If you think a landscape architect is just a gardener with a fancy name, think again.
The role of a landscape architect is to integrate the natural environment with manmade structures, explained Francisco Behr, an architect whose passion is landscape design. "Over time," he said, "we've come to realize that the surrounding landscape is just as extraordinary as the incredible buildings we place in it."
Behr, winner of numerous architecture awards and co-owner of Behr Browers Architects in Westlake Village, has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture Program for the past 28 years.
The profession, he said, is currently undergoing a renaissance throughout the world, and increasingly, landscape architects are being included on architectural teams from the inception of a project.
"The landscape architect is like an orchestra leader who can look at all these different components — horticulture, geology, hydrology, aesthetics — and assist in balancing them," Behr said. "They understand the ecology, the plant characteristics, the maintenance systems. And they also have a high artistic sensibility to manipulate and arrange the spaces in ways that create beneficial effects on the people who use them."
One of Behr's projects, The Village at Dos Vientos in Thousand Oaks, is an example of architecture whose main focus is landscape. He also contributed to the restoration of Hollywood's historic Chinese Theater.
In addition to creating landscapes for buildings, malls, concert venues and more, landscape architects also design parks. Two local examples are the imaginative Tongva Park in Santa Monica and Griffith Park, a larger and more complex area that serves an enormous population and provides a wide variety of gathering places, entertainment venues and areas for outdoor activities. Grand Park in downtown L.A. is a good example of a dense urban space transformed into an open public gathering spot offering concerts and farmers markets.
We asked Behr what kinds of natural abilities are useful for landscape architects. "I think artistic talent is one," he said. "You also have to have a love of plants and a love of the land. And you should be an environmentalist above all, because that's part of your job."
All aspects of this complex profession are covered in the three-year UCLA Extension program, which provides a solid foundation for anyone wanting to become a landscape architect.
Students study design and the software needed to render those designs. These include autoCAD for drawing and SketchUP for 3-D modeling, which is becoming more important as structures are produced directly from computer files.
There are also practical courses in horticulture, construction methods and materials, grading, drainage, irrigation and, of particular importance in drought-stricken SoCal, water conservation.
"That's a very high priority, a very important class that we offer — creating sustainable, drought-tolerant landscapes," Behr said.
The program culminates with the Capstone Project Studio, an intensive course in which students design a final landscape architecture project that reflects all they have learned in the program.
"Students are encouraged to have real sites with real clients, and there should be a real need for the project," he said. "[It] should demonstrate the highest level of knowledge and skills that they have developed through their education at UCLA Extension."
When you successfully complete the program, you will receive a Landscape Architecture Certificate.
Completion of the program also fulfills the educational requirement for a California state license in this field. For the license, you must pass the day-long Landscape Architect Registration Examination and have several years of verified work experience.
The Landscape Architecture program prepares students for a wide variety of career opportunities, from creating your own practice to working with architects, engineers and government agencies such as a park district or planning department. Salaries range from about $40,000 to $85,000, and six figures or more for a senior partner.
No matter which career path is chosen, one of the most important roles will be advocating for the environment.
"If you become a landscape architect," Behr said, "you have the potential to be a leader in the pursuit of a more balanced and sustainable world."