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Leading by Design: Barbara Wilks

Leading by Design: Barbara Wilks

Barbara Wilks (MLA’93) is founding principal at the Brooklyn-based firm W Architecture and Landscape Architecture. A former student of legendary Professor of Landscape Architecture Ian McHarg’s, Wilks is an alumna and member of the Board of Advisors at The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, an interdisciplinary think tank for developing responses to climate change in communities most vulnerable to its effects. With her sister, Nanci Lanni, she recently made a $1.25 million gift to the School to establish the Wilks Family McHarg Directorship, which is currently held by Billy Fleming (PhD’17).
 
What brought you to PennDesign originally?
 
I was working as an architect—I have a Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell—and 15 years into practicing, there was this “little” recession. I’d been doing mostly public work and thought landscape architecture had a lot of untapped potential.  I was living in Baltimore at the time, and heard about University of Pennsylvania, and decided to come up here for the two-year Master’s program. I think it was Ian’s last year, and he was so inspiring.
 
Did you go right back to practice after graduating from PennDesign?
 
Yes, I had my own firm practically my whole career. As a woman, and as an architect back in the ‘70s, I sort of found that was the best way to go. I was the first woman they hired in the firms I worked for. You know, they really didn’t know what to do with me. So, I quickly started my own [architecture] practice after Cornell. You have to learn and work for three years at least, and get registered, which I did. And then I continued my practice, just adding landscape, once I had the required work requirements.
 
Why did you become involved in The McHarg Center?
 
I just really admired Ian’s passion, and what he did in [his 1969 book] Design With Nature. Just today, as I was walking here there was a parking lot, newly paved, without one single tree in it. I thought that there were rules here for storm water management! It’s clear Ian’s lessons have still not been absorbed even in Philadelphia. Certainly not by the general public, and hardly by landscape architects. So, there’s still a big need to get the word out, and to have people understand that climate change is not about building walls around cities so the water can’t come in. We have to do something much more systemic—by designing with nature.
 
Looking back, what would you say stands out about your studies with Ian?
 
Ian brought so much to the School. Like being associated with practicing scientists. We interacted with a different scientist every day: a hydrologist, a soil scientist, an ecologist, a limnologist. We learned what they did, and its importance for what we did as designers. Having always been kind of a science nerd, I thought that just made so much sense. And having come from architecture, I was learning the building blocks of landscape architecture. The formal aspects, architects and landscape architects share. But you need to understand the natural processes you’re working with, and how those systems work, to do good design.
 
It was not just Ian, it was the way the core curriculum was set up. I loved the first year—learning and actually going to all those different environments, like the coastal plain—upper and the lower, the bogs, the mountains. We’d be dropped somewhere, and have to find out how the site got the way it was. You dug a soil pit, looked at the plants, and then decided what happened there: perhaps there was a fire 10 years ago, or you know that you're in a glacier moraine, from studying the topography, plants and the soils. 
 
Where did your love of science come from?
 
When I was a kid, I lived by a creek and I was always outside. I had fossil collections—I knew all about the Ordovician Sea!—and made dioramas, studied geology, had a great rock collection. But then I got into architecture. So, coming to landscape architecture at Penn kind of reopened that whole world. I think part of the reason for my going into architecture was that I was good at physics. Architecture is science-based, but not in the same way that landscape is. Landscape is dynamic. I really enjoyed being put back in that sort of childhood space and getting to “play” again.
 
It seems like science and design have drifted apart since McHarg’s day. What do you make of that?
 
Well there’s always this pendulum, I think, with social issues. But, to me, science is the underlying basis [for our work in landscape architecture]. You can’t get away from it. No matter what else comes into the [design] process, you could add to Ian’s layers to include other elements. The land is where you start.
 
That said, our work is about people, as people are part of nature. That includes how peoples operate socially.  We need to look at how we’ve made changes [to the landscape], how we could do a better job of integrating the natural processes into what we do, and invent new ways we should live and build communities for people and other species. 
 
That sounds like something McHarg might say.
 
Before him, I never thought about nature—never really thought about it culturally. I just don’t think we’ve gotten a lot of Ian’s important ideas across to people. It’s not an urban/nature dichotomy. It’s more of a continuum. There’s so much work to be done.
 
The New York Times Magazine recently dedicated an entire issue to an essay by Nathaniel Rich about the lost opportunities to forestall climate change back in the 1980s. Has McHarg’s work suffered a fate like that of the first environmentalists?
 
Well, that was a specific chain of events which highlighted national differences—where each country was economically and the need to work together. This is a global problem, and we need leadership to overcome individual interests and short-term thinking. Action is now more urgent than ever. I hope The McHarg Center will help get the word out, and help change our cultural understanding. It’s got to be reframed as a collective project—like going to the moon. Somehow, we need for people to really hear it and be a part of it.
 
The McHarg Center will launch its public programming officially in June of 2019, with a conference and series of exhibitions exploring the legacy of Design With Nature 50 years after its publication. To become a sponsor or register, visit mcharg.upenn.edu.