WEB EXTRA: “Planting Roots”

Publication Note:  The following text is from a contribution written by Ryan Biles for the Arkansas Times annual publication Block, Street, and Building edited by Daniel Hintz.  The piece, entitled “Planting Roots,” may be read in its original format, along with the contributions of other architects, landscape architects, and planners statewide by clicking the image below.  *Banner image above courtesy of Trae Reed, Provision UAS.


  1.      What is your design philosophy?

I believe that good design has the power impact any community, particularly the overlooked small rural towns in our state.  An Architect should be a leader in the process of a community finding and celebrating its soul.  Author Andy Stanley says, “Leadership is a stewardship- it is temporary, and you are accountable.”  In that role, an Architect and design team must practice with great respect for the current and future users who will experience the environment which they cultivate together.  I recently wrote a column in my hometown newspaper The Lonoke Democrat, which proposed, “The size of our community may be the key to ensuring that [we create] environments of healing and redemption.  In a small community where we all share the same few square miles, we have a very real, unavoidable opportunity to grow closer in relationship with one another.  Our ability for greater influence is magnified.”  

  1.      What are the primary functions of relevant landscape design?

Though my profession is Architecture, I have a great desire to elevate the profession of my colleagues in Landscape Architecture.  I’m particularly mindful that the success of their designs is highly dependent upon context, connection, and material.  While this is common across design fields, I subscribe to the philosophy of practice held by local firm Ecological Design Group, led by Martin Smith and Tanner Weeks.  The Landscape Architects and designers at EDG understand that a relevant, meaningful landscape design will be mindful of its ecological and cultural context.  It respectfully connects the human community to the ecology and cultural backstory specific to that place, and the material of the design will be an extension of its topography, visually enhancing that extension with native plantings and forms.  In that way, the built environment can be crafted in such a way to serve the natural environment, rather than the other way around.

  1.      What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of an Architect’s work is the desire to deeply connect with the needs of a community and client with their design solution.  In all of our listening and immersing ourselves in the culture and context of a client’s vision, there is a persistent inner feeling which genuinely desires that the client will “like” our work, and connect with the solution in the way the design team did.  I am inspired by the approach of my friends at Thrive Center, who are mission-driven graphic designers in Helena.  I have learned from them the exhilaration of making this connection, though it can be difficult to achieve no matter the creative discipline.  I believe when the client’s voice is involved throughout the design process, the solution has a much better chance of resonating. With that resonance comes a greater likelihood the design may stand the test of time.

  1.      What is unique to working in the Delta?

Our family lives in Lonoke, on the edge of the Delta.  I recently concluded my service on the Lonoke Planning and Zoning Commission, where we worked to introduce the concept of Placemaking to our community.  I’m learning that Placemaking in a rural context embodies a promise of redemption for our overlooked locations.  In an area as complex as the Delta, there is a particularly great potential for healing as neighborhoods come together via shared spaces and experiences.  A vibrant conversation is underway in Lonoke in which we are discovering what Planner Victor Dover calls our “local distinctiveness.”  This uniqueness may be found in connecting historic Downtown Lonoke to our gateways and destinations via expanded recreational trails.  Again, I am inspired by Landscape Architect Martin Smith’s work in Wynne and other Delta communities, in which I see potential to consider improvements to our built environment and landscape with a regional perspective.

  1.      How are new technologies informing your craft?

There is an aspect of our practice which has become more efficient with building information modeling (BIM) and other three-dimensional modeling tools.  I feel the most helpful contribution is recent advancements in capturing both natural and artificial light quality via computer-generated deliverables.  The ability to depict a design at different times throughout the day can imply a vibrant district full of activity and engagement and help a community envision new patterns of use.  Even so, I think some designers may now be losing our fascination with the “photorealistic” capabilities of these tools and returning to hand-rendered deliverables which are instead assisted by these modeling technologies.  For example, the capability to model the massing and forms of a neighborhood quickly via computer can provide an underlay for hand-rendered plans, perspectives, and axonometric drawings in which color and texture have a more organic feel, creating an emotional connection with the client’s vision.


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