Duh-sign Award Winner: Seriously, ASLA?

The American Society of Landscape Architects announced this 2010 Honor Award winner recently, and I was really shocked to see it. It’s a concrete and granite playscape perfectly designed for maximum head injury.

Anyone who’s ever been around kids knows that expecting them to play carefully and with grace is like expecting a kangaroo to make you a delicious slice of toast: not gonna happen.

So why this landscape architectural firm thought it would be a fun idea to stick a bunch of sharp-edged granite steps next to a steep slope of lawn that is sure to be slippery at various times of day and year, I don’t know.

And that slide? It makes me want to sprint up the flat edge and try out my Shawn Johnson balance beam moves (and if I’m thinking that, you know your six-year-old would!). Of course, anyone losing their footing would have a number of unforgiving surfaces nearby on which to smash themselves.

No rail on the steps. Horizontal bars on the gate to encourage climbing and and upside-down monkey impersonations… Anyone young enough to enjoy that sandbox could be pretty easily injured by this garden.

Of course, there’s another issue at play here besides just the children-with-head-injuries one, and that’s the one I want to talk about today.


Can you imagine what it would be like running the landscape maintenance crew in charge of keeping that lawn shorn?

I can just imagine the call to Worker’s Comp. “So you told your employee to stand on a steep, muddy surface with slippery lawn grass on it, wielding a 75-pound machine with spinning blades underneath, and told them to walk back and forth with it – next to some granite steps with corners so sharp you could impale apples on them? Are you kidding? We don’t cover negligence!”

But it looks pretty! So it gets an award.

Seriously, this is the kind of thing that makes the world see landscape design as a frippery – an indulgence for the super rich. The lack of common sense in how the area would actually be used is inexcusable.

To me, that is the WHOLE POINT of hiring a professional designer.

Yeah, so – when we look at a garden or landscape? Angels should sing! The heavens should open with a beam of light to highlight the gorgeous brilliance of it all. Prettiness! It is important.

But the angels do not sing for head injuries and broken humans. That is not a good design element, people! Prettiness must be paired with function.

One thing that is rarely emphasized by the architecture and design peeps is the importance of good installation and maintenance. A showpiece landscape is only created and kept that way by the continuing work of highly skilled people. And those people cannot do their jobs well if the design itself is so flagrantly broken as to cause injury to those maintaining it.

I wish that a year of working on a professional landscape maintenance or installation crew were seen as an important part of training for a career in design.

I think landscape designers sometimes look down on the people who build and maintain their work, promulgating stereotypes about contractors with their butt cracks showing and maintenance crews made up of unskilled workers who can’t tell a Heather from a Hemerocallis. All the while, the designers are specifying things that give the contractors and maintenance crew migraines.

What would happen if all designers and landscape architects developed strong relationships with a few installers and maintainers, and asked for honest feedback of their designs? Do you think that this designer would have taken their maintenance friend’s “ohmygod-you’re-kidding-me” into account and built a more realistic playscape? Or would the designer have simply said – not my problem – and gone forth?

What do you think? If you’re a designer, do you modify your design with issues of installation and maintenance in mind? Did this ASLA winner deserve honors for the beauty and innovation even though so much about the function is broken? Is ease of maintenance equally as important as design innovation, or should one trump the other?

Photo credits: Marion Brenner Photography, design by Blasen Landscape Architecture


  1. says

    Gen, Wow, I’d hate to see the losing designs in this category. As far as playspaces go, this one is not very inviting. It looks like it’s simply mimicking a playground. I can’t imagine it was designed for actual use – by kids. As a parent of a kid who could get hurt playing with a pillow, I’m appalled. Your post brings up a lot of good points, most importantly the difference between an intriguing design and a livable design.

  2. says

    Thanks for commenting, Debbie! Isn’t it crazy? My partner has tripped on his own toes before, and, um, I have gotten tangled up in my own feet and fallen over (they’re size ten, OK? You’d trip, too!), so seeing something like this that so invites injury was really, just – odd. Like alternate-universe odd.

  3. says

    Right on, Genevieve! I don’t even find it attractive, so in my book it’s a lose, lose, lose design! I spent a summer on a landscape crew when I was in college and it was a real eye-opener. Nothing beats some hands-on experience to understand the limitations of an aesthetics only design approach. Great post!

  4. julie_strub says

    “Anyone who’s ever been around kids knows that expecting them to play carefully and with grace is like expecting a kangaroo to make you a delicious slice of toast: not gonna happen.” I love it – well said!

    and I agree – not sure how this is an award winner. Is that granite block supposed to be a fountain? No bueno!

