Jennifer Brooke was first attracted to landscape design as an undergraduate architecture student at the Parsons School of Design in New York. The founder and principal of Massachusetts-based Lemon Brooke, a firm she and husband Christian Lemon jointly direct, Brooke says the performative aspects of landscape design, akin to dance in its ephemeral movement and variability, is what originally drew her to the practice. Inspired by professor Janis Hall and the subtle designs of A.E. Bye, she is fascinated by the way sunlight, wind, and seasonal change give control of “the exquisite form” to nature’s hand.
After earning her Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Brooke went on to work in the offices of acclaimed landscape architects Martha Schwartz and Peter Walker. In 2002, she became a tenure-track professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning—the first professor the school had hired in ten years, and the first female professor in the century-old department to take maternity leave.
Combining Brooke’s strengths in natural materials and human-scaled design with her husband’s bird’s eye perspective as an urban planner, Lemon Brooke opened in 2005, as a consolidated effort to create meaningful, accessible landscapes. Plainspoken and unconstrained, the firm’s wide-ranging portfolio includes urban plazas, corporate and university campuses, sculpture gardens, private residences and estates, resorts and community land plans. We recently spoke with Brooke to learn more about her design approach, her family, and the need for an improved accessibility standard.
How would you describe your design approach?
There are a few threads running though all our work. One is that design is really important. When I say “design,” I mean a couple of different things. To begin with, form. I come from the Parsons background where beautiful shapes and materials are paramount.
We have three children, and our middle child is deaf and blind, and has cerebral palsy. The impact of that on our professional life is very interesting. When you have a family member whose experience of the world only happens at the interface between hand, skin, and the rest of the world, surfaces matter. Contact matters, 4-6” matters. In our personal life, we are surrounded by medical equipment and ugly, accessibility-related objects. It has become an important feature of my work that accessible spaces are designed to be sexy and inviting, and not necessarily advertise “this is a place where disabled people can come.” Regardless of the kind of work we are doing, it’s important that the work maintain an invitation to participate, not because someone is handicapped, but because it’s a cool space to be.
One of our pet peeves, as a couple and design team, is overdesign. When spaces are overdesigned they fail more quickly. If a design is too tricky, if there are too many gymnastics involved, it’s probably not the right solution. If you can’t take care of a space, then why are you designing it? Spaces designed just for photographs are a real pet peeve. We try to keep our designs simple, efficient, and elegant.
How does that minimalist approach manifest in play environments?
We try to create spaces that are not predictive, places where kids and families can reinvent the experience each time they come back. If a space is overdesigned, you’ve already ruined the experience by taking the fun out of it. It’s so prescribed is hard to use the space in a way that might be different or unconventional.
Generally, we work toward hybrid solutions. It used to be that landscape architects and designers were encouraged to go to the catalog for everything. You laid down your carpet in the room and then went to pick out the furniture. That’s not how playgrounds work anymore. They incorporate more greenspace. The model allows for different users and different ways of using the space, and that’s important.
Tell us about your landscape master plan for Discovery Museums in Acton, Massachusetts.
It was the outside component of the museum that had an extremely strong indoor exhibit program. We wanted to complement and reinforce the indoor science program and make sure we were not only addressing the gross motor aspects of being outside, but creating a space that felt like the woods. In addition to the renovation of the museums’ buildings, and a restructured site circulation strategy, the plan includes a treehouse, a dry river bed, outdoor STEM exhibits, a nature-based playscape, a large museum terrace, and several woodland trails.
A big part of the museum’s hiring us was the desire to create a space that almost everyone could use. The worry was that if it met accessibility guidelines no one would use it, but we explained that in our experience when a project is done well that’s just not the case. We worked with Autism Speaks, the Perkins School for the Blind, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Boston’s Children’s Hospital to make it accessible and inclusive, not just for those with physical mobility limitations, but kids on the autism spectrum and those with sensory processing disorders.
Here’s what’s interesting: Kids don’t get to playgrounds or children’s museums by themselves. We need to work for grown-ups, too. Parents, whether those of special needs children or not, trust the museum and playground setting as a place they can enjoy and feel less vulnerable. The horticultural aspects of a project, it’s open space, these are important. Parents may not care about the seed pods kids pick up and pretend are money, but they want a place to sit in the shade. We wanted to create an experience they could extrapolate to another space, maybe a park next to their house, or on a walk. That’s really what the project was about: building a sense of stewardship, of confidence in outdoor environments.
How do you integrate Goric’s equipment into your designs?
Goric’s products are important to our work for several reasons, the main one being the high integrity of the design. The products have an appealing form and, at the same time, can be used by a very wide audience. We don’t have to give up on form to create inclusive designs.
As part of the Discovery Museums landscape master plan, we wanted to address the proprioceptive need we all possess to spin around and get dizzy; to be high or low relative to the ground. A swing on a tree is great in a natural setting at a home residence, but you can’t do that in U.S. playgrounds or museums. The design of the Nest (Basket Swing) let us insert that swinging experience in a way that was not incongruous with the setting—you can pretend you’re a bird or a spaceship.
And because of the way it works, it makes a non-upright body position acceptable. If you have low muscle tone, or a hard time controlling your trunk, there is no social stigma attached to being in a different body position. The same idea is true with the Integration Carousel we used at the Playscape at Ripley, in Concord. There is no spectacle surrounding getting in and out of a wheelchair to use the carousel. When the operation is seamless, there is much more acceptance of those with disabilities.
You’ve expressed excitement about streetscapes designed for digital nomads, and the need for public spaces to go beyond the functional requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Can you tell us about a particular project that excites you, in this regard?
Kathryn Gustafson’s North End Parks in the Rose Kennedy Greenway are a good example. Two features seem straightforward but are quite extraordinary; they take a sense of play and put it in the public environment that is not a playground, per se. One is a fountain designed flush with the pavers on one side, so you can walk right onto it or roll a wheelchair into the grassy lawn next to it. You see this lovely combination of people sitting with their laptops out, nannies with children on blankets, and tourists taking off their shoes and relaxing.
In that same project, there are benches that hang from a trellis overhead and swing ever-so-slightly. You sit on a bench and are following the “rules” of an urban environment, but you can lift your feet up and kick to swing the bench. It’s remarkable how much culture has ingrained ideas about behavior based on spatial form. These are two good examples of how you can add whimsy and functionality to a space, while squidging the lines among a playspace, streetscape, or plaza.