“Sublimation,” a garden designed and created by students of Academy of Art University’s School of Landscape Architecture, garnered an unprecedented eight awards, including the Golden Gate Cup for Best in Show, at the annual San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, March 18–22, 2015. Remarkably, the Academy’s student entry took top honors in competition with gardens mostly created by landscape professionals.
“Sublimation” was conceived by MFA student Nahal Sohbati and BFA student Eric Arneson and executed through the collaborative effort of more than a dozen Landscape Architecture students. It impressed a number of industry professionals and was recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). At a ceremony on March 17, the garden was repeatedly acknowledged for its unique design, which is in keeping with this year’s show theme, “Going Wild.”
This year marks the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show’s 30th anniversary, and visitors can explore the garden—as well as numerous other exhibitions—through March 22 at the San Mateo Event Center.
A Garden for Our Time
The Academy students’ 675-square-foot garden melds contemporary design with sustainability, incorporating gabions, stones and drought-tolerant plants—primarily succulents and agaves—as well other grasses and vegetation.
In their artists’ statement, Sohbati and Arneson write, “Sublimation is defined as the transition of a substance directly from solid to gas without passing through the intermediate liquid phase. Sublimation is redefined in the gardenscape by emphasizing the transition from solid to void and from hard to soft.”
Healdsburg, Calif., native Arneson and Iranian-born Sohbati are both members of the student chapter of ASLA. Several months ago, the pair created a number of garden designs and then invited input from other students to select the final plan.
Competing With Professionals
George Hull, Horticulture professor in the School of Landscape Architecture at Arizona State University, was one of three judges for the 2015 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show. Having attended the show for the past 10 years, he says he’s been impressed with the evolution he’s seen in the quality of Academy students’ gardens.
“We’re judging ‘blind’; we have no idea who a project is constructed by. This year, as we looked through this garden, it was perfect. There wasn’t a leaf out of place. The design is there, and the execution is impeccable. This team obviously worked together.”
After the judging, Hull says, “I came in and saw who we’d given the award to. I was totally surprised and very happy.”
The fact that the Academy’s entry was by students, in a competition often dominated by professionals, makes its success all the more noteworthy, Hull says. “There was some talk in the past of pulling the judging for student projects away from the professional projects.” Hull says the judges resisted the suggestions.
“These kids just showed them [the professionals] up. I’m glad I didn’t have to compete against them this year, because it would’ve been difficult.”
Hull told the two principal designers, “You can be proud of what you did. This is a great feather in your cap.”
But giving credit where it’s due, Hull also says it’s important to recognize the direction the students got. “Part of the reason this project succeeded is because the faculty is with the students—they’re working with them and standing behind them. With the proper instruction, students can do just as well as professionals.”
Hull describes the overall impression created by the garden as “cohesive.”
“It all came together as a team, and that’s what it’s all about. It took some steering, I’m sure, on the part of the faculty members involved. The students are lucky to have Heather and Yasmine.”
“Heather and Yasmine” are School of Landscape Architecture Director Heather Clendenin and faculty member Yasmine Farazian, who oversaw the project and helped refine it over several months.
Clendenin explains that each of the principal designers of the garden offered individual gifts to the group effort. “Nahal brings with her a good sense of space and attention to detail, and Eric has a deep-seated love and knowledge of plants and how to use them to their utmost effectiveness, both visually and spatially,” Clendenin says. “Both are passionate about resource issues and wanted to make sure that the materials used in the project would result in as little waste as possible.”
Throughout the process, the students were mindful of California’s water woes. “Since there’s a drought right now, it’s important to emphasize that there are opportunities to exchange high water plants with low water plants—and they’re just as beautiful,” says Arneson.
According to Clendenin, the real-world challenges of how best to work with limited materials, time and resources resulted in a project better than originally anticipated. Additionally, when it became obvious that the garden would beckon visitors to sit and contemplate the lush surroundings, Sohbati and Arneson went to work designing and building a unique curved bench in the woodshop of the Academy’s School of Architecture.
“Projects like this are essential for the development of our students as professional designers. This hands-on experience encourages students to make the connection between the design vision and what can actually be produced,” says Clendenin.
Sohbati says the greatest reward for the project has been seeing visitors’ reaction to it. She was approached throughout the first hours of the show by visitors asking for tips on how to grow similar plants at home. Sohbati believes that landscape architecture is a marriage of many different disciplines—from design to psychology.
“I really enjoy solving problems, figuring out what’s wrong with a space and adding a touch of art, a touch of science,” she says.
Academy of Art University’s Landscape Architecture program was founded in 2010. Since then, its students have entered the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show annually, earning gold and silver medals. Not only is 2015 a year for an unprecedented number of awards, it coincides with the School of Landscape Architecture’s first graduation ceremony for M.F.A. students.
“The awards are a real testament to the growth and success of the School of Landscape Architecture,” notes Arneson. “In only in four years, it has gone from just a brand-new school to being a medal-winning program.”