“Within a few days of arriving, I found myself setting the seeds, and very quickly roots in a place that was originally a mere two year sojourn.”
Richard Newton, a partner at OLIN, is an architect and landscape architect.
I came to the U.S. to study landscape architecture, an elusive and rather difficult-to-define profession. It might seem somewhat ironic that I should come to study landscape architecture in the U.S. Although it is a country that deeply values its pristine natural landscapes it allowed its suburbs to expand seemingly unconstrained around its towns—further distancing urban dwellers from exposure to a relatively intact nature. Together with a number of other enlightened souls, an environmental awareness emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A passionate and vociferous member of this movement was Ian McHarg, a remarkable Scot who founded the landscape architecture program at Penn. It was a dear friend of mine from my days studying architecture in Manchester, Niall Kirkwood, who convinced me that Penn under Ian was the best place to study landscape.
I had practiced as an architect in London for a decade before embarking on this American journey. I lived in the heart of London, in Soho just behind Piccadilly Circus. To live there I felt I was an inseparable part of the heartbeat of the city.
My fascination with landscape, of living within a place, has many seeds. Some of my early years, from age two to five, were spent living in a caravan in a field just outside Windsor where I played in hedgerows and besides small streams. My mother was born and brought up in the coal mining valleys of South Wales, a landscape denuded by the sheep and the coal industry, which we regularly visited as I grew up. A landscape of constantly spinning pithead wheels flames shooting from chimneys and of aerial catenaries transporting the waste making new hills in the shadow of the old “mountains.” This was entrancing to my young eyes but a place that my mother escaped from as soon as she could. In contrast, my father had been brought up on the flat, wet Lincolnshire fens. Throughout my childhood and until he had his first stroke in his 70s, one of my most enduring memories of my father was of him tending his community garden. His pride in showing me all he had grown, and sharing with me the knowledge he had gained over a lifetime of cultivation, was palpable. I particularly recall the manner in which he thrust his hand into the soil and rubbed it between thumb and fingers to show me its fertility. This was a connection with nature I shall always value and be grateful to him for.
At age 11, I found myself attending a private school on the south coast of England paid for, almost incomprehensibly now, by my local town council. They associated my lack of academic progress with my relatively poor health, attributed to the seasonal allergies in the Thames Valley. Studying within the bracing and relatively pollen-free sea air would be transformative and guarantee academic success they thought. It was in the buildings of that school that I saw the melding of landscape and architecture. The school was built from the soft white chalk and the hard crystalline flint that formed much of the South Downs of Sussex. It was this landscape I sped through during my solitary and contemplative cross-country runs. And over which I flew in small single engine aircraft and gliders, courtesy of my participation in the Combined Cadet Force. Flying was a profoundly moving experience for me. The expansive views of the diverse yet somehow closely related landscape forms, my sense of weightlessness, and the endless curving perspective starkly contrasted with the grounded sense that I experienced on my runs. Both became facets of my designer’s skill that needed to be brought to bear on the challenge of remaking landscape.
The book that started to make sense of all these formative experiences was “A Land” by Jacquetta Hawkes, an archaeologist with the sensibility of a poet. In it, she describes Britain as “a land as much affected by the creations of its poets and painters as by changes of climate and vegetation.” It is a “unity cannot be stated, for it remains always beyond intellectual comprehension.”
So what has this to do emigration? I found leaving behind the rich and diverse landscapes of my upbringing one of the most difficult aspects of moving. I could communicate with friends, but the visceral experience of actually being there was something I found more difficult to replace. The dislocation seemed to break bonds that had evolved over many decades. For me my everyday surroundings were akin to a book I read as poetry, history, fiction and encyclopedia. But more than that it was biography. As such, moving requires a reconstruction, in part, of that past history—but also the rebuilding of a new history.
I arrived then on a hot steamy afternoon in August over two decades ago. I was met at the airport by Ian McHarg and his trusty assistant Lenore, windows open, Ian smoking a cigarette out of the window, and Lenore navigating, it was one of the most hair-raising journeys I had ever experienced. We eventually located Niall’s flat in the streets behind South Street. He had offered to put me up until I found an apartment. Within a week I had attended a party at the firm where I now still work and where I met Shaun whom I married some four years later. Rebuilding a new history within a few days of arriving, I found myself setting the seeds, and very quickly roots in a place that was originally a mere two year sojourn, a sojourn I had planned to better understand where I had come from and to better understand my chosen elusive discipline.
I feel completely torn by two cultures. I was thrity-six when I came here. Coming to the U.S., one had a slight exoticism that makes one stand out as being different. Gradually since I’ve been here, even though I’ve retained friends in Europe and England, the familial connections have disappeared, as my father, mother, and aunt died. No more need to return to fulfill a role in the family—I have not been back in three years. A whole part of me is empty. I listen to the BBC a lot. I feel the need to satisfy a cultural diet.
Looking back it seems to me I could learn from the rather over used words of Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.