The Dirt: Roderick Wyllie

“Increasingly now, I’m like maybe we can incorporate roses into our gardens? Actually, I love roses. Maybe not for every garden, but those really fussy clients we have deserve roses. They just want to tell me about how the design needs to be clean and modern. I think we’ll sneak in some roses in there just to mess them up. And then one day they’ll come out to their garden and it’s going to be really fragrant and they’re going to be happy.”

Landscape architect Roderick Wyllie and I are shooting the breeze. It’s a sunny San Francisco afternoon and we’re sitting in his tiny, experimental garden at his home in Corona Heights. He’s raced back from the office to meet us before heading to the airport for a flight to Seattle for a work project. There’s an endearing messiness to Roderick’s energy. His shirt sleeves are unbuttoned and un-rolled, his arms and hands are rarely still, and his shoes are without laces. Roderick uses the word adventure often, and it definitely feels like he’s on one. In the best kind of way.

Roderick shares his home-life, work-life, and garden-life with James Lord, also a landscape architect. Their business, Surfacedesign is a San Francisco based landscape architecture and urban design firm. The pair founded it in 2001, and now have around 25 employees working on a range of projects such as parks, plazas, civic landscapes and private gardens. Some of their projects include the Smithsonian Master Plan, Auckland International Airport, Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary Plaza, and IBM Plaza Honolulu. In 2017 the firm was awarded the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture.

James and Roderick met at Harvard Graduate school, where they were both studying landscape architecture. I ask Roderick how it is to work with his life partner: “It’s really luxurious mostly, because there’s not a lot of separation between work and life anyway. I can imagine with someone else it might be slightly frustrating, but for us it’s an adventure.  Also, James is a very patient person.” The pair have similar roles in the business, with projects occasionally overlapping, but their working styles are different. “James is very intuitive and very, very focused and meticulous. I’m probably more conceptual in thinking about things rhetorically, thinking about how things can be seen as systems, something like that.”

Just the idea that we get to make a living from our own design work seems kind of strange. It seems very lucky.”

I was introduced to Roderick and James via David Godshall, a friend and landscape architect in Los Angeles (featured in The Planthunter book). David referred to the pair as ‘plant nerds’, which immediately piqued my interest. “They’re designing huge, important civic spaces, and they have an absolutely lovely, weird jungle of a garden at their house in San Francisco. It’ll be magical, it always is with them”, he wrote. He was right.

“This is a place to experiment,” Roderick tells me as we head down the steep staircase from the house into the garden. It’s a colourful, wild space. It illustrates Roderick and James’s backgrounds, recent and past plant obsessions, and attractions to unexplainable plant curiosities. “This is a dawn redwood,” he says, pointing to a nondescript pine-looking tree in the corner. “I don’t have an explanation for it except it’s a dwarf and it’s fascinating to me.” There’s lots of succulents “from when we were really excited about the possibility of what succulents could do”, and salvias from a time when Rodney was “really interested in different kinds of salvias.” He describes it as “a funny merging of the exotic with the Mediterranean and northern California character.”

Plant nerds are not as common as they might be assumed to be in the world of landscape architecture. From my experience, there’s a kind of disconnect between design and horticulture within the profession – a prioritising of line and form and architecture over growth and change and plants. I’m often disappointed by the lack of knowledge, and subsequent lack of value, given to plants and gardening particularly within the design of public spaces, but also, too within residential design projects. Roderick has a theory about this topic, and I’m keen to hear it.

“I have historical theories about how professional landscape architecture evolved into being this sort of non-plant oriented thing”, Roderick tells me. “I think landscape architects were always perceived as the nurses to the doctors of architecture, and there was a certain point when the men who were being landscape architects felt insecure or emasculated by the association with gardeners or being in a garden.  That’s kind of my theory. But ultimately I’m like, well then why did you even do this? You can be a traffic engineer. I think it was a specific historical time and I think that time has kind of passed. That’s my feeling.”

The time certainly has past, if Roderick the ‘plant nerd’ has anything to do with it. His has been a career of curiosity and exploration. Plants, no plants, modernism, gardening – a true adventure. When he decided to study landscape architecture at graduate school, after completing an undergraduate degree in music, he began working as a gardener at Fioli, a vast Italianate estate in Woodside, California. After graduate school he worked for Martha Schwartz and then in a large landscape architecture firm for a few years. “The work we were doing was not plant focused. It was super formal, always referencing the architecture. I’m actually very interested in architecture, but I just felt like, what’s so great about that? It seemed super uninteresting to me after a while.”

Increasingly, I felt like actually the most interesting thing we landscape architects can do is with plants.”

Roderick then worked for landscape architect and plantsman Ron Lutsko, the guy who on site visits “disappears into the woods picking plants and putting them into the little plastic baggies he has always in his car, so he can propagate them.” Lutsko is passionate about native Californian plants, which Roderick says he appreciates, but can’t commit to. “I don’t actually share the kind of strictness that he does. I find it really important but it’s not my personality. I like that in a garden there’s a kind of exoticism that can exist, I think that can be amazing.”

There’s an intangibility to gardens, which cannot be defined in terms of architecture or horticulture. Perhaps it’s a sensory, primal even, human connection to the plants themselves that contributes to this. Thus, a garden cannot be broken down into the sum of its parts – its function cannot be simply defined or valued. “One of the most interesting things about gardens and public spaces and landscapes is that in a way they don’t, even though we try to characterize them as such, have function. They don’t function programmatically in the way that architecture does. A garden is not a place where you cook dinner every night or something like that. And so, there’s something very hard to value about those spaces which, in my mind, is kind of lucky because it’s not so defined. I mean, sometimes it’s not lucky because you don’t have budgets that you would ideally like, but in terms of the story of those spaces it’s really ambiguous sometimes, and I think that’s super great.” I’m not surprised that the ambiguity of gardens and landscape appeals to Roderick. In fact, for a man like him, it seems to me that there’s no better mediums than plants and place.

We end our conversation on the street, wandering down the stairs near Roderick and James’s house and looking at gardens over back fences. All of sudden Roderick is late for his flight and can’t find his bag. We look frantically for it everywhere but it’s gone. He rushes off, shirt sleeves flapping, surprisingly un-flustered about his lost bag (he never found it). I assume he made his flight.

Roderick Wyllie is a man on an adventure.