See What She Started?
Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014
Marian Christensen and the transit that made her famous.
(This story, by Jared Thayne ’99, was originally published in Utah State Magazine’s summer 2014 issue and is republished here in recognition of LAEP’s 75th anniversary celebration.)
“Cercis canadensis,” says the ever-smiling 94-year-old Marian Christensen. “You don’t write ‘red-bud’ when you’re doing a landscape plan.”
It’s one of some 300 Latin names for trees and shrubs the polished and gracious Christensen once files away in that vault-of-details mind of hers. She claims not to have access to all 300 labels anymore, but she also plays the perfect host and — given the fact that she has already rattled off other proper species and the merits of Frederick Law Olmstead’s enduring vision for New York’s Central Park — might just be trying to set her visitors at ease by employing a little self-deprecation.
Three kids within 17 months, she says laughing. And Marian, it seems, is always laughing. There’s Craig, her oldest, and then the twins, Day and Danelle. Linda, her youngest, follows later.
“I did not plan to be a working mom,” Marian says, “but people learned I had the degree and so it was just one person after another … a doctor here, a doctor there. In all, Marian estimates she’s done freelance work in landscape architecture and environmental planning on some 100 projects in the Pacific Northwest and Utah, all from her living room drafting table; one hospital from its inception, another under remodel, a city park in downtown Walla Walla, Washington.
Before the kids came along — before she was even married — Marian’s ever-present good humor and life-is-there-for-the-taking attitude afford her other, full-time jobs; as a draftsman at the telephone company, at Remington Arms and Geneva Steel, eventually with the planning department in Provo, Utah, where she works with the county surveyor who needs a rodman. “Because who is going to hire a landscape architect during war years?” she asks.
“But that’s what got my picture in the newspaper,” Marian says. “Powder Puff Engineer,” they tag her. And it’s not the first time the world hands Marian Christensen her 15 minutes of fame. As a student at Utah State the local newspaper runs a shot of her peering through her trusty transit. “OK,” Marian says thumbing her scrapbook now, “you’re never supposed to put your hand down there on the base of it, but that’s what the photographer wanted. And, of course, people wrote in asking, ‘Is she really an engineer, does she know what she’s doing?’
Marian laughs again. Maybe at the thought of career news critics compelled to pick apart every little thing, maybe at the memory of the photo being picked up by the Associated Press under the heading, “She Knows Her Transit Tricks,” which results in at least one phone call from somebody in Strawberry Point, Iowa (another nugget from that detail vault), asking if they could be related, and a letter from the dean at Penn State “wanting to know more about women in engineering.”
“We had to take the soils classes; that’s how I got into surveying. I had to take surveying to qualify for a degree,” she says. “It was just maybe three lines that the Associated Press picked up on that article. Isn’t that funny?” And Marian Christensen is laughing again.
A Follow-up Letter and Turnaround Choice
Marian and her father have his truck loaded with all the groceries and personal items it takes to ensure a seasoned college junior is comfortable in a fresh academic year. She’s got an apartment lined up and a pretty solid network of friends and faculty members, too, all eager to find out how the laugh-easy girl from Hunter, Utah, has fared over the summer. Her father is even buddies with Franklin S. Harris, his tag-team partner in persuasion and sitting university president who, two years earlier, helped steer Marian away from what both men then considered a dime-a-dozen degree in education. They point her instead to landscape architecture and environmental planning, a discipline perhaps less competitive in the job market, if not exactly commonly pursued by the vast majority of agriculture-rooted students growing up in places like Hunter, Utah.
It is 1939 — two full years before the attack on Pearl Harbor — and Marian is getting antsy to begin her third year of study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
“We had everything all loaded up,” Marian says. And then she received another letter from Professor Laval Morris. Yes, another, meaning there had already been a couple of letters sent Marian’s way earlier in the year. But this latest pleading from Morris would change the entire story — her story, and a part of USU’s story — now being spun in exquisite detail, 75 years later. “We turned the truck around and went to Logan, instead,” Marian says. “And I knew no one.”
So was registered one of the first four students in Utah State University’s celebrated Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning department, which, for three-quarters of a century now, has placed polished professionals in top national and international firms and private practice. Marian — who eventually married Bernard Christensen, another Laval Morris disciple who likewise chose to follow the professor to new beginnings at Utah State — has watched the department blossom from its genesis. USU now offers the only landscape architecture degrees in the Intermountain West, with an average of 25 bachelor’s students graduating each year. Beyond its sterling reputation for turning out some of the nation’s best in the field, USU also remains one of only 15 North American programs offering both fully accredited BLA and MLA degrees.
Of course, Marian couldn’t have appreciated those facts when she coaxed her father into turning his truck around that late summer day 75 years ago and to head for Logan instead of Provo. As it turns out, though, her decision would be well rewarded, and to understand at just what level, one need only see her light up while detailing her college years and the subsequent careers she and Bernard enjoyed when — finally — they were married, a handful of years after graduating in LAEP from Utah State.
