In our Alumni series “What Are We Up To Now?”, we profile the distinguished alumni of the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture & Planning (CAP). We sat down with Michelle Delk, a notable alumna of the school’s Masters of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program. Her work spans the globe with experience that has included working at Denver-based Civitas and New York-based Snøhetta, where she is currently practicing.
Tell us about your background?
I grew up in a rural part of Northern Iowa along the Cedar River. As a young person, I loved being outside, creating things in the landscape, and exploring the river and forest around my home. The first thing I remember constructing in the landscape was a structured snow-fort made by packing snow around the branches of a tree that had been cut down in my backyard. Later, my fascination with building landscape structures continued when I became intrigued by a beaver lodge on a sandbank along the river behind my house. I also spent much of my time in fields and grasslands, snacking in raspberry patches, and wandering the railroad tracks while dreaming of exploring the world. I’ve always loved school, especially math and art, and I was enamored with earthwork and installation artists; even, among other experiments, creating my own installations in the remnant rock quarry behind our house.
As a young person, my family didn’t have much opportunity to travel far from home. I loved that we often went camping and took road trips to nearby destinations throughout the upper midwest. A visit to Effigy Mounds, a national monument constructed by Moundbuilders along the banks of the Mississippi River, was one of the most mysterious and beautiful landscapes I recall visiting. I was inspired and intrigued to explore the world and became the first person in my family to go to university after high school. With supportive parents, I’ve always been willing to take risks and to create my own path.
Where have you lived and what previous degrees do you have?
I have always felt a deep comfort, appreciation, and connection to nature and agrarian landscapes, but also, as a young person, had a growing fascination with transportation infrastructure and the social life of cities. This led me to briefly study engineering at Iowa State University. Undecided on where my passion could lead, I quickly moved from engineering to brief forays in architecture, and even landscape architecture, before transferring to the University of Iowa to follow my interest in art and completing my bachelor’s degree in 1997.
During undergraduate studies, I realized that landscape architecture is a profession that invites varied interests and curiosities. It embodies the art of reading and shaping the land combined with the social life of public spaces. I was drawn to the University of Colorado’s master’s program in landscape architecture in large part due to the urban campus. I left Iowa the day I finished my last sculpture class and began my graduate studies in Denver one year later.
While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to start traveling to incredible cities and places around the world, beginning with a summer course in Paris. Since that time, I have traveled extensively across this continent and others; from national parks to islands and fishing villages, to great cities, and everything in-between. The places I’ve called home have been many areas throughout central Denver and two different periods in New York City (both Manhattan and Brooklyn). I’ve been incredibly fortunate to observe, explore, and immerse myself in many different places and to meet incredible people along the way. I still feel this is a primary reason I am so passionate about the work that I do as a landscape architect and I can’t imagine practicing this profession if travel and exploration weren’t a part of my daily life.
Tell us about Snøhetta.
In 2013 when I joined Snøhetta, many people asked me why I would choose a “non-landscape architecture” focused firm. Throughout my studies and since my graduation in 2001, I had been focused on public landscapes and large-scale systems; designing public spaces across the country from streetscapes and master plans to parks and plazas. I had not been particularly focused on collaboration with architects, and yet Snøhetta is a firm well recognized as an architectural practice.
I saw in Snøhetta’s work curiosity and a commitment to exploring the relationship between buildings and landscapes. As a student, the Karmoy Fishing Museum caught my attention as a subtle structure set carefully into the landscape. I later had the opportunity to meet some of the people in the New York office in the early 2000s, including Craig Dykers & Elaine Molinar, who were part of the competition that led to the founding of the firm in Oslo back in 1989. Today, 30 years later, we now have around 250 creative people in multiple offices around the globe.
