Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures

Great design is rooted in responsive and adaptive approaches. For architect and landscape architect Greg Kochanowski,  equitable design solutions should address critical issues, such as climate and housing. As Partner and Design Principal at GGA, Greg is an active researcher focusing on resilient environments that create synergies between natural systems, culture, infrastructure, and development.

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In the following interview with ArchDaily, Greg explores his early inspirations and design ideas, as well as his thoughts on major issues shaping the future. With a background across urban design, landscape, and architecture, his work has been instrumental in a variety of projects reshaping the cultural and environmental fabric of Los Angeles.

Why did you choose to study structural engineering and architecture?

Well, as with all things in life, I fell into it honestly.  I wasn’t someone who always knew what I wanted to do, but I’m extremely curious and have more of a generalist attitude towards life - more of an artist and conceptual thinker. But upon graduating high school (where I wasn’t the best student) I didn’t know where to turn. I became interested in architecture mostly, I think, because my stepfather was a contractor, but I was unsure where to start.  So, I went into structural engineering – mostly just to jump into something.  I enjoyed it – the figuring out of things (I’ve always enjoyed math) – but after a while I realized it wasn’t really for me and I needed more of an overtly creative outlet.  In speaking with people, I began to get a better sense of what architecture was, so I went and got a Bachelor’s in Architecture and then went on to UCLA for a Masters.

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

To add to your question, at UCLA I additionally became interested in landscape, particularly through an interest in a more holistic way of thinking about the built environment.  This has subsequently become a passion of mine to, the point of becoming a licensed landscape architect, and has significantly shaped my personal ideology and methodology of working.  I see the world holistically as a complex series of relationships between cultural and organic systems - from cities to climate, buildings to landscapes, racial inequality to ecosystems. And I’m passionate about the interrelationships between all of these and how synthetically engaging the full breadth of interdependent systems can help to improve life on this planet - for all species.

You recently joined GGA as Design Principal and Partner after working at RIOS. Can you tell us more about your role at GGA?

GGA has a 40-year history of creating projects that enrich the public realm and people’s lives through community centered design.  As the Design Principal, in addition to building upon that legacy, my role is to enhance and reinforce the design culture of the office to inspire design talent and collaboration, provide mentorship to both teams and individuals, reinforce an ideas-and-research based design process, and provide thought leadership through both outward and inwardly focused initiatives.

Partly what I draw from in the new role is my 25 years in academia.  Teaching isn’t what I do, it’s who I am as a person and a professional.   What I love, is that it’s a process of having to clarify for yourself what you know, in order to communicate that to someone else - sometimes resulting in realizing how much you don’t know – which opens up new potentials and ways of seeing things.  Teaching is also, obviously, about ideas, and teaching someone how to translate those ideas into something that speaks beyond the physical condition and illustrates a world that is possible.  Both carries directly into the way that I practice, and what I bring to my role at GGA - motivating people to think about a world that is possible; asking questions and connecting the work to broader conversations as a way of linking to the world around us; listening (really listening) to the people around you to find each person’s unique voice.  How do they see the world? What are their passions and talents, and how can you bring out that potential to benefit everyone (including myself) to see the world in a way that you didn’t before?

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

So, at the beginning, I set out a 100-day plan, and over the past 3 months we’ve created a series of initiatives in the office to facilitate dialogue and create individual agency.  Some of the initiatives we’ve started are: Bi-weekly Open Design Dialogues; an Outdoor Speaker Series where we invite thought leaders from around LA (and the country) to come and share their work in an informal conversational setting; a Film Series; Integration of Enhanced Digital Fabrication into the design process, and a Research Program through a non-profit the office started in early 2020.  There are other plans in the works, including a reimagining of the physical office, our internal design process, and the mediums through which we communicate our ideas. 

It’ an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

What are some recent projects you’ve been working on?

We do a diverse range of work – all of which strives toward creating racially diverse, equitable and inclusive environments for people.  In short, our motto is “Doing good through great design”.  Some representative projects that I’ve started to work on over the past few months are:

  • A school for intellectually / developmentally disabled individuals whereby we are researching innovative strategies for sensory design and mental health.  Critical to this process is an integrated approach between architecture, landscape, interiors, and environmental graphics that engages the full sensory and bodily experience.  It’s a set of issues and research that is entirely new to me and has opened up my design process and preconceptions.

  • A senior housing center for those with mental impairments and assisted living.  Similar to the school, the design for mental health and impaired mobility, coupled with the integration of social spaces (ranging from individual to larger groups), has challenged typical design processes and assumptions. We are engaging this through an integrated approach around the strategies and tactics of urban planning, landscape, and architecture.

