Making Practice: Studio Balcones
Studio Balcones, an Austin, Texas based landscape architecture and urbanism office founded by Ilse Frank and Jennifer Orr, has been in existance for just over one year. As the country fought its way out of a recession these two designers successfully nagivated the first year in the life of a new business to establish an office that focuses on transformative design and sustainability. Topophilia sat down with Ilse Frank and Jennifer Orr to learn more about the office and how they've made it work.
Can you give us a brief overview your backgrounds- what you’ve studied, interests, etc.?
IF: I started out at UT Austin and studied architecture (B. Arch). While I was there I did an internship at West 8, and it changed my perspective on what I wanted to do--- focus on the public landscape. So, I spent three more years in school at the University of Pennsylvania in the Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning Progam (MLA) and the Community & Regional Planning Program (MCP). Professionally-- I am interested in heightening the user’s awareness of their place in situ and bringing new forms of public space to Texas. Personally—crafty activities, upcycling, cooking, reading, of course live music, and recently intrigued by Chicken Shit Bingo & Hipster Bingo.
JO: I grew up wanting to be a lawyer – studied Economics and International Affairs at Georgia Tech then went to D.C. to work for a law firm. That cured me of wanting to be a lawyer! I have also always loved gardening…my family gardened and I ended up starting my own garden design/build firm in DC. I then discovered the field of landscape architecture –applied to schools/got into Penn and there you go. Otherwise I love to play volleyball – played on scholarship for Georgia Tech – still love to garden, am a bit of a plant nerd, and recently have become a pretty darn good cook.
Do you remember when in your life you first started to notice design?
IF: I always liked art… and then I loved “This Old House”(and wanted to be a Historic Preservationist)… and then I traveled to Europe as a teenager. I was very lucky that my parents encouraged my interests in design and the arts at a young age, and provided me opportunities to travel.
JO: Growing up our family was into the outdoors – we had a huge vegetable garden and green house and we often did yard work together - so I have always loved getting my hands dirty! In college I ripped up my whole backyard and planted a garden. I also have always been very picky about the spaces I have lived in- how they feel, color, light, materials chosen. When I moved to D.C. and worked near the mall I started to think about urban/city design – yet I did not have a vocabulary for all of this design thought until I got to grad school.
How/why did you decide to launch your office?
We both always imagined that someday we would start our own offices—in Austin (We are both Austinites but met in grad school). And then someday aligned with August of last year when Jennifer and I were invited to be the local landscape office on an RFP for a state park in Galveston. Even though we didn’t get the project -our team made the shortlist and we realized that joining forces was the way to go. While we have many skillsets and interests in common, we also individually bring different strengths to the table—which works out well for us.
Texas - with its rapidly growing population and relatively strong economy - is ripe with opportunity for new, strong voices in landscape architecture. We believe that our educational and professional backgrounds combined with our enthusiasm and knowledge of our home state allows us to bring a fresh and creative voice to the table.
Are there any office models that you are looking to for reference?
We admire many offices, but look to smaller offices for how to define the way we operate, pursue projects and position ourselves in the discipline. One practitioner we look at close to home is Christy Ten Eyck. We have commonalities in that we are both women owned “boutique” firms, pursue a variety of project types, and interested in local ecology. Further afield are small offices like STOSS, KBAS, and Kathryn Gustafson.
We look to other larger offices for inspiration in the project types that we want to pursue in the future as we gain experience: Field Operations, WRT, MVVA, and West 8.
Can you tell us about your office name?
The Balcones Fault line is the defining geophysical feature of Austin and its surroundings. The (inactive) fault line runs north-south and is the demarcation line for two distinct eco-regions: the Edward’s Plateau and the Blackland Prairie. As we are rooted in Austin we chose the name Studio Balcones to reflect our understanding and love of the Central Texas landscape.
What is your office philosophy?
Listen. Collaborate. Innovate. Mind the needs of environmental and human ecologies. Draw inspiration from diverse areas such as art, ecology, and technology. Harness our energy as fresh, young designers.
You both come from strong design backgrounds, complementing each other in terms of visual graphic experience and construction technical knowledge. How would you describe your design aesthetic? Is there something that links all your creative pursuits?
We consider ourselves contemporary designers with a playful and at times unexpected design aesthetic. I do not think our designs look alike, – rather they work to respond to what the client wants, what the site provides, and what inspires us about the project. Our designs strive to be ecologically appropriate – say for example using appropriate drought tolerant native plants - but in unexpected configurations. I guess you could say we are Martha Schwartz meets Margie Ruddick.
Town and country, Studio Balcones' birdhouse entry for an Austin fundraiser. The brown nest is made of woven Cedar bark, the colorful one recycled plastic bags.
What is your approach to projects? Are there specific types of projects you are going after?
Our approach to projects always begins with a thorough site analysis. This might seem obvious but it is a step that often either gets ignored or brushed over. We also have developed a list of questions for prospective clients so we can start to understand the expectations from the get go. Early on - we come up with multiple schemes stemming from the same site analysis but we purposely work to make them different. It helps us look at things from two or more perspectives and keeps us loose. Also, we work with words to define the concept - these words help to keep the design focused while we work on various iterations.