Our practice has always been interested in what is possible through collaboration. To be a part of Snøhetta is to contribute to the potential that collaboration across disciplines offers. Collaboration is not as easy as it sounds, but as architects and landscape architects, this is one way we can truly make the most of the sites and places where we contribute to change. To do this, we commit to set aside the hierarchy that is often found between these two design disciplines to create together, and in turn, offer unforeseen and innovative approaches to designing our built environment.
Over the past year, many have come to fully appreciate how important outdoor space is in terms of health and community. How has the pandemic changed your approach to landscape projects?
This past year has really reinforced and heightened the awareness of how important our public spaces areas the social infrastructure of our communities. As designers of these spaces, we need to consider how we can positively influence health and how well-being is elevated.
Humans by nature are social creatures. The places we spend time are the places where we build connections, where we observe, collaborate, and engage with the world around us. As designers of physical spaces, when we recognize that our work does not stand alone, we can foster connections to promote community and influence the relationships that weave our world together.
What are you working on today?
I am a Partner with Snøhetta and I lead our landscape architecture discipline in the Americas. This offers me the great fortune to engage with the various projects our New York and San Francisco studios are involved with. For example, here are three projects currently underway:
I’ve been leading the design of the transformation of the privately-owned public space at 550 Madison, a postmodern landmark tower in Midtown Manhattan. Our design re-envisions the building’s (once enclosed) public space as a generously expanded, densely vegetated garden. Now under construction, this transformation draws upon the architectural heritage, the character-rich neighborhood, and the natural history of the region while providing a publicly accessible space in the East Midtown District.
We’re also in the early phases of design for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota. We have envisioned the “Landscape as the Library” where a journey through an enhanced landscape of diverse habitats, punctuated with small pavilions, and moments set within the larger environment will provide a variety of spaces and experiences for reflection and activity. The siting, and the physical presence, of the main library building, are envisioned as deferential to the larger landscape context; simply one of many moments or destinations.
Additionally, for the past several years, we’ve been working with Ford Motor Company’s Research & Engineering (R&E) campus in Southeast Michigan. Our Master Plan re-imagined the Dearborn campus as Ford’s global epicenter through empowered workplaces, productive and immersive landscapes, smart technology, and versatile mobility systems. It centers on Ford’s natural and built environments, employees, neighboring communities, and the movement between each as symbiotic parts of one Ford ‘ecosystem.’
What drew you to CAP and its Landscape Architecture program?
I was really drawn to the location of the campus as part of downtown Denver. I was interested in urbanism and wanted to live and study within a city. I also wanted to really dive in and focus on landscape architecture as a design endeavor. I appreciated this as a masters-degree program that was a relatively small group of students within the College of Architecture and Planning. Once I arrived, it took some time to find the instructors and professors whose work really resonated. For example, Alan Berger (now a professor at MIT), whose leadership influenced not just my education, but how I began to understand and think about landscape architecture from a physical, theoretical, and conceptual perspective.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the CAP?
In the simplest sense, I was able to focus on learning how to think as a designer. I had no idea of the journey I was starting in regards to the complexity of what it means to be a designer of the physical environment. Still today I reflect on how I was encouraged to become a clear and strategic thinker, to question, and to explore. To be good designers, we must ask questions and be willing to take risks. These experiences, gained while I was at the CAP, established a foundation that has helped me throughout my career.
What is your favorite memory of the CAP?
I have many fond memories, and I would happily return to revisit my time there. As students in the landscape architecture program, we were all quite aware of a general lack of understanding of the profession within the broader design community. I have always been interested in expanding this dialogue in hopes of reducing misconceptions, and building stronger understanding and opportunities for collaboration for the profession.
Shortly after graduation, I founded and coordinated a design exhibition that we fostered for many years named “(Im)Possible Design”. I worked with the department chair and other instructors in the Landscape Architecture School to invite students to submit to a “blind” competition at the end of each Spring semester. The goal was to express design thinking and process within landscape architecture. I gathered jurors from the community of art & design, and we curated an exhibit of the selected student projects to display and present to the public within a venue in downtown Denver one month each summer. I found this to be a rewarding way in which I could support the LA program, maintain my connections at the university, and offer a venue for the public to learn and enjoy landscape architecture as a fascinating and complex design profession.
