Nathan Elliott didn’t always follow his creative instincts. The principal with the Office of James Burnett in Solana Beach, California, says he went into computer science at Louisiana State University on the model of his brother, but “flubbed out” of the weeder courses. His girlfriend was enrolled in LSU’s landscape architecture program at the time, and observing her path rekindled his fondness for plants as a child. His grandmother had grown camellias; he felt at ease in a garden. Eventually, he found his way to landscape architecture. It was a comfortable marriage of his interests in plants and design.
Today, Elliott leads the design and management of urban parks, corporate headquarters, academic landscapes and mixed-use projects across the United States. Since arriving at the Office of James Burnett, his role has evolved to reflect his passion and aptitude for public speaking, marketing and business development. Some of his notable projects include Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, LeBauer Park in Greensboro, Myriad Botanical Gardens in Oklahoma City, and Northwestern Mutual World Headquarters in Milwaukee. Here, he shares his thoughts on a few of these projects and the importance of persistence and innovation in playground design.
Q: What excites you about working on large-scale projects?
A: The ability to impact so many people’s lives is pretty much what I dreamed of in school. I took a bit of circuitous route to find myself here. I spent time doing hospitality stuff with Newton Landscape Group, which was cool, hotels and spa design, but it affected only a limited amount of people. When I came to the Office of James Burnett, I took over Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, a 15-acre urban park over a freeway that was part of the downtown redevelopment. It was a significant commission for us and the first opportunity I had to do something really far-flung. And it’s been great: On opening weekend, people in the exurbs, 45-60 minutes away were coming because they heard it was cool. Thousands of people were out there, which was really gratifying.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your work with playgrounds? What makes them distinctive?
A: When I started working with playgrounds they were more conventional. Not like pirate ships, but heavy on artificial surfaces, which people have leveled as a criticism. This doesn’t get under my skin. The parks are small, but high impact, open dawn to dusk. At Klyde Warren Park, there is an interactive fountain we developed with the consulting company Jim Garland’s Fluidity Design Consultants. It is super fun, a changing, dynamic experience— Jim is a big kid himself— and it led to a lot of the work that followed.
I always like to create some sort of moment of discovery, surprise, or delight. Water is a great way to do that, and we’ve done multiple water effects—it’s so hot in Dallas in the summer. I live in southern California and people chew my ear, asking, ”How could you use water fountains? It’s irresponsible.” But I think it’s the highest and best use of water resources when you consider the impact and scale. When you water your lawn, you’re benefiting very few. But play environments are more democratic. Kids of varied ethnicity, socio-economic levels, and cultures are coming together to cool off and socialize. It’s cool to watch.
Q: How and where have you incorporated Goric equipment into your designs?
A: Goric has a couple pieces we really love. Their stuff gets away from the pirate ship and castle, it’s more abstract. Some of my favorite pieces are the musical chimes and spinning equipment, equipment that feels like it’s designed but also accessible. The big schism (and big challenge) in playground design is the divide between stuff that is cool and stuff that follows universal design principles. Balancing the two is an important niche that’s not really being filled. But Goric is one of the earliest pioneers.
Q: What contemporary firms do you find most inspiring?
A: I’ve always been a big fan of MVVA (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates). Their combination of wild and natural planting with imagined environments is striking, new, and interesting. Maggie Daley Park in Chicago, for instance. Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, by James Corner Field Operations, is also very well done. The combination of architectural materials and wild natural materials is something I’ve been interested in lately.
Q: What advice do you have for young playground designers?
A: Persistence is a really valuable skill for me, particularly as play environments become the realm of park and recreation departments. It’s tough. We’re sometimes the “Out of Town Design Guy.” A lot of city park’s departments only know one thing or have established procurement cycle or approved vendor lists. You’re trying to put yourself in the others person’s shoes. Public service employees are often maligned. I don’t believe in any of that. Those guys do important work, but they have thin budgets and live in a different ecosystem. You should be trying to understand their goals and concerns, and then challenge them a little. The path of least resistance is to do whatever you’re supposed to. That’s not the way you want to do anything in life.
As a younger person, I didn’t get it. I wanted instant gratification. But sometimes with entrenched ideas, you need to speak common sense, present good arguments, and be empathetic. Design school doesn’t prepare you to sell government employees on cool equipment.
Also, Europe is way ahead of us. Learn what they’re doing. In the US, Robin Moore, the director of the NC State University Natural Learning Initiative, has led a renaissance of the natural experience. It goes back to how I remember playing as a kid. Exploring the woods, running around in ditches, improvising. Designs don’t have to be so explicit. I had a fertile imagination as a kid; I didn’t need a pirate ship to imagine I was a pirate. I think we need to give kids a less literal translation of what the world is and allow them to fill in the blanks more liberally.