In Their Elements

Stimson takes on the challenges of success by staying true to its New England roots.

By Jonathan Lerner

Stephen Stimson, FASLA, and Lauren Stimson, ASLA, built a new house and utility building on property Steve’s family has long farmed. Photo by Ngoc Doan.

Outside the kitchen door of the Massachusetts farm where Stephen (Steve) Stimson, FASLA, and his wife and partner, Lauren Stimson, ASLA, live with their two kids is a water feature created by Steve in the agrarian spirit of thrift. Steve’s cousin welded steel plates to form a rectangular source basin. Its overflow spills into a straight 100-foot run of off-the-shelf C channel, bordering an extensive vegetable garden. The water then tips over a low wall into a rectangular pool. The pool is simply a concrete burial vault sunk to its rim in the ground, from which a hidden pump and piping recirculate water back to the source basin. The orthogonal geometry and standard materials might suggest industrial-modern cool. But Steve describes it with warmth: “It’s all about the kids. They’re sitting in the channel, walking it like a balance beam, floating their toys down the hundred feet and then talking to the fish.” In its plainness, it’s also all about the New England agrarian culture he inherited.

Steve’s family has been farming in Central Massachusetts for 10 generations. His nephews now manage the original property, while he and Lauren have settled on an adjacent plot the family also long worked. They raise chickens, sheep, and cattle; operate a nursery that supplies plants for many projects of Stimson, the firm Steve founded in 1992; and use the place to test ideas and gather inspiration about planting, design, and construction. They have just completed a studio building there, so their own commute has shortened to a stroll across a meadow. It’s no surprise that their work is imbued with the spirit and the nature of the New England countryside.

Inland from the coast, this region is characterized by long, low, and ancient mountain ranges. There are the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Green Mountains in Vermont; others are so worn down that they’re usually called hills, the Berkshires in Massachusetts and the Taconics to their west on the New York border. Eons of weathering have exposed balds and outcrops of bedrock, mostly granites, on slopes and peaks. Even in the less mountainous southern and eastern parts of the region, valleys and fields are often rippled with drumlins, elongated hills of sediment left behind by glaciers, and while there’s not much dramatic topography, there’s not much truly flat land either.

Lauren and Steve Stimson placing reclaimed granite for a firepit at the new studio. Photo by Ngoc Doan.

Before European settlement the region was almost entirely wooded, but by the mid-19th century it had been largely deforested and divided into small, self-sufficient farms. “Hardscrabble” may be too extreme a characterization for these operations, but the winters were frigid and the soils poor and rocky. The typical practice in preparing a field for planting was to move stones to its boundaries and pile them into low walls; New Englanders call these fences. Every winter, frost heave would yield yet more stones to be cleared. The fences established a type of hedgerow, with shrubs and saplings sprouting from between the rocks and wildlife taking up residence. By the 20th century, given the pulls on rural population toward westward migration and into the region’s cities for new industrial jobs, many farms had been abandoned and over time were naturally reforested. A walk in the woods today almost always brings you past the sunken or tumbled remnants of those stone fences.

One day last fall, Steve, Lauren, Sean Kline (who joined the firm after earning his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture in 2016), Cecilia Huber (hired after earning her master’s degree in landscape architecture in 2020), and a landscape-construction contractor with whom Stimson has a long-standing relationship were at a 300-plus-acre tract of woods and former farmland just over the New York line. It is being reimagined as a country estate, for which they are creating a master plan. They were moving trees around. They had a planting plan and a measuring tape but were improvising: “No, shift that left. What about putting two yellow birch together over here?” Lauren, marking spots on the ground with spray paint, said, “Our big concept here is hedgerow restoration,” both to demarcate spaces and to enhance wildlife habitat and connectivity. “Through aerial research, you can see a memory of them.”

