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The Poetry of Place
Profile: Pamela Burton, FASLA, President, Pamela Burton & Company

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor




Images courtesy of Pamela Burton & Company
Oxford Garden
Cost of Wisconsin
John Deere
Valmont Playworld
CAME Americas Oly-Ola Edgings

Pamela Burton, FASLA, uses the grammar of landscape, with its complicated interaction of plants, structures, water and earth forms to write a poem. She gives us a level of contact that, combined with the structured meter, the natural cadences, the rhyme and the metaphor of a place, coalesces all the senses together. You come to your senses with this internal symphony of emotions, forgotten memories and enhanced awareness.



Part of the artistry of a landscape is creating optical illusions that blur the differences between art and life. “We won the ASLA national award for this Malibu beach residence last year,” says Pamela Burton. “The big idea was to capture the landscape of the Malibu arroyo, which comes down through the house site to the beach. It is crossed by a bridge by the deck where you can see across Pacific Coast Highway and back to the hills. The idea was to pare things down to their simplest essence while not sacrificing the spaces, their sequences or their utility. Those three requirements could have been at odds with each other. I tried to get down to the minimal and still maintain the most important elements of the experience of being there.”

A poem is meant to convey a vivid and imaginative sense of experience using condensed language chosen for its sound and suggestive power as well as its meaning. Says Burton, “The idea of landscape architecture as graphic design is compelling, but I approach design from a perceptual, conceptual, and metaphorical point of view. First, you have the idea, then you conceive of what it would be like to be in it, then you build it. As in Eastern philosophies, I view human beings as being closely integrated with nature.”





“The La Mesa site was challenging because of the 40-foot grade change across the lot. The vocabulary of the descending materials was very restrained.” Burton points out, “It shows how you can do a lot with just a little. But it takes a lot of effort to make things look effortless.”


The Journey as a Destination

“As an undergraduate at UCLA, I studied environmental design. After a three-month stay in Kyoto, during which I drove a motorcycle to many gardens, I realized how calmly and effectively the architecture and landscapes were integrated. During the period between undergraduate and graduate school,” explains Burton, “I worked at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles. Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and Keith Sonnier were among the artists being exhibited. I was learning a tremendous amount just by being in that environment. Another important part of the experience was the world of music and the musicians, such as Philip Glass, who participated in some installations. Working in that open-ended world opened my eyes and encouraged me to understand art and how to combine it with architecture, landscape and horticulture.”




“You see things in so many dimensions all at once and you become immersed in a simultaneous presentation where all the senses are at work. When creating the Claire Trevor School of the Arts plaza at University of California, Irvine, Maya Lin asked us to collaborate,” Burton recalls. “Our idea was to use all of the senses—seeing, smelling, listening, touching, and tasting—to knit together the buildings with the landscape. The space has many utilities below the surface and we planted a grove of sycamore trees— small, medium, and large—that move easily around the gas line, chilled water line, and other utilities, and hold the space together. We marked the fire lane by forming the walkways to hold a scented carpet planted with Pennyroyal, Thyme, Oregano, and Snow-in-Summer.”


“After being in Japan and working in the gallery, I studied architecture at UCLA to earn my Master of Architecture degree. More than anything, I became a landscape architect because it was necessary to give credibility to my practice,” says Burton, describing her circuitous, event filled, curiosity-driven road to the profession. “When I finally put it all together, I said, ‘This
is it!’”

“There are so many aspects of life that go into a design—for example, challenging norms and conventions and not taking things for granted. I am always asking, ‘What is the meaning of what I’m doing?’ In addition, making each part of that process a joy is essential—not just getting to the end result. Joining all of these activities is the most significant part of the process. It is also relevant that I was exposed to so many cutting edge artists who were doing amazing work and provoking my imagination.”





”I learned how landscape is very similar to architecture. The sky is the ceiling, and the trees and hedges are formations that create and define entries, openings, ceilings, and circulation. The focal point of the Santa Monica Public Library is the marine themed courtyard which mirrors the underwater landscape of the bay. It was a collaboration between architect John Ruble, artist Carl Cheng, and us. It’s really the living room of
the city.”


“After receiving my Master of Architecture degree, I left school in the midst of a recession and there were no jobs. I found a studio to live in. Since all of my friends were artists and architects, they asked me to figure out the landscapes for their designs. I learned by doing. However, I realized I needed the landscape architecture license.”

She adds, “There was also a point when I realized that I needed to learn much more, so I started teaching. I taught ‘The Landscape of Art’ and that was a way to learn everything about landscape architecture and architecture. I was hired to teach a 15-week course at Art Center College of Design as well as at USC. I found that every time you teach, it’s a way of showing yourself how to learn. That, in and of itself, is an extraordinary journey.”





