Landscape Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design

by Manaka Hataoka

It has been two years since I started my three-year program of landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Since completing the first two years marks a turning point in the program, it is especially an important time for me to pause and reflect. The curriculum of the first two years is mostly dedicated to mandatory courses. In the final year, we will be able to choose studios and seminars based on our own interests.

Following the format of the final report for last year, I decided to write about three concepts, “ecology”, “criticism” and “detail”, that I pondered around over the year and want to carry with me for the coming years.


The first half of the semester, I worked on a salt marsh in Lynn-Saugus MA. The ecological function of the marsh has been disturbed by mosquito channels (hundreds of linear channels were introduced to avoid mosquito spread), and landfill. My proposal aimed to restore the unique ecological function of the salt marsh while re-shaping the relationship between humans and non-humans.

I spent time observing vegetation at the site. I started to notice slight differences in the elevation, which relates to salinity and humidity, creating different plant communities. I also noticed some parts, which were recently “restored” by the removal of the sand, are inhabited by different plants. This led me to study different types of grasses and plant succession at the site and made me wonder how to incorporate these natural forces into design. My proposal was my first attempt to confront and forefront those natural forces in the design.


One of the seminars I took was on the theory of landscape architecture, in which I was intrigued by many visionary projects in the discourse of design. Primarily because of this particular seminar, I started to think about the role of “criticism” in design. Design proposals in academic contexts are not necessarily bound to specific and local issues of the given site. Rather the proposals can address larger and underlying issues. This way of thinking led me to make my salt-marsh project a “criticism” of conventional ecological restoration. I deliberately decided to introduce human activities of harvesting in the process of ecological restoration. I still have conflicted feelings toward the ideological aspects of my project. It, however, gave me a great opportunity to start thinking about “criticism”, and other related terms that often appear in design discourse, such as “critical practice”, “post-critical,” and “projective.”


One seminar I enjoyed was “The Poetics of a Material in Landscape Architecture,” in which we explored materials and making. We looked at many case studies to understand how the materials are used and joined in the landscape. Sensitivities, and probably patience, to look closer and with rigor were gradually cultivated during the course and influenced how I approached the studio I was taking in parallel (my second studio of my second year).

The studio site was situated in Charlestown, MA. The site is mostly urbanized and I started to be intrigued by tree pits. The tree pits at Charlestown are diverse. The pit size, tree species, tree age, materials, and usage are different. I started to see them as ecological, cultural, and sociological microcosmos and decided to rigorously study the tree pits. In my proposal, I wanted to celebrate and argue that individuality exists in cities. My project proposed an incremental transformation scheme for residential streets, as opposed to top-down and authoritarian transformation. I proposed to gradually deconstruct and reconstruct the impervious surfaces of the streets into a series of soil plots that capture stormwater and provide wildlife habitats.

In this Charlestown project, I struggled. I started my project with micro-observation, and, looking back, I admit that I failed to weave my proposal into the urban-scale fabric. I like to keep thinking about ways to think in both detail and large.

Outside the school curriculum, I attended more public lectures than last year. During semesters, GSD invites prominent individuals to give talks. The lectures happen in many ways and almost every day by both GSD faculty and individuals outside GSD. I enjoyed many lectures from landscape architecture and architecture departments, and they have been great sources for me to expand and further develop understanding.

One of the great experiences outside the school was last summer break between my first year and second year. I lived and worked in Brooklyn, NY. Summer break here lasts three to four months, and students typically find full-time internships or go on travel. Living in different places is always exciting for me, and I very much enjoyed the summer in New York. The art museums and galleries in New York are extraordinary and stimulating. I love music/dance performances in public spaces. The summer experience in New York definitely inspired me as a person and would-be designer.

I like to conclude this final report by expressing my sincere gratitude to Ito Foundation U.S.A. and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. Over the past two years, I have had many moments of incredible excitement and frustration. I am grateful for all those valuable experiences and I recognize my tremendous privilege. I will continue my journey to become a fully-fledged landscape architect, and I look forward to contributing back to society in the near future.