December 4, 2022

Interview with Steven Velegrinis


Steven Velegrinis, director of urban design at Perkins+Will in Dubai, talks to ProLandscaper Gulf about his origins in the industry and the future of landscaping in the region.

What made you want to take up landscape architecture as a career originally?

I didn’t know that I wanted to be a landscape architect from the beginning and it took me a while to realise. My original degree was in urban planning and for the first few years of my career, I worked in local government in Australia. I did my postgraduate degree in heritage conservation, but again it proved to not be what I wanted to do. I ended up working with Tim Biles of urban design consultancy Contour Consultants – Tim was a great mentor in Melbourne. At Contour I worked with landscape architects who were extremely talented urban designers. It was really at that time that I realised it was what I wanted to do, so I went on to study landscape architecture through Lincoln University in New Zealand. I eventually started a PhD in landscape urbanism under the supervision of Professor Richard Weller, the chair of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Richard was my other great mentor and has really inspired my career over the past eight years.

What does your day to day role involve as part of Perkins+Will in the Dubai office?

The full gamut of business and design really. My role encompasses leading urban design, masterplanning and landscape architecture projects, marketing, financial management, business development and also studio leadership roles.

What’s the structure of the business? Can you explain a little about the team you work with?

Perkins+Will is one of the largest architectural design firms in the world with 1,700 staff globally. The company was founded in 1935 in Chicago and we have studios in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America, Canada and the USA. We were honoured to be ranked among Fast Company’s ‘Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Architecture’ this year and also have more LEED accredited professionals than any architecture firm in the world. Our Dubai studio is comprised of 75 staff across the disciplines of architecture, interiors, urban design and landscape architecture. My team is made up of eight staff who are a mix of landscape architects, urban designers and architects. Our driving force is the idea that landscape has a structural role to play in the city and that we need to be at the forefront of planning for resilient cities.

Do you feel that your belief in creating sustainable urban developments led you to work in the Middle East?

In short, yes. When you want to make a significant impact on something, you go to the place that is most in need of your abilities. The Middle East and the GCC in particular have the largest ecological footprints in the world – if you can make sustainable urbanism work here, it can certainly work anywhere.

How do you find ideas and methods differ throughout different countries?

One of the great beauties of landscape architecture is that it is very contextual. However, whether I’m working in the UAE, the Maldives, Turkey or China, the process remains the same. A deep understanding of the environmental and social contexts of our projects is what drives them from the beginning. I am incredibly lucky to have an international team of supremely talented people working with me, and we have become quite accustomed to working in geographically diverse locations.

How different is the landscaping industry as a whole in the Middle East compared to your native Australia?

The primary difference is in craftsmanship. In Australia, landscape contractors all have to go through an apprenticeship system where they study two days and work four days a week for a number of years, and this has led to an extremely high level of skill amongst landscape construction teams. Everyone down to the labourer usually has great domain knowledge and specialist skills. Australia also differs in that the design industry is extremely mature, with a number of world-class schools putting out great designers. It’s a relatively small market because of Australia’s geographic isolation and combined with the number of talented graduates coming out of schools, it means that standards are very high and there is a lot of competition for relatively small jobs.

What type of projects are you working on currently?

We have quite a mix at the moment. The largest project is a landscape urbanism masterplan for the Bogacay Creek Basin in Antalya, Turkey. It is first and foremost a planning project that deals with serious threats of flooding, sea level rise and environmental pollution. We were fortunate enough to present the scheme to President Erdogan and it was also presented before the G20 conference in Turkey as an example of resilient masterplanning. Our role has been to lead the masterplan, architecture and the landscape architecture of the project. Some of the other projects we are working on at the moment include: a masterplan for a resort in the Maldives which makes use of tidal energy and cyclical landscape based water recycling systems to seek a net-zero development; a masterplan and landscape architecture for two integrated tourism complexes in Oman, and landscape architecture for an affordable housing community with a large communal park on a 50 hectare site in Dubai.

Is all the work undertaken in the Middle East office for projects based here?

The vast majority of work is undertaken by our team here. Around 10% of the work is done in collaboration with our offices. We have for example worked with our offices in Atlanta on a project for Emaar and on a hospital in Doha. Usually that happens when we have a need for specific expertise such as in healthcare or transportation.

What do you find the most rewarding part of your job?

Standing for the first time in a place I designed, seeing incredible work put out by my team (I get that a lot), and definitely working with a client who ends up extremely happy with what we’ve done.

What are the biggest challenges you face in the Middle East?

Speed. Everyone is in such a hurry to do things that they are rarely done well. We all too often accept substandard work, poor workmanship, cheaper materials and corner-cutting simply because of the speed that is requested. It would be great to see a project where we are guided by an exemplary design outcome instead.

Why did you decide to teach and is it something you hope to develop in the future?

Teaching is a great passion of mine. I was a full time faculty member for three years in Singapore and the combination of research, teaching and consultancy is a fantastic mix. Added to that you get the benefits of being with a group of energetic young people who are passionate about what they are doing, and you end up meeting the young leaders coming out of each cohort which is a great way to recruit extremely talented people. Four of my staff in recent years were students of mine in Singapore or Sharjah, and they have come to form the most amazing team members. As for whether I’d like to develop it in the future, I would say absolutely. One of my goals is to see a landscape architecture programme in the Gulf and one that is of an incredibly high standard globally. We need to see more ‘local’ landscape architects who have roots here and who will take ownership of the urban landscapes we imagine.

What’s the next big trend in landscaping in the Middle East?

I think a focus on liveable and walkable residential environments will be a significant trend moving forward. I also think that resiliency will attract much greater significance in city planning. By its nature this must involve landscape architects, as the landscape is the medium through which all ecological transactions must pass.

Can you think of one particular favourite project that you’ve been proud to be associated with?

I think it would have to be the Bogacay Creek masterplan. It embodies everything we believe in and is quite simply a fantastic project.

If you could choose your dream project to be involved in, what would this look like and what would it bring to the region in which it was built?

A place that when built is ecologically better than it was before we developed anything. I imagine it to be a resilient, self-sufficient island project incorporating a socially-minded resort and a community for dignified low-cost housing that provides for all its own energy, food, water and building materials. Like most projects I would hope that it simply brings living proof that design can regenerate damaged landscapes in a way that is beautiful and inspirational.

What do you think the future holds for landscaping in the Middle East?

An enormous amount of potential!

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