Los Angeles, Wildfires and Adaptive Design: Greg Kochanowski on Creating New Futures

Great design is grounded in adaptive and responsive approaches. Greg Kochanowski is an architect and landscape architect. He believes that equitable design solutions must address key issues such as housing and climate. Greg Kochanowski, Partner and Design Principal at GGA is an active researcher who focuses on creating resilient environments that foster synergies among natural systems, culture and infrastructure.

Greg talks with ArchDaily about his design inspirations, his early thoughts, and his views on the major issues that will shape the future. His background includes urban design, architecture, and landscape. He has played a key role in many projects that have transformed the Los Angeles cultural and environmental fabric.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

Why did your choice to study architecture and structural engineering?

As with everything in life, it was a natural thing that I did. Although I didn’t always know what I wanted, I was curious and more open to learning. I am also a conceptual thinker and artist. After graduating from high school, where I was not the best student, I didn’t know what to do. My stepfather was an architect and I found architecture interesting. But I wasn’t sure where to begin. I decided to go into structural engineering, mainly because it was something that I could do. It was a fun job, I liked the process of figuring things out (I love math), but I soon realized that it wasn’t for me. I needed something more creative. After speaking with others, I started to understand architecture better. I then completed a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture at UCLA and continued on to a Masters.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

You may also be interested to know that I was at UCLA and became more interested in landscapes, especially through a holistic approach to the built environment. This passion has led me to become a licensed landscape architect and has profoundly influenced my work ethic and ideology. The world is a complex web of interconnected systems, from buildings and climate to natural landscapes, racial inequalities to ecosystems. I view it holistically. I am passionate about the interrelationships among all these systems and how synthetically engaging all interdependent systems can improve the quality of life on the planet for all species.

After working at RIOS, you recently joined GGA as Design Partner and Principal. We would love to know more about you and your role at GGA.

GGA has 40 years of experience in creating community-centered projects. In addition to continuing that legacy, I am the Design Principal. My role is to improve and strengthen the design culture in the office to encourage design talent and collaboration, mentor both teams and individuals and to reinforce an ideas and research-based design process.

My 25-years of experience in academia are part of what I have learned in this new role. Teaching is not what I do. It’s part of who I am as both a person, and as a professional. It’s a way of clarifying what you know and communicating that information to others. Sometimes it can lead to realizing how little you know. This opens up new possibilities and allows you to see things in a different way. Teaching is, of course, about ideas. It’s teaching people how to transform those ideas into something that transcends the physical condition and shows a world that is possible. These ideas are reflected in my practice and what I bring into my role at GGA. I encourage people to imagine a world that is possible, ask questions and connect the work to wider conversations to make connections to the world; and listen (really listen) to each person to discover their unique voice. What do they see of the world? How can you make the most of their talents and passions to help others (including yourself) see the world differently?

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

At the start, I created a 100-day strategy. Over the last three months, we have developed a series of initiatives within the office to foster dialogue and individual agency. We have started several initiatives, including bi-weekly Open Design Dialogues and an Outdoor Speaker Series in which thought leaders from all over the country are invited to share their work in an informal setting. A Film Series; Integration Of Enhanced Digital Fabrication into our design process and a Research Program through an office non-profit that was started in early 2020. Other plans are in the works. These include a redesign of the office, our internal design process and the media through which our ideas are communicated.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

It is an exciting time and I look forward to the future.

What have you been working on lately?