Research, often wide-ranging, into the cultural, ecological, and architectural context of a site undergirds a Stimson project. In this case, after one of the clients had exuberantly—and, it later turned out, only jokingly—claimed to have been a Boy Scout, Huber compiled the findings into a “field guide” to the property. It describes, for example, the region’s history of Indigenous presence and subsequent European settlement, species found there, an inventory of types of agriculture in the area, and the possibilities of an agricultural-district overlay. She illustrated it with a 19th-century map of the county’s property boundaries, images of leaves and grasses collected from the site, and the firm’s early concept drawings for the master plan. Those have labels such as the “Holy Schist! Trail” (leading to schist outcrops), the “Dash Line” (a boardwalk to a sauna, to be raced along in winter), and the “Big Zipper” (a long staircase linking the house site to a stream). Fun aside, Huber says that for the clients “it was incentive to do this ecological restoration,” which is the underlying impulse of Stimson’s plan for the place.

Including Steve, Lauren, and three other principals—Edward Marshall, FASLA; Glen Valentine, ASLA; and Joe Wahler, ASLA—Stimson’s roster now hovers around 40 people. There are two studios, one on the farm in Princeton, Massachusetts, and one in Cambridge, while some staff work remotely. There’s been growth. A few years ago they typically had about 80 active projects; today they are handling about 110. The firm’s work includes residential, institutional, and public spaces, and Steve’s rural New England sensibility influences most of it. The designs often have stone walls or horizontal blocks of granite forming terraces or serving as boundaries or benches. Shaggy hedgerows and meadows, naturalistic bioswales and woodlot-like bosks hint at the region’s now barely legible old farmland patchwork.

In the early years, Stimson’s office was on Cape Cod, and many projects were summer estates. Lavish budgets allowed a “level of attention to unique detailing that helped distinguish us early,” Steve says. In a monograph written two decades ago about their early work, Jane Amidon, now a professor of landscape architecture at Northeastern University, noted “detail that communicates without reliance on ornamental flourishes.” She wrote, “The spatial mosaic of fields and windrows, the patterning of crops, and the cycling of seasons imprinted Stimson’s perception of placemaking,” leading, for example, to “grading schemes [that] generate from the existing landforms; they are strong, generally planar statements, not abstract impositions.” Members of the Stimson firm characterize its approach as both modernist and regionalist; some would add ruralist.

“That’s Steve’s personal story. How it’s translated through our work is in a frugality of material,” Wahler says. “We’re always searching to challenge what we put on paper and refine that to its purest form.” He adds, “The one thing that drew me to Stimson was the attention to craft”—craft in the sense of the hands-on fashioning of elements in a design. To begin with, you can’t get hired there if you don’t draw by hand. Wahler explains further that as the concept is understood at the firm, craft is “not just the act of detailing something and putting it together, but understanding the history of how things are built, and how that can be reinterpreted in a design specific to place and materiality.” He also speaks of “that relationship word,” a commitment to deep connections with clients, and to long-term associations with architects and with craftspeople, “the people in the field who are actually building the landscapes. Having personal relationships, down to the folks responsible for maintenance, is really important to us. That is true of everybody in the firm.” Hands on, and hands in the dirt. Kline grew up on a former dairy farm not far away in Upstate New York. “What keeps me in love with the firm is the projects that are especially scrappy,” he says. “This is so relevant right now. What is the simplest answer? How can we create the most elegant, beautiful thing without spending big bucks and depleting a bunch of resources? It comes from the agrarian ethic—you don’t throw stuff away.”

The Ledges make a naturalistic break in the otherwise restrained Williams College campus landscape. Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

But context, even in rural New England, isn’t always agrarian. For a new quadrangle at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the firm took inspiration from surrounding topography and geology. Williams has a classic New England campus: symmetrical historic buildings of brick and stone set on a grid, tree-dotted lawns, and everything in perfect trim. It’s located in a region of significant marble deposits; many of its older structures have marble foundations because marble was cheap there, back when. Several sumptuously detailed recent modernist buildings face the project site. The Taconics, Berkshires, and Green Mountains are a background presence. It’s a college tradition that classes are suspended annually for Mountain Day, when students participate in hikes and outdoor activities. Yet there was nothing on the campus reflecting the hills’ rugged terrain.

