Van Ryzin: Landscape architect Alisa West weighs sustainability, use


Ironically, there are few trees on the property where landscape architect Alisa West has her office.

Since hanging out her shingle as solo practitioner about a year ago, West has occupied the second floor of an older house-turned-office-cluster on South Lamar Boulevard. A rental storage facility occupies the back half of the property.

It’s a hodge-podge South Austin place — the type that provides affordable office space for all manner of small businesses and yet is at threat of disappearing, likely destined to be replaced by something akin to the slick, mod apartment complex that rises next door.

In many ways Austin’s rapid changes form the core of West’s landscape architecture practice, Westshop Design (www.westshopdesign).

She rattles off a list of issues: urban heat islands, storm water runoff due to increased amounts of impermeable cover, the changing human-to-plant ratio as Austin densifies, shifting climate patterns.

“Drainage alone is a major concern in our area, let alone making things functional, sustainable and beautiful,” she says.

With residential and small-scale commercial projects to her credit and on her drawing board, West’s design style and approach might best be characterized as rooted in the practicalities of environment and climate while striving for a kind of artistically modern elegance that’s mindful of a garden’s greater cultural context and use.

Landscape architecture is not just about the choice and placement of plants. It’s about blending “hardscape versus softscape,” West says — about balancing built structures or elements with plants, trees and ground cover.

She’s transformed a cramped, previously unusable backyard in Clarksville riddled with drainage problems into a calm, shady respite with a limestone patio rimmed by pea gravel and strategically placed drought-tolerant plants to create enclosure from the street.

West revamped another Central Austin backyard, replacing a sport court with a sleek, minimalist fire pit and a vegetable garden contained within concrete planters that double as seating, the planters’ raised height also allowing for back-friendly gardening.

“People want to use their outdoor space in Austin,” West says. “People want a little landscape that they can escape to.”

Growing up in Montana’s big sky country, West was profoundly affected by the scale of the stark open landscape.

“Humans can seem so inconsequential against nature in an environment like that,” West says. “And yet we do have some control over the fate of nature.”

After studying Renaissance literature at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., West spent several years working for architectural design firms in San Francisco, finding herself drawn to green “spaces in between” — the intersection of architecture, landscape and culture.

She landed in Austin to attend the University of Texas’ graduate landscape architecture program, completing a master’s in 2012 and netting a top award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. She’s an active board member in the organization’s Austin chapter.

Though just recently West hired an associate, launching her own firm last year has meant a many-faceted practice.

“I act as site foreman for an hour, accountant for an hour, business manager for an hour,” she says with a laugh. “But then I like to get my hands dirty, too. I’ll yank out weeds at a project site.”

In a more temporary mode, last December West designed and built the holiday window display for the South Austin boutique Moss, opting for a clever visual combination of triangular panels of moss to form a geometric sculpture that elegantly traversed from floor to ceiling.

West’s own yard at the South Austin home she shares with her husband sometimes acts as an occasional laboratory, too.

Rather than demolish and replace her old buckling concrete driveway, West opted to core out holes to create more permeability. She then filled the cored holes with different types of stones or plants to test their durability and hardiness. The result is a comely and subtle grid of texture- or green-filled dots.

Considering Austin’s green spaces in their entirety, West offers the observation that as the premium on public space becomes more weighty with urban densification, perhaps some emphasis on smaller parks or other often overlooked public spaces is warranted.

Improvements to the city’s little “pocket parks” can have a profound impact on their surrounding neighborhoods, she points out.

“It’s the small places where you engage community and bring people out and together,” she says. “I would love to see more attention given to the city’s smaller parks. Or even the in-between spaces.”

The boulevard medians, the odd-shaped over-grown easements along major roads — all ripe for landscape re-consideration, West says.

“Together, the little parks and green spaces create a larger landscape.”



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