This column appears in the May 2013 issue of LAM.
In the interest of public health, this issue should probably carry an antihistamine with it. Our feature stories this month all involve residential landscape architecture projects, wonderful projects, each quite different and with its peculiar challenges and virtues. But the thought of designing gardens around the places people actually live, categorically, seems to cause itching, swelling, and citations of Thorstein Veblen among some landscape architects. I have witnessed this reaction more times than I can recall, though in each case, I am glad to report, the victim has fairly quickly resumed his or her normal activities.
There is a charming fiction in the design world that private work, especially residential work, and especially residential work for anyone living at or above 200 percent of the poverty line, is decadent and unworthy of professional regard. The parallel belief is that all public work is good and righteous for designers to do, and about that there is little doubt, though the case is oversimplified. Ask anyone who’s done public work.
Private work and public work are like fresh pasta and dried pasta, as Gillian Riley has it in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food. One is not better than the other. They are different. Because private clients are often rich, they tend to be open to new ideas, artistic, ecological, or otherwise (they can also drive you crazy). Surely most of us are with Daniel Libeskind in his recent pronouncement that you should not build gleaming streets for despots. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It is perfectly okay to do design work for someone who on their own has made something happen without harm to anyone and has made money as a result. There is a no-fly zone over much of Wall Street, direct mail entrepreneurs, and a certain evil Australian media magnate, but a designer has to use the sixth sense to figure out just who the client is.
Nearly 80 percent of private firms run by ASLA members offer residential design services. This work makes up more than one-third of private sector billable hours. It is far and away the largest market subsector. The domestic front, particularly designing for what you might call the permanently rich, brought a lot of firms through the recession. Many of the landscape architects who do both private and public work will tell you that in their offices the private work pays for the public work. The public work, high-minded as it is, often pays low margins and it increases the number of clients from a couple to a couple of hundred or more. Residential projects are where a lot of designers try the novel things that, if they work, make their public projects better. Still, some designers recoil at the thought of something they consider too close to housework. There’s a T-shirt for sale online by the Landscape Architects Network that says, “I’m a landscape architect and I won’t design your garden.” Good for a laugh, I guess, but not great for business. You may have heard the sentiment elsewhere and noted the need for heroics it carries—besides, who does not love gardens?—and the obliviousness to how the economics of this profession play out in reality.
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