In addition to addressing a 10-foot grade change on the site, mental health was a concern. There had been suicides and an incidence of depression among students who are high achievers but under tremendous academic pressure. “We built a case for landscape to draw kids out of their dorms,” Lauren says. The result is a large rectangular lawn; this was chosen over several more naturalistic concepts—perhaps a compromise, but it does make a functional space for events like graduation. It’s bordered along one side by a lush 250-foot bioswale. The standout gesture is a seemingly random tumble of big chunks of marble, dubbed the Ledges. The Stimson team made numerous trips to Danby, over the line in Vermont, where the world’s largest underground marble quarry operates. Lauren says, “We looked at all their waste material. We would tag stone, draw it, do measurements, figure out how many cuts we were going to make, then come back to CAD to fit them in. Every single one had a key to it—you had to know, because we needed [the quarrymen] to make the cuts.” Actually, the Ledges is a rather abstract suggestion of mountains. The assemblage steps up but is mainly horizontal, and most of its pieces are long rectangles. Still, like a ridge of rough bedrock exposed by erosion, it is probably the only disruptive break in built-environment decorum anywhere at Williams. And it’s much used by students as a place to hang out.

The MIT courtyard’s evening lighting emphasizes the sinuous bench lines. Photo by John Horner.

Site analysis also yielded counterpoints to context in Stimson’s design for an enclosed courtyard, part of the renovation of a 1951 library on the campus of MIT in Cambridge. The courtyard suffered from a typical failing of outdoor spaces in that era’s modernist buildings: blankness. It was sunken, entirely paved, and empty except for a trio of Jacques Lipchitz sculptures. Stimson raised the floor to the level of the building’s interior, from which the space is now accessed through glass accordion windows. The floor was treated with concrete pavers in two finishes, one smooth and one granitelike, set in a bar code pattern to acknowledge MIT’s role in developing that technology. While overall the campus landscape is “lawns and trees,” says Greg Tuzzolo, ASLA, Stimson’s managing director, here “the number one concept was diversity at the ground plane. Number two was a woodland quality.” Single-trunk katsura trees were placed in a grid defined by existing basement-level pillars, which they needed for support. “It has a relationship to the building,” he says, “but gave us a fun opportunity to play with the edges.” Now there is a sinuous, free-form garden around three sides of the courtyard, with a continuous backless bench tracing its edge. These embrace an occupiable central space with movable furniture. The garden is planted naturalistically with native azaleas interspersed with inkberry holly, witch alder, viburnum, and ground covers like periwinkle, sedge, and ferns. Steve says, “We try to bring our understanding of the typology of the rural landscape into planting design, even in a city or dense environment.”

That principle also manifested in a recent project for a place that is neither rural nor urban, the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). Students and staff there number more than 37,000. They are accommodated on 1,400 sprawling acres, mostly in structures of the tower-in-a-park and building-as-object typologies, which are widely separated by lawns, roads, and parking lots. Some of the buildings are quite fine; still, like a generic 20th-century suburb, they could be anywhere. Steve and Lauren both received landscape architecture degrees there, at different times, as did several other members of the firm, and they retain strong ties to the school. Recently, the John W. Olver Design Building was erected to bring three programs—Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and Building and Construction Technology—together under one roof. Stimson was the landscape architect. Their point of pride, as a matter of fact, is that very roof, on which they established a courtyard garden.