“Although under construction for five years, the Santa Monica Library was one of the earliest LEED rated projects,” explains Burton. “It captures rain on the rooftop, which is collected in a large cistern below the third level of parking in the underground garage. In 2002, the city supported these sustainable elements. Drought tolerant plants have been installed and they use only collected water from the sky, no potable water. A number of very unusual planting materials were selected, (see page 46) which not only add interest but demonstrate that there’s an incredible choice available.”


Process and Philosophy

“My process is looking, thinking, drawing by literally taking ideas from my head and then taking them out of my head and putting them onto the paper. Until you put the idea down on paper, it’s just a drawing in your head. It has to manifest itself on paper and then be built. It is that process that makes your ideas real.”

“My overarching philosophy is to stay present with what is at hand and yet remain interested. Landscapes are a journey. It’s not just about the destination, but also about the journey of designing and walking through them. Those journeys are always changing. It’s very much about how we move through space and how our perceptions of that space are always changing.”





“When you integrate landscape and architecture, you are dealing with a penumbra, a subtle gray area between areas of shadow. You are thinking about what you are moving through and all the while creating what will resonate with people,” says Burton. “The Santa Monica Business Park obscured the entrances and one couldn’t see into the center. The people who bought it wanted to open it up and show people what wonderful spaces are inside.”


“One of the most important things about any practice is cultivating awareness, something artists specialize in. Whenever we have an idea, it’s always amplified by the mysterious things that are about to happen. You can only take advantage of them if you are aware of them.”

“As landscape architects we’ve always thought about conserving our natural resources,” Burton maintains. “We were among the first groups to be looking at sustainability as a cultural practice. LEED ratings now gives us a formal checklist. We’re working on two Platinum LEED residential projects. The Santa Monica library was one of the early projects to be LEED rated.”





”Think of a clearing in the forest, or an oasis in the desert. Those spaces can be a complete and profound change from the rest of the landscape. You experience a simultaneous perception of trees, shadows, rocks, sounds, and scents, then you arrive at the opening,” says Burton. This could be a description of the sensation of arrival in the Business Park.


“Look at the work of Erik Gunnar Asplund. He was the architect of the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, Sweden. Not only is that one of the most moving and remarkable cemeteries in the world, the work calls on you to become aware of your feelings. It is those feelings that facilitate contact between our inner and outer landscapes, our vision and our imagination, and created landscapes that become deeply embedded in us.”

Elegant Influences

“Both of my parents were very influential in my life, especially my mother with her love of plant materials and her artistic sensibility,” says Burton. “My husband, with his background in philosophy and the visual arts, has been very important for helping me articulate my ideas. Professionally, I’ve been strongly influenced by Yoshio Taniguchi, best known for his redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Charles Gwathmey, one of The New York Five in 1969, and Eugene Kupper, my former professor at UCLA. The truth is,” Burton emphasizes, “I’ve learned a lot from everyone I’ve ever worked with.”

“Although I have never been employed by anyone but myself, over the years each person I have worked with has added something important,” she continues. “Again, it’s not the destination, but the journey. There are also the important influences of the places I have lived and visited. I was born in Santa Monica, later spent one year in New York, traveled to Amsterdam and Paris, to Brazil, Guatemala and Chile, Tokyo and Kyoto, Taipei, and the Ukraine.”





“We used a wonderful palette of Sao Paulo’s Brazilian trees,” remembers Burton. “The trees in the Esplanade are now close to 60 feet tall, including a swoop of river trees and a grid of princess flower (China) trees. The site has an intimate pedestrian scale, but also the largesse of these Brazilian trees with their arboreal masses that provide shade. Although still under construction (two more towers are three-quarters complete), it is a dense urban landscape into which we’ve injected intimate gardens instead of playing on the hard geometry of the city.”


“The influence of living in Malibu, on the edge of a continent, and going through the experience of a fire storm, was profound. Currently, I live in Ojai in a house in the middle of an orange grove on a five-acre parcel surrounded by 200-acre parcels of citrus and avocado groves. It is fascinating watching two different ecosystems at work. On the one hand, we are part of the full thrust of the coastal plane, and on the other we are in the middle of the foothills of the Los Padres Mountains and, farther away, the Sespe Wilderness.”

Coming to Your Senses

“Space can be created by a line of enclosure or by a line of direction,” Burton observes. But she also understands how, just as in poetry or music, a created space can be manipulated to produce emotions. By fusing architecture with the way it informs landscape, and adding the musical vocabulary of horticulture and the magic of art, rather than creating a simulation of nature you can write poetry. Says Pamela Burton, “In order ‘to come to your senses’ in a space, one must engage all of one’s senses.”






The Music of Plant Materials

The Allegretto Vivace of exquisite, sustainable, low-water-use plantings enhance the Santa Monica Public Library while educating the people who visit them.





Maori Maiden Flax
Images courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library






Aeonium ‘Jolly Green’






Aloe brevifolia






Blue Stalk Sticks






Century Plant






Coral Aloe 2






Felt Plant






Yellow Torch Aloe


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April 19, 2014, 12:31 am EST

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