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t’s fitting that David Rubin chose to open his landscape architecture and urban design studio half a mile from the birthplace of the American experiment.
Residents of, or visitors to, Philadelphia who spend time moving in and out of the spaces he and his team have designed can’t help but sense the powerful currents of history, revolution and rebirth that flow through them.
Rubin is the founder of David Rubin Land Collective. His firm specializes in revitalizing and reimagining public spaces around the world that adhere to the relatively new philosophies of social sustainability and empathy-driven design.
The underappreciated irony of city dwelling is that despite the close physical contact shared by residents of urban areas, people are often so habituated to the particular groove they’ve carved for themselves that they rarely have opportunities to mingle with their anonymous neighbors.
“For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than outside of them, which makes this a fascinating time to work in landscape within those contexts,” Rubin tells me one balmy summer afternoon, as the two of us sit in his modern studio.
“Buildings typically serve a very specific constituency, but everything outside those buildings, and below them and even on top of them, can be accessible to the citizenry more broadly. Landscape is the most equitable design arena, because it’s the most inexpensive way to revitalize cities and has the largest impact on the most people.”
Nestled among eclectic art galleries and a bustling cultural scene, Land Collective’s studio is located in Philadelphia’s Old City District, not far from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted.
Stepping through the studio’s front door and into a small entryway, I immediately notice a floor-to-ceiling display of antique landscaping tools of every imaginable description—Rubin’s personal collection. At first glance the archaic iron and steel curiosities are simultaneously beautiful, fascinating and somewhat intimidating, superficially reminiscent of some particularly menacing medieval torture devices. But upon closer inspection, and with Rubin’s enthusiastic explanation of each tool, the fine craftsmanship of these impressive artifacts becomes apparent.
The entryway transitions into the main workspace, where his team of a dozen employees sit at one long, communal desk. They are surrounded in all directions by walls designed to endure endless pinning and tacking of new ideas for any given project the team is working on.
A former art gallery, the space has a cool, industrial vibe, with giant beams, exposed brick and, dangling about 20 feet up, a mirrored disco ball that Rubin, with a laugh, says on occasion can be jostled to life during a party. But at the moment, soothing jazz plays in the background, and the team is deep in concentration.
Rubin is serious about his craft, but he has an infectious sense of humor and an understanding that a comfortable, fun workspace facilitates creativity. This space captures his personality and work philosophy.
“Life is what happens between buildings,” Rubin says.
“Since a successful space is one that’s well-attended, the success of our design depends on how people engage each other in it, no matter what the scale.”
Rubin has been a recognized star in his field for a while, perhaps most notably as the 2011-2012 recipient of the Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture from the American Academy in Rome—the profession’s highest honor.
The Rome Prize was a turning point in Rubin’s career, not only because of the notoriety it invited, but also because it involved a yearlong fellowship in Italy, during which Rubin collaborated with a variety of talented artisans from across a broad spectrum of disciplines.
“The best part about the Rome Prize is that it gave me the gift of thoughtfulness,” Rubin recalls. “I finally had the time to really think about my craft and to learn from so many different people, and that helped widen my perspective.”
That interdisciplinary perspective defines Rubin’s work. Each of his projects is infused not only with artistic design principles but with elements of sociology, anthropology and history. The spaces he creates reflect the needs of the people who will actually be using them, as opposed to serving as monuments to his ego or vehicles for his personal preferences.
“No matter how beautiful a space looks, if the seating isn’t comfortable, and the features aren’t practical, and it doesn’t inspire people to actually spend time engaging with it, then there’s no point,” Rubin argues.
“I want to make spaces that my grandnieces and grandnephews will continue to use long after I’m gone. Beyond making [a space] functional, we also need to give it social purpose and make sure it addresses the hopes, challenges and character of the community.”
Social sustainability is integrated into every layer of Rubin’s projects. It can mean trying to use builders and contractors from the immediate community, or analyzing demographic and socioeconomic data to ensure the project—whether it’s a park or a revitalized Superfund site—will continue to serve the community for generations to come without creating financial or environmental burdens.
Encouraging public involvement in the early stages of planning is something Land Collective takes seriously and does very well. They aggressively advertise informational sessions, organize civic meetings, spend the time to walk citizens through proposals, and then present the public’s feedback to developers of projects, which often leads to substantive, positive changes.
The early planning also involves extensive collaboration with engineers and other technical consultants. This holistic perspective has made developers realize over the past decade or so that landscape architects are better suited than the more myopic building architects to lead projects. Today, Rubin’s team serves as lead on 60 to 70 percent of its projects. He believes the versatility and mental agility that have proven to be such assets were honed when he was at Conn, where he double majored in fine art and art history with a minor in botany. (Rubin also went to Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he later taught and still serves as a design critic.)
“At Conn, I learned a little bit about a lot of subjects, and the art history classes I took taught me that human beings are more similar than they are different, which is a lesson that still informs everything I do,” Rubin says.
This idea of similarity is a common thread running through his work. He uses the principles of landscape architecture and urban design to create spaces that give birth to ideas.
“Design decisions are made with the desire to create a place in which very different people might come together—a chemistry professor, say, and a young protester. If … they choose to sit next to one another, and in the act of sitting they enter into a conversation, and as a result of that conversation they come up with an idea, and that idea, 10 years down the road, saves the world, then [we] will have been successful … because we created the place in which that idea was formed,” Rubin says.
One of Rubin’s most striking projects is a unique civic space outside the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. About 40 feet wide and 200 feet long, the Lenfest Plaza area was basically a useless alleyway, but it has been transformed, attracting city dwellers who connect at an outside café or sun themselves on one of the many comfortable platforms or benches. The space harnesses the creative energy of the area, drawing visitors into what is known as “Museum Mile.”
Rubin says his favorite image of the entire project is a picture of the finished space showing a couple of young kids relaxing under a bench on a sunny afternoon.
“Here are some kids having fun, using a public bench as a tent,” he says. “It’s the type of unanticipated but wonderful thing you hope to see in my line of work.”
Rubin is currently spending so much time on the road, working on new projects across the country, that he jokes that he has to reintroduce himself to his colleagues when he returns to the studio after a prolonged absence. But he says the excitement and fresh challenges of each new project, and the potentialeach holds, keep him energized. In the end, he simply wants to keep creating spaces for different types of people to interact, collaborate and converse in.
“I’m not smart enough to come up with the idea that will save the world. But I’m smart enough to help connect the people who someday might.”