  5. says

    My liability insurance company would drop me like a bad habit if they saw me produce a design like this (and rightfully so). Don’t let any lawyers get a hold of this. At least if some kid goes flying down those steps, there is a big boulder to stop him/her. Scary stuff.

    RWGibney RLA (NY)

  6. says

    The design is beautiful, but absolutely counter productive. I can’t imagine it doing well in a business environment, let along a place designed for kids. The plan is right up there with putting white plush carpet in a doggie daycare.

    That said, I can see using some of these elements in a play space – the wall of foliage and the horizontal fencing would be great if designed with actual kids in mind and soft places to land for the inevitable falling.

  7. says

    Landscape architects sometimes focus too much on architecture and not on plants and functionality. At least sometimes. I looked through a book on landscape architecture and was amazing at how boring everything was. No plants!

  8. says

    Great “Rant” Gen!

    You are right on with your observations. My background is also from the field, and knowing how hard things are to install and maintain does shape my design thought process. A year in the field is a great idea as training for a design/architect, but I wouldn’t want to be the one supervising them! 😉

    In the end, as in the rest of life, pretty does not equal substance!

  9. says

    So glad other pros are as horrified as I am. And wow, so many of you have hands-on experience in the field! I’m surprised and pleased to hear it, though I shouldn’t be surprised having seen how inviting your landscapes are.

    Robert, I’d never seen your work before, but it’s lovely. Makes me want to visit the UK to see the rest of the lovely design inspiration there.

    Elk – “white plush carpet in doggie daycare” – LOL!!! Too funny.

    Liz – you’re so right! I come to design from a plant geek perspective, so the “hardscape is king” approach just doesn’t make me feel happy. Hardscape sets the foundation for a gorgeous planting and is vital to an inviting landscape, but to me the whole point of being in the out of doors is the natural, living beauty of plants, bugs and animals!

    Scott – me neither! I don’t want to supervise that crew either!!! LMAO.

  10. says

    The ASLA disregarded their own code of ethics : ” The profession of landscape architecture, so named in 1867, was built on the foundation of several principles: dedication to the public health, safety and welfare, and recognition and protection of the land and its resources.
    ASLA awarded a design that spoke to their modern sense of aesthetics but severely endangers the health and safety of those who will use and maintain this site.
    This award sends the message to the industry to be trendy and forsake safety for the sake of design.

    I wonder how this project passed their permit inspection ? It is not to code in regards to the stairs case and the lack of railings.
    This award is a sad statement for the ASLA and a dangerous site for those who will use it and maintain it.

  11. says

    Yet another example of the wonder of landscape design contests. It could make a nice sculptural design if that suits your tastes, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live anywhere near it! Excellent article, Genevieve, and a lovely site, too.

  12. says

    I agree on all counts, Gen. AND – it is SUCH a dull, un-fun space! That is NOT a space designed for children – unless those children are tragic hipsters. Kids need to run and play and go crazy in a colorful, safe space that will allow them to explore! Thanks for this post – FANTASTIC!

  13. says

    “If you’re a designer, do you modify your design with issues of installation and maintenance in mind?”

    Absolutely! Most of my clients are DIY, so I always think about how a garden will be maintained. Even aside from how cold and stark this play area looks, and the safety issues for the kids, I look at that lawn growing in the steep steps with disbelief.

  14. says

    Michelle, I couldn’t agree more. Looking at your designs it’s obvious you can have a gorgeous landscape with personality and a modern feel without sacrificing safety.

    Jane, thanks for your kind words! I love your site, too. Your articles are very helpful.

    Germi, I would just die of happiness to see your idea of a playscape! Your grown-up landscapes are so full of life and fun and color that a kids’ one would be amazing… “tragic hipsters”, LOL. Too funny.

    Pam, yes, isn’t that important? It makes for a great relationship with your client when they like your garden MORE for working and maintaining it.

  15. Suzy Krug says

    Perhaps this was designed for & by people who never had a swingset or play structure and simply don’t get it! Then there’s the award committee who fall in the same sad category. Unless the other entries were crazier?! Skateboarders might like it..they seem to crave cement. They missed the boat when they didn’t use Rubber Mulch instead of grass, since its also “fake”..sigh..a swingset salesperson & a gardener here

  16. carol jones says

    I too Design and I am appalledd at this design as being an ward winning play area design.I have often asked (when I first started out) who designed this and do they have any experience in maintaining a landscape that they deisnged? I have alot of respect for those designers who have actually maintained in the landscape before they started designing a landscape.As a designer the first question I ask is “how do and your family plan to use the space” Because safety and maintance is so important after the answer.

