Swift looks out over half glasses with a smile, waves her hands about and speaks of the generosity of the Ballard community and the green park's potential legacy. She focuses people's ideas on the long view and the common good. Her concise, confident way with words, her warm presence and comfortable, unhurried demeanor ensure an orderly, participatory session where civility reigns, work gets done and everyone feels heard.
Swift appears undaunted by the bombardment of competing needs, visions and desires; she ponders why they want what they want, drawing them out, one at a time, to explain their thoughts. Only then can she understand well enough to explore design ideas outside of the typical and the expected. She's here to listen because she truly thinks that gaining the confidence of a client or a community is what gives her the ability to design. "As a process, this has a purity about it it's not politicized," she explains. Swift genuinely enjoys mixing it up with the public. In fact, it's hard to believe she'd rather be anywhere else than here, in the midst of a jostling bunch of people in this echoing old building on a chilly late-October evening.
Only about 10 percent of Swift's work is residential. That's because it "demands that people be tastemakers, or anointed tastemakers, and I just couldn't do that kind of work much," says Swift, despite a recent design for a Montana house that won an American Institute of Architects national award for the Seattle firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
Her abiding interest is in the public projects and all the messy processes they entail. Over the past 10 years, Swift has worked on a series of academic projects at Whatcom and Grays Harbor community colleges. She's completed six projects on the University of Washington's south campus and recently finished work on the Tacoma Art Museum.
"We adore libraries," Swift says. "They're today's great civic projects, one of the few places you can borrow and not buy." She hopes that each of the library landscapes will capture that feeling of generosity as well as the unique identities of the communities they serve.
"WHEN WE INTERVIEW for a project, I make it very clear what we're good at," says Swift, noting that understanding what gives pleasure to the client is of utmost importance. She likes to design landscapes that shift out of the everyday, provide us refuge and connect us sensually through sight and sound, smell and touch. Clients' desires are obviously central to such a landscape, and Swift prides herself on developing deep and long relationships with them. "The firm is not driven by style that's what we're not good at," she says perhaps a surprising statement from a woman whose mother and grandmother were artists and who has chaired both the Seattle Art Commission and Seattle Design Commission.
Swift's own garden on a large corner lot in Ballard is green, urban and thick with mostly native plants such as snowberry and serviceberry. Seasonal color comes from lilies, blueberries and iris. But what she likes best about the garden are the layers of green light that filter through to the crushed-granite courtyard between an L-shaped compound of buildings. Swift and her husband, contractor Don Ewing, started with the old prefab-steel workers' union hall on the site, punched up through the roof and added a wing to enclose the courtyard. Swift traded design services with architect George Suyama, who created the home's master plan that she and Ewing are still working on. "My garden is a mess," she says of the heavily treed site and walls clad in vines, "but the notion is of a wild urban refuge."
Such a lush cityscape is a far cry from the desolate Eastern Washington landscape that formed Swift's earliest sensibilities of nature. The elegance, power and cruelty of the desert were stamped on her psyche after watching her parents struggle to create an oasis on the banks of the Yakima River: "When you grow up in that environment, just by default your eyes are open and you understand how things were formed by wind and weather." Swift credits this immersion in the desert for her love of the minimalist work of artists such as light-meister James Turrell and Walter De Maria, creator of a quarter-mile grid of stainless-steel poles in the New Mexican desert known as The Lightning Fields.
No doubt still influenced by the simplicity and purity of the desert, she says, "When you live in a temperate climate where you can grow anything, you need to ask the essential questions; otherwise it's all just a Street of Dreams."
IT WAS A LESS-than-glamorous experiment in using biosolids to eliminate Scotch broom in the Habitats Improvement Project at Discovery Park that shifted the direction of Swift's work, giving it a more ecological bent. "It was just a fascinating thing," she says. "We now think in terms of energy systems, which is a humbling and useful way to think."
She took a similar approach in designing the Montana house, working with cattail marshes and natural ridges of stone, and using native plants to enhance the existing ecosystem and make the site appear undisturbed.
