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.

In person, Gustafson is an angular, vivid scrap of a woman, with long red hair, a warm, husky laugh, and rather cruel glasses that sharpen her pale features. She dresses invariably in black, which she insists is practical for travelling from project to project. At our second meeting in London, where she had arrived from her home in Paris, she wore black culottes and a strange duck-billed cap made of black fur, which she joked must have come from a rat. 

She is originally from Yakima, in the drought lands of Washington state, whose empty, tumbleweed landscapes clearly matter to her. On her computer, she shows pictures of the land around the family home, where a bare, rust-coloured mountain fills the screen. “Yes, I was raised in the desert, where the mountains are beautiful,” she says, a touch wistfully. “I’m totally uninterested in anything jarring. There’s so much in our lives already that is jarring. I want harmony and quiet.”

She has a laconic, American way of speaking and, for all her moments of professional high-mindedness, can sound almost cussed. She has a reputation for being demanding but inspiring, with a forthrightness that compels affection. At one point in our conversation, she recalled a remark of her ex-husband (one of two), a fellow designer: “He said, ‘We’re not Beethovens. There’s one Beethoven in millions.’ I think he meant: don’t worry whether you’re talented or not—just do your work and don’t be so self-preoccupied.”

Asked about her own gifts, she shrugs and says: “Maybe it’s just energy, persistence. I have lots and lots of energy. My mother and father had great energy. My mother now has Alzheimer’s, and my father [a heart surgeon] is dead, but they had very full lives. I think energy and curiosity are very important.”

Nonetheless, she is fierce in defending her profession against criticisms of lesser status. “It’s like cooking,” she says sarcastically. “Everyone can do it, so there’s no profession, right? The architects and the planners all know about it, but not the public, especially in Britain, where the thinking is, ‘You’ve got beautiful gardens—why do you need anything else?’ ”

Gustafson calls herself “an architect of landscape” rather than a landscape architect, with its faint deprecating air of mowing lawns and planting borders; and she describes her collaborations with the likes of Foster, Renzo Piano and David Adjaye undeferentially. “They’re sorta like a marriage—the ones you don’t work well with, you don’t work with ’em again.”

Foster, though, she clearly reveres: she calls him “one of the smartest men I’ve ever met”. Together, they have been developing six blocks of downtown Washington, DC, and reinstating and expanding the original 18th-century alleyways that ran between them. For four years, she has been going to Washington at least once a month. “Each project takes five years on average,” she says. “You get to know a city very well.” She is also working there with Adjaye, on an African-American museum, due to open as part of the Smithsonian in 2015; it will have a “rain garden” and a pool symbolising the ocean crossed by the slave ships. 

The city she loves best is Paris, where she has lived most of her life (currently, near the Bois de Vincennes), while keeping a home on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound, outside Seattle. It was in Paris and New York that she began her working life in the 1970s, designing prêt-à-porter and ski-wear. She did it for seven years, “not long enough to become successful”, although critics maintain that the sensual draping of clothes, for instance, has strongly influenced her landscape work.

I asked Jane Amidon, head of landscape architecture at the Knowlton School of Architecture in Ohio and author of a book on Gustafson, what was her major achievement. “The re-introduction of the human body to site design,” she replied. “The idea of how a body moves through the designed landscape—the relationship of posture and sight lines to topography and other site qualities.” 

Gustafson agrees: “For me, the form of the land and the form of the body come together somehow.”

After a sort of environmental epiphany while living one winter by the coast near Seattle, Gustafson gave up fashion to study landscape architecture at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage in Versailles, and then in 1980 opened her own office in Paris “because no one would ever hire me”. Her first job was analysing the trace-lines for high-tension pylons, which led to designing corporate headquarters in and around Paris for Shell, Exxon and L’Oréal. 

If it weren’t for the frequent French strikes and long vacations, Paris would still be her office base, she says, because she has been slow to warm to London, a city that exasperates her. “Oh God,” she groans, to the amusement of her London partner, Neil Porter, sitting beside her. “I’m claustrophobic, so I don’t take subways here, and it’s impossible to get anywhere in this city otherwise; everything is so spread out. Cabs are so expensive. I couldn’t walk anywhere. 

“Also, I think the single family house is the death of London. You see these houses with large gardens being built, and the space between them, it’s not densified. So they take up more land, take up more sprawl, and people have to move farther out, and with them go the transportation, the services and infrastructure…” She sighs. “For a long time, I couldn’t get a handle on this city at all. But I’m beginning to like it.

“One thing London has taught me is that there are all sorts of ways of finding little nooks and crannies where you can slice in vegetation and it doesn’t feel suburban. I’ve never seen it in any other city. Because I trained in Versailles and live in Paris, I really thought green in a city was supposed to be only in designated areas, like squares. In Italian and French towns, you only get vegetation in the parks or squares. As soon as you put green outside on a street, then it starts to be suburban. 

“But here it’s fascinating how you turn a corner and somebody’s put in a hedge, and there’s a climbing yellow rose, and it becomes a moment in your day. It’s changed the way I design in cities, how you create those little surprises. You’re still in the city, but you have that softness. Whereas in the Latin world, it’s all stone—stone and trees and water.”

