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Firm Profile: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Seattle
GGN was co-founded in 1999 by Kathryn Gustafson, Jennifer Guthrie and Shannon Nichol.

by Ifsha Buttitta for LASN // Editor, Steve Kelly


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Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN), a landscape architecture firm based in Seattle, was co-founded in 1999 by Kathryn Gustafson, Jennifer Guthrie and Shannon Nichol. The firm has since garnered plenty of attention, winning the 2011 Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture, and the ASLA's National Landscape Architecture Firm Award last year. Individual projects have also received accolades: the ASLA National Awards of Excellence, ASLA and AIA Honor Awards for Design, Tucker Design Awards, Society for Campus and University Planning Awards, and Great Places Awards from the Environmental Design Research Association. Here, the three founding principals share their thoughts on landscape architecture as a profession, what has made them successful and what they appreciate most about their achievements.

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Jennifer Guthrie says she still receives notes from people telling her how much Lurie Garden in Chicago means to them. "People are so busy these days. It is such an honor for someone to hunt you down and send you a handwritten note like that," she says.
Photos: GGN: Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Chicago


Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
"A place that fits." These words best encapsulate the most essential elements Kathryn Gustafson considers in the overall approach and design of a project. "It needs to be a piece that inspires, that brings you something that uplifts you in a way, and brings you back to come again. Finding that emotional and psychological beauty that touches people--that is what makes it 'a place that fits.'"

It was this desire to create lasting, meaningful work that led Gustafson to switch careers from "high speed, race clock" fashion design, which she initially studied years ago, to the field of landscape architecture.

"I wanted to be in a creative field where it would take longer to create and where I would have a longer impact on people's lives."

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"Finding that emotional and psychological beauty that touches people--that is what makes landscape architecture 'a place that fits.'"-- Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
Photo: GGN: Seattle City Hall Plaza


She has more than 30 years of experience in landscape architecture and partnerships in two offices--Gustafson Guthrie Nichol in Seattle and Gustafson Porter + Bowman in London. Among the notable project work she has completed with her partners are the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; Cultuurpark Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam; Seattle City Hall Plaza; and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in London. In her own words, her design work is "as simple as possible without being banal," while maintaining the meaning and integrity of the site, and focuses on being more compositionally strong rather than decorative. Researching and understanding the historical and cultural values of a site, in addition to its physical characteristics, is what initially drives the design.

"A site is living; we have to take into account what has happened to it and what could happen to it," she said.

Gustafson's advice to those starting out in the field is "to be the best sponge in the world. Just start working. There is so much to learn. During the first five years, you may not realize what you are good at--don't shut that door. Just put out there what you are looking for and try to find that opportunity." She is still excited to be a part of the landscape architecture profession.

"I am totally in love with this profession. It is constantly changing, and it gives me the opportunity to meet and work with extraordinary people," Gustafson explains. "It's an amazing profession--very scientific and extremely artistic. I love having the opportunity to work with people who appreciate the need and desire for beauty. I love the holistic approach to landscape architecture, creating the beauty of a larger piece that has such a vast reach. I feel very lucky that I found this profession."

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"It is really gratifying walking through a space we have designed and seeing people there--they don't have to say anything, but you know from their body language that they are feeling comfortable, happy, healthy, and secure."-- Shannon Nichol, FASLA, LEED AP
Photo: GGN: North End Parks, Boston


Jennifer Guthrie, FASLA
GGN designed Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park in Chicago in 2005. This memorable garden is just a stroll south of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Jennifer Guthrie says she still receives notes from people telling her how much the garden means to them.

"People are so busy these days. It is such an honor for someone to hunt you down and send you a handwritten note like that," she said.

The firm is receiving similar kind of reactions from its work at the National Museum of African American History, in Washington, D.C., completed in 2016. These kind of reactions speak volumes to not only the project work GGN is producing, but the work of landscape architecture in general.

"It's a hard and beautiful profession," Guthrie avers. "It is part science, art, experience and health. There is a seasonal quality to it, and it does so much for the environment and the community."