  • A 90-unit affordable housing development which marries innovative sustainable strategies with the organization of social spaces and landscape.  Although still in Schematic Design, the project is a finalist for a statewide sustainable innovations grant, that would help to fund the continued design of the project and, ultimately, its construction.

  • An interior design project for a Higher Education client here in LA.  The site, and the problem, is the basement of an incredible 1960’s brutalist classroom building.  We are tasked with establishing an identity for the department, while also creating social spaces, additional classrooms, and integrating natural light. It’s a cool project with a great client, program and building to draw inspiration from.

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

With changes to climate, technology, and construction, how do you think architects and designers will adapt ways of practicing to change the profession?

It’s a new landscape out there.  The issue, it seems, is not just how we will adapt, but how often we will need to.  Climatic, technological, cultural, economic, and political frameworks are shifting from under our feet in real-time and we, as a design profession, need to develop levels of technical agility and intellectual nimbleness to navigate this degree of complexity.  The discussions we are having now are based on information that is already outdated – the temperature of the planet, global population, the number of homeless and destitute families / individuals, voting rights, and racial & gender equality.  There is a term, transformative resilience, which is term denoting the fundamental alteration of the human relationship to wildfire—by embracing the dynamic and rapidly changing role of fire in social–ecological systems.  It’s not so much about problem solving, but about completely shifting our professional ‘world view’ that puts adaptation as the central core, and an acceptance that being able to withstand change is not enough.  Sorry if this is going a bit abstract, but I think the magnitude of the problems we face necessitates a complete reconsideration of the professional norms we find ourselves repeating over-and-over again.

One way into this, I think, (and the focus of a lot of my work) is to be able to demonstrate the importance (and value) of holistic thinking and broad-based collaborative processes.  As much as we need disciplinary expertise and levels of conceptual and technological facility that enable intellectual agility, the problems of our time require levels of innovation that are not possible to achieve via a single disciplinary orientation. We still operate within disciplinary based silos, even within the so-called multidisciplinary (newly branded transdisciplinary) practices – which tend to be no more than independently operating practices under one roof in order to provide a broader market sector reach.  Even the firms I admire still operate this way.

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

What we need is a complete reformation of the education process that facilitates this holistic thinking and integration with allied professions and voices (Black, Brown, Female, Transgender) The rarified whiteness (mostly male still) of the profession has ignored other forms of intellectual capital and cultural perspectives/sensibilities from populations that are affected the most by the significant global problems we face. This recalibration of holistic reframing and inclusionary participation would bear fruit in the form of young innovative hybrid practices that manifest the incorporation of voices and perspectives typically marginalized from the current frameworks of disciplinary problem making.  So too, do we need to transform the industry itself.  The complexities of the Climate and Housing crises, for example, are incapable of being exclusively solved by the people who are least affected, never mind a singular disciplinary orientation. As such, new thinking is required that envisions more synthetic, softer, supple, culturally integrated approaches.  Architectural ecosystems, infrastructural interiors, structural landscapes, Black & Brown aesthetics & organizational structures.

You have worked as an architect, landscape architect, educator, and author. What are some other designers or firms working across disciplines that inspire you? 

There’s so much good work going on right now……a few that I really admire and who inspire me are Kate Orff / SCAPE’s environmental ingenuity; Studio Gang’s mix of innovation, social engagement and research; Olafur Eliasson’s atmospheric brilliance; the site weavings of Orly Genger; Agnieszka Kurant’s fantastic imaginaries, Snöhetta and Sasaki’s integrated practices, and the political consciousness of Alejandro Aravena, and Ai Weiwei.  I try not to think in binaries / singularities, so the people that really inspire me are those that blur the lines and engage in holistic, synthetic thinking.  Humor is also super important – not taking oneself too seriously and having a sense of humility goes a long way to opening to thinking differently. The practices of architecture, landscape, urbanism, policy, environmental science, cultural traditions/histories, engineering, etc, all play a part in shaping the world in which we live and are all sources for inspiration.  Similarly, as individuals we are all connected – both to each other and the world in which we live.  We are singular moments within a much larger continuum of consciousness and, as such, it is our obligation to recognize that interconnection and live our lives in such a way that sees the potential, and power, in all of us.

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

You’ve been living and working in Los Angeles for many years. How has the city shaped the way you approach design?