Her ambivalence towards London is not surprising. It is the site of her best-known work, one famous throughout the world, but also the cause of immense public controversy and personal dismay; it led to three years during which she received no new British commission, and she believes it denied her any chance of working on the 2012 Olympic Park. In many eyes, it is the single blot on her landscape—and it demonstrates the tricky politics of designing public works.

Landscape architecture was not a fruitful area for tabloid outrage until Gustafson created the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured below) in Hyde Park in 2004. Yet, even before its inauguration by the Queen, her design was condemned as an unfitting tribute: a “puddle” and a “paddling pool” were among the jibes. Prince Charles had had his monstrous carbuncle; now Diana was generating even greater architectural controversy from beyond the grave.

Gustafson and Porter envisaged a large, almost oval ring of stone. Cut from Bodmin Moor granite by high-tech drills in Northern Ireland, this stream-bed would flow in unpredictable directions. Their chief rival, the Anglo-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor, proposed an equally beautiful, curved dome of water in the middle of the Serpentine; however, the fountain committee thought it was not sufficiently touchy-feely to commemorate “our Queen of Hearts”, who in life had welcomed them all: the homeless and the elderly, the lepers, AIDS sufferers, drug addicts and victims of landmines. As national debate raged, Tessa Jowell, the Labour secretary for culture, media and sport, cast the deciding vote for Gustafson, who had already designed a Garden of Forgiveness memorial in Beirut and the Square of Human Rights in Evry, France.

Her Diana fountain was conceived as a place where people could dip a hand or foot but not wallow. Within days, however, crowds were, indeed, paddling. Soon, two adults and a child had slipped on the granite and gone to hospital. Then the surrounding grass was flooded in a storm when leaves blocked the drainage system. Reports began to appear of algae blooming in waters polluted by dogs and discarded nappies. 

The fountain briefly closed, and when it reopened the following month it was surrounded by a fence preventing access. By December, special grass and new, gravel surfaces were being laid. But the press was now in full cry. One former trustee of the Diana Memorial Fund called it “a half-hearted, damp squib that is, quite frankly, dissing Diana even in death”. The Daily Mail fulminated that “other countries do national memorials. Britain does national debacles.” Clearly, even seven years after her fatal accident, Diana still obsessed the British.

Today, Gustafson remains, or chooses to remain, bemused by the feelings she aroused. Growing up far away, she had believed only too readily in the stereotype of British reserve. “We expected them just to sit on the edge and touch the water,” she says, sounding affronted. “I thought they would have some respect.”

Nor had she fully appreciated Diana’s significance to the public. “I knew who Princess Diana was, but I had never seen her famous TV interview, for example. I didn’t know anything. I read some popular biographies to try and figure out: why was she loved? For me, as a French-American coming into it, it was a mystery. Why did they like this woman? The one thing that did impress me was that she really knew how to use her power, with all her charities.”

Visitors, at least 800,000 a year, still flock to the monument (whose budget has risen over the years from £3m to £5.2m because of the problems). Gustafson doesn’t repent the memorial itself, only its reception, but she does wish that she had never tendered. “I think we’d have been better off without it,” she says, a little huffily. “I’ll never forget: we put in for the [London] Olympics, and the next thing I know, I’m on the front page with Norman Foster and the word ‘Diana’ above me and a headline saying ‘Do you want her to build your Olympic Park?’ So we didn’t get shortlisted. Nobody wanted to touch us with a ten-foot pole.” 

The reaction outside Britain was much kinder. “Any major designer faces cultural backlash on symbolic public works,” Jane Amidon argues, “so it’s likely the negative reception raised her profile.” The big commissions continue to flow. On Gustafson’s desk at the moment are a new waterfront in Singapore (pictured, previous page), an archaeological park in Abu Dhabi, and a 12-acre campus for the $500m Gates Foundation headquarters due to open in June in downtown Seattle. And she has just won a high-profile competition to design the €73m Parque Central in Valencia.

Of all countries, however, Gustafson would like to work next in Korea. “It still has the old houses”, she enthuses, “and its traditional markets and crafts. But then it has this really hot, contemporary thing: good design. Really good designers, and clients who want to do new things. And the landscape! There are six mountains around Seoul, so wherever you are, you can always see natural landscape, outside of the city, because it’s in this huge bowl of mountains with a river down the centre of it.”

Can she sum up, in a word, why landscape architecture is important? “Civicness,” she answers, promptly. She feels that if a person goes to their local park and connects with a beautiful tree, or even a bench, that encourages civic responsibility. She thinks for a moment, then relates something that happened recently in Paris. A car full of men stopped near her home and dropped litter in the gutter. “I picked it up, and knocked on the car door, and said, ‘Not in my park!’, and they drove off, looking sheepish. It was so instinctive for me. ‘Hey, wait a minute! You’re not gonna put your trash in my neighbourhood.’ ” I can see why they complied.

Michael Watts is a former editor of weekly magazines at the Financial Times, the Independent and the Evening Standard

Images Julie Harmsen, Nigel Young/Foster & Partners, Gustafson Porter, Hélène Binet