SF Bay Area

Encouraging Sustainable Design

New LAN instructor Yi-Shan Chen brings experience and a drive to safeguard the environment to her role 

By Nina Tabios

After over 20 years of experience as a licensed and urban design architect, Yi-Shan Chen was looking for a change, “a new direction,” she emphasized. Teaching turned out to be the answer and the newly minted instructor at Academy of Art University’s School of Landscape Architecture (LAN) hopes to bring a fresh, practical mind on sustainability to her students.

“I think in this particular time and day, [sustainability] is especially important, so I want to be able to help our younger generations of designers,” she said, “We only have Planet A, no Planet B—that’s something people need to be aware of.”

Hired at the top of 2018, Chen teaches Site Design Studio (LAN 620) and Drafting & Drawing in Landscape Architecture (LAN 193) in addition to practicing and consulting with a few private offices in the area, including her own Berkeley practice, Studio Zephyrus, founded last summer.

Across her decades-long career, Chen worked for prominent offices such as EDSA, HOK, SWA Group, and PGADesign. Since moving to the Bay Area in 1993, Chen’s work in a range of projects (both corporate and boutique) has been recognized through awards and accolades: 2005 Design Award from the California Preservation Council, 2008 Golden Nugget Best Affordable Housing, 2008 PG&E Savings by Design Award, 2009 NAHB Award: Multifamily Community of the Year, to name a few. 

Born in Taiwan, she moved to the Boston area in 1990 as a graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) program to earn her master’s degree in landscape architecture. Though the GSD program is one of the smaller Harvard programs, she learned among a group of creative students from across the globe. “I think that’s the best part of the whole learning experience besides going to lectures,” said Chen. “It was a very inspiring environment where you learned how to be a critical thinker and how to design critically.”

Chen hopes to pass on that experience to her students. She also tries to dig in a ‘practice what you preach’ mentality through her Plastic-Free Life project. Chen explained students must minimize their plastic usage over the course of six weeks, documenting the entire duration and turning it into a commentary piece reflecting on their experience. Living a sustainable life makes for a more honest designer.

“One little impact I can help them understand is not just talking and campaigning, it’s about what you do as well,” Chen said. “I always say that we are the steward of the land, being landscape architects, and I hope [students] will take care of the environment and land, not only through their design but also through responsible behavior.”

Introduced through a mutual friend, LAN Director Jeff McLane was initially impressed by Chen’s résumé but quickly observed that her knowledge, curiosity, and humility were a perfect fit for the department.

“[Chen] is a very high caliber talent with international experience. With her résumé, she could easily be egotistical, yet she chooses not to be,” he said. “The way she perceives the profession and where it’s headed is very much aligned with LAN, in that we view landscape architecture as community-based, it’s a service.”

Chen admits she was apprehensive of the idea of teaching early on in her career, yet her passion and desire led her to the Academy. By bringing her perspective on sustainability, practical and honest design to LAN’s devoted faculty, Chen hopes to equip the next line of landscape architects with the tools to benefit not only their careers but the future of the environment as well.

“It’s not so much about where you go to school but it’s the people who come to the school that provide the most influence and [who] you learn the most from,” Chen said. “Hopefully the next generation of designers can benefit from what I have learned from over the years.”

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