The building itself is innovative: The roof courtyard spans an enormous interior atrium and is supported, without columns, by a mass-timber zipper-truss system. This could only take the weight of very shallow soil, a problem resolved by alternating bands three and seven inches deep. Mountain ledges also have thin soil. Many “green roofs are entirely Sedum,” Lauren remembers thinking, before picturing the nearby ridges. “Why not what you see at the top of Mount Holyoke?” The result is an alpine community: mosses, lichens, barren strawberry, wild blueberry sod, tiny trees. “Many people from their firm came, and were installing that together,” says the lead architect on the building, Tom Chung of Leers Weinzapfel Associates. “It was an experiment. It hadn’t been done before. They really had to get their hands dirty. That level of commitment is unheard of in practice. Their dedication to their craft is remarkable.”

Photos posted to Stimson’s Instagram feed and website give followers a backstage view of the firm. Image courtesy Stimson.

Last September, Stimson invited its entire crew to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, for a retreat. Do not picture the trust exercises and intense work sessions of a corporate team-building effort. Everybody just went into the studios to throw pots, carve spoons, or forge knives and hung out enjoying the magnificent oceanfront setting and the inspiring campus, a modernist icon designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Stimson had recently been invited, along with Simons Architects, onto the team that’s drawing up a new master plan for Haystack. But the week there was not focused on any landscape architecture outcome. It was instead a chance to be together after many months of remote work, finally meet recent hires in person, and try to get the hang of a few unfamiliar artisanal skills. “That takes us out of our comfort zone and loosens us up to take some of those broad principles of the crafts back,” the studio director Laura Gomez observed at the time, “not even specifically applying to craft—but to ways of thinking about how we iterate things.”

Holding the retreat was entirely consistent with the firm’s values regarding organization and people, and with its informal ambience. The Stimsons already had a tradition of inviting everybody out to the farm several times a year for workdays, to plant trees and shrubs in the nursery and learn the arts of root pruning and root ball lacing, followed by a communal dinner. “The office structure has always had a foundation of being fluid,” Marshall says. Other members of the firm variously describe Stimson as horizontal, collaborative, organic, and free-form. “The culture all starts from Steve. Just his person, how he is, his calm demeanor, his mentorship. He gives people a lot of autonomy,” Wahler says. “We’re very mindful about balance between our professional lives and our personal lives. That does create a good environment and builds more camaraderie. On the other side, we are an open, iterative design studio and encourage input from everybody, from entry-level to senior people.”

Actually, company leaders had intended to have a group discussion about strategic direction while at Haystack. It didn’t materialize; nobody wanted to break the relaxed mood for a formal meeting. But everyone was aware that Stimson is at an inflection point. Staff has grown. Business has grown. Receiving the 2021 ASLA Landscape Architecture Firm Award was exhilarating, perhaps even slightly unsettling, and illuminated profound questions: What kind of work might come now, or should be turned away, or pursued? Could more staff be taken on without sacrificing the highly valued intimacy? Would the fluid structure still serve?

“When I started here [in 2007],” Valentine says, “the organization was almost completely broad. It’s like everyone was a project manager, everyone was a designer—that was like 16 people—and you wanted everyone to be a general. But as you get this big and are trying to create a product with a certain quality, that becomes almost impossible.” The landscape designer Gideon Finck, who joined in 2019, became aware of “the downside of it operating like a small office while actually not being a small office anymore.” He says, “The amorphousness is a mixed blessing. It allows for fluidity across roles within the office and may, at its best, lead to a richer design process. At worst, though, it contributes to inefficiency and stress.”

Steve himself has stepped back from management to concentrate on design and advising the staff and leadership. “But it’s not like we have a rigorous in-house review process where principals have to review other principals’ work. That independence is important for people to be happy and creative,” he says. “But there is a common ethic about quality of design that runs the gamut of materiality, ecological function, spatial clarity. It doesn’t necessarily look like it all comes from one firm, and I take pride in that.” He rarely writes proposals or attends interviews anymore. “I’m much more valuable doing some sketches that other people can take to the meeting.”

