The invaluable ability to forecast the future is something made easier by time and age for urbanist Mia Lehrer, president and founder of Studio-MLA, one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms.
Lehrer’s longevity in her field is an asset in landscape design, providing the ability to forecast the future in a way that only comes from experience. Unlike constructing a building, a natural landscape is ever-changing. “We have to look at each project not just through the lens of what works today, but what will look good in 10, 20, 30 years,” says Lehrer, who at 65 is doing some of her most ambitious projects to date.
“”Sometimes nature has its way. Some things grow faster than others. Some things have pests. Some things die. With time, you know scale, you know what works and what doesn’t work.”
The Force of Nature
Fiercely intelligent, Lehrer is passionate about the power of landscape design to enhance the livability of urban environments, connect people to nature, and create meaningful spaces for recreation, reflection and exploration. “The operative words for me are empathy and inclusion.” She firmly believes there is a huge responsibility that comes with changing the environment, and that there is no place for “single-purpose” thinking.
“You can’t design freeways and channel rivers without understanding the consequences,” she says. “Everything interacts, and it’s all part of a system.”
Her firm is known for the design and implementation of ambitious public- and private-sector projects, including complex mixed-use developments, urban revitalization initiatives, and neighborhood and regional parks. Over the past four decades, Lehrer and her projects have amassed a long list of national and regional awards. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the US Commission of Fine Arts and last year, the Los Angeles Beautification Team honored Mia Lehrer with the Environmental Leadership Award alongside LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“I make places and spaces, unleashing the energy of the place through the profession of urbanism and landscape architecture,” she says. With urban ecology “You actually bring in nature to a city.”
The Hand vs the Computer
Studio-MLA is housed in a cavernous industrial building on an underused portion of land along the train tracks and the LA River in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. On the day we visited, the 40 landscape architects, urban designers, community advocates, botanists and ecologists were hard at work on their computers.
Although much of the firm’s work is done digitally, Lehrer still prefers to start her projects with hand drawings to get the initial concepts across. She believes computers can’t replicate the same understanding of site planning, space making and the ability to make changes quickly while on a job site.
“[A computer] may be faster, but it doesn’t have the same feeling,” she says. “Just a few weeks ago, I was working on a project and we were at an impasse with the architect because the drawings didn’t express the level of detail that we needed to be at. With hand drawings, some of those nuances can be generated faster. You’re forced to put it down, pick it up and really think about it.”
Early Bond with Nature
A native of Latin America who speaks six languages, Lehrer says her upbringing in El Salvador shaped her passion for community participation and respect for the landscape. Every weekend, her family explored the country’s volcanos, beaches and tropical forests.
Lehrer’s family passed on a sense of social responsibility and global stewardship. Her father founded a land conservation and youth camping program aimed at helping disadvantaged youth. Her mother started a microlending program for women in the 1960s. R. Sargent Shriver rented a house next door when he was director of the Peace Corps.
“There was a sense of giving back and healing the earth, which I really absorbed with my family,” says Lehrer.
Lehrer traveled to the United States to attend Tufts University with plans to study international relations. She was introduced to landscape architecture through a retrospective of Frederick Law Olmsted’s work — the creator of New York’s Central Park. She earned her Master of Landscape Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, and moved to Los Angeles with her husband, architect Michael Lehrer.
From Celebrity Gardens to Public Parks
At 28, she got her start designing residential gardens for celebrities, “working with people doing amazing movies who had a vision.” During this time, she established the methodology she would later use on larger, more complex projects.
As Lehrer’s practice and her family grew, she led community initiatives to improve the local schools and volunteered with her children to help the local environment. It was at the annual La Gran Limpieza river cleanup, hosted by Friends of the Los Angeles River, that she met Lewis MacAdams. Lehrer eventually helped MacAdams realize his dream of making the river accessible to all.
One of her first public projects was Vista Hermosa Natural Park. Completed in 2008, Vista Hermosa was the first new public park in downtown Los Angeles in more than 100 years. The 10-acre “Window to the Mountains” in urban Los Angeles includes an informal grotto, an adventure play area, a system of trails, picnic areas, an open meadow, and sports field. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority uses the park to teach community members and area children about the native Southern California landscape.
Over the years, Lehrer has worked with some of the biggest names in architecture: Rem Koolhaas, Herzog de Meuron, Frank Gehry. She also has teamed up with her husband Michael Lehrer on projects, including a renovation and addition to the historic Tolman/Bacher House on the Caltech campus.
While most of Lehrer’s projects are in Los Angeles, she believes their impact is felt around the world. “If you can fix things in LA, you can fix things in other places as well.”
She has no plans to retire anytime soon. Her friend and peer Cornelia Oberlander, Canada’s 97-year-old doyenne of landscape architecture, is still working. Although she hopes to be retired at that age, Lehrer says she’s more content than she’s ever been. “I’m in a place where the types of projects we engage in are pretty spectacular.”
“I’m at a place that I can decide that if we’re going to do a big [planning session], it can only be done after 3 p.m., and it has to be done with wine and cheese,” she says. “There will be inspiration moments along the way to make magic happen.”
A Sampling of Studio-MLA’s Projects:
The non-profit museum taking shape in LA’s Exposition Park will celebrate the power of visual storytelling in a setting focused on narrative painting, illustration, photography, film, animation and digital art. Funded by a gift of the Lucas family, the project is transforming a series of asphalt parking lots into a 300,000-square-foot museum surrounded by 11 acres of new park land and gardens designed by Studio-MLA. The project will have a fifth-floor terrace with a meadow of native plants. The surrounding acreage will play with elevation and try to tell a story about California’s natural development, she said. “We’re going up 80 feet in a series of gardens, with places to sit and trees from the different topographic areas,” Lehrer told Los Angeles Downtown News. “It’s everything from the ocean up to the mountains.”
First and Broadway Civic Center Park will turn a 2-acre, long-vacant, fenced-off lot next to LA’s City Hall into a public park. Working with Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), cofounded by architect Rem Koolhaas, Studio-MLA will feature a lushly planted grove of mature oak and sycamore trees with a split-level restaurant and sculpted shade canopies. A collection of shaded outdoor rooms for small group gatherings will be created for food fairs, art installations and other community events. The park will celebrate Southern California’s landscape heritage.
This master plan is considered a milestone achievement for Los Angeles, bringing together diverse stakeholders to support the revitalization of 32 miles of a concrete-lined channelized river into public green space in the heart of one of America’s densest cities. “It’s basically a gash, socially and economically,” says Lehrer. “It’s an area where nature has conquered concrete.” The plan outlines a framework to revitalize the river into a multi-purpose system that restores habitat, connects neighborhoods with public greenways and improves the river’s flood capacity and water quality. “In 10 years, we’ll see a series of terraces that allow people to get down to the river, with shady banks, where people can bike and run and work. It’s a completely new way of thinking of a river’s edge.”
Located within historic Exposition Park and designed by Gensler, the new Banc of California Stadium is home to the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), the city’s Major League Soccer team. Studio-MLA led the design of the site by exploring the historic context of Exposition Park and the Memorial Coliseum, providing a connection between this urban park and the surrounding neighborhood through promenades, flexible plazas, and gardens.