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A landscape can help nurture the imagination.
Howie Supnik’s office is cozy and bright. He sits at his drafting table with sketches, stacks of mylar and trace, and many books. Beneath his elbows a rendering of trees is carefully shaded in several hues of green, their trunks a rich ochre. Educational degrees and certificates hang on the wall. They are balanced with family photos. One daughter studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. One teenage son drumming in his band Magnolia at The Chameleon Club and other venues. His wife working for an investment advisor in downtown Lancaster, and his dog, a fluffy Chow mix. The sun shines through a window behind him, casting light on the strings of a seafoam green Fender Stratocaster.
A landscape balances form and function.
Frederick Law Olmsted, most famous for designing New York's Central Park, popularized the term landscape architect in America at the end of the 19th century. “Most people think, when you tell them you’re a landscape architect, that you work only with plants. For years, my great aunt would say, ‘Can you come over and prune my shrubs?’” Supnik says landscape architecture is a wide reaching profession that includes anything from urban design and infrastructure to architectural elements, such as pergolas, walls, paving and steps, and then finally plants. “I often joke with my kids that I play with colored pencils all day long” he says with a laugh.
Supnik was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in nearby Framingham. He studied architecture at Oberlin College in Ohio. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Supnik worked briefly for a landscape architect in Santa Monica. “As I learned more about landscape architecture, I thought it was more interesting. Architecture is a constant; landscape changes.” He then received his Master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. After graduate school, he went to work for Hanna/Olin (Robert Hanna and Laurie Olin) in Philadelphia and remained there for sixteen years, through its name changes, now OLIN. “Both Bob and Laurie were trained as architects rather than landscape architects which made it unique and we became well-respected among the architects we collaborated with: Gehry, Eisenman, Pei, Cobb, Freed, Rawn” he says. Olin became his mentor and learned to communicate through his sketches, and Supnik says that’s where he really cut his teeth on large and complex projects such as The Getty Center in Los Angeles, The University of Chicago's Midway Plaisance, Mission Bay in San Francisco, The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and Ellis Island's American Immigrant Wall of Honor.
After sixteen years he decided to open his own office and move to Lancaster where his wife was raised. This allowed him more time to spend with his family and much less traveling for business. The practice has been thriving, except for a difficult hiccup in the big recession of 2008-9, and although he is doing much smaller scale projects, he is more fulfilled and content as he helps clients by guiding them through the design process and lending his visionary skills.
A landscape can harmonize mind and body.
As a musician, Supnik has played drums since he was very young and this gave him a way to express himself and have a more confident voice as a young, introverted soul. Today, music helps him stay creative and think outside the boundaries of a cookie cutter mentality. “I see the same vocabulary in music composition that I see in designing landscapes, terms like repetition, sequence, dynamics, and syncopation. When people walk through a designed space like a public park or plaza or an even a private backyard patio, they don’t always understand why they might feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Part of what I do is help to enlighten people why certain things work better than others…and it does have to do with these terms I mention.”
Supnik is a quiet and calm man, a careful listener who is thoughtfully slow to speak. He advises people to slow down and look at the world around them, and think about how things came to be. He recalls one specific project where his client wanted a creative place for their children to play and explore, rather than a typical swing-set playground: “I proposed placing a series of small stone blocks through their woods. The idea was that their kids would come upon this and imagine and explore.” The child might ask how did these get there or if they were part of a series of something much bigger. This design element incorporated ideas of discovery and mystery—as well as imagination. “It’s all about thought and planning, and thinking outside the box,” he says.
The greatest compliments Supnik receives are when his finished pieces are not even recognized as being designed but more as if they've always existed, much like Olmsted's Central Park, but also on the other extreme, when he is praised for his work of pure invention — becoming pieces of art within the environment. The sunlight in his office begins to wane and silence settles in.