Recently a structure was introduced—one hesitates to apply the term “hierarchy” to this historically free-form organization—with the appointment of three senior staff members to directorships. Tuzzolo, as managing director, oversees proposals and contracts, business development and marketing, and reviews potential projects to advise the principals. “They make the decisions. I just try to pay attention to the things that I think are risks or opportunities and speak my mind.” Gomez, the studio director, is responsible for staffing assignments and team building, encouraging mentor relationships and professional development, and other aspects of what would come under human resources if the firm had such a role. Team building “falls into that mindfulness space,” she says, and “the most important thing is how the most junior designers are feeling, if they feel they’re being set up for success.” Matt Langan, ASLA, who had been with Stimson for only two months at the time of the retreat after having worked at Sasaki and at Reed Hilderbrand, is the technical director. “With so much work, there’s a bit of a lack of continuity,” he says; his role is “to build that safety net underneath everybody” by developing and managing systems for quality control, project tracking, and technical data. It’s too early to tell whether these directorships will enhance the firm’s functioning without altering its egalitarian character.

Photos posted to Stimson’s Instagram feed and website give followers a backstage view of the firm. Image courtesy Stimson.

That Stimson values its people is obvious in small ways, such as the list on its website of every former employee—nearly 100 names—and in more significant ones such as the experience of Camila Campos Herrera, who was hired in 2019. She had been a civil engineer in Toronto, specializing in transportation planning, before returning to school for a master’s degree in landscape architecture. When job hunting, she found that landscape architecture firms there considered her previous expertise “unattractive. They said I was overqualified. Stimson saw this as an asset and [has] been really great at bringing me into projects where they need help for traffic things,” she says. “At least once every two weeks I’m working on a project I’ve never worked on before, filling in some detail. It’s fun to see what other people are doing, and it’s a great way to learn.”

Campos Herrera was born in Cuba and raised in Canada. Several others at Stimson come from other countries. The firm is pretty well-balanced in gender, with about two-fifths of the members women. There are several people of color, including Lauren, whose mother is Filipina and father is Anglo. But no one is Black, reflecting the unequal demographics of the profession. The firm has taken the recent years’ conflicts and conversations about race seriously, though. In August 2020, Lauren penned a letter to the staff that could be Exhibit A in an argument that the personal is political. She began, “I started to write a statement that spoke about Stimson’s BLM actions and our commitment. What happened is I got wrapped up into a very personal emotional journey about my own identity.” She detailed her encounters and realizations, during childhood and since, about being biracial and bicultural. “I have never discussed my ethnicity and race publicly like this before at Stimson. I feel compelled to do so now, especially after speaking to other people of color, in our studio and beyond, for one simple reason: It makes a difference when someone who identifies as a minority is leading the charge.”

At the same time, she and Steve issued a “Third Space Resolution” asserting that the firm should consider itself a third space, not in the urbanist sense of a social environment that is neither home nor work, but as a safe place neither in the safe matrix of a minority community nor the fraught situation of being a minority in a mainstream context, a place “where BIPOC, LGBTIQ, and anyone else that was once on the fringe feels heard, celebrated, and respected. A big glorious mess of all things happily interconnected and thriving”—that last being an apt characterization of the firm anyway, or so it appears to this observer. They committed to searching for opportunities to address inequality through, for example, educational programs introducing young people to landscape architecture and how its practice and principles can address issues of environmental and food justice, and to supporting organizations that work for racial equity. One tangible initiative so far is the establishment of a tuition scholarship for a socioeconomically disadvantaged student in landscape architecture at UMass. The intention is to encourage students of color, who are so underrepresented in landscape architecture, to enter it.

The new master plan for Haystack must steward both a delicate environment and a modernist architectural treasure, both of which have profound challenges of access and preservation. Image courtesy Stimson.

