The Work of an Outsider

Landscape architect Tom Oslund discusses the making of a memorial, his Zen time, and ecology vs. aesthetics.

Last August, tragedy hit Minneapolis when the I-35W bridge collapsed killing thirteen people and injuring many more. Residents of the city went, en masse, to the then-new Gold Medal Park in the city’s burgeoning mill district to mourn their collective loss. Designed by landscape architect Tom Oslund for Jean Nouvel’s Guthrie Theater site, the park transformed 7.5 acres of underutilized land into a modernist public space with an urban forest of lindens and maples. Within just 12 months of the tragedy, Oslund helped a new bridge rise over the Mississippi gorge and he designed a permanent site to honor those lost at the spot of those impromptu gatherings.

Carving out elegant and powerful landscapes is at the heart of what Tom Oslund does. His firm, Olsund and Associates, with offices in Minneapolis and Chicago, has been providing award-winning landscape architecture and master planning for more than a decade. Oslund’s projects are at times subdued, at times arresting, but they are always considerate of context. His designs cement a sense of place through a researched approach, and offer a sense of respite and engagement. The ultimate collaborator, Oslund has partnered with some of the top architects of the time on expansive projects and master plans. He worked with Pentagram on the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, which opened earlier this year, and his dramatic plan for the plaza of the new Minnesota Twins Ballpark is set to open next September. Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson sat down with Oslund to talk about his design process and the role of landscape architecture today.

Initially, you didn’t want to take on the I-35 bridge project. What made you hesitate?
The public process. It can be frustrating to see interesting ideas not executed well. But Linda Figg [with Figg Engineering Group] is a great designer, a great collaborator, and she was tremendously convincing. Linda and I basically worked together on anything that needed to be designed and not engineered. She would come to my office and we would sit down and start drawing.

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How did all of the various governmental entities involved in this project communicate with you two?
There was a group called the Visual Quality representatives with representation from the department of transportation all the way to fisheries and wildlife and everyone else in between. They did not always agree on things, but there was great dialogue about hard issues, about how this bridge was to be designed, constructed, and perceived, from a real catastrophe to being this thing that everyone could feel good about.

What were some of the design elements that this group requested?
It was really important that there was some kind of symbol at the bridgeheads to indicate that you were crossing the Mississippi River. It ended up being the international symbol for water. I basically took that symbol and turned it vertically. It’s lit at night and it’s a very sculptural response instead of the classic, “let’s put a sign up that says you’re crossing the Mississippi river.”

What are they fabricated out of?
A pre-cast, self-consolidating concrete. I saw it on Meier’s Millennium Church [in Rome] and it looks like marble. It also helps control pollution.

We worked diligently to keep this bridge as clean and simple as possible. It’ll be the first time you’ll be able to see the Mississippi corridor from the bridge because the rail is low and open, which Linda was amazing at convincing them to pick.

I imagine there was a desire not just for a safe bridge, but one that the public would perceive as safe.
Absolutely. After the bridge fell, they went through this whole forensic process and uncovered all this stuff that nobody had ever mapped out before—historic walls that were down there, old utility corridors running into the river. The hardest part was managing all of the constraints, knowing the timeframe we were up against, and being creative with the solutions.

Why such a simple solution? Why not a big visual statement?
Calatrava had submitted [an RFP response] very late in the game and it was a Calatrava bridge like we’ve all seen. I think there was a resonance in the design community that it could be something funky like that. Now that you see this bridge, it kind of disappears, which amazing. Our reaction was let’s do something where people remember crossing this bridge not for the bridge itself, but because they are crossing this steep gorge and can look up river and down river and see all this natural beauty. It is simple, but it is high-tech. It’s got an automatic de-icing system and it is the first bridge [in the U.S.] to use LED lights. Linda fought for those.

Were they worried about quality of lighting?
They were worried because they had never done it before. It’s a product that’s been in Europe for awhile and this is where it’s heading. This bridge is going to be the measuring stick for how bridges are designed, not only for the speed with which it was done, but also for the technology that was used.

In the design renderings there is a web-like structure underneath.
That’s the pedestrian bridge. That has yet to be constructed. It’s this spider web idea, hanging off the underbelly of the car bridge. It will connect each side of the river to a huge parkway system so that pedestrians can cross and get into the south side along the Guthrie Theater. There is going to be a completely new neighborhood of loft style living there.

