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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar reflects on two recent collaborations and a rewarding design approach she developed as a student at RISD.

Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar MLA 06 designs projects that synthesize the history, culture and ecology of the spaces in which they’re built.

Before pulling up stakes in preparation for a move to Austin, TX later this summer, landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar MLA 06 and her team at FORGE in Fayetteville, AR completed two winning landscape installations that synthesize the history, culture and ecology of the spaces in which they’re built. Into the Woods! won this year’s competition at the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France, and Visible Invisible was selected for Art in its Natural State, a juried exhibition at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute—part of the University of Arkansas (UA), where Lickwar has been teaching since 2012.

“Projects like these that span landscape architecture and public art allow you to test ideas in ways that typical built projects often don’t,” says Lickwar. “My practice concentrates on civic landscapes and gardens, where there is less opportunity for experimentation.”

Into the Woods! features a secondary path system built of wood beams charred and preserved with the shou sugi ban technique.

Lickwar worked closely with Matt Donham, founder of NYC-based landscape architecture firm RAFT, to conceive, design and build Into the Woods. The two met years ago at PWP Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, CA when they were working on the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. Donham has taught at RISD as a visiting professor in Landscape Architecture—a shared connection that Lickwar considers significant.

“RISD teaches you to resolve ideas and create truly original work through the act of critical making, which has always been central to my practice and is something Matt really understands,” says Lickwar. “Not everyone works that way, and you do see a lot of repetition and recycling of design ideas out there.”

“Projects like these that span landscape architecture and public art allow you to test ideas.”

The idea behind the Chaumont-sur-Loire project came from The Garden of Forking Paths, a magical realist short story by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges about a labyrinthine garden in which visitors get lost in space and time. To create their labyrinth, Lickwar and Donham used closely set juvenile trees typically used for reforestation and renewable energy production intersected with blackened wood beams charred and preserved through the Japanese technique of shou sugi ban (which added an exciting new learning opportunity to the process).

“We didn’t have 30 years to wait for the site to become a forest,” Lickwar explains with a laugh, “so we used really young trees and packed them in to create a dense forest that obscures your view.” The intense greenery contrasts beautifully with the blackened beams set in “as a secondary path system encouraging a sense of adventure and play.”

Visible Invisible uses tree cloaks to indicate the size these short-leaf pines will reach before they’re suitable for nesting red cockaded woodpeckers.

For the installation at the Rockefeller Institute, Lickwar and project partner Laura Terry—a colleague at UA—worked with an existing grove of shortleaf pine trees (Pinus echinata) planted by then-Governor Rockefeller in the 1950s. “We were interested in the idea of a sacred grove— a landscape intentionally planted and cared for by humans as a culturally significant place,” Lickwar says. Visible Invisible uses bright blue tree cloaks to indicate the circumference the trunks will achieve at maturity as well as blue markers embedded in the ground to delineate the trees’ root structure.

“RISD teaches you to resolve ideas and create truly original work through the act of critical making.”

Since the pines in question won’t reach maturity for 20–30 years, they won’t be suitable for nesting red cockaded woodpeckers (an endangered species) until then. “My interest in how species are interconnected is embedded in a lot of the work that I do,” says Lickwar. “The red cockaded woodpecker is really important to the ecology of this place. Its numbers have decreased dramatically because of fire suppression and harvesting pines before they’re mature.”

Lickwar, who is busy working on a book called Farmscape: The Design of Productive Landscapes (Routledge) about the integration of agriculture and landscape architecture, will now teach at the University of Texas at Austin, where she will continue to share her interest in conservation and enthusiasm for design with students. “Teaching is a way of sharing the knowledge you’ve gained with the next generation,” she explains. “And I learn a lot from my students as well.”

Another view of the tree cloaks created for this award-winning project.

At RISD she says she not only learned to shape a very personal approach to design, but also gained essential self-confidence. “I remember sitting at my desk first semester with copper wire and tubing and having no idea what I was supposed to be making! The project prompts at RISD were intentionally open-ended to get us comfortable with uncertainty,” she explains. With the support of faculty members, including then-Department Head Mikyoung Kim, she and her peers learned to “to struggle through” and graduate with a “confidence we couldn’t have gained any other way.”

Looking forward to working in Austin, Lickwar sees Texas as a place uniquely positioned to tackle the contemporary issues of our time—climate change, species extinction, urbanization and inequity. “I’ve been reading about the history of Austin,” she adds, “and there are a lot of interesting challenges we can sink our teeth into. The city is still growing and developing rapidly, and we’re looking forward to contributing to that in a positive way.”

Simone Solondz

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