Landscape architecture interns are learning the ropes of the profession through the cables and wires of remote work.
By Zach Mortice
Last fall, Lily Dendy, Student ASLA, an MLA student at Auburn University, was looking for internships in New Mexico. She was searching for firms that had used indigenous design strategies (such as acequia water catchment systems) on their projects, and she had also visited Santa Fe during a road trip from Alabama to New Mexico the previous year and was transfixed by the region’s natural beauty. She was amazed by the Earth’s ability to create life in the arid expanses, and by the sunsets: the most beautiful she’d ever seen. So Surroundings Studio, a small firm in Santa Fe, founded by partners Kenneth Francis, ASLA, and Sandra Donner, Affiliate ASLA, seemed like a perfect fit. She applied in January, and the partners liked her portfolio and began discussions to bring her aboard for the summer. But then the COVID-19 pandemic halted everything. She would not be going to New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment,” Dendy says. “I was a little bummed.”
But Surroundings decided to move forward with the internship anyway. Dendy is one of many landscape architecture students getting some of their first experiences of professional practice via Zoom calls and VPNs. For firms that have been able to offer internships despite economic hardship, part of the challenge has been acclimating new designers to the studio environment through a laptop.
Francis initially worried that they wouldn’t be able to offer an internship at all. He was concerned about the economy and about practical logistics. “We didn’t know what was coming down the pipe economically, but we also didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “We’re like, ‘Are we kidding? We’re going to get onto some Zoom meetings with this stranger for three months?’” But Francis says they were impressed by the quality of student work submitted, and started to think that in lieu of an actual internship, they should at least review portfolios and give some substantive feedback, especially since jobs and internships were likely going to be hard to come by. Meanwhile, their office had stayed busy.
“I started thinking, ‘Why can’t we make this work?” Francis says. “Maybe this is what we’re going to have to do for a while, so we might want to adapt pretty quickly.”
When Dendy began the internship in late May, “The first thing I did was give her carte blanche access to our calendars, and said, ‘If you want to come to a meeting with a client, just write me or the project manager first to get permission, and hop on—be in the background to listen and watch,” Francis says. With the office atomized by the pandemic and spatial hierarchies broken down, no one is huddled away in a conference room, and conversations are sometimes more accessible. “I feel like I’ve gotten to be incorporated [into] basically everything,” Dendy says.
Francis paired her with different staff across the office from week to week, to act as mentors. Typically, during Monday morning meetings the firm would identify projects to focus on, balancing Dendy’s time and workload. Then a later call with a project manager would assign her specific tasks. Much of the early portion of her internship was consumed by learning the office’s software—Vectorworks and SketchUp—and Dendy says she found that remote work was a good setting for this. She could screen share and observe while staff explained their procedures and design process. “If I were in an office setting,” Dendy says, “I wouldn’t be able to peek over their shoulder for four hours.” At other times early on, when Dendy didn’t have much to do, she’d put out a call for extra work. Outside the studio’s churn of activity, the isolation of COVID-19 quarantine slowed its arrival, she says. It “felt a little bit more like homework assignments,” says Dendy. “Because I’m not present in the work space, I can’t just yell out, ‘Hey, somebody give me a task.’”
At first, Dendy was working on a project at Santa Fe Railyard Park, mapping areas for comprehensive survey, counting benches to reuse material, and learning more generally about the city. Later, she moved between different projects more, working on renderings and diagrams and planning out project viewsheds. She made water harvesting diagrams for residential projects and planting plans in Vectorworks, tucking in details before proposals. She got to present her sketches for a plan to a client, which turned out to be the client’s favorite option.
Dendy got more exposure to a wider array of projects than she might have gotten in the studio, where her internship likely would have begun with a mandate to focus on a handful of projects. It was “a more fragmented experience,” says Francis, where her colleagues were focused on filling her time piece by piece.
Getting tools that maximize the sharing and iteration of drawings into the hands of new interns is critical, Francis says, and it’s one thing he would have done differently. By sending over an iPad and stylus on Dendy’s first day, he could have shown her how he draws. “We’re in the studio a lot drawing on trace, and iterating over design ideas constantly, and there’s an energy there, and we build on it and riff on things as a group,” he says. “And I think that has been missing.” The next best work-around, drawing with a mouse in Acrobat, is too awkward, he says. “The pad and the pencil get closer to the way we express ideas to each other.” It’s an issue he just rectified for the rest of his team with a bulk purchase of iPads, after Dendy’s internship ended two weeks ago.
Aaron Stone, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, was an intern in James Corner Field Operations’s Philadelphia office last year, but that office didn’t need the extra help this summer. But the New York office did. And “It doesn’t really matter where anybody is anymore,” says New York office principal Isabel Castilla, ASLA, “so let’s assign him to me.”
Working from Philadelphia, Stone didn’t have to get accustomed to a new firm culture, but he did have to get acquainted with a new group of colleagues. “It definitely felt like I was starting at a whole different office,” he says. With only one principal in the smaller Philadelphia studio, there was an easier, more intimate flow of feedback when everyone could work in the same space. Stone says the tasks he’s been taking on this summer haven’t been particularly different from his previous experience at Field Operations (Rhino modeling, renderings, Photoshop work), but input and guidance have happened at a more prescribed pace, as he was handed tasks for later evaluation and left to work independently. With pandemic quarantine, “everything is so structured,” Stone says. “The creative feedback has been the biggest missed opportunity.” He’s worked on a small and very technical project in Midtown Manhattan this time around, in contrast to last year, when he focused on broader conceptual work and competitions. “My favorite thing about design is being able to collaborate with people and share ideas and get excited about these things in person,” he says, “and not even seeing the faces of people in the office and hearing their voices through a speaker is just not the same.”
Castilla says that she laments the lack of social outlets for pandemic interns, and has tried to substitute a range of quizzes and games to keep people involved. “I remember when I was an intern, the person I was interning with made it a point to take me to all his favorite restaurants, and I remembered that much more fondly than the work I did,” she says.
With a lingering pandemic, Stone says he’d try a remote internship again. “Although I would always prefer to be physically in an office, the pros of any internship format (acquiring new skill sets, challenging one’s creative output, forging professional relationships, and having a hand in shaping more equitable environments) far outweigh the cons of a remote internship (technology issues, isolation),” he says. “And, to be optimistic, successfully overcoming the challenges of working remotely requires the building of one’s own discipline and self-motivation.”