  17. says

    The safety and maintenance issues have already been thoroughly discussed, but I clicked through to the site, and the creators actually describe this as a sustainable design, because they used recycled rubber for one of the play areas, and included a bio-rentention drain and some low water plants. Judging by the photos and the plan view included on the site, this design is more than 50% lawn, and there’s nothing sustainable about that. In fact, based on California’s water efficient landscape ordinance which took effect in 2010, an installation with this much lawn would have been rejected by the city – nor would they have allowed ANY lawn on a slope that steep.

  18. says

    Susan, thank you for bringing up another serious issue with this design. Man oh man. Surely there were some design-, eco-, AND child-friendly spaces submitted for the award?

  19. Ann says

    You hit this on the head..oh sorry – probably a bad reference. And a brilliant suggestion to reqire LA’s to work a year in the field! “Learn by doing” – such a great concept. I am amazed (and ashamed) this design even happened. Just another award-winning example of how uncommon Common Sense is these days…sigh.

  20. glenda says

    Really beautiful but at the end of the slide there is concrete so as not to hurt or have trouble maintaining the lawn????? You would need a helmet and pads to play there.

  21. says

    I read this last night and again today. Here’s what really bothers me–beyond what’s already been so eloquently stated. It’s egotistical and arrogant. This landscape is a case of a designer wanting to imprint their point of view so completely on a space that its ultimate use is at best secondary.

  22. says

    Not to mention coming off the concrete edge of that slide and whacking your tailbone at the bottom (surely that isn’t concrete too???)…it would have had more play value if they’d just let the kids roll/sled/slide down the grassy slope. I do like the climbing rope, but overall it’s a landscape for grown-ups pretending to be for children, and I’m stunned ASLA gave it an award!

  23. says

    This really, really needs to be on unhappyhipsters.com. Just looking at that slide gives me flashbacks to childhood and scrapes on the scratchy edge of my friend’s 60’s-era concrete pool. I’m chafing at the sight alone! Ack!

  24. Suz says

    They must not like kids much. Either that, or they know a few folks
    that work at the ER and they’re trying to send them customers.
    I wanna know where the inspectors were; and why they allowed the
    final design.
    Massive head trauma awaits.
    Poor kids. DON’T USE IT!

  25. Cammy says

    I remember seeing this in “Garden Design” and thinking the exact same thing! The steps are killers… maybe better to just have a hillside that needs to be climbed and rolled down… did they ask the children?

  26. says

    I am planning to pursue the MLA in the next couple of years, but the best advice I ever received was to first work in the maintenance side of the field, to learn how your design choices play out in the real world. As a ‘designer and contractor’, I’ve had the opportunity to bid on the installation of landscape architect’s designs and at least the ones I’ve seen lack imagination, a definite deficit in plant, irrigation, soil and maintenance issues and unfortunately the architects that I actually spoke up about my concerns are not at all open to any critique based on real world common sense. But the plus side is that this experience will definitely guide me to be a well-rounded architect.

  27. says

    Ann, I’m rolling here. “Hit it on the head” – yes, indeed!

    Arcady and Glenda, it’s not clear from looking, but I think the pad at the base of the slide is actually a recycled rubber product, so that’s not as bad as it seems. No head-thunking on that particular point.

    Miss Rumphius, you encapsulated the problem so perfectly. “This landscape is a case of a designer wanting to imprint their point of view so completely on a space that its ultimate use is at best secondary.” Wow. Yes.

    Andrew, you have made my day by linking to unhappyhipsters.com. Thank you so much. Now if Catalog Living isn’t updating enough I have a new place to stalk.

    Suz, LOL. Uh-huh!! Cammy – it was in Garden Design? Very interesting.

    Bevin, I wish you were going to practice in my area. Many architects DO take the time to get their hands dirty and really learn how their landscapes will be used and experienced – and yes, about plants, too! (Why architects so often think of plants as an afterthought I do not know. Hardscape and layout are crucial to a successful plan, but plants give it life and joy. Another post, though.) In any case, good on you for really getting the well-rounded experience and education to really be amazing.

    It’s heartening to see so many really fantastic architects and designers affirming the importance of common sense, usability and safety in design.

    I’m hearing that the looks of the design are unpopular as well – but I think it looks pretty cool, though perhaps a bit sterile or cold. I actually love how it looks to have lawn in between the steps, and I can totally see why the architects wanted to use that touch. I do think the design has some very interesting concepts and is intriguing to look at. Just – er, not so good on the practicality side.