Our work encompasses a variety of areas, all of which aim to create inclusive and equitable environments for all people. Our motto is “Doing Good through Great Design”. These are some of the projects I have been working on in recent months:

  • We are a school for intellectually and developmentally disabled people where we research innovative strategies for sensory design, mental health, and other aspects of the human body. This integrated approach between architecture and landscape, interiors, environmental graphics, and architectural design is crucial to engaging the entire sensory and bodily experience. This set of issues and research is completely new to me, and it has opened up my design process as well as preconceptions.
  • Senior housing for people with mental impairments. Also assisted living. The school’s design was inspired by the school. It also incorporates social spaces, which can be used to support individuals or larger groups. This is being done through an integrated approach that combines the tactics and strategies of architecture, landscape, urban planning, and architecture.
  • This affordable housing project of 90 units combines innovative sustainable strategies with the organization and management of landscapes and social spaces. The project is still in Schematic Design but has been selected for a statewide sustainability innovation grant that will fund its continued design and construction.
  • A project in interior design for a client from Higher Education here in LA. The problem is in the basement of a 1960’s brutalist school building. The department’s identity will be established, as well as creating social spaces and classrooms. We also need to integrate natural light. This is a fun project with an inspiring client, program, and building.

How do you think architects will adapt to changing climates, technology and construction?

It is a new world out there. It seems that the issue is not how and how often we will have to adapt. The climatic, technological, economic, cultural, and political structures are constantly changing under our feet. As a designer profession, we need to be able to adapt to this complexity. We are currently discussing information that is outdated, such as the global temperature, population, number of homeless and destitute individuals, voting rights and gender equality. Transformative resilience is a term that refers to fundamentally changing the human relationship with wildfire. It is achieved by accepting the dynamic and constantly changing role of fire within social-ecological systems. This isn’t about solving problems, but rather about changing our professional world view that places adaptation at the core of our profession. It also requires an acceptance that adapting to change is not enough. I apologize if this sounds abstract but the enormity of the problems facing us requires a total rethinking of the professional norms that we keep repeating over and over again.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

This is possible, I believe, by being able to show the value (and importance) of holistic thinking as well as broad-based collaborative processes. While we require disciplinary expertise, as well as technological and conceptual ability that allow for intellectual agility, the current problems demand innovation levels that are impossible to achieve with a single disciplinary orientation. Even within multidisciplinary (now branded transdisciplinary), silos still exist. These practices tend to be independent, but they can provide greater market reach by being under one roof. Even firms that I admire continue to operate in this manner.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

What we need is a complete reformation of the education process that facilitates this holistic thinking and integration with allied professions and voices (Black, Brown, Female, Transgender) The rarified whiteness (mostly male still) of the profession has ignored other forms of intellectual capital and cultural perspectives/sensibilities from populations that are affected the most by the significant global problems we face. The result of this holistic reframing would be young, innovative hybrid practices that incorporate voices and perspectives often left out of the existing frameworks of disciplinary problem solving. We also need to transform our industry. For example, the complex issues of Climate and Housing crises cannot be solved solely by those who are least affected. New thinking is needed that envisions more synthetic, soft, flexible, and culturally integrated approaches. Architecture ecosystems, infrastructural landscapes, architectural ecosystems, and Black & Brown aesthetics & organization structures.

Courtesy of Greg Kochanowski, GGA

You’ve worked as an educator, architect, landscape architect and author. Are there other firms or designers who work across disciplines?

There is so much great work happening ……right now. Some of my favorite people and inspirations are Kate Orff/SCAPE’s environmental ingenuity, Studio Gang’s mixture of innovation, social involvement and research, Olafur Eliasson’s atmospheric brilliance, Agnieszka Kurant’s amazing imaginaries, Snohetta, Sasaki’s integrated practice, Alejandro Aravena’s political consciousness, and Ai Weiwei. I don’t think in singularities or binaries. The people who inspire me the most are those who blur the lines and engage with holistic, synthetic thinking. Humor is essential. Not taking yourself too seriously and being humble can open the door to new ways of thinking. The practices of architecture, landscape, urbanism, policy, environmental science, cultural traditions/histories, engineering, etc, all play a part in shaping the world in which we live and are all sources for inspiration. As individuals, we are connected to one another and the world around us. We are only moments in a larger continuum of consciousness. As such, we have an obligation to recognize this interconnection and live our lives so that we see the potential and power in everyone.

Los Angeles has been home to you for many years. What has Los Angeles done to shape your design approach?

