Sigmund Freud believed that psychoanalysis was a kind of archaeology, a slow, methodical digging down to reveal what the conscious mind had suppressed. In one early paper, Freud compared the analyst to an explorer who discovers the remains of an obscure civilization and sets the locals to work with pickaxes and shovels. “Together with them he may start upon the ruins … and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.”
The principals of San Francisco–based SurfaceDesign aren’t psychoanalysts, but they, too, describe their work as an archaeological enterprise: Many of their projects begin with the recovery of half-buried cultural traditions that become the foundation—metaphorical and also sometimes literal—of a new landscape. The physical elements are often rugged, because Surfacedesign works in a lot of rugged places: the volcanic islands and earthquake-prone coasts that make up the Pacific “rim of fire,” a line that loops up from the antipodes along Asia and back down the western limit of the Americas.
SurfaceDesign got a tentative start in 2001, when James Lord was employed in the Berkeley, Calif., office of Peter Walker. Lord launched the firm as a side venture, hoping to drum up enough work so that he and fellow landscape architect Roderick Wyllie could pursue it full-time. As that prospect drew closer to becoming a reality in 2006, the two met Geoff di Girolamo, a designer who had worked in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s urban design studio and had attended the University of California at Santa Cruz at the same time as Wyllie—although the two didn’t know each other then.
If SurfaceDesign is a product of California, equally formative to the practice was a small country on the other side of the Pacific. When Lord worked for Peter Walker, he remembers, anyone who called the office with a “vaguely Australian” accent got routed to him. A caller one day proceeded to describe—in a New Zealand, or Kiwi, accent—his ideas for a new business park in Auckland. Lord was able to pinpoint the exact location, much to the surprise of the caller. “My mother is a Kiwi, and my father’s English,” Lord says. “I knew the place and the culture.”
He then worked alongside Walker on the business park, retaining existing hedgerows and fences and maximizing views to the water. From there, it was a logical step for SurfaceDesign to reinterpret the landscape of the Auckland International Airport next door. The firm was asked to create a distinctive national identity for the airport, which had devolved (as airports often do) into a generic non-place, a portal to Auckland that could just as easily be in Oakland. Yet the site itself is charged with historic significance: It was where the Maori people first landed in New Zealand.
The designers found inspiration in the Maori’s unusual means of survival in their new home. Polynesian plants the Maori brought with them weren’t well suited to the more temperate climate of New Zealand. So the Maori dug large holes in the ground and lined them with volcanic basalt rock, and planted their crops at the bottom. The rock collected heat during the day, which radiated out at night, allowing the plants to grow.
“We created these different gestures that recalled the different stories of New Zealand,” Lord says of their design for the main roadway to and from the terminal. Large, crescent-shaped mounds, reminiscent of the Maori stonefields, hug the road. Hedgerows, a European element, work with the mounds to orient visitors and frame their views of the volcanoes. Lower, blade-like earth forms evoke jet engines and the motion of air travel.
Monterrey, Mexico, is a long way from Auckland, and has a very different semi-arid climate. Yet at Monterrey’s Museum of Steel, SurfaceDesign created a similarly rough-hewn landscape appropriate for the site’s heritage of heavy industry. Collaborating with Grimshaw and local landscape designer Claudia Harari, the firm reused unusual remnants found during excavation, vertical bars fused with material from old hot-steel pours. The designers turned these into fences and combined them with a linear water feature made out of the old cladding of the factory, referencing the rail line that used to run through the site. They arranged hunks of raw ore into a small square and rigged it as a misting bath to provide cooling on Monterrey’s many hot days. They also put a green roof, Latin America’s largest, over the new museum facility.
As you might expect, the firm’s work in its home city is more intimate and less brawny than the repurposed steel works or Maori-inspired rock mounds. Even so, as Wyllie noted in a lecture at New York’s Architectural League last year, SurfaceDesign’s public projects in San Francisco “seem to be about the edge” of the city—and that edge can be “wild” and “beach-wrecked,” in Wyllie’s words.
The firm has traversed the northern shoreline of the San Francisco Peninsula, from the Lands End Visitors Center in the west to the Golden Gate Bridge Plaza (which San Francisco Chronicle critic John King praised as “low key and tough”) and east to the Embarcadero Plaza. At Lands End—a collaboration with EHDD Architecture, the National Park Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy—rather than fight the beachy character of the site and scrape away its quirky material remains, the designers enhanced both, creating sand dunes as wind breaks and integrating replicas of original Beaux-Arts artifacts, like a sculpture of a stag that rests on oyster shells found during excavation.
It’s hard not to tie the rise of SurfaceDesign to that of landscape architecture as a discipline, or with the new awareness that landscape design can shape a site, neighborhood, or city. Last year, the firm was honored as one of the Architectural League’s Emerging Voices, and it’s now being asked to join major projects such as Bjarke Ingels Group’s reinterpretation of the South Mall for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. With this proposal—which calls for tunnels and subterranean galleries—Lord, Wyllie, and di Girolamo will have plenty of new ground to excavate.