Two Minutes With // O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks

Hi everyone! We are excited to release our recent interview with Pete O’Shea, of O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks, based in Charlottesville, Virginia. O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks is involved in projectsranging from gallery installations, site sculpture and private gardens, to corporate andinstitutional landscapes, post-industrial sites, urban design and public parks. They see their job as creating places that catalyze happiness, connect community and sustain dynamic human habitat. In their practice they believe that all design must adhere to principles that protect andenhance watersheds, improve the ecology of sites, increase biodiversity, and carefullymanage the impacts that human processes have on a larger context. Through thedevelopment of high performance projects they aim to go beyond sustainability andtowards regenerative and restorative solutions. O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks have proven ability in the artfulintegration of human systems and native ecologies; they areexpert collaborators and are sought afterto add value andcreativity to integrated design teams on projects throughout the U.S. and abroad. Check out their website to see some amazing work, AND, be sure to take a look at their beautiful sketches.

Images courtesy of O’Shea + Wilson Siteworks.

VT: Describe your research and initial design process when beginning a project. Do you conduct similar studies from project to project? What challenges do you face when designing in an unfamiliar region with new types of vegetation?

PO: All projects start with an in depth site visit that involves photography, interviews with clients, staff and other people involved with the use and care of the site. Prior to the initial site visit we also do preparatory mapping to understand as best we can the condition of the site. This involves drawing the topographic patterns, drainage systems, spatial conditions of site architecture, tree cover and existing infrastructure. This allows us to use the site visit as a means of verifying conditions and supplementing them with a more experientially based reading of the site. Another important area of research that we undertake for all projects is an investigation into the stories embedded in a site. Through mapping, identification of knowledge sources and interviews with people that are intimate with the place we try to uncover the past human and natural history of the place. The amalgam of all of this information, which is often collected quite quickly, creates a point of departure for our work.

VT: Several of your projects address space that is directly adjacent to buildings. Do you collaborate with architects, interior designers, or any other design discipline during a project? How do you ensure a cohesive connection between the interior and exterior spaces?

PO: In fact, the majority of our work is undertaken as part of integrated, collaborative design teams that are often undertaking the design of a new building. We believe that our best work is when these teams are the most extensive and inclusive of the widest array of disciplines, including other designers, engineers and special consultants that might include ecologists, historians and artists. This diversity allows for the shared exploration of the project site and goals from a variety of different but related perspectives. The relationship between the interior and exterior spaces and programs of a project is critical to many of the places we help make. The success of this endeavor is contingent on a high degree of collaboration that allows us as landscape architects to suggest approaches to the design of buildings and to embrace the thoughts about site that are developed by the architects. These spaces are equally driven by issues of site and building engineering that often revolve around the management and celebration of water movement on a site and from a building.

VT: In the John Paul Jones Arena landscape project, you mentioned applying different materials in order to reveal a hierarchy of space in relation to human and water movement. How do these movements correlate or differ? In what way does a change in material impact an experience?

PO: At the John Paul Jones Arena a layered set of materials was developed in the project that linked building and site through detailing. A series of finely textured precast concrete walls with custom cast aluminum guardrails creates all of the thresholds onto the site. These bracket the paths of movement from the parking through an extensive water infiltration grove and mark the lateral entry stairs from the adjacent roadway. These also frame each of the site drainage gardens where the path of water is engaged by more rustic fieldstone and bluestone walls that are developed as either overflow channel walls or weir structures, each promoting the ponding of rainwater in order to reduce the rate of runoff and increase infiltration on the site. The site paving is also undertaken with a set of hierarchical and layered materials. The primary space of the entry plaza is paved with two textures of concrete that intend to breakdown the overall scale while implying a directionality to the movement across the space. Within the rectangular frame of the entry grove the paving is expressed with concrete and stone dust on the secondary passages, and brick paving at the wider central path. The brick, precast concrete and aluminum all play important roles in the fenestration and surfaces of the building and are developed in the site to match and reinforce a holistic material palette. In conjunction with the design of site plant communities, the careful development of a site material and detailing palette is probably the most important part of our work on any project. It is also an effort that often requires strategic and clever solutions to often challenging budgetary constraints.

VT: Most of your work is designed in the absence of an existing place or structure. What is the driving inspiration when creating a new sense of place? How do you determine and influence user interaction?

PO: Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of this question! We actually believe that every site we work on has some sense of place and some inherent structure. What these are can sometimes be challenging, underwhelming, and even undesirable. In other instances, it might be that these definitive characteristics are subtle and hard to grasp. Our initial research is aimed at uncovering the best aspects and most compelling stories that are part of the places we work. In many instances those qualities and conditions are more related to the dynamic patterns of site ecology and cultural inhabitation. So, much of our efforts attempt to bring these two sets of patterns and integrate them in the creation of spaces that intersect the variety of these movements and reinforce them with the creation of highly tactile and experiential conditions that result from a careful approach to the material place. In the end, we want to design projects that are specific to a site and region, that extend the stories of the place forward, and that resonate in the memories of people who inhabit them. For us it is always about creating connectivity between culture and nature and through the recognition of the physical feeling of a place that ultimately makes us happy to be there.