From Canterbury to California via Birmingham School of Architecture and Design

James Munden

Landscape Architecture graduate James Munden reflects on his global career path and how studying undergraduate and postgraduate level Landscape Architecture at Birmingham School of Architecture and Design has propelled him from a village in Kent to The Golden State.

James, a 40-year-old Chartered Landscape Architect from a small village on the outskirts of Canterbury, now finds himself working as a design director for Marta Fry Landscape Associates in San Francisco, northern California, having studied in Birmingham between 1995 and 2001.

How did you find the transition from being a student to integrating into the professional world?

The transition was easy and hard at the same time. I graduated 15 years ago when hand sketching skills were being side-lined by the computer software packages we all recognise in today’s world. However, my BA (Hons) Landscape Architecture degree and Postgraduate Diploma in Landscape Architecture were solely created by hand.

Some argued at the time that this was a big disadvantage, yet not significant enough to prevent me getting more than one offer of employment when I graduated in 2001. All potential employers were more interested in my design skills, process and ability to represent them in a creative way. 

The software can always be learned on the job (albeit with a little extra help and after hours tutorials) but design skills were harder to teach when working in an office environment for the first time and my natural inclination to constantly sketch ideas out put me in greater demand than my computer savvy friends.

How did the BA (Hons) Landscape Architecture course and PGDip at Birmingham School of Architecture and Design set the foundation for this?

My educational experience prepared me to consider design as an evolving exploration that didn’t stop when you put your pencil down. This was definitely nurtured by my professors (Kathryn and Derek) and supporting teachers that really opened up the meaning and consequences of successful landscape architecture. 

The degree and postgraduate courses were very conceptually focused and to be honest I had not previously considered how important a concept can be when thinking about landscape or the built environment. The relationships we made between fellow students and our professors made a big difference to how we experienced the course and we were always encouraged to keep questioning our design solutions; self-critiquing your work and always being reminded ‘how does it relate to your concept and design principles’.  

Some courses are more focused on ‘how to’ technically implement a design and construct a landscape; whereas Birmingham School of Architecture and Design focused on the concept and ideas driving the design solution and then equipping each student to investigate the best methods of technically achieving the design principles set out at the beginning of the project. It’s a lot easier to learn a technical skill when you have a reason to use it. 

Describe your journey from graduation to working at Marta Fry Landscape Associates in San Francisco.

After debating a position in London over a job in Bournemouth, I decided to head west and work for a multi-disciplinary firm named Terence O’Rourke Ltd that had a wide range of master planning, EIA’s and detail design projects. I was lucky to work on a few large scale high profile projects during the construction documentation and administration phase, exposing me to some innovative design solutions and the process of coordinating them into a concise set of drawings and specifications. 

The draw of being in a metropolitan city and working on urban regeneration focused projects took me to Whitelaw + Turkington Landscape Architects in London. I spent four years working with a great team of people, providing me with valuable skills through direct contact and negotiations with clients and being responsible for design decisions through running my own projects. 

I was so relieved when I finally passed my pathway to chartership, it was bitter sweet to leave a familiar working environment when starting a new life in California where my wife is a citizen. 2008 was not the best time to be looking for work but I managed to get a job for two years at a small multi-disciplinary firm named Interstice Architects, who were very detailed orientated and needed a contract administrator for their pathway improvement project at the San Francisco Botanical gardens. A difficult transition to say the least, but a valuable one all the same as it brought me back to working in a studio environment and being heavily involved in design production, which I had stepped away from during my last couple of years project managing in London. It was during this time that I met Marta Fry and when the opportunity to work with MFLA arose I jumped at the chance. It’s now been almost six years working with Marta and each day is a new and valuable experience.

Have you achieved your ambitions in the industry?

My ambitions change as I get older and it's difficult to stay satisfied. That being said, I have always wanted to be involved in a creative team that looks at each project with a fresh perspective and I think my time working for MFLA as design director has provided this opportunity. Creatively collaborating with the client and end user will continue to be an ambition that drives me forward in my career. 

What advice would you give to any current or potential landscape architecture students?

Try not to take your design ideas too seriously, keep sketching out alternative options as this will help clarify your design thinking and solve the problems you set out in your design brief. You need to think of all the bad ideas first before you can concentrate on developing the good ones. It's part of the process.

What is your favourite aspect of the job?

I love seeing ideas that started on paper materialise into physical spaces and places that can be experienced. It's a great responsibility when you think about how it can affect people's lives.

What are the main three things that you have learnt from graduation up to this point in your career?  

Earning your stripes and not expecting things to land on your plate without demonstrating to fellow colleagues and employers that you can deliver what you have been asked to do.  I see too many recent graduates getting frustrated when they are not getting the responsibility they think they deserve. You have to earn it!

I remember Derek Cassidy telling me that a design is never finished, not only when you present it but also when you get it built. The current climate, financial constraints, environmental issues are always changing and so a design solution has to change with it.

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