Local and global, analog and digital, Michael Blier leads Landworks Studio into the wide world.
The East Dareen Beach Neighborhood Park site in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, is a serious place: Bounded by a missile silo to the north, its double shore of coast and island form results from a dredge-ravaged coastline—and it is a major part of the city’s treated sewage effluent (TSE) program. The 70-hectare park opened in 2020 and provides a significant new public space for the city of 684,000 people. Jubail is a major industrial center; in fact, it is one of the largest industrial cities—and was once dubbed the largest civil engineering project—in the world, since its designation as a focus for Saudi industrial development in 1975. The park is a storage unit for TSE and is a major part of a national plan to provide public spaces throughout Saudi Arabia. After industry comes quality of life in the era of urban development.
The park was designed by the Salem, Massachusetts, office of Landworks Studio, founded by the principal Michael Blier, FASLA, in 1996. The firm is intensely local, New England salt and sun, hand-drawing, and hard models—but also increasingly international, digital, and cross-border/cross-culture collaborative. The office is 14 people—10 in the Boston area and four in a satellite office in Taipei, Taiwan.
Having long had an inward focus and a certain air of closure to the outside world, Saudi Arabia is changing incrementally. A push toward diversification of the oil economy is driving some of this change. One shift is in tourism, both internal and external—a prepandemic 2019 campaign pushed the natural beauty of “Saudi” (shorthand in the diplomatic community) with the tagline “Welcome to Arabia.” Projects like the East Dareen Beach Neighborhood Park are a part of visitor-friendly urban upgrades and other, subtler cultural shifts.
The park is clearly popular—although COVID-19 continues to make travel difficult, the Internet renders the previously mysterious satisfyingly transparent. A look at Google Maps quickly subverts any expectations about public space in Saudi Arabia. Locals, expats, and tourists upload photos of the park in use. The design of the program required Landworks Studio designers to consider cultural norms and standards. Blier explained: “A challenge was designing a park for families in a Muslim culture. An example is in talking about connectivity; the bike paths and networks are not always working together because bike paths can’t go through family areas.” A team headed by Landworks Studio’s John Nelson was on-site in Jubail, and they collaborated closely with the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, the architecture and engineering team of CBT + FAEC, and other project partners to work through the design with careful attention to cultural and social aspects.
The park is in three sections: an intense green local park nearest the new housing, then a middle layer of undulating landforms that conceal TSE infrastructure, and finally a shore-edge promenade. The last section of the park is a dune landscape, part of the remediation of the heavily dredged coast. Native grasses, shrubs, and mangroves assist in the quiet repair. Landworks worked through design development phases, with construction documentation done locally, following Saudi development norms. East Dareen is one of a suite of projects conducted or in progress by Landworks Studio in Saudi Arabia.
Landworks designed East Dareen by developing sketches and complex drawings, translating them into digital formats, and exporting them back out again. Many people can design in plan, and in fact, most people do. It isn’t as easy to design in other representational orientations such as section or axonometric. Blier is a consummate draftsman, an expert in one of the most important, most overlooked drawing types: the section perspective. In fact, our experience of the world is actually closer to section perspective. While we never have that satisfying section cut line or some really good poché, we are only ever seeing our immediate environment. Glimpses of the plan are only possible from up high, a reason why people are willing to pay to access building observatories and why airplane window seats are particularly satisfying. A through line in his work and the sensibility of Landworks Studio is an intense connection to materiality and forms in space, place, and time—and an insistent three-dimensionality born of the section perspective, Blier’s preferred sketching mode.
Blier was raised in coastal Maine, enrolled as a sculpture student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and later changed to landscape architecture, finally doing his MLA at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). It is not a small thing that his preferred sketching mode is also technically the most complicated—and the first to fall off most architecture and design curricula in our era of digital representation. But the blood, sweat, and tears have their rewards, like many things done the hard way. Joy and playfulness are clear in all of the drawings. Sketches figure as a deep mode of practice and communications for Landworks. Blier shows off his Apple Pencil with a particular joy. His hand sketches are evocative, be they on the iPad or the reams of trace paper that are evident throughout the studio. Blier commented, “I think the sketch—to be able to show the client really puts them at ease in a way that a digital drawing may not, because I think everyone, no matter who they are, has sketched before, or drawn, or doodled.”