Prof. Morris and His Quartet of Forward-Leaping Apologists
There were, of course, other, periphery faculty members involved in landscape architecture at BYU, but to Marian and her 14 or 15 fellow students that made up the department there, it was Professor Morris who represented everything the program was and hoped to someday become.
“We did a lot of design, we all had our drafting boards, our drafting tables. I remember being the only woman in a class of draftsmen,” Marian says. “But we really enjoyed our time as a club.”
The LA students seemed enthralled with Morris’ enthusiasm for the discipline. Having received his bachelor’s of science from Utah State, Morris later completed a master’s degree in horticulture at Michigan State, and eventually one in landscape architecture at Harvard. “I admired him, and I appreciated him,” Marian says of Morris. “He was just very capable.”
Marian also recognized Morris as someone eager to pass along every nugget of knowledge acquired. Morris and his wife, Rachel Bankhead Morris, in fact, would regularly host the landscape architecture club at their place up Provo Canyon, where the professor’s hand-picked plants and designs became living textbooks. “I think they were trying to get a little culture into these farm people of Utah,” Marian says winking.
In the spring of 1939, the Morrises also organized a field trip for Marian and her colleagues to visit Spokane and Seattle, Washington, eventually landing in San Francisco before piling back into one of three enormous Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs — five or six students in each — for the ride home. The caravan made countless visits to museums and gardens, visits personally organized and selected by Morris to inspire his students and to introduce them to the foundations of the discipline with which he infused joy into his own life. The journey became a cherished, lifelong memory for Marian, but it was the last thing Laval Morris hung his hat on at BYU before shifting his focus — and the entire program — to Logan.
Seventy-five years later, it’s easy to understand how Marian was able to leave behind her dear friends and support system. Morris had served up heaps of passion for every facet of landscape architecture and environmental planning that spring, had made it a living, breathing, life-affirming pursuit, and Marian was eager to experience more.
Bernard Christensen, merely Marian’s friend at the time, was compelled to make the same fate-filled decision. Eva Hoggan, who had traveled with Marian to all of Morris’ cherry-picked sites that spring, also joined them in Logan. And Kenji Shiozawa, hired as a landscape architect by Bernard Christensen some years later, rounded out the first quartet of students that formed Utah State’s nascent program in a discipline that would become one of the university’s renowned strengths. Today USU’s department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning counts a 1,500-plus base of alumni in leading firms throughout the world and in 47 states.
Marian Christensen helped pioneer the path for them all.
A Family Legend
It took Bernard Christensen more than seven years and “boxes and boxes” of letters to convince Marian that the two landscape architecture devotees and graduates should become something more than classmates. That it happened at all is a time-honored Christensen family legend, one that leaves Marian (big surprise) laughing pleasantly at every recounting.
But it truly is the stuff of legend. Once the kids were grown, Marian felt “ready for another challenge.” Then in her 30s, she returned to school for the degree in education she had always desired. No doubt fueled by her trademark smile, she taught remedial reading to junior high students for 16 years while Bernard, or BC as his employees referred to him, continued to make his own mark in the field Professor Laval Morris had endeared to them both.
Shortly after graduation, Bernard Christensen took a job with the Corps of Engineers in Portland, Ore., becoming himself something of a pioneer in land use considerations around the many dams then being built. He later opened the Corps’ new office as Chief of the Land Use Planning Section in Walla Walla. His thumbprint remains on more than 50 parks and recreation areas up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers — areas still frequented by 8 million visitors annually. For a time, he also regularly visited Washington, D.C., as a member of the national advisory committee charged with balancing the commercial, industrial, agricultural and recreational land uses on all Corps projects throughout the country. Along the way, Bernard Christensen hired many USU graduates, not because of favoritism, Marian says, but because he knew they’d been put through the paces of a Laval Morris-inspired, rigorous program that fosters unparalleled experience and learning. A program that just might have you still using the Latin names of trees and shrubs 75 years in.
“I don’t know, in those days there were not many women going to college,” Marian says. “For me, it just seemed like the thing to do. I’m the oldest of seven children. I just wanted to go to college. I wanted to finish college.”
And by finishing, Marian Christensen also started something. Something highly regarded the world over: Utah State’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning department, now celebrating 75 years of excellence.
Whether working in private practice or with corporate conglomerates, the talents of USU’s LAEP alums are seen around the globe. They are educators, administrators and urban planners. There are even multiple generations working in the profession. The following updates represent just a sampling of the department’s scope and reach.
Three generations of Ostergaards …
Clark Ostergaard received a bachelor’s of landscape architecture in 1964 and went on to a successful career with the U.S. Forest Service as a landscape architect with the Wasatch Cache National Forest. His son, Sid Ostergaard, received his bachelor’s in 1996 and is in private practice in the Heber City, Utah, area. Third generation family representative Kendrick Ostergaard is a junior at Utah State with the aim of completing a bachelor’s of landscape architecture in 2017. And, for good measure, Clark’s brother, Dick Ostergaard, received his degree in 1971 and is also retired after a career with the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado.
