Around the world Kathryn Gustafson is feted as a leading landscape architect. But in Britain she is still the woman behind a much-derided memorial to Princess Diana. Michael Watts meets her

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011

The subject of landscape teems with chroniclers of every kind. There are psycho-geographers, deep topographers, poets and explorers of urban edgelands like Paul Farley and Iain Sinclair, land artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, as well as the scholarly figures of Richard Mabey and Simon Schama. But the constant figure in the landscape is the landscape architect, entrusted with the design of our outdoor and public spaces, and in consequence an important civilising influence down the centuries, from André Le Nôtre and his gardens at Versailles in the 1660s to Frederick Law Olmsted and the Central Park he created in New York 200 years later.

To the layman, the job of a landscape architect may be just to fill in the green bits around a new building (television gardeners have much to answer for). But in the contemporary language of this discipline, the design and care of an environment is expected to manifest nothing less than a society’s identity, culture and technology. To meet a practitioner as focused as Kathryn Gustafson is illuminating. It’s not often that you encounter someone who proclaims, “the sky is mine,” or who says, unblushingly, “it’s almost like I pull out from the earth what is its essential thing.”

American-born and just turned 60, Gustafson is the grande dame of modern landscape architecture. She intends that her remit as a landscape architect begins the moment you leave your home or office; it’s anything under the sun, urban or rural. Town planning, climate change, archaeology, civil engineering, geological history and local myths are all in the job description. Plants feel almost the least of it. Indeed, Gustafson’s background is in fashion and sculptural art, not botany, and she began planting by herself only in later years.

At any one time, she has a dozen projects around the globe, run either by her firm of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, covering America and Asia from Seattle, or by Gustafson Porter, her European practice, whose walls in Kentish Town, north London, are hung with plaster moulds of her original clay designs. She is a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a medallist of the French Academy of Architecture, and a recipient, from the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, of the Sckell Ring of Honour, which sits on her small hand like a heavy gold knuckle-duster. 

According to the critic and curator Aaron Betsky, Gustafson is now making “some of the grandest and most self-confident pieces of land sculpture our culture has seen”. Her admirers include the British architect Norman (Lord) Foster, a frequent collaborator on projects across the world. “She has a personal way of going to the heart of the matter and identifying what is required,” Foster says. “Then she devises landscape solutions that often seem intuitive but are, in fact, rooted in serious research.” 

This is an important part of Gustafson’s method: she will investigate the history of any piece of land, back to before its first settlements. Her first questions on a new project are always: “Where’s the water? Is there water? Who were the native peoples? And what are the myths?” She says this is “because myths don’t go away—they become silent because nobody is listening. Each project is born of the land it’s on, and of the people it’s for.”

Betsky reserves special praise for her Arthur Ross Terrace at New York’s Rose Centre for Earth and Space, completed in 2000. And he’s right: this is an experience. The terrace adjoins a planetarium, where a huge, floating sphere casts shadows, like a lunar body, across a plaza spiked with water jets; meanwhile the fountains’ play of water on dark granite evokes something cinematic—the shiny streets of a film noir. 

The device here of a shallow scrim of water is a typical Gustafson motif. It’s in many of her constructions, like the Kreielsheimer Promenade for Seattle’s opera house (2003), where opera-goers in their evening finery enjoy tiptoeing across thin sheets of water that shimmer with reflected colour. To pre-empt lawsuits from people slipping, she gets office workers in high heels to test the scrim—a prophetic decision, as we shall see.

“Water”, Gustafson has said, “brings people together. And urban plazas are often empty. Water makes people feel they are occupied.” Her Kogod Courtyard (2007), in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, (pictured, next page) has a sheeny floor of water that vanishes to create a ballroom at night. Its undulating glass canopy was designed by Foster, as was the roof that encloses her garden of Mediterranean flora at the National Botanic Garden of Wales (1999). Striped with shadows, and with plunging chasms and a waterfall, it has been described as “the Grand Canyon under a glass sky”.

Gustafson has earned even more acclaim for the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park (2004), on a car-park roof in the heart of Chicago. Framed by a brawny Shoulder Hedge, its contrasting palette of light prairie grasses and dark ferns brilliantly encapsulates the history of a site that has progressed from “wild, marshy shoreline to railroad yard, to parking garage, to roof garden”, in the words of Gustafson’s American design partner, Shannon Nichol.