  28. Trevor Nottle says

    Good design = fitness for purpose. This is a case of conceit (on the designers part), folly (on the commissioners of the design) and vanity (on the part of the professional peer judges). They have all lost the plot utterly.

  29. says

    I keep thinking I must be missing something obvious here. Like, it’s not a sandbox, it’s a landing pit for long-jumping off the hill. It’s not a slide, it’s a garbage chute, and that’s actually a retractable hatch door at the bottom. They’re not stairs, they’re… um… OK, I’m stumped on that one. Irrigation valve boxes for all that turf? Tiny tombs? (Go ahead: ewwwwwwww.) Seriously, when I saw this in the mags, I didn’t really notice the dangerous design. My response was… yaawwwn. Doesn’t look particularly fun, isn’t particularly original, probably not gonna get a lot of use in damp SF. (Although I’d love to see the waterfall that slide creates in the next rain.) I turned the page without giving it a second thought. ASLA should have, too.

  30. says

    It is a lot easier to burn down a barn than it is to build one.
    As a practicing landscape architect I have to say let’s don’t make this LA a whipping post for LAs in general. Most LAs will be horrified by this design. Unfortunately the ASLA judges went for the artistic thing. It is pretty – but it doesn’t work.

    Landscape designers are not governed by any definition or state regulations. My dog can claim to be a landscape designer and no law would defy that. Landscape Architects have liability and legal concerns that they must deal with on every project. Some are more diligent than others.

    Let’s all decide to do good work and be proud of that.

  31. says

    Trevor, I wish I were British so I could say “lost the plot utterly” and be taken seriously. Brilliant. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    John, I’m laughing here… Love the garbage chute with hatch analogy. LOL.

    Richard, you make an excellent point and it’s well-taken. It is always easier to say what’s wrong then to create something right. I think this kind of discussion helps us all grow, but you’re right, we’ve got to be careful not to make generalizations about all LA’s, or really even this LA, based on one design. I’m guessing this LA has done other work that we’d all like and respect – there are just a lot of elements to this one that make it – well – kind of a fail.

    I would make the point though that landscape designers also face liability and legal concerns when designing, and I would not like to get into a shouting match about whether LA’s are better than LD’s, because I think in a broad sense each type of professional has an important place. I think there’s room for all of us to do good work.

  32. says

    Admittedly, this design looked scary at first reading, and am afraid that if it were my project, our insurance agent would cringe, and then increase our premiums 100%. But we all need to take a few deep, cleansing breaths, and keep a few things in mind:

    Criticizing landscapes without knowing anything about the owner’s program, sure is easy. The article didn’t say anything about the owner’s reaction. Were any of us present during even one of the many meetings between owner and client? We can only assume that the client approved the final design. Did any of the garden crtitics above even drive by the site? Because that’s how much time is usually spent experiencing a landscape, at 45 miles an hour. I’ll also bet that each has more time in writing responses to the article, than on the ground experiencing the space. Admittedly, I find myself often critiquing collegues’ work at 45 mph, but it’s a slippery slope, and without being involved in the design process (not, product), none of us are fully qualified, and are really just observers.

    What is a garden? Ask 100 people, and the likelihood is that you’ll get 100 different answers. Once again, owner’s perogative. If garden designs had only ease of maintenance considerations, then would all the shrubs be oversized so that gas-powered sheers could turn them all into bowling balls. Or would the owners be required to build gigantic retaining walls so that the lawn could be easily mown. For that matter, why have grass at all? I funded my education at the University of Georgia by pushing weed eaters, mowers, and blowers around apartments in Athens, Georgia in July. So I do know about ease of maintenance, but I also have seen design in the lowest common denominator, lot’s of very thirsty grass!

    I remember riding my bike through the woods of NE Ohio with my friends on trails we had trampled ourselves with steep drop-offs left and right, grape vine swings that swung 40 feet off the ground as grade sloped away below, discovering a mother opposum in the crotch of a fallen tree, and climbing a grand-daddy oak 5 -stories high and feeling the summer wind swaying the top of the tree. When we impose safety standards (a good thing), we’re also imposing learning standards. Each child learns in different ways, and those experiences are what shape us as an adult. When was the last time you saw a fallen tree laying across a stream? You wanted to walk across it, right? That’s exactly how children learn their own limitations that are unique to each of them. John Broadbooks, ASLA, once asked “How can children learn to be careful, if they never have to be?” Certainly, I’m not advocating a return to the asphalted 1960’s playground of my youth, but what I am advocating is thoughtful regulation of play environments. Be thoughtful in your criticism, because you may just get what you ask for.