Prashanta Bhat traveled from India to study landscape architecture in the much cooler climes of Utah. During his study he became active in a number of student activities, including serving as president of USU’s International Student Council. After completing his degree in 1992 and additional study, he returned home to establish a successful practice in landscape architecture in Bangalore, India. He attributes his pursuit of the profession to supportive faculty mentors in USU’s LAEP program who grounded him with a strong foundation in the field of landscape architecture. His firm, the Landscape Company, is involved with design projects throughout India. He has been honored professionally and contributes to a number of journals. Maintaining ties to his alma mater, he not only serves on the LAEP Advisory Board but has hired recent LAEP graduates as interns in his office.
Jamie Maslyn Larson earned a master’s of landscape architecture in 1998 and has been involved in a number of impressive projects on the national scene with work ranging in scale from small, urban plazas to 1,000-acre public gardens. She has committed her career to the implementation of complex, public space projects through all facets of design and public outreach, to permitting and construction administration. In 2008 she joined the international firm West 8 (Rotterdam, Netherlands), where she became a principal in 2010. Working from West 8’s New York office, she is principal-in-charge of the firm’s wide ranging American projects, including Governors Island Park and Public Space Project in New York, the Miami Beach Soundscape in Florida and the master plan for Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. She is an award-winning designer and has been published in Landscape Journal.
John M. Suarez, a 1986 USU graduate, articulately blends his beliefs and passion with his work. He is the principal and owner of SBD-studio (“Symbiosis by Design”) in Scottsdale, Ariz. “In my journey I came to understand landscape in its broader dimension; that of an all-encompassing stage,” Suarez says. “Landscape shares with all, changes all and in the processes allows us to rediscover ourselves by bringing into perspective a deeper meaning of our place in it. In matters of allowing my passion for celebrating beauty to become relevant, I let my design approach straddle between science and art. From biology and ecology to the works of the great masters whose art has inspired generations and continues doing so, I humbly come to the realization that my actions must aspire to bring a deeper awareness of those sensibilities which make up that tissue that binds us all.”
While we at Utah State University often feel the emotional response to place — the Quad, Old Main Hill and the quiet nooks of beauty scattered across campus — a number of LAEP graduates take their skills to other campuses across the country, including Charles Carter who is director of land use and environmental planning for Stanford University Land, Building and Real Estate, a position he has held since 2004. He is a 1979 USU graduate who worked in private design offices in southern California and in San Francisco before joining the Stanford Planning Office in 1984 as a campus planner. He returned to USU to work in its Campus Planning office where he was involved in diverse projects that ranged from a dairy farm to a campus engineering complex. He returned to California to work as a city planner in the East Bay before returning to Stanford in 1988. He now also serves on the USU LAEP advisory board.
Linda L. Snyder has extensive administrative experience in a variety of educational settings from public school systems in Massachusetts to Ivy League universities. She earned a bachelor’s degree at USU in 1981 and was a recipient of the LAEP department’s Distinguished Alumnae Award in 2008. During her career she has managed a number of projects and pioneered an innovative harmony-based construction project delivery process for public agencies that is now written into Massachusetts law. She has served as executive director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority and was the associate executive dean of physical resources and planning for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. She joined the administration of Dartmouth College in 2009 as vice president for campus planning and facilities. She became vice president for operations at Tufts University in 2012.
Anthony Bauer graduated from USU in 1962 and went on to earn a master’s degree in mine reclamation, a specialization that provided the foundation of his career. He has been involved with reclamation since 1965, applying the landscape architecture principles regarding land use, environmental concerns, regulations and community relations to mining and reclamation practices. He is co-founder of Bauer-Ford Reclamation, a division of Landscape Architects and Planners, Inc., which specializes in the planning, reclamation and development of mine sites before, during and after the mining process. He is the author of the book Shaping Landscapes for Tomorrow: Reclamation Guidebook for the Aggregate Industry which won a Merit Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects Michigan Chapter. Now a retired educator, he served as landscape architecture department head at Michigan State University.
The Design Workshop Connection …
In 2008, Design Workshop was named the top landscape architecture firm in the country, receiving the “Firm Award” from the American Society of Landscape Architects, an honor that recognizes and celebrates the firm’s body of work. Design Workshop was established in 1969 by two Aggies, Joe Porter and Don Ensign, who earned bachelor’s degrees in 1963. In addition to the firm’s award in 2008, Porter also received the ASLA Medal, the “highest award the ASLA may bestow upon a landscape architect — for his lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession, the welfare of the public and the environment.” Design Workshop’s projects involve landscape architecture, urban design, land planning and tourism planning, always with an eye to “smart growth and environmental sensitivity.” Through the years, Design Workshop has hired a number of USU graduates, including Richard Shaw, a Logan native and son of USU botany professor Richard Shaw. The younger Shaw is now a partner at Design Workshop and was a 2009 recipient of the ASLA Design Medal. In 2010 the Utah State University-Design Workshop connection was formalized, when the Design Workshop Landscape Architecture Archive and Digital Collection was created. The archive is a collaborative effort between Design Workshop, USU’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and USU’s University Libraries and its Special Collections and Archives division and the library’s Digital Initiatives Department.