Los Angeles has had an enormous impact on my life. Los Angeles has been home for more than 20 years and is a great place to live. It’s a living laboratory for the future. Social justice, housing inequity and affordability, excessive heat and wildfires and mudslides caused by climate change and the effects of infrastructure and transportation on our urban fabric are all issues LA is currently addressing. My work and design approach are influenced by LA. I adopt what could be described as a “radical speculative pragmatic pragmatism” through which innovation can be realized within the problem itself. This doesn’t mean one must conform to the “this is how things are done”, but it does suggest a Ju-Jitsu style where the constraints are used against the project to produce novelty. As I said in the previous question I believe that communication with the public is key to our future success as a discipline or disciplines. Los Angeles is a city full of storytellers. It has a whole economy that depends on it. The urban myths and fictions about the city have been a hallmark of its existence since its inception. This type of future-making is, I believe, emblematic of my approach towards problem solving and an integral part of the research that I do on wildlands.

Los Angeles’ proximity to wilderness is one of its most unique features. Not wilderness as a metaphor, but real wild-ness — areas largely uninhabited by human civilization. For dramatic effect, media can mythologize and exaggerate earthquakes. They are part of the larger narrative and identity for the city. The diverse expressions of wildness can be found in striking juxtaposition, which highlights the vast ecological and cultural diversity of this vast area. Los Angeles’ proximity to wild environments has a significant impact on how we understand the city’s ecological conditions and the future development of its urban fabric.

The city’s relationship with the natural environment is one of the most memorable expressions and also the most appealing. It is a constantly changing city that is being reshaped by the engineering of its environment. This is done to manage resources (i.e. transportation and extraction) and encourage real estate speculation. These wild spaces include the hillsides of Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains, extreme environments such as Death Valley and Mojave desert, and the fluctuating coasts of the Pacific Ocean. This, along with L.A.’s urban, political and economic framework, contributes to Los Angeles’ perception of its impermanence.

Looking ahead, what ideas do you see that architects and designers should consider?

Housing and the Climate Crisis are two of the most pressing issues in our times. They are increasingly interrelated. The next generation and we are confronted with problems that are unprecedented in scale and impact. Since long, we have been an interconnected global community, with the effects of cultural, political, and economic shifts affecting each of us. But it is now the collective fate for our earth, the home of all living things, that is at stake. We have been the biggest culprits in this problem, but as designers, we hold the keys to creating and illustrating solutions.

The problem is so big and so huge that it is difficult to comprehend. David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Planet is the closest thing to describing the magnitude and scale of the problem we face. The impact on our political, economic and geographical landscapes is immense. As designers, we have the ability to engage complex issues and in collaboration with scientists, policy makers, imagine adaptive futures that solve real problems, improve lives, and create a better environment. These issues require innovation at a level that is not possible with a single discipline. Architecture alone is not capable of solving the complex Climate and Housing crises. Therefore, it is necessary to develop new ways of thinking that are more synthetic and less rigid.

My research on wildfires, debris flows and other issues is my way to explore these issues. This has been my work for 8 years. I have seen the growing impact of the Climate Crisis in Los Angeles. All of the discussions at that time were around sea level rise, but no one was discussing the tremendous impact of the drought-wildfire-debris flow cycle that LA sees on a recurring basis. Ironically, my home and community were destroyed by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, making it a situation where I was actually doing the research. Because I had a particular set of skills, I was in a unique position to assist with the rebuilding. It was a tremendously rewarding experience to be able to help people rebuild their lives. It allowed me to make connections with people in my community I didn’t know before.

As a way to cope with the loss, I plunged headfirst into my research. The Wild was the result of all that research. It attempts to understand the complexity of the Wildland Urban Interface. The book presents facts but also speculates on possible future solutions. It changed me as an individual. I was able to bring together a variety of perspectives and interests on the built environment, which was extremely helpful. My perspective changed when I actually did the research. Instead of seeing climate change as an abstract idea, buried in policy and science, and utopian plans that flew at 50,000 feet, it became a focus on social infrastructure, which has the true impact on people and communities.

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