The past decade has brought renderings—and render studios—so good that the work looks “real,” but the roughness of the sketch remains essential. Moreover, Blier sees renderings as imposing limits too soon in projects. Andrea Varutti, a Landworks senior associate, chimes in to agree. “The problem with that is at the early stages, you haven’t figured out everything, you know?” Varutti says. Blier and Varutti often trade sketches back and forth to figure things out, to test and consider. The same process also applies to work, with the small Taiwan office stretching the sketching over the extended day across time zones.
Landworks is run like a proper collaborative studio team, and Blier is quick to credit his lineage. Martha Schwartz, FASLA; Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA; and Laurie Olin, FASLA, are bold-letter parts of Blier’s development as mentors, collaborators, and, as the office has matured, peers. At Landworks, the longtime project director Chris Macfarlane, ASLA, the office director Steve Watt, the foreign project coordinator Jenny Chiu, and others help Blier realize his powerful designs. Collaborations with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Heatherwick Studio, OMA, and Santos Prescott and Associates are raising the profile of the small office with a growing global reach.
Clear from Blier’s discussion of projects are the long-standing relationships with clients, including Pao Huei Construction Company Limited, one of the leading luxury developers in Taiwan. Zelkova Public Realm is an urban miniplaza project, a neighborhood park and streetscape design in a part of the city that was formerly roadway, exhaust, and people hurrying to and fro, not stopping to enjoy the city. Toyo Ito’s Taichung Opera House helps to anchor the area, and the public park is complemented by an allée of more than 200 large Taiwanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata) trees. Granite planters rise and fall, designed like visual vibrations through the four-block site, giving it form and functionality as seating. It was one of Landworks’s early projects for Pao Huei, and it won an honor award in 2016 from the Boston Society of Landscape Architects for streetscape design.
Solitaire Tower in Taichung is one of a series of residential and public spaces that Landworks has done in Taiwan for Pao Huei. It is a wonder in all its details, built and experiential, including pavers that shift in size to create a pleasingly visually distorted entry court, and large local Taiwanese zelkova trees that are carefully placed to shade both a large interior courtyard and the streetscape beyond the building. An early-stage sketch study shows the relationships between the architectural and the ephemeral qualities of the site, figured in fine pencil. A wall of water and hedges overhead atop stone planters play with sound, color, light, and temperature.
On an early December morning in Salem, Blier walks to the studio conference room, where late-morning sun is lighting a wall of wrinkled trace paper rectangles that stand in for stone. “I came in and did this one Saturday morning,” he explains, gesturing with both hands over the wall, “alone in the studio, a one-to-one mock-up.” And the actual wall is now being built as part of Sky Tower in Taichung, Taiwan, another project for Pao Huei.
Landworks has evolved from a local and regional practice into a global office, and many of these changes have happened organically, through word of mouth. The world seems large, which makes things hard to find—and good landscape architects who can work across cultural boundaries are few and far between. That Asia is a focus for Landworks is no accident, however, and the sensibility of the firm and openness of Blier to teach and share make cross-cultural exchanges ideal. Practice begets education, and a mix of ideas, norms, aesthetics, and standards germinates. Blier contrasts this adaptation with architecture’s tendency to be blind to context—in Taiwan and the rest of the world, “they often do a building that could be done anywhere, because that’s their style. The beauty of landscape is you’re dealing with topography, you’re dealing with the site; there’s so much to really be about the local,” Blier says.
Shenzhen, China, where Landworks participated in part of a landmark study, is one of the most interesting development stories in contemporary urbanization. From a fishing village in 1989 to a world commerce hub and city of more than 12 million in 2022, it’s all part of a proof-in-the-pudding opening of the Chinese economy to global free-market capitalism. Shenzhen has drawn a lot of attention from all kinds of urbanists. Meng Yan of URBANUS; Kongjian Yu, FASLA; OMA and Rem Koolhaas; Kees Christiaanse of KCAP; the historian Ole Bouman, and many more have engaged in Shenzhen to analyze, understand, and build (and rebuild) a city that got so much right—but perhaps not the urban fabric or quality of life, at least in the first flush of development.