Is Minneapolis finally getting away from those closed-in sky bridges?
There is a definite reaction to getting back on grade. Economically those sky bridges kill street life. I don’t use them because it’s like being in a rat maze.

How did you come to design the memorial for those who died in the collapse?
We worked with [Jean] Nouvel on the Guthrie Theater Project and [Gold Medal Park]. It’s probably two blocks from the bridge. There’s a giant mound there where you can see the river valley and the bridge. After the collapse, everyone went to the top of that hill. There were flowers everywhere. It became a makeshift memorial. The city provided crises counselors for the families and they asked if there was to be a memorial, where should it be and what should it be about. They wanted it to go in the park and I was asked to design it.

You entered the field in 1986. How has the practice changed?
It’s completely different. I grew up in the Bauhaus era where you sat and drew and drew and drew until you got it right. One of the things I’ve observed is the better the work of the designer, the longer they draw. They don’t jump to the computer right away, but when they go to the computer, they use it for what it’s made to do, which is resolve complex technical issues.

It seems like you have had some great clients over the years who are open to unusual solutions. Or am I making this too easy—is it really that you are bringing your clients along? How much of it is them coming to the table with openness, and how much of it is you selling them?
The long and short of it is we’ve been very discriminating about the work that we do. When we see an opportunity that looks interesting we go after that. If you find somebody who is simpatico with your thinking process, it makes it a lot easier. It’s not to say that we don’t have to sell hard sometimes.

The design for Minnesota Twins Ballpark is edgy. Was that a hard sell?
When we were asked to design this space, we went back and did research on baseball and started thinking about the elements of the game, from the bat to the mound to the infield. We were confronted with a sizeable problem with this parking ramp flanking one side of the plaza. I began looking at artist work that could solve the problem simply and beautifully and I discovered [California artist] Ned Kahn. [Kahn created] a wind screen piece, and it’s going to be absolutely mesmerizing. This thing is 350 feet long and 60 feet high. We carried the baseball theme all the way through, so each one of the pixels [on Kahn’s installation] will be the size of a baseball card. There’s also a lot of tongue in cheek, where you have hops growing up these topiary bats, which is beer and baseball, which go together.

We walked into this meeting and presented these solutions and I thought they were going to laugh us out of the room. I was doing it not to be funny or flippant, it was my way of trying to wrap my head around how you create a space that would resonate with why people are going to it. They loved it.

You completed the Harley-Davidson Museum this year, which required lots of motorcycle parking. You also incorporated stainless steel rivets into the landscape, which is pretty badass.
It’s a really great project and it came out incredibly well. They needed the flexibility to park 10,000 bikes on these streets. That’s how many can show up when they have an event at the museum. There are no cars anywhere. It’s all about the bikes. It’s all attitude.

Did you ever ride?
Not a Harley. Italian bikes, though, so I know the feeling.

Where do you turn for inspiration?
Not a lot of people know this, but I’ve played competitive golf my whole life and when I’m out walking on the course, it’s very Zen for me.

Have you ever thought about designing golf courses?
No I haven’t. We’ve been involved in a couple but I actually just came back from Ireland and played there for a week and it was so unbelievably beautiful. The course was made by the condition of the coastline and the wind and the dunes. It wasn’t fussy at all. Ireland is like the grail, along with Scotland, and the rest is contrived. I’m not that interested in manipulating land to create something.

You were once asked about sustainability in landscape architecture and you said that you approach all projects with an understanding of the ecology, but not at the expense of aesthetics. How do you balance those two things?
It’s really an interesting dilemma because now everybody is hanging their hat on sustainability. They are using it as an armature to produce design work and there’s an overabundance of thinking that just going for the ecological gesture is enough…

There’s that LEED checklist moment…
It’s like, “we’ve done a rain garden,” but it looks like a low spot that is full of weeds. We did a wild rice garden at the University of Minnesota Duluth and it’s educational and beautiful at the same time. One of the problems is—well, it’s actually not really a problem—is all this wildlife is showing up, from ducks to owls. This is the sort of happy accident that occurs. They now have two research projects with students tracking the duck population of this park and how it’s changing migration patterns. You can create spaces that evoke emotion and it’s not just lipstick that says “sustainable.” We approach it as one of the criteria, it’s not the only criteria. An ecological solution is not mutually exclusive to beautiful design.

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