Andy Cao Lives in a Dream World

Hope Hardesty – LOEBlog’s Los Angeles correspondent while she studies with Michael Maltzan Architecture and Mia Lehrer Associates during the GSD’s spring term – enters Andy Cao’s world and finds herself entranced. She recently interviewed Cao about his thoughts on art and landscape, his time at the GSD (LF ‘11), and a magical project currently underway.

My first semester at the GSD, I struggled to understand how landscape architecture could be art, and vice versa. Almost immediately, a faculty member pointed me in the direction of Cao-Perrot studio, a team of landscape artists who make fantastical installations and environments all over the world--notably a gorgeous installation at the GSD’s Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC.

As I scoured Cao-Perrot’s website, this work momentarily transported me out of reality into a dream world with glistening ephemeral clouds, sparkling weeping trees, whimsical orbs installed in Gothic cathedrals and in French gardens. And that was just from looking at pictures. Being immersed entirely in the world of Cao-Perrot is an experience that cannot be captured from a video or an image. There are fleeting moments in which the sun hits the crystal, the leaves cast a shadow on the ground, and the air catches the leaves as the birds fly overhead that, for a moment, might lead one to believe that art was not meant to be hung on a wall.

Fittingly, it is in the city of Los Angeles, where the real and the imagined have no distinct boundaries, where I find myself able to talk with Andy Cao about his work. On a 75-degree day in January at a coffee shop in Silverlake, we spoke about his most recent and biggest project yet. It’s the 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) expansion of Swarovski’s Kristallwelten in Wattens, Austria, located at the foot of an already surreal backdrop, the Alps.

Andy insists that he would be deceiving if he said he is both an artist and a designer. “I have an image in my head and I’m going to make it with my hands...the minute we think about function or sustainable quality it is not art. I look at this like a medium, just like pen or pencil.” It is this immediacy and closeness to the material that Cao says separates art from landscape. Cao declares, there’s no place like Harvard. “People are really talented... but I think artists are the most resilient. When you have less, you have to eat less. I learned 20 different ways to cook ramen...there’s an art in everything.”

The family-owned Swarovski crystal company has an impressive portfolio of everything from fashion, movies, lighting and binoculars to now crystal-themed worlds in its home country. Cao had been inspired by the Crystal Worlds, one of Austria’s largest attractions, created to commemorate Swarovski’s centennial in 1995, and particularly Andre Heller’s Chambers of Wonder. Cao-Perrot’s project will serve to linking the underground Chambers of Wonder to the expanded exterior area with a “crystalline park.” When it comes to crystal, he is like a kid drawn to the candy store--he wants more crystal, and he lets his imagination run wild.

Cao and his design partner Xavier Perrot assembled a small team, along with the Portland, OR based landscape architecture firm PLACE studio, which for the past 2 years has been faithfully executing the singular vision of the artists.

Cao flies frequently to Austria, ready to get dirty at any moment. “There’s no time for chit-chat,” he said, referring to the efficiency with which he had to create a recent cloud project in Dubai. “We show up ready to work. You get cut, you get scarred--I earn my keep.”

Cao and Perrot have a year and a half to complete the Swarovski project.  “The client’s brief was ‘dream away,’” said Cao, “and it’s a magical site. There’s something about the place that does set you dreaming.” You can see the excitement and pure love for the project in his eyes.

The process for Cao is personal and intuitive--on any given day his emotion might form the personality of the clouds, which, of course, cannot be conveyed in a construction drawing. With a projected one million visitors a year from all over the world, Cao insists that the new park for Swarovski Kristallwelten Expansion will be a singular vision from Cao-Perrot--not designed by committee.

“Why would you want landscape architecture to be art?” he asks. “I’m not just interested in creating a park. I’m interested in a world of dreams.”

Learn more about Cao-Perrot Studio.

Fellowship Year: 2011
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