Andy Cao: Incidental Placemaking

During his year in the Loeb Fellowship, Andy Cao immersed himself in “unlearning” in order to advance his approach to his art. His landscape installations, which he calls “Incidental Placemaking,” attracted the notice of John Beardsley, Director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dunbarton Oaks, who recruited him to create a work for the celebrated museum gardens. To learn more about his inspirations and process, Connie Migliazzo recently paid a visit to his studio.

Pulling up to a sandy-colored, ornate building in a part of Los Angeles I’d rarely been, I was curious if I was in the right place. The 1920s facade seemed to stand out in its rapidly modernizing surroundings, yet this eclectic mix of architecture is to me a defining characteristic of Los Angeles, the first thing that sparked my interest in design. Squeezing through the unusually thin iron gate and into an arched hallway, I was greeted by Andy Cao, a 2010-2011 Loeb Fellow who is lucky enough to not only call this beautiful building his studio, but his home.

Andy shares a split-level studio in the building with his marketing director and talented photographer, Stephen Jerrome. The space could distract a design-minded visitor for hours: the walls, stairwells, and bookshelves are covered with anything from a photographic portrait of Stephen printed on sheets of his own journal, to a torn newspaper article from the Art section of the LA Times, to the exhibition catalogue for the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Andy makes a point of not narrowing his scope to just landscape architecture books, finding inspiration in a wide range of media and literature. Particularly interesting is the way Andy blurs the line between landscape architect and artist: he spends a month every winter at the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, WA to perfect his hand at glass making and create pieces that can translate into a landscape setting. Scattered throughout his studio are works from his time at Pilchuck, including handmade square tiles of various patterns as inspiration for future projects.

Since his time at the GSD, Andy has been immersed in the development of several projects around the globe. Immediately following his fellowship, Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, CA invited Cao Perrot Studio to do a new installation on their grounds, while also updating one of their previous installations at the gardens. Currently, Xavier Perrot, Andy’s partner, is working on a series of pollen gardens, one of which will be open at Versailles from this March until the end of the summer, while Andy works on an installation in Beauvais, France to promote tourism with public art and landscape.

Andy also spent the month of March at Dumbarton Oaks, where John Beardsley invited him to install a “cloud terrace” for one year in the only spot in the historic garden he felt was incomplete. Perhaps the most intriguing, and perhaps most controversial, project in front of Cao Perrot Studio is a potential collaboration with a French architect on a park and bridge-turned-museum in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi. The bridge and underlying island have survived several wars and brought together Vietnamese, French, and U.S. histories that this project wishes to highlight. While still only a visionary endeavor, Andy seems excited and passionate about the history, emotion, and creative potential associated with this site.

It is exactly this type of mindful passion that impressed me from the minute I stepped into Andy’s studio. While he claims to be nervous and unsure in high-pressure situations, I see a completely different person when I hear him speak: Andy’s courage and fervor to feel art, move with landscape, and breathe in life is contagious. As a team, Andy and Xavier strive to make spaces where one can dream, beautiful spaces; he says, “For us, it [beautiful] is not a dirty word.” And it is this confidence in design as an emotive medium that comes through in their work of, what they call, “Incidental Placemaking.” He describes this method as such, “Our process (of placemaking) means the work is mindfully constructed, but the end result is seemingly incidental. The finished work doesn’t belong to us, so in the end all we have is the journey.” Andy feels that in his time at the GSD he developed this cohesive understanding of himself and his projects through, ironically, what he calls “unlearning.” Not content with simply taking classes at Harvard, he made a point instead of attending every extra-curricular lecture the GSD had to offer. Through this year of listening to others speak, he in turn learned more about himself and became more confident in his intuitions. Andy left me with these words, “It helps to know less…Our mission is to create Beauty.” How inspiring it is to hear such simple, yet profound words from such an unassuming visionary in our profession.

Connie Migliazzo is a native of Los Angeles, California and currently a Master in Landscape Architecture candidate at the Graduate School of Design, graduating in 2013. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of Virginia, concentrating in Art History and Urban & Environmental Planning, and she has professional experience in landscape architecture and farming.

Photos courtesy of Andy Cao.


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