Stimson, like many firms, is on the lookout for design commissions that directly take on issues like these through landscape design. Meanwhile, an intriguing approach to integrating diversity consciousness with the work has emerged—just as a possibility, so far—in developing the new master plan for Haystack. The school’s structures mostly date from the early 1960s; many suffer from deterioration and deferred maintenance, and in sum they no longer provide sufficient space. The campus sits on a breathtaking but steep and utterly exposed headland facing into the Atlantic. It is a fragile environment: thin soil over granite ledges, supporting a climax red spruce forest that has experienced destructive blowdowns and will continue to do so. The architecture still looks fabulous: a village-like assemblage of simple, silvery, weathered-shingle, shed-roof buildings all linked by boardwalks and decks to a central spine, a broad 142-step staircase descending to the water. Of course, “if you ever created a monument to inaccessibility, it’s this staircase. There’s so many different kinds of bodies that can’t navigate it,” says Paul Sacaridiz, Haystack’s executive director. “There’s only so long you can get by saying, ‘This place is super important! There’s mold in the bathroom, but just look at that view!’” It was time for a new master plan, and the mobility challenge will likely be its biggest nut to crack.

Lauren, who claims to lie awake these nights imagining ramp systems for Haystack, says, “I started our first presentation talking about the invisible Wabanaki history that predates Barnes and that no one ever talks about. So what? The ‘so what’ is how does that influence us as master planners? And how does it inspire Haystack toward a land acknowledgment process?” One of the consultants on the master plan is John Bear Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation and a lecturer in Wabanaki Studies at the University of Maine, who uses traditional medicines. Lauren met with him on-site last December, when the campus was empty—the school operates only in summer. Mitchell noticed a cluster of mushrooms. He said, “Look at that; it would have been perfect for my tinctures, but I’ve got enough for this year.” Lauren thought, “Land acknowledgment statement, big deal in a way. Who’s going to give the land back? But what if we were to allow seasonal use for foraging and occupation in traditional ways? It could be an emotional return.”

Exploring the forest ecology at Haystack. Image courtesy Stimson.

It seems odd to think of an organization of 40 people who are simultaneously working on 100-plus projects as a mom-and-pop shop. But there is a casual, familial feel, and while Steve and Lauren are only two of the five principals, they are the engines of the group culture. He is laconic and steady, a nonpareil exemplar of the weathered New England farming stock from which he comes. She is exuberant, seemingly unstoppable. In addition to co-operating the firm and the farm and co-parenting the two kids, she knits, sews, paints, plays guitar, and writes songs, and she is thinking that the big all-purpose room at the new studio on the farm could be a shop or a gallery or a community kitchen. “It’s all connected,” she insists. To get a sense of the energy this couple and their firm generate, glance at their dizzyingly kinetic website, or better yet their Instagram account, @stimsonlandscapearchitects. You might think the younger members of the team, the digital natives, keep the online presence hopping, but it’s almost entirely Lauren. “She does it in bed at night,” Steve says. On Instagram you can watch the two of them performing one of her songs—enter #wecandrawbutwecantsing—an ode to UMass landscape architecture graduates. Steve barely stops grinning but looks a bit embarrassed all the same. “He just hates it,” she says of his being dragooned into these performances, “but he does it for me.” In one, he has the job of holding up props at strategic points to illustrate her lyrics: a pair of UMass-branded gym shorts; a pencil; a sketchbook; a pair of sturdy boots for site visits; a copy of Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.

“I wish I had their passion, being able to be that continuous in my life and work,” says Chung, the architect of the UMass design building. “It’s not just Steve and Lauren. They all carry the same passion, the same sensibility and core values. They’ve really taken to heart not just the environmental health of our planet but the social health of people in our society.”

The Stimson team kicking back after a workday at the farm. Photo by Lauren Stimson, ASLA.

LAM Contributing Editor Jonathan Lerner’s novel Lily Narcissus will be out in October from Unsolicited Press.

CORRECTION: The print version of this article misidentified Stimson’s Instagram account, which is @stimsonlandscapearchitects. It has been corrected here.

Leave a Reply