What do you see as the future of design education for architecture? How can the CAP help shape this?
Beginning in school and continuing into practice, site planning is frequently reduced to its tactical minimum, focusing principally on such pragmatic concerns as slope and soils, circulation, and access. This narrow view squanders the opportunity to elevate the experience of a place.
I believe that if architects and landscape architects work together early in the design process and treat site planning as a creative venture, it’s possible to transform this phase into an exciting embrace of both what’s imaginable and practical. I would love to see design education dive more deeply into the challenge of collaboration and the creative revelations brought about by such engagement.
What are some of the biggest challenges in the field today? How might this change in the future?
Collaboration allows us to make the most of the sites and places where we work. But, collaboration is not without its challenges; it’s not always pretty, and it’s certainly not perfect. However, by coming together, we harness the potential for innovation and creativity. For me, collaboration is about optimism. In the realm of architecture and landscape architecture, I find it overly simplistic when someone perceives this as working merely to erase the distinction between buildings and landscapes.
Rather, how we might imagine and create something more than what may be expected or asked of us and, how can we do this together while working across perceived disciplinary boundaries? If designers come together early in the design process and are willing and driven to cross boundaries and to be comfortable in unfamiliar territories, then we have the basis for real collaboration. Each person at the table, regardless of their design discipline, must be willing to ask questions and to contribute to a collective exploration –working to identify and dissolve perceived boundaries.
What advice do you have for the CAP students and/or alumni?
Design demands a lifetime of learning and practice. In the case of architecture and landscape architecture, both are complex, challenging, and ever-changing; my advice is to follow your passion and trust your instincts. You can choose a path of focus, yet always stay engaged with the other. Commit to helping others see the world through your lens, reciprocate this approach, and you’ll discover new possibilities, together.
Looking back, what experiences at the CAP were the most helpful in shaping your career?
The first opportunity I had to travel outside of this country was to Paris (with Ann Komara and a small group of students) for a summer semester history class. We were immersed in a city full of history and fascinating landscapes while also navigating the social dynamics of our own group. After a couple of weeks in Paris, I continued my travels with a friend across southern France. Spending time in unfamiliar places, and learning from the people and places that inspire and challenge us has inspired and shaped my life and my career. I can’t express enough how much this time influenced me and how important I think it is for all designers of physical places to immerse themselves and learn first-hand from the world around us.
Can you name a particular architect or practice that influenced you?
I’ve always been inspired by the work of Earthwork Artists; from Robert Smithson to Christo & Jean Claude, to Walter de Maria. These artists work closely with the land to explore ideas and convey an original point of view, while also creating beautiful expressions that draw from the power of what exists around us.
Where do you go to feel inspired?
I love exploring. This has led me to really enjoy traveling, both near and far from home. I often find inspiration simply by taking time to pay attention to the world around me.
What would surprise us about you?
I really love walking and I don’t believe in turning back. I try to always take a new route wherever I go; especially when it’s a frequent destination. It’s such a simple way to keep my attention on my surroundings and not take my environment for granted. I want to be present, to observe and think about where I am, rather than absently habitualizing getting from one place to another.
What was the last meal you cooked for yourself?
I’m not usually the cook at our house but I’ve been experimenting more and more. These days I make pretty good vegan breakfast burritos!
What are your typical Sundays like?
Over the course of the past year, I’ve been traveling much less and have enjoyed more time at home with my husband and our feline friend. It’s been unusual for me to have a “typical Sunday” but these days I’ve really enjoyed casual morning coffee while making brunch at home. This is followed by taking walks through our neighborhood, and then reading or spending time writing or preparing talks about our practice and what inspires me about landscape architecture.
This interview was edited and condensed by Agency PR