Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Gardens and People Interview

This is the transcript from an interview I did in 2010 with Bella D'Arcy for the British garden website  Gardens and People.

Steve Martino is a landscape architect who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.  This follows 30 years as a designer, winning over a hundred awards, in 2006 he received the American Society of Landscape Architects highest design award; The Design Medal, He has received a 2010 Award of Excellence from the Arizona Chapter of the ASLA for his ’Palm Springs Modern’ project. On of his was recent projects was featured on the cover of the March issue of the Garden Design Journal.

Q: You originally studied art and architecture, what made you apply these skills to the man-made environment, the landscape, at a time in the 1970s when architecture was a boom profession in the States and landscape architecture practically unheard of?

In architecture school I had an interest in the space between and around buildings as an extension of the interior; it was ‘bonus space’ to the building. I thought that all architects should also be landscape architects. I couldn’t imagine turning over the site to someone else.

When I dropped out of school I took a job with a LA to learn some landscape skills. This was the first time I took a critical look at the man-made environment and I wasn’t impressed in fact I was appalled.

I loved wandering around the desert and I was puzzled how little appreciation or respect there was for the desert environment. After 2 years there I thought I needed to get into an architect’s office which lasted 2 years until a recession put me out of work. I had a few garden projects that I was working on so by chance I became a landscape designer and I have been working for myself ever since.

There were a few landscape architects in town and scores of incompetent landscape designers; I worked for an awful design-build company for a few weeks as a student which was enlightening. It was apparent that landscape design was a situation where one could spend an enormous amount of money and when finished you could still have all the problems you started with. I saw an opportunity for a landscape designer who could actually understand and solve site problems; architecture school was all about solving problems. One project led to another and I’ve been working for myself since 1975.

Q: Please talk about your feelings for the landscape and your ambitions within the field of landscape architecture.

I never had any intentions of becoming an LA, in fact I have never had a landscape class in my life, when I started my goal was to bring the desert back into the city. Over the years I invented the desert vernacular that should have been there but wasn’t.

My design philosophy originally if I had one, was to make my projects say something about the site and the region and make them look like they “fit”.

When I started I had a few observations that influenced my thinking.
The public mostly hated the desert.

Billions were spent each year to make the desert look like somewhere else.
Landscape development was a situation where one could send an enormous amount of money and when finished still have all the problems you started with. It was mostly an exercise in eyewash.

In the ‘80s, when the new robber-barons were building their fantasy developments in the desert LA’s would stand in line to be their stooges.

I wasn’t ready for how destructive the landscape industry was to the natural environment.

Q:  How did your design philosophy develop, and how does it relate to the projects you choose now to work on?

I learned from observation and trial and error. I started by looking at built work and asking myself “what’s wrong with this picture?” then I would try to find a better way to do something. I believe not being trained in landscape design gave me fresh eyes.

I started using native plants just too visually repair and connect a site to the larger landscape (not knowing anything about them other than they looked cool and a lot of them were scary and would hurt you).

After observing the benefits of using native plants I decided that all landscapes that weren’t using native plants were displacing habitat and were destructive and probably nature hating. Native plants to me represent the state-of-the- art of the evolution of a place and they are the timeline that connects the site to the history of the region. If you want to say something about the site you need to us plants from the site.

I like projects that are fun and challenging, the most important element of a project is the client. I want a client who has a good design sense and has high expectations for the project.  I only take on residential and cultural projects. I have a small office so I can be choosy in what I take on.

Q: Is there something in your career that altered your view of landscape design?

Observing the symbiotic connection between plants and their unique pollinators was amazing and educational.

A pilgrimage to the Alhambra was pivotal to my development, as I walked around I thought that “none of these plants are 900 years old. A few years later I was thinking about the Court of the Lions and I couldn’t remember anything about the plantings even though I took several rolls of film. I had to get out my pictures, it was no wonder I had not remembered them, they were insignificant compared to the space. The lesson was that plants are incidental to the garden and it’s not a garden without hardscape. The garden should work as a space without plants, which is probably why I like ruins so much.

Q:  How do you approach the starting point of a design?

There are two aspects to the design, the first being the clients program requirements and the other is the site. The starting point is understanding the site, its physical nature, the off-site influences, its limitations and opportunities, the zoning restrictions and loopholes. If you understand these things you can tell the client “I understand what you want but these are the things that you need!” then we try to do both things.

When I first walk onto the site I rub my hands together and say “what do the neighbors have that we can use?”

Q: What is your ideal client?

I want a client who wants to accomplish something special, thinks garden design is an art, appreciates the local environment and are open to ideas; it’s a bonus if they are a little eccentric. 

Q: You have an especial affinity with the desert and the plants that grow there, how do you use these plants in the design?

 After observing my early native plant gardens I noticed that with native plants you get more than you bargained for. They bring along an entourage of characters that I call “pollinators and predators” that activate the garden. I discovered that by using the right plants you tap into the food-chain and your gardens become habitats. When I learned this, my gardens started to get interesting.

In the early years I also used native plants to make a point because they were not appreciated by the public or my peers.

Q: Feel free to elaborate as much as you like!

I would typical take ordinary vacant-lot plants and showcase them against architectural elements, which I would refer to as my “Weeds & Walls” style. I see the architectural elements as the state-of the-art of my evolution as a designer and the native plants represent nature at her best. This juxtaposition of man & nature meeting as equals is what my work was all about. 

