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Profile: Gregory Miller, PLA, FASLA

Profile by Joseph Duffy for LASN


Gregory Miller, FASLA, is a principal at MRWM (Morrow Reardon Wilkinson Miller) Landscape Architects in Albuquerque. He is the current president of the American Society of Landscape Architects and adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico.
Photo: ASLA

Gregory Miller, FASLA, credits two familial influences for shaping his career: farming and ... nuclear physics.

Miller, whose ancestral line connects him to settlers who debarked the Mayflower to build life anew, comes from generations of farmers. Both of his parents are from rural Ohio, where his family has had roots for over 150 years. His father broke this mold when he earned his PhD in physics and began working as a nuclear physicist.

"What I realized a few years ago," Miller recalls, "is that my enjoyment of landscape architecture and the way that I see the world and projects have combined that sense of physics and of systems with the more tangible connection to the land and the landscape and the art of landscape architecture. And so I've become the culmination of generations of farmers with this underlying interest in how things work below the surface."


This 100-acre landscape at the intersection of Interstate 25 and Interstate 40 in the heart of Albuquerque blends common New Mexico patterns associated with slot canyons and foothills landscapes with more modern sweeping forms inspired by the flyovers. The artwork uses stylized Pueblo Deco patterns that relate to Albuquerque's unique aesthetic. This project was a feature and cover for the April 2010 issue of LASN.
Photo: Robert Reck

Serendipity in Finding a Path
Miller's path to becoming a landscape architect was shaped by his penchant for design. He said his early design desires focused on architecture, advertising or graphic arts - but something was missing from those choices. Then one day Miller was talking to his high school friend about the future and the idea of designing parks and public spaces. Unbeknownst to Miller, this friend's father was a landscape architect and did those very things.

Driven by his newfound goal of becoming a landscape architect, Miller met his friend's father, Walt Weaver, who became Miller's mentor. Miller even pursued his bachelor of landscape architecture at Texas A&M, Weaver's alma mater.



Four Hills Park, Albuquerque:
Four Hills Park design in Albuquerque is based on the concept that a playground is not limited to a particular area; rather, the entire park is a playground. Inspired by adventure stories, the park does not include turfgrass, but is instead heavily planted with a variety of trees to create a shady forest as the setting for play and exploration. Boulder retaining walls create a raised terrace that follows a loop trail around the park. Opportunities abound to leave the ADA sidewalk and dodge through a copse of trees, hide behind tree trunks, duck into rooms created by masses of ornamental grasses, and scramble over boulders between levels. The center of the park includes treehouse-like play equipment that spans a huge area connected by the perimeter forest walk. The park also includes shade structures, exercise stations and a group picnic area located on a terrace overlooking the Tijeras Arroyo and the Sandia Mountains beyond.
Photo: Landscape Structures Inc.

In 1997, the semester before Miller graduated from Texas A&M, Weaver approached him with a dramatic request and a life-changing proposition.

"I need you to come work for me because I'm dying of cancer," Weaver told Miller. "And I'm gonna die in three years. So you learn everything you can, buy me out and then take over the business."

So Miller went from recent college grad to working full time as a landscape architect. He said that baptism by fire taught him the business at an accelerated pace, building skills usually honed later in a career, such as writing proposals, meeting other architects, working with clients, billing demands and resolving client payment issues.

"How to figure things out was one of the biggest lessons that came from Walt," says Miller.

Another lesson he would never forget occurred while Weaver was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy. A hotel client called Miller and said they wanted to add small rock-shaped speakers into the landscape design. They asked Miller what color he thought they should be.


Santa Fe Plaza:
The historic plaza in Santa Fe is one of America's oldest public spaces. The renovation included pavement refurbishment, a new irrigation system, new tree plantings that supplement the existing specimens and provide for the long-term maintenance of the canopy, and electrical upgrades to meet code. The design carefully implemented system upgrades while maintaining the plaza's historic character.

"And so I picked up the phone to call Walt in his hospital room and then said, 'no,' and I hung up the phone," Miller explains. "And then I called the client and said, 'You know what? Let's go with brown.' I think of this moment and recall it at times because it solidified this notion of, 'Think about it, make a decision, be confident in that decision, and move forward.' And that's really what has driven my career: Take those opportunities and make the most of them."

Weaver passed away a year earlier than he'd predicted. Miller had just received his landscape architect license, and, as previously encouraged by Weaver, bought the business. Miller was a sole practitioner for four years, and then in 2001, his company merged with MRWM Landscape Architects, where he became a partner.

The Art of Design and Inspiration
After 18 years as a licensed landscape architect, Miller said that his design goal is to help clients know what they like and don't like, and how all the pieces of a project fit together.