    And last, it seems there is a lot of bashing of my beloved profession by individuals of unknown qualifications (with a few stated exceptions) and motivations. If you take the time to research this award, and the original article, you’ll find an amazing array of 14 residential projects responding to owner programs and site limitations. From the landscape restoration of a former asphalt plant into a 4o acre residential compound of reestablished “vibrant riparian system, including ponds, trout, and native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in groupings that mimic the natural plant geography.” to a rustic family campsite whose “site-sensitive design provides water and power for the camp..” (the Award of Excellence). Rural, to urban, the extent of wonderful design makes me proud to call myself a landscape architect. Take the time to examine the whole breadth of the profession rather than letting a single project set a tone of judgement on thoughtful, intellegent, educated people that I’m proud to call collegues.

  33. says

    What an interesting and thoughtful comment, Mark.

    I’ll agree that criticizing landscapes without seeing them in person is easy and can fall into the category of “cheap shot” if care isn’t taken. But I do think it is important to have these kinds of discussions, because otherwise how else will issues like this be addressed?

    I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that everyone who thinks about and comments on a specific design needs to view it in person. Most of us don’t live in the Bay Area, and putting that kind of requirement on a discussion would mean that the only discussion of landscape architecture and design that could ever take place would be after a garden tour. Not really gonna happen in the internet age. What do you think we’re missing by not being there in person?

    Then, the issue of whether the homeowner was satisfied with their design is irrelevant to this discussion. This is about whether a professional organization should be recognizing this as a project to be held up as a standard to reach for LA’s and others in the design field. The homeowner’s opinion shouldn’t end any discussion about whether this landscape is safe, beautiful, sustainable, or sensible. It could end a discussion about whether it was what the homeowner wanted, perhaps? But that’s not really the issue here. Surely an architect has a responsibility to design to code and with safety in mind whether or not the homeowner is aware of those considerations?

    Next, I really don’t care for this statement:
    “If garden designs had only ease of maintenance considerations, then would all the shrubs be oversized so that gas-powered sheers could turn them all into bowling balls. ”

    I run a landscape maintenance company, and this is exactly the kind of dismissive attitude towards maintenance employees I’m talking about in the post. There is a lot more to landscape maintenance than the mow’n’blow and meatball-hedging side of things, and there are a number of highly skilled professionals that know as much about individual plant requirements, soil science, etc as you do about architecture.

    I don’t see anyone implying that all LA’s are unskilled people who only design in grass and concrete, so I don’t see that a snobbish attitude about people who do landscape maintenance is an appropriate response even in jest. There are great and not-so-great people in both fields. No need to be snide about that and over-generalize.

    Nor is anyone implying that maintenance be the only consideration in design. Just one of many, including safety. After all, a gorgeously-designed landscape does need skilled maintenance in order to look its best. Why shoot yourself, as an architect, in the foot with a design that will be difficult and unsafe to maintain? It only makes it less likely that your vision will survive long into the future.

    Then, your suggestion that children learn by making mistakes and even getting injured is a good one, but I don’t think it holds up in this case. Head injuries are not usually a “learn and move on” kind of thing. It’s one thing to fall a few feet onto a lawn, another entirely to tangle with injuries that could make someone unable to learn and think.

    You say that a lot of the commentors are not qualified to comment. Setting aside the issue of what you feel qualifies someone to comment on the usability and safety of a space – the vast majority of people commenting are either landscape designers or landscape architects. So I’m not sure where that is coming from.

    Lastly, I don’t see anyone tarring the entire profession of LA’s with the same brush. Most of the commentors are in the field or in a related field, so that would be the last thing on their minds. On the contrary, I think we all care SO MUCH about the integrity of the field that we’re willing to take the time out in the middle of the busy season to discuss whether this is really the best our field has to offer.

    Mark, though I respectfully disagree with you on these points, I want to say I really appreciate you chiming in and having your voice heard. I think you stated your perspective well and I appreciated having the chance to explore my reactions to what you had to say. So thank you for stopping by and contributing! I think on the whole, our interests are aligned in wanting to see more good design in the world.

  34. kirbs says

    It might be worth noting here that this project is a residential one. It isn’t meant for “kids” in the public sense-it is meant for the 2 kids of the owners/clients. I don’t think there are any rules about protecting the private health, safety and welfare of a single homeowner who almost definitely had A LOT of input into the outcome of this project…

    Additionally, maybe I didn’t read deeply enough, but who said anything about this landscape being maintained by professional maintenance crews? What if the homeowner has a sense of adventure with lawn maintenance? By the way…I saw quite a few plants there.


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