PROFILE Mohr & Seredin – July 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Darren Setlow
The creativity of nature and the nature of friendship
Great artists rarely come in pairs. It is even rarer when two creative personalities are able to form a symbiotic partnership that not only complements but completes, the strengths of the other. Such relationships are born of mutual respect, so it’s not surprising to see how artists Stephen Mohr and Tatyanna Seredin—whose medium happens to be earth, not paint—shift the spotlight to shine it on the other. It’s what they’ve been doing since the two formed Mohr & Seredin Landscape Architects 18 years ago.
“I’m pretty good by myself,” Seredin says, “but five minutes with Stephen makes anything I’m working on exponentially better.”
“And vice versa,” Mohr chimes in. “I can envision a project’s overview, and come up with that first big gesture, but then Tatyanna fills it all in and gives it substance.”
“Stephen has this way of using words,” Seredin explains, “to build up an idea so that it excites people.”
“But then when it comes to actually figuring out how to execute those ideas,” Mohr interjects with a quiet, self-deprecating laugh, “I always turn to her.”
Today, the Portland-based Mohr & Seredin is one of the most respected landscape-architecture firms in the state. Though the initial business plan was to take on only eight or ten projects a year, Mohr & Seredin has been involved in well over 400 projects—from garden designs to urban planning—since they first hung out their shingle in 1989. The work has included nearly every facet of landscape architecture: countless residential designs, master planning for communities, historic landscape preservation, and several significant cemetery designs, such as the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Augusta. Their work has garnered numerous local, state, and national awards for the firm. “It’s strange,” Mohr says, “because we’ve never aspired to win awards; it’s just always been about doing good work.”
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Mohr traveled to Maine every summer to his grandparent’s home in South Bristol. “I was a summer boy,” he says, “and I had this tremendous affection for Maine.” That fondness for the state, and particularly for its natural landscape, didn’t go unnoticed by Mohr’s grandmother. In fact, years later, as Mohr was meandering through college as a sociology major with a minor in religion, his grandmother told him exactly what he should be doing with his life: landscaping. “She gave me this funny little book called What is a Landscape Architect?,” Mohr says. “I still have it today.” His grandmother died of a heart attack 45 days after giving him the book, and not long after, he heeded the great matriarch’s advice. Mohr buried himself in studies of botany and biology, and eventually earned a degree in landscape architecture from the State University of New York at Syracuse’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. After working briefly in Connecticut, Mohr couldn’t resist the magnetism of Maine. He resettled in Portland and took a job with the then-fledgling Land Use Consultants. Mohr soon became a partner in the firm and watched as its staff swelled from four to nearly 40. By 1986, the year Mohr first met Tatyanna Seredin when he subcontracted her to help on a project in Vermont, his workload was wearing him down and he was ready for a change. For Seredin, the Vermont job was a welcome return to a state that had been very good to her.
Seredin grew up in the western Maine village of Springvale when the now-defunct Nasson College was still in operation and filled the town with a creative energy. Seredin was planning to move straight on to art school after graduation when a senior-year course in drafting kindled an interest in architecture. Seredin’s last-minute decision to attend the Vermont Technical College eventually led to one of the greatest possible opportunities for a young and aspiring landscape architect. At just 19 years old, a recommendation from her professors landed Seredin a job in the Vermont offices of Daniel Kiley, the man widely recognized as the master of modernist American landscape architecture. “There was so much to take in,” she remembers. “I just observed and tried to absorb everything I could.” Seredin eventually left Kiley’s practice to earn her degree in landscape architecture at Cornell University. After school, Seredin returned to Maine, where she worked in several different small firms and took on freelance work, such as the Vermont job with Mohr.
It was during those long hours in the car together on the way to Vermont that Mohr and Seredin began to realize that they might just be kindred spirits. “Right from the beginning,” Mohr says, “it has seemed like no matter the breadth or scope of the project, we’ve had this wonderful interplay of ideas.” The two quickly built the kind of relationship that allowed them to speak to one another with a respectful but blunt frankness. “I remember asking Stephen if he liked the work he was doing,” Seredin recalls, “and he gave me this long, complicated explanation of why his job was good.” Though she hadn’t known him long, Seredin sensed that Mohr was growing discontent with some of the relatively impersonal, large-scale work he was involved in. A few years later, the pair quit their jobs and formed Mohr & Seredin.
While they never managed to keep the workload down to the eight or ten jobs a year they once imagined, their work has become, they both agree, more meaningful. The Deering Oaks ravine rehabilitation in Portland is a good example. Designed as a tribute to Kay Wagenknecht-Harte—a friend, landscape architect, and urban planner for the city who died at 45 after a three-year battle with breast cancer—the ravine exemplifies the Mohr & Seredin approach. The serene, organic paths wander rather than rush toward their destinations. Plantings feel placed by nature rather than by human hands, and the sum of the design is more than its many parts. Mohr & Seredin’s work often bears the stamp of Asian influences in its simplicity and reverence for natural forms. “I’ve always worked through our designs thinking ‘Can we simplify it more?,’” Mohr says. “In other words, how can we get the end result we want by making the fewest moves?”
While their ravine design is now forever a part of Deering Oaks—a 51-acre, circa 1870s park that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was designed in part by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted—the true accomplishment, they feel, is that they were able to honor the life and legacy of a friend. “For us,” Mohr says, “so many of these projects aren’t just ‘projects.’ They’ve become enmeshed into our lives.”
“I think some more than others,” Seredin qualifies.
“Right,” Mohr says, nodding as though that’s exactly what he’d meant, and continuing his point without missing a beat, “I can just remember our projects so vividly, why we placed certain things in certain places, so many of those little details.”
When it’s suggested they will probably have to retire at the same time, both of them laugh. “I certainly wouldn’t want to do this alone,” Seredin says.