Los Angeles has had a profound impact on me. I’ve lived here for over 20 years, and it’s one of the few places in the United States that serves as a real laboratory for how we will live in the future. From social justice; to housing inequality and affordability; excessive heat, wildfires and mudslides exacerbated by climate change; the impacts of infrastructure & transportation on our urban fabric – LA is grappling with all of it simultaneously in real-time. In this sense my work, and approach to design, is influenced by the city by adopting what might be called a ‘radical speculative pragmatism’ through which innovation is realized from within the problematic itself. This does not mean that one conforms to “this is the way things are done, these are the rules”, but rather that it’s a form of Ju-Jitsu whereby the constraints are turned against the project to yield novelty. In addition, as I stated in the previous question, I believe the future of our success as a discipline (or disciplines) will be our ability to communicate effectively to the public. Los Angeles is a city of storytellers, there’s a whole economy built upon it, and the urban myths and fictions it writes (and has been written about it) have been an underlying characteristic of the city since its inception. This form of future-making I think is also emblematic of my approach to problem solving, and an essential part of the research I’m doing on wildlands.

One of the unusual things about Los Angeles is its proximity to wilderness. Not wilderness in its metaphorical sense, but actual wild-ness — places primarily uninhabited by human culture. Sometimes mythologized and exaggerated through media for dramatic effect, earthquakes, fires, floods, mudslides, droughts, sharks, mountain lions, etc. are rooted into the larger narrative and identity of the city. These various expressions of wildness coexist in stark juxtaposition to each other, illuminating the rich ecological and cultural diversity that make up this vast territory. The proximity of LA to these untamed environments is real and has significant impact on the way we understand its overall ecological conditions, as well as the future evolution of its urban fabric.

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

The most enduring of these expressions, and the one that is personally most appealing, is the city’s relationship to the natural environment. It is a city continually shaped and reshaped through the engineering of its landscape, aimed at both managing resources, i.e., extraction and transportation, on the one hand, and encourage real estate speculation and human occupation, on the other. The shaping of these wild spaces, including the hillsides of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, the extreme environments of Death Valley and Mojave Desert, as well as the fluctuating coast of the Pacific Ocean, coupled with L.A.’s urban, political, and economic framework, contribute to the perception of Los Angeles’ impermanence and ad-hoc nature.

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

The issues of our time are the Climate Crisis and Housing – which are becoming more and more interrelated.  We, and the next generations, are facing problems at scales and magnitudes unfathomable to past generations.  We have been a global interconnected community for a while now, with the impacts of economic, cultural, and political shifts rippling through each of us.  Now however, it is the collective fate of our home, the earth, that is on the block.  There is other issue more important, and we as the design community have been one the largest culprits, but we also hold the keys to enabling and illustrating possible solutions. 

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Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

The problem is so large, so vast, that it is hard to even comprehend (although David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth comes the closest to depicting the scale and magnitude we are up against). From the impact of climate migration on urban centers (either influx or exodus), to climate gentrification and extreme levels of inequality; wildfires; energy infrastructure; floods, affordable housing (and the list goes on) – the impact to our economic, political, and geographic landscapes are immense. We, as designers, have the skills to engage these complex issues and, in collaboration with scientists and policy makers, envision possible adaptive futures that solve real problems and improve the lives of people in an ever-shifting environment. These problems require levels of innovation that are not possible to achieve via a single disciplinary orientation. The complexities of the Climate and Housing crises are incapable of being solved through architecture alone and, as such, new thinking is required that envisions more synthetic, softer, approaches.

My research into wildfires and debris flows is my own way into these issues.   I’ve been working on this for approximately 8 years, having witnessed the increasing impact of the Climate Crisis on Los Angeles.  All of the discussions at that time were around sea level rise, but no one was discussing the tremendous impact of the drought-wildfire-debris flow cycle that LA sees on a recurring basis.  Ironically, our home and community were destroyed in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, making a situation where I was living the research.  I found myself in a unique position, having a specific set of skills that were needed to help the rebuilding process.  Being able to contribute in this way was obviously extremely rewarding in that it allowed me to use what talents, knowledge, and abilities I have toward helping people rebuild their lives.  It also helped me to connect with members of my community that I had not known previously. 

Also, as a way of dealing with the loss, I dove headfirst into the research. What came out of that process was a book, The Wild, which attempts to grapple with the complexities of the Wildland Urban Interface. It presents facts, but also speculatively reframes the material to look at possible future scenarios/solutions. Writing it transformed me as a person - coalescing a range of interests and perspectives on the built environment that was very clarifying. Living the research, so to speak, also changed my perspective on the issues - from seeing the effects of climate change as an abstract concept, buried in science, policy, and utopian schemes that flew at 50,000 ft, to one about the real effect on individuals and communities, social infrastructure and that true resilience lies within social bonds and the connections that we have with one another.

About this author
Cite: Eric Baldwin. "Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures" 16 Sep 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/968538/los-angeles-wildfires-and-adaptive-design-greg-kochanowski-on-creating-new-futures> ISSN 0719-8884

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Greg Kochanowski 专访:洛杉矶,野火和适应性设计

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