As a new office, the bulk our work is residential to date. It’s been great to work at a smaller scale to learn about everything from writing proposals to improving our knowledge of native plants, testing out ideas to establishing how we collaborate/produce. In the past several months, we have been invited to join teams for larger projects—commercial, public, and institutional. There will probably always be some residential work in the mix (it can be fun to work on faster track projects), but we hope in the future the bulk of our work will be public/institutional. We enjoy mixing up the scales of work— it is fun, and it keeps us fresh.
Landscape plan for Austin residence that sits on a very steep slope with exposed bedrock.
Site cross section.
Could you tell us about a couple of the projects in your office this spring?
Springscape (public): Palm Park, an underutilized public park adjacent to the Austin Convention Center, will become the site for Springscape, a performance/music festival to be held spring of 2012 in conjunction with Rampant Arts and the Austin Parks Foundation. Our proposed site plan invokes a playful circus theme, embracing color, movement, artifice, and a heavy use of creatively upcycled materials. A maypole, turn of the century Belgian Spiegel tents, mazes, cotton candy ‘trees’, and other playful elements come together to create a magical and unexpected place.
808 Park (private residential): A small bungalow in the Hyde Park neighborhood gained an addition and saught a screening solution for the now more prominent view of the adjacent three-story (ugly) apartment building. Our solution was to bring attention to the foreground with a “movie-wall.” The movie is the lush, wild landscape we created behind it—registering seasonal change and growth. The now defined courtyard space becomes further animated by children and adults engaging with the wall itself. A pergola provides solar shading for the building’s western facade, steel boxes define the deck and house perimeter, and lush plantings throughout provide shade, texture, and privacy. Complementing the house color palette, the planting palette highlights evergreen, dark green and blue plants with contrasting vibrant orange and white blooms.
Jennifer Orr meeting with clients at 808 Park.
Plaza Saltillo (pro-bono): Studio Balcones applied and was awarded a grant from Keep Austin Beautiful to work with Capitol Metro on the revitalization of Plaza Saltillo, a stop on Austin’s new light rail line. Studio Balcones produced the site design and facilitated consensus building/coordination between Capitol Metro (landholder) and the Austin Parks & Recreation Department (lessee) regarding safety concerns, maintenance requirements, and installation of the project. The final concept addressed shade, color and movement, utilizing a highly drought-tolerant and native plants palette that evokes both Central Texas ecology and that of Saltillo, Mexico, Austin’s sister city. The project was installed in phases, as the funding comes online, and implemented with volunteer labor, including residents from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Plaza Saultillo is the starting point for the Día de los Muertos parade in East Austin. photo by Neesha Thaakar.
Plaza from the canopy adjacent to the light rail stop.
How do ecology/politics/art influence your work or how do you hope it will in the future?
Understanding our impact on larger ecological systems is extremely important to us. Water is a big issue in Central Texas - so we are attentive to native/adapted plants that are drought tolerant and are always looking to integrate rainwater collection systems into our projects. Prioritizing shade – be it vegetative or structural - is also extremely important in Texas, especially in relation to buildings. Integrating recycled/upcycled materials into our work is another example of ecology influencing our work Art is also a big influence—we often draw inspiration from art pieces especially during the conceptual design process. Robert Smithson’s work, contemporary basket weaving, and modernist paintings have all been used to help generate design ideas.
Politics/public opinion in Austin is a contact sport - it is an educated, opinionated and vocal town! We believe that the best projects arise from understanding client and stakeholder interests and integrating them with a strong conceptual framework. We are working to devise new methods for soliciting public opinion in a more organized and directed way.
In this generation, where environmental concerns are becoming more prevalent in societies consciousness, what is the role of Landscape Architects? What/who are they and how do you see yourselves within that context?
Landscape architecture is still at times a somewhat marginalized and misunderstood profession in Texas. Landscape architects have been more aligned with the civil engineers and developers – often charged with figuring out how much money a developer can get out of his/her land as opposed to thinking about the best land use options or design moves. That role is slowly changing. We see ourselves as being both stewards and advocates for sustainable design and - at times- agitators. We need to shake things up in Texas!
Transportation, energy production, water quality, and food production - these are all issues landscape architects touch on. Being aware of these issues and having them play a role in how we design - even on a small scale - will have a direct effect on the environment and on people’s general awareness.
What do you see as the major challenge for the profession?
For us in Austin it is helping the city to start to think much bolder and bigger. It is a city that at times still thinks it is a town. Houston just recently built the hugely successfully Discovery Green, with a multi-million dollar budget. Its effect has been incredible with well designed and exciting pedestrian- oriented development springing up all over downtown.
JO: I was there on a Sunday afternoon in July of this past year and witnessed thousands of people enjoying the park and downtown Houston – an unthinkable scenario 10 years ago.
Today, Austin’s core downtown parks are largely ignored and underutilized. We hope that Austin can begin to see the importance of prioritizing well-designed and well-loved urban outdoor space and the effect that they will have on the overall health of the city and region.
Finally, just for fun, what are the highlights of your office itunes? LOCAL AUSTIN MUSIC – OLD COUNTRY (WILLIE NELSON/JOHNNY CASH) –THE NEW KAYNE WEST ALBUM – SOME CLASSICAL FOR RELAXATION – JUSTIN TIMEBRLAKE FRIDAYS! WE HAD TO PUT EDWARD SHARPE TO BED AS JENNIFER WAS STARTING TO GO CRAZY. RYAN BINGHAM OBSESSION IS STILL ALLOWED.