The bright-yellow sketchpads carried by each of the Penn graduate students distinguished them from other pedestrians as they walked through campus and up Spruce Street, making their way to class, at The Woodlands on that particular Friday afternoon.
Leading them was the distinguished Laurie Olin, professor, author, artist, and one of the most renowned landscape architects practicing today. Teaching for five decades, starting at his alma mater University of Washington in 1971, and at Penn in 1974, he is now practice professor emeritus of landscape architecture. Although retired, he came back to teach students the art of drawing by hand before they graduate in May with their master of landscape architecture degrees from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
“I tell them at the beginning of the term that I can't teach them to draw. But they can learn. And the way they’re going to learn is just by doing it. And I will give them criticism and put them in a situation where they will teach themselves how to draw,” he said. “No one teaches you how to draw. It’s non-transferrable knowledge. It’s by doing it and trying out what works.”
Wearing jeans and sneakers, a wool scarf around his neck on the overcast day, Olin stood among the headstones in The Woodlands cemetery and instructed students to settle in, observe their surroundings, and draw, putting pencil (or soft graphite or ink brushes) to paper. “OK. Go have some fun,” he said.
“They are going to do some piece of landscape. They will have foreground, a little background. It’ll have probably trees and tombs. I think they’ll avoid drawing the cars, but I keep trying to get them to face the fact that that’s part of our society, and it’ll probably be in landscapes they design,” Olin said. “Our industry is a design of land for the human use.”
A love of drawing that reflects a love of design
As founding principal of the Philadelphia-based firm OLIN, he has guided signature projects, such as the redesign of the Washington Monument Grounds in Washington, D.C. Other notable projects include New York City’s Bryant Park, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and Apple Park in Cupertino, California. For four decades Olin has also contributed significantly to the master planning and development of Penn’s campus. Former President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 2012, and he received an honorary doctor of arts degree from Penn in 2019.
“Laurie is a senior statesman of landscape architecture, if not the senior statesmen. He has drawn his entire life and he’s damn good at it. His love of drawing reflects his love of design, which in turn reflects his love of life itself,” said Richard Weller, professor of landscape architecture and department chair, in an email, when asked why he invited Olin to teach this spring semester. “Being with Laurie is like being with an artist from the Renaissance, seeing all the beauty on the world with fresh eyes. Simple things become profound. Little things matter.”
Olin continues to be in great demand all over the world. But he chose to accept Weller’s invitation to teach with one condition: limit the enrollment, to 16 total, “so that I can actually give them time.”
And he did give them time, closely examining their drawings in their 24-inch-by-18-inch sketchbooks. He critiqued while also giving encouragement, often using his own pencil to demonstrate, talking about foreground and background, light and shadow, line and curve, space and perspective. “It's all about them and their effort,” he said. “I’m trying to help them go out into the world and see it and record it clearly for what it actually is and feels like from their personal perspective.”
Kneeling on the damp ground next to Olivia Loughrey, he gestured to elements of her drawing—the trees, bushes, grass, tombstones—advising specifically on the shadows. “I’ll circle back,” he said to her. “Just try to get some control over it. You’re doing fine. They’re better than they were, right?”
Loughrey, from Pittsburgh, said she wants to design “public spaces that are playful and enjoyable.” She thinks drawing by hand is fundamental to landscape architecture. “It’s maybe more of an old-school approach, but it really is helpful being able to sketch things out,” she said. “This is a great, great class. And it’s a really delightful class to take in our final semester, just to be out in the landscape and draw on Friday afternoons.” It is especially sweet, she said, for these third-year students who spent their first year remote due to the pandemic.
The course started with a series of exercises, Olin said, first line drawings, then shades and tones and shadows, then perspectives, working inside the Fisher Fine Arts Library building, designed by renowned American architect Frank Furness. With warming weather they went outdoors to spots on campus and nearby, the landscape changing each week with trees leafing out and flowers blooming.
“Drawing is a remarkable event that engages the senses and mind with physical reality and the moment in time and place,” Olin said, adding that this “good bunch” of students seem to value the experience. “They see this is a form of learning about the world that there’s no other way like it. And what you get from it is really good for design, and has been for centuries,” he said, adding that drawing is “still really extremely valuable and useful,” especially for landscape designers.
Weller, also the Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, and the co-executive director of The McHarg Center, noted that many things that look promising on screen “crash land in reality.” A drawing class based on field work, he said, gives students a sense of place and time they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. “The seemingly simple act of sketching in the field sets up a feedback loop between your hand, your mind, and the world around you. And it’s not just about recording reality as a likeness, it’s about interpretation—how one interprets and records experience,” said Weller. “The other important thing is that students—particularly those that have spent their whole lives on computers—need to learn to use a pencil. By that I mean, that to be able to doodle is to not just record thoughts, it actually engenders thought.”
A class that offers a chance to ‘really see’
In agreement is Xu Lian, from China, who is planning to work in landscape architecture in public spaces, starting in Copenhagen after graduation. “Now we always draw by computer,” Lian said. “We don’t draw by hand a lot. I think it’s a chance for us to sit down and really see the things around us.”
Olin, she said, is encouraging. “It’s like he is not judging how good you are at drawing, but he is more telling you how to feel it using this space, and how to feel the lines and shadows, and also the light,” Lian said.
Several students said how much they enjoyed the distinct approaches by their classmates. “One nice thing was how interested in each other’s work they’ve become, enjoying their differences and each other’s successes,” Olin said.
Eduardo Martinez had worked in architecture in Mexico, where he is from, before choosing to study landscape architecture, pursuing the urban resilience certificate to design with climate change in mind.
“I learned that Laurie was going to give this class and I became interested because I already knew of some of the work he has done,” Martinez said. “But I think it goes beyond just drawing: He has a whole conception of drawing that influences how you perceive things, and even how you perceive life, and how that relates to how you do landscape projects.”
Why did Olin become a landscape architect? “It was more interesting than architecture. It was more difficult, more complex,” he said. “I have a degree in architecture and worked as an architect for years. But I drifted into landscape architecture partly because of concern about the environment. Because I thought there was more to life than buildings. But I still love buildings, good buildings, good architecture, but when they’re in the right place, when they make space instead of just using it up.”
He said he’s worked with many great architects, but he sees “landscape as the structure of our environment. And it's too important to make a mess out of it. I mean, it’s what supports us, it’s what we have in common. It’s the earth. And it’s streets, it’s walks, it’s parks, it’s wetlands, it's highways. it's everything, landscape. It’s the life in itself when it’s done.”
In a recorded talk, “The Need for Hand Drawing in a Sped-Up Age” in 2020, Laurie Olin discusses the importance of drawing and his latest book, “France Sketchbooks,” with William Whitaker of the Architectural Archives in the Weitzman School of Design.