Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture and the Spirit of Place
The spirit of a place. This concept comes up throughout our interview with Jeffrey Gordon Smith, principal architect of Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture based in Baywood-Los Osos, CA. There is a respect and celebration of space throughout the work of Smith and his firm. They encourage clients to celebrate where they live and do so by connecting the designs of their projects to the existing natural landscape. From a chain of volcanic plugs corresponding to an outdoor space’s pergola design to a Japanese garden in the Pacific Rim evoking neighboring farm fields, site and architecture speak to each other and create a cohesive landscape.
Eye of the Day: What lead to you becoming a landscape architect and starting your own firm?
Jeffrey Gordon Smith: I was always interested in design. Basically, I wanted to go to school for architecture but the program at Cal Poly was impacted. So, I consulted my father and he directed me to a similar profession — Civil Engineering. I got into Civil Engineering only to find out later it was just impacted as Architecture. I think they made a mistake letting me in because my grades weren’t all that great. I spent a year in Civil Engineering taking all the calculus, physics, all the brutal courses and found out it wasn’t really my gig. Not only from a professional standpoint, but it just didn’t have enough of an artistic side to it I think.
I basically fell into Landscape Architecture. I started looking back into the school’s environmental design, landscape architecture, regional planning, architecture, and architectural engineering. I found Landscape Architecture almost by accident. I was really interested in the curriculum and what it potentially had to offer. I’m not really religious, but when I started taking courses, it was like I was a born-again Landscape Architect –that was it for me.
My father suggested I start an internship with a Landscape Architect. A firm was working for his company so he helped me get an internship with Emmett Wemple and Associates—one of the most important landscape architects in the Los Angeles area 50 years back. He did the Malibu Getty and other important projects. I did a summer internship and got more of a sense of what the field was about.
EOD: So you’ve been involved with Landscape Architecture since college. When did you start Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture?
JGS: God… I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I’ve probably been practicing for 15 years. I worked for several big firms before. Out of college, I worked for Peridian down in Irvine and they were one of the largest firms at the time. I was hired to work on a Spanish theme park in Japan. I got to be one of the head designers on a 172-acre Spanish theme park in Japan. I got to be involved at a high level in design right out of school. This was right before the great recession in the 90s. I thought I was such a rock star, but they started to get more into residential housing that wasn’t very creative. So I left and landed a job at Schwartz, Smith, Meyer with Martha Schwartz, this rock star of landscape architects at the time, very controversial. She was married to Peter Walker, who’s probably the landscape architect of our time right now. She splintered off and created her own design team with two others. We were doing high profile projects around the world. We worked for Rem Koolhaas, Isozaki, Frank Gehry. Then the recession hit and I was going from job to job and the profession was suffering. It was really tough to run a business in this economy. So I got kind of disenchanted with the profession because everyone was so unhappy at the time financially. It was really a tough time to be starting out.
I started doing side work with models—specifically model trees for one of the finest model tree makers in the world. I’ve worked on models from all over from Disney Concert Hall, to Richard Meyer, to Guggenheim Museum. I started moonlighting and doing my own stuff, a couple of outside projects and started doing a lot of production work for a house designer. The economy started swinging back on high end homes in Portola Valley and Bay Area. I was doing a lot of work and never decided to open my own office but I was doing so much that I needed all my work together, a title block, business cards…had I needed to open up my own office it would have been a daunting task, but it just kind of happened over a couple of years where I realized I needed to do this and my own work ended up keeping me going.
EOD: This is essentially where you branch off and start your own company. Your firm focuses on high end landscape design for a range of clients in residential and commercial projects. What design philosophy do you personally bring to each project? Is it important that you complete a design with a certain goal in mind?
JGS: When I started out on my own I was working on these cookie-cutter, McMansion stuff that wasn’t very creative or innovative. I was always trying to push the edge but really to also pay the bills. I was fortunate enough in the real estate market to buy property in San Francisco and sell it at the right time during the height of the tech industry—right place, right time. I was able to look at what I was doing and step back. I think we make decisions too often on money. Since I had a little breathing room from the house sale I looked in the mirror and asked myself what do I want to be when I grow up. I wanted to do much more interesting work and that got me into this present-day philosophy that I have.
I never set out to do a mission statement about what I needed to do. It was really trying to find a little bit more soul into what we’re working with and trying to find—sometimes I hate to use the word– the genus loci or the “spirit of the place.” It was something we always talked about in school and I felt like how could I dare to say that I could conjure up the spirit of a place or the power to call that. But I’ve been doing this so long that I think we have a fairly good tact and understanding in what’s going on in the process of the space or place and trying to extract out the greatest elements of that place. It’s almost as if you were to take a volume knob and crank it up and ask what this place wants to be, what is this place talking about, and really trying to put feelers out and be sensitive to what’s going on.
We came up with that idea of regionalism and looking back at my work over ten years that I kind of changed what I wanted to do and people started to follow my work and request work that wasn’t that McMansion type but the uniqueness of site. I started getting work because of this versus just working for someone who was trying to sell a house. It was more of the art side coming out and exploring that and pushing it in each project.
Not every project has that but I try to use a three-prong approach: site, architecture and client in trying to explore and unite it. You’re marrying the site to the architecture and back to the client. That’s basically been the formula of what we try to draw on each project. Sometimes you get an amazing site or neighbors on all sides, but you’re always given typically architecture which sometimes can be “architorture”, or it could be nondescript, bastardized architecture that you’re playing a smoke and mirrors game of don’t look at the architecture but look at the site. The other component of client is going in and interjecting into the architecture how the client lives, what they’re interior is about, and relate interior to the exterior. So that three element approach has been a foundation for what we do and springboard from.
Stay tuned next month for Part 2 of this interview!