An interview with FIU Landscape Architecture’s chair Roberto Rovira: the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s new VP of leadership
What sparked your interest in landscape architecture and how has that led you to where you are today?
It may be hard to imagine how a former mechanical engineer and US naval officer would eventually find landscape architecture as a career. In the twenty-five years since I began my professional journey in this field, however, I’ve discovered that the path into landscape architecture is rarely a straight line.
After serving in active duty, first sailing the Atlantic on the Chilean tall ship Esmeralda as a liaison officer, and then on the mighty USS Thach in the Pacific, South China Sea, Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf during the tense years of the Desert Storm and Desert Shield conflicts, I finished my military service honorably with a hunger for more culture and education.
I left Japan, where I had been home-ported for three years, forever shaped by its transcendent obsession with detail, form and craft, not knowing exactly what the future would bring. I left the Navy and entered the inactive reserve with an unparalleled appreciation for how a vast and multi-faceted institution could adjust to complexity day in and day out through a commitment to leadership and a focus on its mission.
I thought Paris would offer some clues as to my next chapter, so I made my way across the Eurasian continent on the Trans Siberian Railway, clocking miles and stories and cultivating friendships along the way that I still treasure to this day. I met an Austrian landscape architect on a Norwegian ferry and his description of a field that combined the poetics of space with the natural environment, that required sound technical skills and favored an inclination for the arts, painted an appealing picture that I would pursue through a Masters of Landscape Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) years later.
I arrived for my entrance examination at the Sorbonne in Paris somewhat worse for the wear after several months of journeying across Asia over land, but I was excited about what was next. Although nothing that I studied at the Sorbonne was directly related to a degree in landscape architecture, everything about my time in Paris contributed to what seems now like an inevitable path into the field.
I remember sitting on the well-worn wooden desks of the Institut Océanographique de Paris where I took classes on French philosophers, art and literature, finding it hard not to get distracted by the frescoes of sea creatures and seafarers that decorated its walls. My daily walk would take me through Jardins du Luxembourg where I would often stop at the Medici Fountain and find its forced perspective mesmerizing every time. I wandered through the city at all hours, exploring, listening and absorbing the sites and sounds while discovering the city’s legendary magic in its gardens and its plazas. Place de Vosges in Le Marais district was a favorite; its beautiful proportions framed by leafy trees and the vaulted arcades of surrounding buildings, echoing the sound of silverware and plates being adjusted for lunch. I went there several times a week, never tiring of its simple layout, its gravel paths, its densely shaded edges and sightlines that connected with the red and sand-colored masonry of the adjacent buildings.
Back then, I had no idea that much of the thoughtful design of public spaces that created the romance of the urban experience in a place like Paris was indeed imagined by landscape architects, architects and planners. To this day, I consider the boundaries among these disciplines to be quite loose. Much of my thinking, design sensibilities and practice have been shaped by that perspective. As a field that frames our relationship to the natural world, landscape architecture combines many of my interests while at the same time provokes a sense of wonder about the natural environment as a place to not only discover, but to imagine and shape.
That sense of wonder probably began years prior. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to Venezuela as a teenager, a country I remember fondly as crucially formative to my understanding of the natural world for its raw beauty, biodiversity and profound complexity that is an ongoing inspiration in my work and my research. When we didn’t spend the weekend at my grandfather’s dairy farm on the south coast of Puerto Rico riding horses, climbing trees, negotiating barbed wire fences and learning to drive, we ventured to the center of the island to stay with my maternal grandparents in what seems now like a short distance, but which was then an eternal journey through impossibly steep and narrow mountain roads, past waterfalls and coffee plantations woven in under the forest canopy. The natural world was always a part of my upbringing, but the scale of the island also made the urban experience and the interconnected fabric of its towns an important part of my conception of place, nature, culture and community.
My diverse background has led me to a field that allows me to work and teach in multiple scales, urban contexts, natural environments and locations globally. My research on ecosystem visualization through the EcoAtlas ties my love for technology and my pursuit of elegantly engineered solutions with my reverence and respect for the natural world. While my work as a professional landscape architect allows me to explore the artistic interpretation of space through my art installations, park designs and projects that aim to connect people with place, it is my role as an educator that I feel most empowering. With every generation of students, new dialogues and new conversations emerge that force a rethinking of assumptions as the challenges to society and to the natural environment change and landscape architecture’s role in that dialogue adjusts to its possible future.
What does it mean to you to be elected the LAF VP of leadership? What role does FIU play in this achievement?
My selection as VP of leadership at the Landscape Architecture Foundation gives me an opportunity to contribute to the thought leadership and the conversations that shape practice, academia and industry. As an organization dedicated to the research, scholarship and leadership in the field, LAF brings together leaders, innovators, critical thinkers, makers, builders and industry professionals focused on bringing about positive change through its commitment to sustainable landscape solutions and its support for the development of emerging student leaders and young professionals.
My position as a professional, teacher and administrator at FIU with roots in Latin America and a broad background that didn’t begin in landscape architecture gives me a unique perspective. As the largest Hispanic-serving institution of higher learning in the country and in one of the most climate-challenged and culturally diverse settings in the world, FIU has prepared me to think broadly about what leadership means in this context and how adaptation can become opportunity as we face profound challenges to our communities and our environments everywhere.
What do you plan to accomplish during your term?
During my term, I plan to not only continue to set the standard for LAF’s renowned awards programs (the LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership that recognizes and rewards big ideas in landscape architecture with a $25,000 grant, and the LAF Medal and the LAF Founder’s Award that recognize significant and sustained contributions to the preservation, improvement and enhancement of the environment), but I also plan to build stronger bridges that strengthen academia, industry and practice.
Landscape architecture is uniquely poised to rise to the challenge of our unique moment in history where environment, society, economy and health are most in need of informed and thoughtful leadership. LAF provides a platform to create better leaders by bringing together students, educators, young professionals and industry and practice leaders. I look forward to leveraging my position as VP of Leadership to make our networks between practice, academia and industry more resilient and more complementary.