Alumni Series: Irene Compadre, Landscape Architect

L. Irene Compadre graduated two times from WashU: in 2008, with a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture that she completed after studying a combination of architecture and sculpture, and in 2012, with a Master of Landscape Architecture. Today, in addition to working as an adjunct faculty at the Sam Fox School of Visual Arts, she is the founding principal of Arbolope Studio, a multidisciplinary design practice that engages with landscape at multiple scales, from small installations to large master plans.

Makio Yamamoto, communications intern at the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Irene to learn more about her academic and professional careers and the things she learned on the way.

How did you transition from your Bachelor of Art in Architecture to a Master of Landscape Architecture?
When I first graduated from WashU I had no idea what I wanted to do in the long run. While I got involved in several projects and jobs, such as working for the Black Repertory Theatre, doing a residence at the Community Arts and Movement Project on Cherokee street, and starting a community garden art space on Cherokee Real, I knew that I wanted to go back to graduate school. But I just had no idea what for. I met with one of my old advisors and said “I like art, I like theater and I like architecture. What do you think?” and she said, “There’s this thing called landscape architecture that has a Master degree starting at WashU in four days, and I think that’s the right program for you.” I put a portfolio together in four days, hand delivered it, and started the program five days later. It was crazy.

What about landscape architecture drew you in?
I saw it as the perfect blend of social issues, design, and art. I didn’t realize that I was so interested in ecology and botany until I really started studying it! I also loved how the program was interdisciplinary and flexible. All my classmates had their own specificities and all were allowed to hone in on whatever they were interested in: urban agriculture, native landscape, and for me the intersections of social issues, art and landscape.

What’s the meaning behind the name of your studio; Arbolope?
“Arbol” is the Spanish root of the word “tree”, and “ope” comes from “envelope”, and also resonates with the creatures ending with “ope” like antelope. It evokes a tree creature that is referred in “the Lorax” by Dr. Suess. The book tells the tragic story of the Lorax, the voice of the trees, that is forced to leave after the man’s industry has exploited all the trees until none is left alive. The bottom line is that trees are essential for everything and everyone, and even the economy and the industry cannot survive without trees. The Arbolope is the creature that could speak for the trees to mankind.

How do you sell and educate your clients on designing a sustainable landscape project?
To some degree, I think we have self-selecting clients. As a small studio, we get to be focused on the type of work we do and so our hires already have a feeling that we are going to be ecologically minded… I think it is just about reminding clients that spaces are nicer when they are balanced.

Do you think it is possible for non-designers to have a real say in a project going on in the community?
In general, people intuitively know if a space feels good or bad. If public spaces aren’t designed well, it can become a grating experience. For instance when you can’t cross the street, you feel unsafe, making you a little angrier and trickling on to the rest of the day. Non-designer opinions are highly valuable, and it’s up to the designers to think of the right questions to ask a community.

Have you been able to engage with the community in most of your projects?
Even though we want to believe that we are part of the same community, we need to recognize that our experience is limited, and that we need to look at others to understand the broader picture. As an example, for our project on Cherokee street we had to engage with a variety of people so we made sure that our client group reflected this diversity.

Tell us about a project that is most emblematic of your values?
My favorite so far is a master plan for a university in Ecuador. In our approach to connect sustainability and art, we got inspired by local painters and archaeological petroglyphs. We reused those patterns to design parallel water and pedestrian pathways through the campus. The design was intended to invite people to move alongside water, accomplishing ecological and social goals hand in hand.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I think WashU is making good steps to becoming a more sustainable campus. It’s a lot more interesting from a sustainability and urban space perspective now than it was 15 years ago. WashU one of the biggest institutions in the St Louis area and we have always looked at them to be at the forefront of sustainability and environmental efforts.

If you are interested in learning more about Irene’s work, you can contact her directly at i@arbolope.com. You can also visit the Arbolope Studio website for more info.