It's much easier to impose a formulaic landscape design on something than it is to look closely at nature and figure out what is really going on, she says.
Despite the emphasis on natives, Swift says, "I'm not interested in being a native-plant Nazi. Both native and non-native plantings can be exquisitely sensuous." What she strives for in all her landscapes is to choose plants that interlace with what is already there, finding a way for them all to cohabitate in harmony. "Humans respond to landscapes through all their senses," she says. She wants people to enjoy nature on levels beyond just the visual and intellectual. That's why her native-plant landscape for the Maple Valley Library treated even the duff of the forest floor as precious, and carefully preserved it for its earthy smell.
Now she's working on a visitor's center in the Grand Tetons, orchestrating a sequence of experiences to immerse visitors in the scents and textures of the native sage and spruce ecosystem. "If you want people to be stewards, they need to connect on a visceral level," Swift says. "I use every tool available on site and in design to take people out of their bubble and engage them as an animal."
Years ago, Swift wrote an essay for "A Field Guide to Seattle's Public Art," articulating an idea that still strongly informs her work: "The domination of the sense of sight over the other senses has resulted in highly skilled linear rational capabilities as a result, there is a lack of richness and texture in daily experiences."
IT ISN'T JUST the aesthetics of the landscape or the use of native plants that drives Swift, although for someone with her ecological and artistic leanings these are integral to her work. She might be one of the few design professionals truly passionate about public process. "It was inspiring how people came together to solve problems creatively. I'm an optimist about this stuff," says Swift of a series of workshops held to sort out competing priorities for the new Seattle City Hall landscape. The challenge is that the open space and plaza around the new building are prime downtown real estate, and it fell to Swift to work with the community to identify and sort through the many possibilities for its use. Swift sees the space as playing a civic role as a center and symbol for open government a place that can support demonstrations, rallies and celebrations, too, all on a steep site with difficult access.
Landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, who teamed up with Swift on the City Hall landscape, says, "She's a great communicator Barb has empathy with intelligence. You know how rare that is? She doesn't drip with empathy, but shows a strong, clear intelligence and is able to find solutions to problems."
When Swift designed the landscape for the new UW Fisheries Building, for example, she first came up with an elegant courtyard solution including a stormwater swale, amplified water noise and a grotto. When the bid came in high, part of the building was lopped off and the budget was slashed. Swift jokes that "we went back to the office, drank Scotch and ate chocolate it had been so joyful." But she quickly regrouped, decided the plan still had teeth, and salvaged the essential elements of courtyard and swale. "It still holds together, and I love that it's kind of wild and textural."
Marcia Wagner, former executive director of the Seattle Design Commission, says Swift is successful at these things because she has "a great ability to help people toward the shared decisions needed to move complex projects forward she has a laser sense of direction." The key, she adds, is that "underlying all her calm and humor, Barb values what comes out of the process. She sees it as enriching the end result."
Swift will need all that calm and humor as she moves forward with the planning for the monorail. Her firm is charged with developing a system-wide urban design and landscape principles to serve all the stations along the 14-mile corridor. The firm must also come up with strategies for making the landscapes sustainable and help the monorail staff move the process through city reviews.
It will be "an interesting dance and balance," says Swift, who feels obligated to ensure that engineering concerns don't override a sensitivity to the urban environment. But at age 51 and with nearly 30 years in the Seattle design world behind her, Swift has surely developed the flexibility and realistic perspective needed to deal with such demands. Witness her answer to those skateboarders who were so intent on saving their rink on the site of the new Ballard park. Recently Swift went before the Seattle Design Commission with three alternative plans. "We made the decision to listen very hard to what the community is most interested in," she says. Each scheme for the two-acre park includes not the old skate rink but a brand new skateboarding arena.
City Hall collaborator Gustafson explains Swift's effectiveness in a way the skateboarders would understand:
"I trust Barb implicitly everyone trusts her. There are just no doubts about this woman."
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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