The first in a series of interviews with landscape industry professionals, we talk to landscape architect Dave Ryan.
In this interview, Dave provides us with an in depth look of his own experiences of becoming a landscape architect, working abroad and the pressures of setting up and managing your own practice.
- What did you do before becoming a landscape architect?
I studied Architectural Technology in Cork RTC. I had my own business for a period providing architectural detailing to a PVC window and Roofing company. I then worked with a roofing and cladding contractor firstly as a Draftsman and later as a Quantity Surveyor.
- Where did you study?
I studied Landscape Architecture in Leeds Metropolitan University. There were no undergraduate course available in Ireland then and I applied to Leeds as it was one of the top Landscape Universities at the time. I really enjoyed my time there. They had a fantastic library and there was a great mix of guest studio tutors to help mentor us.
I had the opportunity to go on an Erasmus exchange to Uppsala, Sweden. It was the first exchange between the universities, and it is a relationship I believe that has continued between the Universities since. Uppsala was great and it was the reason afterwards why I decided to go back to Sweden.
- What made you want to become a landscape architect?
I have always loved Art and Technical Drawing at School. I chose Architectural Technology as the aptitude description ticked most of the boxes for me. Though I felt it was an intermediary choice of study that might potentially lead to something else. I then worked in the construction industry at different jobs but I wasn’t satisfied, my creative talents were not being utilised. I read CAO descriptions of what a Landscape Architect was and I had my eureka moment immediately. I became determined to go back to university at the age of 25, which was a big step for me as I had never heard of anyone as old as 25 going or returning to University at that time.
- What did you do after graduating?
As soon as I had enough money saved I headed to work in Stockholm. I had made a good number of contacts while I was a student in Sweden so I was able to find work with a Landscape Contractor. Suddenly I was working on many of Ulf Nordfjells gardens or gardens for the Royal Family. All the time I learned Swedish in the evenings.
After one year and achieving some level of proficiency with the language my goal was to find work with a Landscape Architectural practice and preferably one where I could work for a few years. I was conscious that my CV was beginning to look a bit disjointed. So I aimed to work with an Engineering company who had a large Landscape Section. I remember writing a few letters and having a good many phone conversations and also calling in a number of times. I think I wore them down in the end. I will always be grateful to the boss there when he said to other members of staff on my first day at work that while Daves Swedish was still poor he would only improve through talking Swedish and so it was, there was very little English spoken from that day on and my Swedish improved steadily. I worked there for 5 years.
Before I decided to return to Ireland, that feeling of adventure had dwindled and unusually for me I began to think of my future and where I wanted to be in later years. So I moved to a new job in Ireland and 2 years later started my own practice.
- Would you recommend working abroad to graduates?
Of course it’s not for everyone, I certainly enjoyed it. Going abroad only opened up opportunities for me. Having 6 year’s experience of working in another country made it very easy for me to find work. Successful Irish companies want to employ open minded, well-travelled and creative staff, in the same vein that modern international companies do.
I am an outgoing and outdoors sort of person and I was big into rowing, so surrounded by water, the Venice of the north, Stockholm, was a great place to live. It was easy to stay in touch with family and friends and many came to visit me. I was only a couple of hours away after all. I never really stopped to think about it too much, for me I simply followed the opportunities that were there.
It’s a pity there is so little work for Landscape Architects in Ireland generally. I think on balance in this economic climate, where there is little work to be had, why not work abroad, particularly if you’ve no other commitments to hold you back, the world is your oyster.
- What can be learned from Sweden? And should it be implemented here in Ireland?
Their culture and politics might be inspirational for us in many ways, there is very much to point towards, the public transport network is fantastic and their pride and support for home-grown products and brands is very strong.
I think the fact that there are many Landscape Architects in positions within Municipal Planning should be inspirational to us, I think it is very appropriate that Landscape Architects work within those roles.
Landscape Architects in the firm I was with, worked very closely with Traffic engineers and it was a relationship that worked very well, so perhaps there is something more that could be done in Ireland to encourage this type of cooperation also.
I think their institute of Architecture joining with Landscape Architecture was a mistake and in my opinion will only lead to a watering down of Landscape Architect’s identity in Sweden.
- What do you feel is the biggest problem facing landscape architecture in Ireland today?
I think the recession is foremost on everyone’s minds and there is no doubt that this is the biggest obstruction for everyone in the construction industry. I suppose an even bigger problem is the lack of interest or creativity in actually doing something about it.
In Sweden the Landscape Architects are busier than ever before. The Swedish government seems to have timed the building of many large public realm projects for recession times in order to support the construction sector.
Other problems that Landscape Architects in Ireland have are still in need of analysis and identification. I spoke only this week to a Building Surveyor who had changed professions 20 years ago from being a Landscape Architect back then and he says the problems are still the same.
Your average man on the street still has never heard of the profession Landscape Architect. There is very little understanding out there in the general public about what we do, and little interest in much of the public sector as well. I don’t see any harm in bringing in some business professionals that might help us identify the problems and help market ourselves better.
- How would you describe work as a self employed landscape architect?
I have enjoyed the challenge, but as this recession wears on it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a positive attitude, when there is little work coming in. I am working hard on marketing myself, and trying to network and meet all kinds of people and will continue to do so. My skills now as a business person are more important than anything else. I have to challenge myself every day.
It is very tough at the minute and if anyone were to try start a business in this climate I would worry that it might only encourage them to desert the profession.
- What advice do you have to current students and recent graduates of landscape architecture?
I would say don’t look at political boundaries as barriers but rather opportunities to experience something new and fresh. For us here in Ireland, Northern Ireland is a very short trip away, then Britain, then anywhere else you fancy, there is work to be had if you fancy going on a bit of an adventure.
Otherwise I would say really try to start thinking outside the box, as a fully qualified Landscape Architect you are qualified to do a whole pile of different work, if there are opportunities within the media, in politics, agriculture, forestry, teaching, travel guides, landscape adventure guide or in some way working with and/or further understanding the landscape in some way shape or form.
- What do you believe lies in store for landscape architecture for the next 10 years?
I think a lot of change lies in store. Already this year the ILI has started 2 new chapters, we now have the opportunity to meet fellow members more often and have continual professional development on our doorsteps. The ILI has this year started to use Linked in and Facebook allowing discussions to take place, where they would never have before.
As a member of the ILI in the Munster chapter we have had the opportunity to decide directly what form CPD is to take. In coming together in local chapters it is hoped that we will also be able to drive change within a broader perspective.
It can only get better, some of my networking and the efforts we are putting into the ILI, and other community work I am doing, all these things will start to pay off, and slowly we will start to turn things around, Fingers crossed or maybe its time to start teaching my kids Swedish (only joking!).
Dave Ryan is an independent consultant with over 12 years of experience as a professional Landscape Architect, and is a corporate member of the Irish Landscape Institute. Dave has built a reputation for providing a quality and affordable service. The company has recently moved offices into the Georgian heart of Limerick City, next to Peoples Park.
Dave Ryan Landscape Architect, 12 Barrington Street, Limerick
Tel: 061 59 0001/ 087 314 52 70