Inspired by the Windy City: Notes from BLA Candidate Jacob McGill

Fourth-year LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture students in Professor Lake Douglas’s landscape design studio recently returned from their field trip to Chicago. Led by Associate Professor Kevin Risk, the students toured the Windy City’s abundance of famous landscapes, parks, and architecture. The students were instructed to write about their experience and keep a sketchbook throughout the trip.

Below, Bachelor of Landscape Architecture candidate Jacob McGill, 2017–18 recipient of the James D. Burnett & Ronald G. “Chip” Tragesar Endowed Scholarship, shares his travelogue, sketches, and photos from the studio’s field trip to Chicago.

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Chicago Field Trip 2017
by Jacob McGill, BLA candidate

The fourth-year studio field trip to Chicago was an adventure that I will never forget. After hitting the ground running from the moment our flight landed, the class and I saw non-stop action in the Windy City. Though we may not have been able to cover everything that Chicago has to offer, I do believe that our itinerary allowed for a wide range of experiences and inspiration that can be applied to future projects throughout my career. I believe there is a great deal of brilliance embedded into this city and am enlightened by much of its beautiful urban and suburban landscape, not to mention the amazing weather. Many moments on this trip made an impression on me as a student of landscape architecture. Here I will share my top seven in chronological order.

The Dan Kiley garden next to the Art Institute was the first garden I experienced in Chicago, and definitely one that spoke to me the most. Its users were comprised of tourists and locals alike, even homeless bathing in the water feature. However, it was a superb design with much seating, calm sounds, and plenty of shade. It was a peaceful space, one I could see myself visiting on a day-to-day basis. It was excellent to see the strong formality in the design and how the threshold underneath the canopy drew one into its core. However, what was truly amazing about this garden was the ways the shadows were cast on the ground. I was awed by this subtle detail that felt truly intentional.

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The most talked about park in Chicago, Millennium Park splits the city north and south and stretches along the Michigan lake-front in a grand fashion. I first noticed that it was extremely crowded with people during certain hours, especially towards the start of the weekend. I was really impressed with the capacity that the park could handle. Also, the park’s layout seemed very sectioned and divided, as each part served a different purpose. To me, the most astounding thing to see first-hand was how Millennium Park (and many other parts of the city) sits atop layers of garage, roads, and rails. This shows the history of the Chicago through the literal layers of city leading to how it came to be.

A section within Millennium Park, the Lurie Gardens, made a deep impression on me. This garden is so beautiful and I am extremely interested in this type of full/natural planting technique that provides a sense of exuberance and chaos that matched the city’s characteristics. The garden may have many interpretations, but I believe it reflects on the history of the site relating to the meadow lands that once ravished the natural countryside. It is quite interesting because this garden takes one out of the loud and noisy inner-city setting and provides a sense of peace and serenity from the distant borrowed scenery of the city’s sky-scrapers. I enjoyed it so much that I insisted on walking through the Lurie Garden every time I passed by Millennium Park from then on.

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Growing up a huge Cubs fan, Wrigley Field is one of my all-time favorite places to visit. It is a simply scenic stadium on the inside and out, and there is an inexplicable amount of energy within. It was my third time inside the park, but every time seems to be better than the last. This time the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates, and what better than a Tuesday night win in Wrigley Field? What impressed me most about the park is its priceless amount of history along with its classic design. Every seat in the ballpark has a great view, as the seats are so close to one another. This is why it’s nicknamed the “Friendly Confines.” Looking back, Wrigley Field is always a must-visit while in Chicago. Its simplicity and class are a true inspiration to me as a designer and always reminds me to keep views in mind.

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The Kaneville Tree Farm visit was very educational and enlightened me on the process of supplying trees to large-scale projects. Paul Guzzeta showed the class around his farm of specimen-quality trees, and it was remarkable the amount of preparation and patience it takes to care for trees at that large of a scale. Every tree has its own quality, which the landscape architect will choose based of its form, texture, etc. Furthermore, the technique of harvesting a tree of this size is a phenomenal craft that one must see to believe. I take away from that visit the knowledge of the tree transplantation process and how that could ultimately weigh into a design implementation.

One of the most memorable experiences on this trip came within the Frederick Law Olmsted commissioned Riverside Community in the suburbs of Chicago. However, it was a certain estate within this planned community that really made an impression on me. This estate, the Coonley House, was designed by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is on the National Historical Registry. We were allowed to tour some of the outside areas because the house was recently put on the market. What was amazing to me is that every corner of the house was laid out to be an anxious reveal, and it was so profound to imagine this house being present in the early twentieth century. It was extremely ahead of its time. I take true inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s artistic and innovative approach to design.

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Finally, an experience that I will never forget is staying at the hostel. This stay was unlike anywhere I had ever lodged before, and to be truthful I was a bit skeptical before the trip. After arriving and seeing what hostel-living was all about, I was impressed with the living space and the location. The most impactful thing that I took away was the number of international students staying there. It was refreshing to see and hear so many different lifestyles and cultures. I have very rarely ever spoken with a true foreigner of the United States before. However, after doing so at the hostel, it put into perspective my role in the world and made me really appreciate where I come from. I have the great opportunity to do what I love for the rest of my life and this experience reinforced my belief to be passionate about this opportunity.

The field trip to Chicago made a profound impression on me, providing experiences that will truly last a lifetime. Chicago is a city full of excitement, art, heritage, inspiration, beauty and much more. The one of a kind city thrives on its rich historical presence, strong will, and utter magnificence which one can find much enlightenment through. This trip has had an ever-longing influence on who I am as a designer and the direction I want to pursue with my career. Although Southern at heart, I could actually see myself living in the city one day soon. In all, this field trip taught me that the world is full of opportunities and to capitalize/endure one must persist.