A naturalistic landscape design going under-appreciated

The company I work for recently moved in to a new corporate campus location in Foster City, CA, right by the San Mateo bridge. The site features 3 buildings (4 if you count a parking structure) surrounding a central quad, which features a berm and a naturalistic meadow planting bordered by trees.

A view of the quad from the 3rd floor of one of the buildings. Note the wind chop on the bay. I’ll come back to that.

The walkway along the main building’s border with the quad includes seating areas, and concrete “benches” that continue up into the grassy berm.

The benches in the meadow are a bit confusing to me. There’s no pathway, and while in a non corporate setting I might imagine feeling inspired to hang out in the sun up there in the middle of all those swaying grasses, given the professional context I probably wouldn’t actually do that. It will be interesting to see if I ever observe anyone wandering up in to the meadow (and it would be sort of a shame if no one ever does!).

My first impression of the design was happy surprise — I thought, wow how progressive to go so naturalistic in a corporate office park! Plus, I like how the grasses evoke the marshland that must have originally been here. But then, I am such a sucker for grasses and wistful, moody landscapes.

Check out the juxtaposition of the blowy grasses sparkling in the sun and the power lines and industrial tanks behind them.

I asked a few of my coworkers what they thought of the landscape design, and (perhaps not so unexpectedly) heard “stark”, “barren”, and “desolate”. One person commented that they thought maybe the landscape wasn’t yet fully installed. I can’t say I’m surprised by the general impression — perhaps in part because the San Diego office has a more formal landscape design, and in true Southern California style includes a considerable amount of outdoor meeting/socializing/work spaces. The San Diego office design is actually a pretty interesting mash up of formal spaces, native plants, and a naturalistic yet very artificial arroyo and koi pond (it’s lovely, don’t get me wrong). I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on that. But I digress. I think part of the challenge for the Foster City design is the fact that this location is so extremely windy. There are outdoor meeting/socializing areas, but I can’t imagine anyone lingering in any of them, and one of my coworkers specifically commented that it would have been nice if they’d included deliberate wind breaks in the landscaping. Maybe it will be less windy here come Fall/Winter? I’m doubtful. Or maybe once more of the plantings grow in that will help? The site isn’t completely done — a soccer field will be added on what is more or less the bay side of the current campus, so there’s more to come.

All corporate landscapes have to deal with the adjacent “nature”, and perhaps the more naturalistic the landscape the more complicated that relationship becomes. The southwest corner of the FC office campus has been taken over by a family of Canadian geese, who make their residency very well known to the users of the office buildings through the “presents” they leave behind on the walkways and the completely unused bocce court, and through their occasionally aggressive behavior. My gut reaction is to side with the geese, but then they’re an invasive species and this site isn’t actually home for them any more than it is for us corporate drones.

Here’s a shot of the goose family patrolling the perimeter.

Despite the absence of immediate appreciation the local professionals have for the landscaping, I wonder if the design is in fact serving its purpose. Maybe modern naturalistic design, no matter how artificially reconstructed it may be, serves a purpose if it makes those that experience the setting think about the windswept bayside marsh that must have been here at one point, harsh elemental exposure and all. And perhaps forcing some human-invasive bird negotiations will inspire some reflection on how to cope with these issues on a larger scale. It will be interesting to watch how this landscape grows in as the seasons change, and in particular as the site gets more use. It’s only at about 1/4 capacity right now. So perhaps these outdoor spaces will get more appreciation in the future.

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