The Real Life of a Landscape Architect: CMG’s Jennifer Ng on Designing With Joy

by Rich Thomas
- Nov 7 2016 - 6 min read
life of a landscape architect header Jennifer Ng
Micke Tong

For most, achieving work-life balance means creating enough of a buffer zone between your personal life and your 9-to-5 grind to remain positive and productive. As a landscape architect at San Francisco–based landscape architecture firm CMG, Jennifer Ng doesn’t just take her work home with her—her work is her home.

That’s because CMG strives to do more than just create innovative public and private spaces for its clients. Through architecture, art, and ecologically minded design, CMG strives to improve the well-being of the communities in which it operates. In this sense, everything should feel like home.

life of a landscape architect Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground
A sketch of the Willie ”Woo Woo” Wong Playground entrance. Courtesy CMG.

Ng is currently working on three major projects—including the renovation of the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground, which strikes an exceptionally strong chord in her as a Chinese-American. The space—located near downtown in one of SF’s most densely populated neighborhoods—currently comprises playground equipment, sports courts, and a clubhouse, and it serves all demographics, from toddlers and teens to senior citizens.

Ng is also an instructor at UC Berkeley Extension, where she teaches both beginning and advanced landscape-architecture courses. It’s a role that complements her life at CMG. Through teaching, she’s learned to better articulate her own opinions and appreciate the learning opportunities that her job presents. “My teaching and practice go hand in hand,” she says. “I don’t think I could provide a relevant connection to the profession if I wasn’t actively growing in that profession.”

On a rainy Sunday in San Francisco, Ng reflects on the life of a landscape architect—which, for her, often means finding joy over frustration.

life of a landscape architect bird’s eye sketch Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground
A bird’s-eye sketch of the Willie ”Woo Woo” Wong Playground. Courtesy CMG.

How have you seen cities and businesses shift how they want public spaces designed?
When I first started at CMG, I began working on a tech campus project. Coming from New York City, it was all new and interesting, and some of the values this client wanted embedded in their landscape design struck me. Since then, I feel like other clients have also taken on these values.

First, there is a commitment to the idea of idiosyncratic space—that the site is unique and that the campus should be special and one-of-a-kind, not because of the design, but because of the design and the people and, more importantly, because of how the people enhance the design.

Second, design is the framework for accrual and change—that the design shouldn’t be a perfect ending to a problem, but rather a starting point for dialogue and habitat and an opportunity for people to take ownership and even possibly change the design over years of being in the space.

life of a landscape architect Hillpoint Park at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco
One of Jennifer Ng’s projects is Hillpoint Park at the Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco. Courtesy CMG.

Third, there must be a reason for being. Don’t design to design, but create space that serves a distinct purpose. The trick with this one is to continue to be elegant, charming, and innovative with your design moves but to not allow the ego of design overpower the purpose.

What are your thoughts on the open workspaces that many companies are adopting? Removing walls helps foster a greater sense of community, but fewer doors mean more interruptions.
CMG is an open studio. Hargreaves [a previous employer] was an open studio. My internships were open studio. My school, Cornell, was an open studio. I’ve only ever known work environments without walls. The principals and the staff are all together in the same space, and no one has a door. It works for the design profession because design is iterative and best when we can bounce ideas off each other and pin up our sketches. Working in isolation gives more opportunity to accidentally fall into a rabbit hole. My response to “fewer doors means more interruptions” is “find bigger headphones.”

What deeper satisfaction do you find in your work, beyond earnings and keeping projects on time and on budget?
I entered landscape architecture because I realized that the moments of joy and my memories of being completely in the moment are the moments when I’m outside. They are the moments when time stands still; poems become a reality; and I think, “There is nothing more in the world that I could want at this moment.” They’re blissful. Success is when I find those feelings in my work—after a great lecture at Extension, a wonderful community meeting, or a particularly hard-to-achieve approval.

life of a landscape architect Golden Gate Overlook at Crissy Field
Another of Jennifer Ng’s three major projects is the Golden Gate Overlook at Crissy Field in San Francisco. Courtesy CMG.

What’s one of the most frustrating parts about your job?
Frustration is just personal insecurity. I think the thing that is hardest about my job is staying connected to the long game or the big picture. Values about home, building community, and joy can be hard to stay connected to when you’re thinking about add services, schedule, team dynamics, a tricky grading problem, a fence detail, or making sure your client feels satisfied with the week’s progress. It can be so easy to take the little things too seriously or get stuck in your head, and it takes interviews like this to remind you of the reason for it all and how all the little victories add up to the great victories.

What would make your job easier?
I don’t want the job to get easier necessarily. If my job is too easy for too long, I’m not operating at the edge of my comfort zone—the edge is where the most growth happens. Landscape architecture as a field is so big, and the projects are all so different; if they all start to blend together—or if you feel like you’ve mastered all the rules of the game—you’re not operating at your full potential. The job should be joyful but not necessarily easy.

When you think about the next 10 years of architectural design, community space, and ecology, what excites you most about what’s ahead? What worries you?
As our tools become more advanced and our programs become “smarter,” clients and cities will demand our projects become more technical earlier in the process. We’ll be required to “figure it all out” earlier, and, as a result, our design ideas will be less fluid, less responsive to the community and to the site, and we will prematurely commit to ideas without having the space to explore and test and draw. The pressure of schedule and getting in the queue for review might shortchange the quality of the idea. But at the same time, these tools are the most exciting part; they can open doors and help us complete designs that were too complicated for us to coordinate before.

Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or other creator/maker.

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