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Founder of Bionic Landscape Joins Fall Speaker Series

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Bionic Landscape Founder and Design Director Marcel Wilson. Photo by Nina Tabios.

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to several of the world’s top architects, and the School of Landscape Architecture (LAN) at Academy of Art University is fortunate to know and work closely with so many of them. LAN Director Jeff McLane calls the city “ground zero for landscape architecture,” and over the past few weeks, students have heard a handful of top-notch designers speak at the department’s Fall Speaker Series, one of whom is recognized as “a leader of a new generation of architects.”

Marcel Wilson is the founder and design director of Bionic Landscape, a landscape architecture planning and urban design firm based in San Francisco. Founded in 2009, Wilson said the firm works on a lot of “interesting, challenging projects.” His clients tend to be “ambitious” with difficult sites, places, programs and motives.

“They’re looking for collaborators, for creative partners,” he told the audience at The Cannery on Thursday, Nov. 9. “They need reinvention in some way and that’s the kind of work our office wants to do.”

Bionic was formed when the economy crashed, which Wilson called “a good thing and a bad thing.” Good, because they could organize and establish their mission and purpose; bad, because there weren’t too many real projects to practice on and build their company.

For a firm to “have meaning and be effective,” the Bionic team believed it needed to “attract challenges” and “do work that advances, makes progress in difficult conditions.”

“It’s about a group and an approach to practice,” said Wilson. “There’s a certain assertiveness about it. We believe in optimism and invention and in acting across our boundaries.”

Wilson and his team defined their niche by focusing on how to make their designs environmentally-beneficial. Many projects he shared with the class were based on reusing old infrastructures: In East Lansing, Michigan, Wilson showed the class how transforming a parking garage into a hops farm and park breathed life into a “dead downtown.”

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Marcel Wilson. Photo by Nina Tabios.

For a competition in Chicago, Wilson and his team had to figure out what to do with the foundation of an abandoned high-rise project. Instead of trying to throw another building on top, his idea was to turn it into a steam-ring launcher, that would use the cavity to launch steam into the air as a spectacle: “It was about adaptation or invention from repurposing,” he said.

Unique projects require a unique approach. But there’s no hypothesis or theory without any data. The wealth of information Wilson uses goes way beyond the traditional scientific points that involve geography, topography, etc. By referencing areas regarding economics, tax returns, branding, identity, consumer and pedestrian surveys plus dozens more data types, Wilson believes he can create a more well-rounded case logic that vouches for his ideas and acts as a persuasive tool.

More recent projects – a building for LinkedIn in Mountain View, revitalizing retail in downtown Sunnyvale, bay-fills in India Basin in San Francisco – were more people-focused. For the LinkedIn building, he had to be mindful of air flow; then to give employees an oasis from their workday, a “Tech Deck” sat on the rooftop garden.

For downtown Sunnyvale, Wilson said, “To give something that has real vitality to it, you have to start with the basics,” and turned to the area’s residents to understand the scenarios of what visitors to that center would do every day, plus the differential between “making experiences” versus “buying stuff.” But putting together the puzzle pieces of a concept is only half the work of landscape architecture – the more challenging part is keeping people on board with innovative ideas.

“You have to be crafty and really clever and strategic to keep ideas alive long enough to mature so everyone else can understand them and do them,” he said. “That’s kind of a challenge that’s in communication but it also has a lot to do with your ability to strategize and make something real.”

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A recent project of Wilson's - a "Tech Deck" for LinkedIn in Mountain View. Photo courtesy of Marcel Wilson.

Alex Nowak, a fourth-year LAN student, was impressed and fascinated by the high level of thought, process and execution, and said Wilson’s presentation stood out the most throughout the Fall Speaker Series.

“A lot of the things to mitigate a lot of the solutions was really interesting,” he said. “It’s almost ideal that I work for [Bionic] once I’m done with school.”

“All these situations and the projects that we see and the world in front of us is changing so fast and you can’t operate an old set of assumptions,” Wilson told his student audience. “You look at the new ones and you look at what’s changed and you can find a logic for something different. That’s always exciting, it’s like an Easter egg hunt.”