SmithGroupJJR landscape architects team-teach studio

Four SmithGroupJJR landscape architects brought their expertise to the classroom in 2016, challenging SNRE students to think—and work—on a larger scale.

The landscape architects, two of them SNRE alumni, team-taught the U-M Metro Studio, a capstone course designed to push the envelope on skills attained in the master’s program. The professional team selected Lansing’s riverfront corridor as the project site.

“It’s a large district that extends well beyond the riverfront itself,” says Oliver Kiley (BS, ’03, MLA, ’08 ), “The students needed to understand the area from the multiple perspectives of urban design and land-planning, along with environmental and cultural concerns.”

Despite the complexity of the area, the students were given no real parameters.

“We intentionally gave them a wide open canvas,” says Lori Singleton, “and in some ways, that was the greatest challenge for them.”

This meant that it was up to the students to determine land use, including open space, roadways, and buildings. In addition, the students had to consider factors such as retail, office, and commercial needs, as well as public and private property boundaries.

“It exposed them to the complexity of working in an urban environment, or in any larger-scale environment,” says Singleton. “We didn’t expect them to know how to shape buildings or how to scale them, but we did expect them to justify their decisions. So, they could dream a little,” she adds with a smile, “but they had to dream with some justification for how they got there.”

Neal Kessler notes that the scale of the project was out of the “comfort zone” for many of the students, but that was perhaps the greatest value of the course.

“We wanted them to see the project in the context of an entire city,” says Kessler, “So we tried to give them the 30,000-foot view.”
The project’s first steps involved data-gathering, beginning with an initial field trip to the district. The students then compiled geographic information system (GIS) data, as well as historic and cultural analysis from a myriad of sources.

“It’s a lot of information to ingest,” says Singleton, “but a project is not just about data. You have to start drawing conclusions from it. That’s what landscape architects bring to the process.”
Though the students may have struggled in the early phase of the project, Kessler notes that they ultimately produced “fresh and interesting ideas” with well-designed supporting graphics. He also noticed that a few developed a deeper interest in the planning aspects of urban design.

The students, as it turns out, were not the only ones who gained a “learning experience” through the course. Apart from Kiley, who has taught the landscape analysis and planning studio at SNRE for the past four years, the professional team was new to teaching.

“I was energized by it,” says Kessler. “Here are these young people who just want to learn, and it was amazing to me to realize how much I could impart to them, and that was gratifying.”
Singleton discovered another benefit.

“They challenged us on a regular basis,” says Singleton. “That really helps to test where you are, and to make sure that you’re not just sticking to the same assumptions.”

Along with colleague Neal Billetdeaux (BS, ’82, MLA, ’87), Kessler has been with SmithGroupJJR for 26 years. Yet he shares Singleton’s sentiment. “The students are still asking, ‘Why CAN’T we do it that way? Why IS that impossible?’ That gave me reason to pause,” says Kessler. “And I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be telling them that something is ‘impossible.’ Maybe they’re right—and I should be asking myself those same questions.”