"Landscape architecture is the art and science of designing the physical open space in a way that creates meaningful connections," Miller says. "And so the discipline of landscape architecture has a whole lot of things that overlap. There's this sort of McHargian model of layering of ecological influences. But there are so many more things that come with that. There's history and culture, social sciences, the evolving way that we interact with people in our communities, changes to the environment that are happening on an accelerated scale--all of those things come together. And what I learned in college was just the tip of the iceberg of what it takes to be a successful landscape architect."




Sandia Vista Park, Albuquerque:
Sandia Vista Park in Albuquerque was designed with "graduated challenges" to inspire children to conquer obstacles. This sequence shows how the play equipment and setting have a pretty profound impact, leading Jojo to have a very powerful sense of accomplishment. She tackled the challenges to her ability, learning that she could do the same things as the other kids, only a bit differently.

Miller said that in successful landscape design, there are three key connections. The first is connecting people to people. The second is connecting people to nature. The third is connecting natural systems.

"There are many things that can clutter the process, so to simplify it to those three key connections helps you get through some of the noise that may be out there," he asserts.

To stay inspired, Miller reads books about history, science, physics, culture and philosophy.

A Love of Parks and Public Spaces
Over his busy career, the projects that have meant the most to Miller have involved people, especially parks.

"I really enjoy doing park design, but also healing gardens, therapeutic landscapes and schools, especially those involving a lot of activity," he explains. "Where the landscape sets the stage for people enjoying a space -- those are the projects I get the most out of. And seeing people use a site, whether out at a park, running around, laughing, meeting new friends and having grandparents helping little kids -- those are the projects that define why we're doing this. So it really comes down to people and relationships and how that little spot of the world just keeps everything turning."

For playground design, Miller aims to achieve overall wellness. He writes about this in a recent post (The "Play Environment" - A New Paradigm for Parks and Play Areas) on his firm's blog.

For Miller, parks aren't just about physical wellness but also need to address the social, cognitive and emotional wellness that comes with a different way of approaching play area design. He described an outing involving a number of families at a park his company designed. There was a little girl, Jojo, who uses a wheelchair most of the time, but can get around on a walker with the aid of braces.

"She was using the park and it was not just using the play equipment, but using the entire park and challenging herself," Miller recalls. "The other kids around her watched her try something, work at it and then achieve her goal. And then all the kids started playing together."

At the end of the play day, as dusk settled over the park, Jojo's mother reminded her to say goodbye using a device that helps her communicate. Instead, she communicated that she wanted to hug her playmates. Miller said this was the first time this girl had reached out and wanted the embrace of other people.


Officer Daniel Webster Children's Park, Albuquerque, 2017:
Phase 1 of the park has as its centerpiece a large, shaded play structure modeled on a huge interchange where two national highways intersect in Albuquerque. Wide, two-way traffic ramps (for wheelchairs and people) rise and meet a series of elevated, looped walkways that lead to slides, climbers, spinners and nets. Easy to climb equipment is located together with more challenging elements. Interactive panels are located within easy reach on the elevated platforms and a step further down on a path of engineered wood mulch to provide graduated challenges. Caregivers may accompany children to lookout balconies to encourage play and interaction between levels. There are areas for boisterous play, but also for quieter, make-believe play.
Photo: Landscape Structures Inc.

Helping the Industry
As if Miller hasn't been busy enough, he was installed as the new president of the ASLA at the society's meeting in Los Angeles on Oct. 22. He said he developed a deep appreciation for ASLA while working with Weaver, who told him that becoming a member is critical for a successful career.

Miller sees a huge benefit in ASLA's ability to connect him to other landscape architects on a local and national level. This appreciation for those connections has given Miller a strong affinity for the organization. In return, he has supported ASLA by increasingly taking on more responsibility within the association. Soon after joining ASLA, Miller became a chapter president and then a chapter trustee for six years. From there he became the national vice president of membership for two years. All this has culminated in him taking on the ASLA presidency, which he started serving in October 2017.

Being the ASLA president demands a huge time commitment, including traveling two or three times a month, conference calls and attending events. Miller said his partners at MRWM are very supportive of his new position and its demands on his time.

When he has some free time, Miller loves baseball and has coached his son's little league team since his son's fifth birthday.

But even when away from the office, Miller uses his design skills to help those in need. For example, every year his local little league sponsors the Challenger League, which is for children with physical and cognitive disorders. The baseball field had dugouts that were below grade, so using the dugouts was difficult for many of the participants.

"The dugouts didn't work very well for a Challenger League, so we redesigned how the dugouts worked and how they could be accessed, and now everybody can get out there and play baseball," he says. "So that to me was, in a nutshell, an example of the power of what landscape architects can do: look at something, make it simple and bring people together in a meaningful way."

As seen in LASN magazine, January 2018.

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February 17, 2019, 5:04 pm PST

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