Just as a home has a history, so, too, does a landscape. Only, a landscape’s story, as Mary Wolf attests, is multilayered. Take, for instance, her grandmother’s property, a Civil War battlefield site where she spent her weekends growing up. The appeal of that spot of land—that it connected our national, geological and human history in one site—continues to inspire her work today.
“Through an exploration of the many layers that influence a site,” Wolf says, “I try to distill the essential elements of the place and draw upon those elements for design inspiration.”
Wolf founded local landscape architecture firm Wolf | Josey with fellow LA Paul Josey and together they have designed urban, residential and institutional landscapes across the country, including local projects like Kardinal Hall and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Why landscape architecture?
I always knew I wanted to do something in design. After college I explored various design fields and found landscape architecture, which had been pretty unknown to me growing up. I worked as a draftsperson in an architecture firm that collaborated closely with a landscape architecture firm and I later worked for that same landscape architecture firm. There I realized landscape architecture might be a good fit for me because it offered multiple design possibilities and opportunities, from small architectural detailing to urban design. There were many engineers and artists in my family so landscape architecture was a natural extension of both of these worlds.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
I grew up in Tennessee and my husband is originally from Buffalo, New York. After living in New York for six years we were looking for a smaller city and Virginia was about equidistant from both of our families. We both went to the University of Virginia for undergraduate and graduate school and had always thought Charlottesville would be a wonderful place to live. We also knew it would be an excellent place to practice architecture, with a top-ranked university and an unusually large number of nationally recognized practitioners in town.
What was your life like as a child and how did it lead you to design?
As a child I spent a lot of time outdoors and a lot of time making things. My siblings and I were usually left to our own devices to entertain ourselves. Most of my weekends were spent at my grandmother’s house, which was a large stone house on the side of a mountain and set within a national park. I think this is where I got my first understanding of place. My grandmother was an avid gardener and exposed us to garden design at an early age through her extensive perennial borders, terraced gardens with stone walls and woodland trails. Large rock outcrops and ledges surrounded the house and were magical places for exploration and prospect, as well as endless fun for climbing and our own garden-making. The property was set within a Civil War battlefield site, which was an interesting historic overlay to our childhood experience. Stumbling upon a Civil War bullet was like finding a sand dollar at the beach; and monuments, cannons and battle signs were our playgrounds. As a child it all seemed pretty normal, but now, as a landscape architect, I think a lot about the remarkable geological formations juxtaposed against the stone of the house and walls which all came from the site; the botanical story of native, ornamental and productive gardens and how they were sited around the property; the battleground and its relationship to the river and the mountain; and the significance of the path the soldiers might have taken and why.
Tell us about your college studio experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
I got my master’s in landscape architecture from UVA. My undergraduate degree was in economics and I did a year of art education at Virginia Commonwealth University. The landscape program for those without an undergraduate degree in design was very intense. It began with a two-month summer boot camp that was 24/7 training in the fundamentals of design. Our class was small, ranging from nine to 15 people, but we shared a studio with architecture and planning students so there was a lot of cross disciplinary exposure. Because it was such a small program, I think all of my professors had a memorable and lasting impact on my design education. Living in Charlottesville, I still see many of them and they continue to inspire me with their work in the academic and public realm and in private practice. Design studios with Warren Byrd, Gregg Bleam, Nancy Takahashi and Elissa Rosenberg seem like just yesterday. I still refer to my notebooks from Will Rieley’s construction detailing and road design class and Reuben Rainey’s landscape history. And Beth Meyer’s design theory opened up a whole new world of design thinking for me. I was fortunate enough to work for Warren Byrd for many years, continuing my design training well beyond my studio time.
On process: How does it begin?
My process begins with a fundamental understanding of a site, both its local physical context and its larger ecological context. Every project is different, but I typically study drainage patterns, views, solar orientation, topography, slopes, soils, geology, vegetation, local plant ecologies and typologies, as well as cultural and historical underpinnings.
These initial studies inform the second part of the process, which is architectural: locating programmatic elements and shaping places and circulation paths. The goal is to create a meaningful and functional landscape, where there is a strong synthesis between people and place.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by any creative or artistic endeavor. Cities, art, farms, food are also very inspiring to me because they represent a synthesis of the natural and built and embody a richness of layers. Plants are a passion and never cease to amaze me.
What’s in the studio at the moment?
We work on a wide range of projects from residential to commercial and institutional and have been fortunate to practice locally, although we have started to take on a few regional projects. I think every landscape contributes to the environment in some way, so I approach all projects with this in mind regardless of size.
When I started my practice, most of my work was residential, which I enjoy very much. Through the act of hiring a landscape architect, our clients inherently have a strong interest in their outdoor world. Many of our local clients have some agricultural goal in mind and weaving together food production with outdoor space has become an especially fun and inspiring aspect to our practice.
I feel that every project is a collaboration and I highly value that part of the process. In residential work in particular, I have been able to work closely with many excellent contractors, builders and fabricators and have learned a tremendous amount.
One of my earliest projects and one that represents the true spirit of collaboration was an edible garden in downtown Charlottesville, where the client, the contractor, Willow Tree Construction, and I worked closely together from concept design through construction. After the installation, Michelle Smith Fine Gardening joined the team and has helped fine tune the planting and troubleshoot various issues.
How would you assess the state of architecture in our region?
I think landscape architecture is still a little-known profession in many areas. Because of UVA and Virginia Tech, there are many landscape architects in Virginia and I think people generally have a better understanding of what we do. As a side effect of that understanding, I think more people are inclined to hire landscape architects.