From the Ground Up
By Debra Spark | Photography Trent Bell
What do you call artists who make beautiful landscapes that also double as deeper physical experiences? Landscape architect Todd Richardson will tell you.
The address is unassuming, tucked behind Saco’s Main Street. The building is a tidy brick one, sitting flush to the sidewalk, a restored period home on a street of homes that haven’t received similar attention. Yet the aesthetic is New England humble. Nothing to suggest that inside is one of the state’s most respected landscape architecture firms, or that its owner is a winner of multiple awards and honors. And yet here they are: Todd Richardson and the members of his firm, Richardson & Associates.
Todd Richardson’s career took off fast—real fast. He won two important design competitions while still a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Surprising, perhaps, given that only a few years earlier he wasn’t even aware that the field of landscape architecture existed. As an undergraduate at the University of Maine in Orono, Richardson took a course in park planning and design. His teacher was a landscape architect named Bill Mitchell. “I got so excited about the assignments,” Richardson recalls. “I kept saying, ‘What is it you call yourself? You get to work and do this?’” At the time, Richardson was interested in the environment, natural resources, and design. Landscape architecture presented the promise of a profession that would engage all these interests. “The creative, analytical, and technical side of it was interesting to me. I liked thinking about how things were made and how they stay together,” he says.
After finishing graduate school, Richardson went to work for Mitchell & Associates in Portland. (By coincidence, his first boss—John Mitchell—had the same last name as his first teacher.) Several important opportunities followed. One was a teaching job at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and the other was the chance to work in the studio of Michael Singer, a sculptor and public artist with an international reputation.
Singer changed Richardson’s sense of the possibilities for his field. “With landscape architecture,” Richardson explains, “you’re doing something for somebody for some purpose or interest. An artist doesn’t necessarily do that. An artist is asked to do art free of other’s needs and rules. I became interested in the question of how you can take design and elevate it to art while still satisfying need—but as an artist would, rather than as a problem solver might.”
This isn’t to say that Richardson imposes his vision on others. “A key part of the project,” he says, “is really listening, understanding what clients’ interests are. I always say that I’m going to come and go, but they are going to have to live there.” Part of what distinguishes Richardson is his desire to collaborate early on in a project. As Richard Bernhard of Bernhard & Priestley Architecture in Rockport notes, “He is very skillful at interfacing with the architect right from the beginning, so in the final product, building and site marry.” Rob Whitten of Whitten Architects in Portland adds that Richardson’s ability to listen and communicate results in “wonderful, sensual landscapes that are just a pleasure to be in.”
Todd Richardson’s projects run the gamut: homes, parks, plazas, recreation areas, college campuses, commercial sites, urban designs, and civic and institutional landscapes. Members of his firm are currently designing the Belfast Harbor Walk and the Biddeford RiverWalk, both multipurpose pathways that run alongside waterways. They are also designing several residential projects, including a New York family retreat that integrates riding trails, ponds, pavilions, and other outdoor spaces.
One of Richardson’s favorite projects—which won the prestigious Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects—was the multiyear creation of a unique outdoor world at a remote lakeside camp. The design included a suspension bridge, a woodland spa, a fire pit, benches, an education garden, waterfront areas, gathering spots, and an intricate trail network that at one point passes under a giant boulder that is illuminated from below at night.
Richardson is drawn to projects that incorporate multiple voices, even if those voices sometimes disagree. Passion interests him, not so apathy, and he’ll take conflicting visions over no vision any day. One project that involved many voices was the Charles J. Loring Jr. Memorial Park on the northern end of Portland’s Eastern Promenade. Loring was an air force pilot and war hero who gave his life to save others during the Korean War. When it came time to develop Loring’s memorial, Richardson’s office organized a writing workshop with community residents as well as Loring family members, city staff, city council members, and the city manager. At one point, participants were asked to write five words that described Loring’s character. These words later appeared on the memorial’s stone posts. Other descriptive words were incorporated into bronze vectors that radiate from a circular grate on the ground. The memorial asks visitors to consider Loring’s death and the meaning of his sacrifice. At night, lights within the well illuminate the space above the grate and transform the message. Rather than being a mere stone and plaque, Loring’s memorial is a physical experience, a landscape that tells a story and serves as a metaphor. With landscape architecture in general, Richardson says, “It’s not the putting more things in the landscape but the relationship between things that creates the experience.”
“One of the things that makes Richardson special is that he teaches one day a week,” says Will Winkelman of Winkelman Architecture in Portland. Since 1992 Richardson has taught at the Landscape Institute, which was previously housed at Harvard University and is now at the Boston Architectural College. “Todd can talk conceptual and abstract about a site in a way that not many can,” Winkelman adds. Perhaps that explains Richardson’s preferred first step with a project: he likes to go to a site, sometimes even before he knows what a client intends, to intuit the property’s unique qualities. “The key,” Richardson says about his initial analysis of a property, “is looking at a site honestly, openly, innocently, if you will, to respect what’s there, to understand what’s there, and to respond to it.” In the end, Richardson doesn’t believe his job is to create pretty landscapes—although he certainly does that—but to make places. “A place reaches a little deeper,” he says. “It involves meaning, memory, and connection.” Richardson’s materials include plants, stone, pergolas, trellises, pavers, boulders, walls, and bridges. He is concerned with light, grading, infrastructure, design, and siting. But, he says, “What I am really doing is creating experiences for people.”