Hacienda, Tiburon, CA.
Marion Brenner

The Architectural League’s 32nd annual Emerging Voices Award brings a focus to creative practices that will influence the future direction of architecture. Each of the eight firms will deliver a lecture this month in Manhattan. The first lecture takes place tonight, Thursday, March 6 at 7:00 p.m. when The Living and Surfacedesign will present their work.


San Francisco,

San Francisco firm Surfacedesign founder James Lord has worked for what he calls the “triple crown” of Bay Area landscape designers: Hargreaves Associates, Martha Schwartz, and Peter Walker. Yet his company’s work bears little imprint of these offices’ signature styles. The designers at Surfacedesign are chameleons, digging obsessively into each site to reflect its character, history, and quirks.

“We pride ourselves that no project is alike,” said Lord, who began the office in 2006, and later joined up with partners Roderick Wyllie and Geoff di Girolamo.

Horno3 Museo del Acero, Monterrey, Mexico. (left). IBM Honolulu. (right).
Paul Rivera; Courtesy Surfacedesign

A good example of this intensive investigation is the Auckland, New Zealand, Airport: Gateway, connecting the site to points nearby. Varied sources of inspiration included native Maori history and culture, the impact of subsequent European settlers, the volcanic landscape, and the excitement of air travel. The results include an extensive overlay of large, curving earth forms beset with volcanic rock and planted with wetland grasses. Allées of trees frame views of the forms, and at night the rock faces are integrated with colored lighting. “We really want to listen and hear stories and translate them in a culturally meaningful way,” said Lord. “It’s always multiple layers. Layering and telling a story.”

Presidio Anza Bluff Park, San Francisco.
Courtesy Surfacedesign

Two recent explorations are the Lands End Visitors Center and the Golden Gate Bridge Plaza at Golden Gate National Park. For Lands End the team was inspired to emulate the rough language of the ruins on the site (the Sutro Baths), creating an informal setting that subtly reveals itself as one approaches. It is set with benches made from trees removed from the site. For Golden Gate the goal was to defer to the bridge with a minimal landscape. “We really held back any desire to do something wacky,” said Lord. But the design nonetheless took its cues from the national treasure. Lines of pavers echo the rhythm of light and patterns experienced on the bridge, benches are abstractions of the bridge’s towers, and lookouts are elevated to allow people the clearest possible views of the landmark.

First (f)Light, Auckland, New Zealand. (left). BOOM Resort, Palm Springs. (right).
Courtesy Auckland International Airport; Squared Design Lab

Lord studied architecture at USC and landscape design at the Harvard GSD, so he has long had a strong understanding of and appreciation for both fields. He enjoys merging his projects with buildings and challenging architects to do the same with his designs.

A dramatic example is the Museum of Steel in Monterrey, Mexico, in which Surfacedesign collaborated closely with Grimshaw, who built the museum underground with a roof that resembles a blast furnace. Surfacedesign then designed the largest green roof in Latin America, planted with varied sedums in differing orientations to produce a wild, sculpture-like effect. “It’s bringing the architecture to the surface,” explained Lord.

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