J. Robert Anderson Creating Legacy Projects
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a botanic garden in Austin, Texas with 279 acres of gardens, meadows, and hiking trails and includes nearly 80 acres of research plots. It welcomes 100,000 visitors annually. The center is one of only three gardens nationally emphasizing native plants. The Wildflower Center has continued Mrs. Johnson’s mission to increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes. Architectural design by Overland Partners Inc. of San Antonio created a romantic and captivating ensemble of unique buildings, framed by the native landscape.
History of the Wildflower Center
J. Robert Anderson (JRA) began a long relationship with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the original location in East Austin. At that time, in 1983, the Center employed only one botanist on staff. Bob Anderson organized a group of local landscape architects to lay out the original wildflower plots at the rustic beginning site under the shadow of the KLBJ radio towers.
Lady Bird Johnson and the Wildflower Center Trustees’ vision for the new location began with a tour of an existing project site in Austin. JRA’s design and construction of Schlumberger Well Services (now Concordia University) epitomized the design desired for the new Wildflower Center. The completed Schlumberger Well Services landscape enabled the Trustees and staff to see a project designed in concert with the client’s stated goals of site conservation and a native plant palette.
Design Approach and Construction
Bob Anderson’s involvement began at the programming and master planning stage, and continued through design and construction over a four year period. Leading the Client and design team to an understanding of the land was the first priority. After a thorough understanding of drainage patterns, soils, and existing plant material, the planning and detailed design moved forward, based on the principles of stewardship and designing with the land. Through careful and methodical practices- walking the land before design – the project team was able to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the site, and meet the design challenges the site presented.
Through the design of detention ponds, drainage challenges were resolved and solutions were developed, led by JRA. In collaboration with project civil engineers and City staff, sedimentation/filtration ponds were constructed to fit with the site programming and building design. Restoration of the side slopes of the ponds with site-collected limestone and harvested native plants displayed the natural strength of deep-rooted drought tolerant natives, and their ability to withstand storm water turbulence.
Construction techniques were developed to preserve the soil, plants, and rocks, in order to tell the story of the site. This story includes:
Site protection, enforced through building contract penalties for damage to existing trees and native vegetation, was a key component of the protection program. This stringent approach saved all plants, except for a few Juniper trees in the building footprint.
Pre-construction education meetings with the contractor and subcontractors were required. Local subs were required, in order to avoid “educating” construction workers who were unfamiliar with local landscape and its fragility.
Methods and procedures were established to save and reuse soil, which contained seed and plants; recover and use rocks and boulders for curbing, terracing, pond slope stabilization, garden area sitting, and water features.
Trees and plants were transplanted and moved outside the building footprint area before heavy construction started.
A rainwater catchment system was developed to supply some of the water for irrigation.
An extensive native species list was developed to enable the staff botanists and gardeners to plant native plants on an on-going basis as the planned landscapes were built.
Placemaking and Context
Inspiration - The ensemble of contextually designed buildings, linked with outdoor spaces and native plant compositions in the demonstration gardens, in concert with the backdrop of the award winning building, have established a sense of place that can only be seen and experienced in the Texas Hill Country.
Environmental Sensitivity – Spending time on a site, design team overnight camping, walking the site repeatedly, documenting sun/shade patterns, cataloging the best trees, routing paths and siting the building, and capturing the essence of the place, all led to the creation of seamless and sustainable landscape. The Wildflower Center quickly became a local standard for sustainable design and became one of several case studies from around the country which inspired the future LEED rating system.
Attitude of Care – Saving plants, seeds, stockpiling native soil and on-site rocks for reuse, transplanting large plants (specimen Opuntia and Texas Persimmon) before the major building program began, and instituting safeguards to avoid damage to natural areas are examples of the ‘over-and above’ attitude that characterized the development of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Impact on the Practice
The lessons learned helped JRA gain prominence through their design approach; attention to detail and ability to achieve much with a limited construction budget.
JRA’s extensive role in the landscape construction management included coordination with the environmental consultant, contractors, and collaboration with Wildflower Center staff, leading to oversight of an on-going relationship for the seedling growing program for restoration plantings. Efforts coordinated by JRA reaped donations of more than $25,000 in irrigation system parts and supplies, landscape soils, mulch, plants, and volunteer labor from the local Landscape Contractors Association. Bob Anderson’s dedication to the project inspired the whole team and led to a landscape that is valued locally and has become the example for similar landscapes throughout the country.
Impact on the Public and Profession
It was fun, it was a challenge, and it was a mission to create a native landscape for the Texas Hill Country. From initial meeting through the project’s completion, everyone realized that this project was a game-changer. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center continues to influence peoples’ attitudes about the Texas Hill Country native landscape, to influence real estate development, and make the Wildflower Center a voice of influence nationally and internationally, which would not have been possible at its former location. Now a part of the University of Texas at Austin, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is assured a long and influential existence.