SF Bay Area

Telling Stories With Landscape Design

LAN’s Speaker Series kicked off with Kate Stickley’s lecture on creating residential design projects

By Nina Tabios

For its first Speaker Series event of the semester, Academy of Art University’s School of Landscape Architecture (LAN) welcomed Kate Stickley, co-founder of Arterra Landscape Architects.

Known for picture-perfect landscapes outfitted for the modern, sustainable home, Stickley discussed in her March 20 talk how residential design affords herself and her designers a sense of craftsmanship: “We have the opportunity to build a skill base. And when you’re doing a residential project, you’re doing everything from soup to nuts. From site analysis to grading and drainage, massing and setting the building. Everything, all the way down to getting it built.”

The lecture exemplified how artisanal elements added tasteful pops to the overall story of each landscape design. Stickley spoke about the choice, for example, to etch J.R.R. Tolkien book verses into stone pathways to complete a “Lord of the Rings” fan’s Middle Earth-inspired garden. For another project, Stickley incorporated a waterfall weir feature with a “reverse topography basin” to draw guests into the home’s front door. This attention to detail often influences Stickley’s bigger picture of legacy, to “create a garden that will be remembered for generations.”

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School of Landscape Architecture Director Jeff McLane introduces guest speaker Kate Stickley. Photo by Nina Tabios.

“We’re creating lifestyles for families. We’re creating legacy gardens for retirees that want to have that special place they want their grandkids to come back to every summer. We have families that want to pass this residence down through generations,” she told the room. “To have that kind of impact on people’s lives is really an honor.”

For the series kick-off, LAN students like Francisco Mendoza were keen to hear about Stickley’s philosophies around her work. Already a working landscape architect himself, Mendoza could relate to Stickley’s descriptions of being on a site, sometimes overwhelmed with plants and plans that don’t stick. Seeing a 39-year veteran like Stickley share familiar sentiments and challenges was reassuring.

“It’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing today, to be at that scale and building from the ground up,” Mendoza said. “Her work and process really struck a chord with me. I saw where she was coming from and it was nice to see it coming from a professional.”

Stickley spoke at length on the technicalities of her projects, topics like creating a green roof, meeting code requirements, indoor-outdoor relationships, and materiality. But one theme that rang out throughout her talk was how imperative it is to be receptive to everyone involved on a project and working on a site.

“We, as landscape architects, have an active dialogue with the civil engineers, with the architects, with the arborists so that we can fully maximize what our clients’ goals are in a very site-specific and site-sensitive way,” Stickley said. “The thing for me, I love connecting with people. Whether it’s working with an architect or an arborist on a project, finding a good fit for a client to work with us at Arterra, those relationships really fuel and feed the work to make it meaningful to us.”

Putting people as the priority, Mendoza agreed, is a principal he can abide by.

“What I took away from the talk was how she talked about her team. The biggest thing was their teamwork,” Mendoza mentioned. “I’m very much into building up community too so I really liked hearing that from a professional. If that’s an industry standard, I picked the right place to be.”

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