stinkers,” she said.
Before starting the master plan at Avalon, a team of biologists conducted a BioBlitz on the property, taking an inventory of all the plant and animal species that call it home. One of the long-range goals is to restore the northern bobwhite, which is tough for a number of reasons, Griffiths said. The bobwhite requires five distinct habitats, and when chicks are released on the property, it’s only a matter of luck whether they can evade the feral cats and foxes and survive to adulthood. So far, they’ve had mostly bad luck. In the meantime, the team is working on soundscaping research. And it’s also planning to use goats, and possibly pigs, to manage the land in one area and compare the success over time with traditional maintenance practices in another, Damone said.
Earlier in the hike we had run into David Barnett, a local astronomer, and followed him inside an observatory at the edge of a meadow, where he runs educational programs for local kids. Under light prodding from Griffiths he retrieved an iPad from his truck and started to show us pictures he had taken with the telescope.
“Some people call this the Eye of God, but it’s called the helix nebula,” Barnett said, pointing to the screen. “That little teeny tiny dot in the middle created that. This is half a light-year wide, which is three trillion miles.”
I was reminded of what Almiñana told me the first time we talked.
“Andropogon is an ethos, and I’m just a transient part of Andropogon,” he said. “I’m going to go, and it’s going to go to some other people, and on it goes, and hopefully there’s still a world for people to do work in.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.