What I find unbelievable about this pursuit is that it changed the landscape industry and that my web page tells me that people from 40 countries a month look me up.

Q: And when you are not working in a desert zone, what is your philosophy of planting?

I try to use native plants to attract the local wildlife, which I find delights client almost more than any of the ‘designed’ elements of the garden. Native plant nurseries are quite common now. When I first wanted to use lesser known natives I had to collect the seed myself and have plants grown.

Q:  When you design, does the hard landscaping grow from the planting, or vice versa. Or do they arrive together in your mind?

For me the hardscape come first because my gardens are architectural by nature. I think about the hardscape and tree placement together. Specific understory and accent plants come later. I work in a very harsh environment, “the old west”, I’m happy if I have the basic elements of: walls, trees, dirt, shadows and cactus, any thing else is icing on the cake.

Q:  You work in a country that has huge spaces, and huge skies- not usual in the United Kingdom - how does this affect your design thinking?

This is ‘borrowed vista’ paradise. The Sonoran desert is so distinctive and unique that you can represent the desert with a few plants in a court yard or physical meld with a magnificent panoramic scene when the property line is actually a few feet beyond the pool. An adjacent mountain range can look like it belongs to your client if you do things right.

I see my job as that of a set designer; I create space and the illusion of space. I screen out bad views and reinforce good views. If a space has a good geometry to it I enhance it, if it has a bad geometry, I try to overpower it and impose a new order to it. I seem to work with 2 types of space. Enclosing and sheltering or open and expansive where we relate to a larger site, and most projects have both types of space.

I have always considered our harsh sunlight as another building material that needs to be considered. It is so strong that it washes out color and flattens texture; you need to use it to your advantage. Using forms to develop shadows, using strong colors and cactus that create their own shadows are lessons I have learned from Mexican architects. What I love about walls is that they pick up shadows off the ground and hold them up where you can see them. I think of this as the architecture of shadows.

Another concern you need to think about is what materials look good as they come out of the dirt, stone is first, then cast-in-place concrete then masonry walls.

Q:  Can you talk about how the landscape profession has changed over the years – and has that affected you?

It is more aware of environmental concerns now and not as destructive to the planet as it used to be. I think the profession is a little late to the table on this, in the west, where water is such a major concern; municipalities had to come up with regulations to protect themselves from landscape designers.

The biggest change has been the level of design has skyrocketed as seen by the quality of the national ASLA design awards. You have to work really hard to receive a design award these days.

I was the oddball when I started and over time I have gone from being a heretic to a hero without doing anything different. I read in an article about me that said I had to build my stage before I could act on it.

Q:  You were Steve Martino and Associates; how did you work as a team?

At one time I hade 9 employees and I was more of an administrator than designer and I did not like it, since then I have tried to stay small and I do all the design work myself and I have staff members to help with production work,  I always look for ideas and input from my staff.

Q: and why the name ‘Cactus City Design’?

Several people have asked me why I am changing my firm name to Cactus City Design after nearly 30 years of being Steve Martino & Associates. The truth is that SM&A was not my first or second choice for a name. I wanted something that referred to what I do or to design. My first company name was “Outdoor Space”. I decided to market myself to architects as a consultant, but after the fourth consecutive architect said “what the hell is outdoor space?” it was clear that I needed another approach.

Somewhere I read that the Apaches had a word for “the wet wind from the south”. These life-sustaining summer rains that come up from the Gulf of Mexico to make life possible here would be the perfect name for a company that wanted to embrace the native flora in its designs. I never found the word so I became SM&A as a default. For years I had thought about a name change; SM&A has worked well for me but I always wanted a name with “studio” or “design” in it.

One evening as I was driving across the desert back to Phoenix from one of my Palm Springs projects, somewhere between Bagdad and Quartzsite where the highway department puts out the water barrels, I stopped to let my radiator have a drink. As it cooled down I walked off down a dirt road to explore the ruins of an old building which might have once been a gas station. Walking through the ruins was like rooting through the carcass of an old decaying Saguaro looking for it’s “boots”. I found a bullet-riddled sign that looked like it said “Cactus City”.

Two weeks later I had a dream about something that I had completely forgotten about that happened over forty years earlier when I was a teenager at Arizona Boys Ranch. I had the job of ranch wrangler and had 24 horses I had to tend to. One of my duties was to take the other kids out riding in the desert. I used to visit a crusty hermit type who lived in a “baked ham” trailer. He had an assortment of wheel-less car bodies, some metal shade structures, quite a cactus garden and a hand-painted sign that said “cactus city”.
Going from an urban delinquent to a rural ranch hand was quite a life-changing experience. My favorite pastime was riding in the nearby San Tan Mountains. I think these excursions got me interested in the desert and led me to become a landscape architect. Now, decades later, having “cactus city” pop up in a dream two weeks after my trip across the desert had to be a sign.

Q:  If you could design anywhere in the world with an endless budget, where and what would you design?

I’d like to be designing houses in Majorca and next would be roof top gardens in London, because I think that’s the most interesting work coming out of the UK.


  1. This interview is great, including how "Cactus City Design" originated, via dreams, past experiences, and travel.

  2. If you thought I am direct, which is amusing, what would you say about this one?