The city has a commitment to addressing this lack, and Landworks and Adèle Naudé Santos of Santos Prescott and Associates were part of a project to create new green corridors as a substantial landscape infrastructure to reconnect the Pearl River Delta seaside city to its mountains. One of seven corridors, the Mangrove Museum Mountain to Sea Ecological Corridor is the central case study for ecological and cultural connection, forged not only between sea and mountain, but also throughout the city for public space, recreation, and habitat for all inhabitants of the megacity. Landworks and Santos completed an ecological framework plan in 2021.
Like many other firms, Landworks has had its pandemic trials. In mid-2018, Blier and company began renovating a newly purchased large 1950s building complex adjacent to the commuter rail stop in Salem, just across the North River. They’d always been in Salem, since Blier and his wife, the graphic designer Linda Blier, had looked up and down the New England coast for a home base, an ex-industrial or port city, similar to Portland, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island. Landworks is aptly named a “studio,” and the office has the feeling of a place of intense exchange and learning. Blier was a studio instructor lead at the GSD for more than a decade and now teaches studios at RISD, the current iteration of a three-decade teaching relationship with his undergrad alma mater.
On a frigid winter day, the Salem Station train platform was covered in neon cyan road salt spread in advance of an ice storm forecast for the day before that never came. Visiting Landworks Studio is easy by car from Boston, and instructive by train. A population of unhoused people had clearly occupied the station itself for some time, and aside from this encampment, the surrounding area seemed a bit desolate. The public-facing side of Salem is 19th-century brick buildings, the distinguished Peabody Essex Museum, and witch hunt souvenir shops cheek by jowl with serious Wicca and esoterica establishments. The backside is a story of industrial decline north of Boston—but there are promises of renewal.
Landworks’s refurbishment of the wonderful, low-slung 1950s building ensemble is part of this. A central courtyard became a gathering place for Landworks staff during the lockdown, and a shared vegetable garden was a victory for produce and productive pandemic-safe socializing. A firepit, picnic tables, and a plan to open up to the surrounding residential community complete the picture of a new node in the mixed-use life regenerating seaside Salem. Blier explains, “We have easy access to Salem Sound, we don’t have a long way to schlep the kayaks to get out.” And indeed, kayaks and fishing rods stand at the ready in the office. As the pandemic eases, and as work from home evolves and perhaps in parts persists, towns like Salem could benefit. Landworks is part of the backbone of creative small-scale businesses that encourage change in the near term. As global as the practice is, it is emphatically local.
“The notion of ‘practice makes perfect’ never seemed to make sense to me. Is that the goal? I just love the idea of practice and practicing as a more general overall approach,” Blier wrote in a late-night note on Instagram as he considered a wall of sketches. After 26 years of Landworks and more than three decades in practice, this approach is evident and will carry the studio well into its next decades of evolution.
Jessica Bridger is an urbanist, journalist, and consultant based in Switzerland.
East Dareen Beach Neighborhood Park, Jubail, Saudi Arabia
Owner The Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Concept and Schematic Design Landworks Studio, Salem, Massachusetts, and Taipei, Taiwan. Architects/Planners CBT Architects, Boston and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Engineers Fahd Alireza Engineering Consultants (FAEC), Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.
Zelkova Public Realm, Taichung, Taiwan
Client Pao Huei Construction Co. Ltd., Taichung City, Taiwan. Landscape Architecture Lead Landworks Studio, Salem, Massachusetts, and Taipei, Taiwan.
Solitaire Tower, Taichung, Taiwan
Client Pao Huei Construction Co. Ltd., Taichung City, Taiwan. Landscape Architecture Lead Landworks Studio, Salem, Massachusetts, and Taipei, Taiwan. Architect Johnson Fain, Los Angeles. Lighting Lighting Design Alliance, Long Beach, California.
The Mangrove Museum Mountain to Sea Ecological Corridor, Shenzhen, China
Client Guangdong Neilingding Futian National Nature Reserve Management Bureau, Planning and Natural Resources Bureau of Shenzhen Municipality, Urban Administration and Law Enforcement Bureau of Shenzhen Municipality, General Office of Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government. Landscape Architecture Prime Landworks Studio, Salem, Massachusetts, and Taipei, Taiwan. Collaborators Adèle Naudé Santos, Santos Prescott and Associates; Rafi Segal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Huang Weidong, Urban Planning & Design Institute of Shenzhen.