Ahead of the UK Landscape Conference in November, we spoke to key speaker and founder of SWA Landscape Architects, Rene Bihan

Rene Bihan
Rene Bihan

Rene Bihan is the Principal at San Francisco based international building projects company SWA Group

How is business going for SWA?
I would say that, although the economy is weak, the professional design opportunities have never been better.

Are you currently working on any great projects or do can you tell us about the one you’re most proud of?
Fortunately, those two coincide in the University of Monterrey master plan project. It’s basically Mexico’s Harvard. The country’s economic growth has had physical consequences – requiring us to convert an auto-oriented campus into a pedestrian campus; incorporating green design with the goal of using the campus as an incubator to educate the students about what good sustainability practices are.

How do you plan to create this incubator for sustainability practice?
The plan is to completely pedestrianise the campus. We want to work with local materials, everything from indigenous plant materials to hardscape that’s being manufactured within a 200-mile radius of the campus. Monterrey is the industrial capital of Mexico and yet they’ve been importing materials for over 40 years. They never thought of the idea to have a nursery on campus that could be part of a horticultural programme that cultivates indigenous material for the school itself. We aim to remove 1,200 cars and replace the area with a large walkable public space.

How does government policy in San Francisco affect your work?
San Francisco is in a unique political situation – their policies are strong and helpful with the best of intentions. The problem is that it falls apart on implementation. Power is spread over all levels. We have many internal agencies that compete and contradict each other, so projects get held up forever until eventually they disappear.

Have you found yourself confronted with similar problems in Shanghai?
China has been a breath of fresh air for us. Planning in the US is largely policy orientated and controlled by lawyers, but in China it’s still accessible. The government and mayors are willing to take on large eco-friendly projects, particularly if it has anything to do with water or forestry.

How does sustainability affect your work in China?
In China we’re doing a massive study on the potential for city farming. Their government wants us to look at the way the entire country is farming, as they are inefficient and highly polluting. Some farms work beautifully but other parts contribute to environmental degradation. We are trying to keep it local as most farming is on small parcels of land. We are looking at distribution to try and find a more cohesive infrastructure that regional farming can feed into.

Is your graduate scheme proving a good investment for your company?
It’s very valuable for us. Two of the four Principals at the San Francisco offices were originally students of our summer internship project. We have some very good candidates from the UK, from Scotland and England. We are seeing a trend towards women dominating the field with at least 70 per cent choices being female. Our graduate scheme helps keep us informed globally while also allowing graduates to work with and learn from other students from all over the world. We get to know them and vice versa, which is great for hiring.

What do you plan to cover at the landscape conference in Liverpool in November?
I think that landscape still needs to be understood and respected as a design profession. There is a tendency to romanticise ecology and confuse the difference between a park and nature. It’s important that design is at the forefront and that we do a better job of conveying what the profession is to the public – just as they do in the engineering and building professions. I will be focusing my presentation on what we do as professionals to advocate the job as a true design profession.


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