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"Landscape design needs to be a piece that inspires, that brings you something that uplifts you in a way, and brings you back."--Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA
Photo: GGN: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.


With 25 years in the profession, Guthrie still enjoys engaging in the creative work that her chosen field allows.

"When building a project it is about how all of the elements come together," she notes. "The history and context of the site, its adjacencies, the client's objectives, the politics involved--how all of this comes together is exciting. We bring it all together to create a place that is cohesive and comfortable for people to be in."

She feels extremely proud of her office, her partners and their clients.

"I love what I do. We have accomplished so much more than we ever even set out to do," she marvels.

Although her comfort zone is the technical side of the work, she truly loves the "front end" work.

"It brings so much energy. It's exciting and exhilarating to figure out the conceptual story," she explains. "This is the story that starts the conversation with the client and the team, and you carry it all the way through to construction."

Initially an architecture student in college, Guthrie recalled that when building models she found herself spending more time working on the outside of buildings.

"A smart and kind professor directed me to the landscape architecture program," she recalls. "I knew in the first course I was where I should be." To those starting out in the profession, Guthrie advises taking on every opportunity you can get.

"You always learn so much," she asserts. "Be ambitious and open."

"Landscape architecture is a profession of the long haul," she added.

"You never reach a point where you 'take it easy' and coast," she observes. "We are always looking for unique and different ways of doing things."

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"When building a project, it is about how all of the elements come together," she notes. "The history and context of the site, its adjacencies, the client's objectives, the politics involved--how all of this comes together is exciting. We bring it all together to create a place that is cohesive and comfortable for people to be in."--Jennifer Guthrie, FASLA
Photo: GGN: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Campus, Seattle


Shannon Nichol, FASLA, LEED AP
In college, Shannon Nichol started out studying two diverse fields: civil engineering and forestry. Then she took a landscape architecture class as an elective. During the first lecture, hearing how you could manipulate landscape to make things beautiful, she intuitively felt that was for her. Nichol switched her major. She has been in the profession since 1997.

She loves so many aspects of the landscape architecture profession, including being an investigator and researcher.

"A lot of times, sites have been wiped clean of their characteristics and clues," she notes. "I love how much nonfiction there is to learn about. I love finding old maps, and discovering what happened at a site in the past."

Her designs have included Millennium Park's Lurie Garden, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus, and Boston's North End Parks. Her work incorporates complex functions into simple frameworks and refined land forms.

"I love that every project is different," Nichol explains. And she loves every aspect of her work. "I love drawing, I love masonry detailing as much as I love plants and urban designing. I feel extremely lucky to be in a place where I can experience all of that variety." She also feels fortunate to be in partnership with Kathryn Gustafson and Jennifer Guthrie. She recalls that when she met Kathryn, their interests complemented one another very well.

"I was always about structure, whereas Kathryn felt things more intuitively. With age, confidence, and time in the profession, I have become more intuitive as well," she said.

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Landscape architecture involves being an investigator and researcher. "A lot of times, sites have been wiped clean of their characteristics and clues. There is so much non-fiction to learn about."-- Shannon Nichol, FASLA, LEED AP
Photo: GGN: Seattle City Hall Plaza


Nichol learned to work hard from a very young age, and that is just what she would suggest to today's students of landscape architecture.

"Get experience and work hard on whatever you're doing," she advises. "It is important to learn to achieve something that wasn't easy. This will help in design work."

She also recommends not shying away from doing the "tedious" work.

"You have to embrace tedious, technical work, because it gets your mind engaged with the physical scale of the project."

What she finds most satisfying in her work is hearing from people who coincidentally stumble upon a landscape she designed.

"They may have been weary, walking through the city, and then they experienced a beautiful view and place," she said. "Also, it is really gratifying walking through a space we have designed and seeing people there--they don't have to say anything, but you know from their body language that they are feeling comfortable, happy, healthy and secure."



As seen in LASN magazine, April 2018.






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July 19, 2018, 2:20 pm PDT

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