Landscape Architecture: Marcel Wilson
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Landscape Architecture: Marcel Wilson

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By Jaime Gillin
Landscape architect and urban designer Marcel Wilson describes his practice as “combining things that are made with things that are alive.” Hence the superhuman name of his firm, Bionic, which he defines as “merging organism and machine.”

After eight years leading large public projects at Hargreaves Associates, Wilson broke off to start his own firm in 2007, at age 36. He works on projects at every scale at his studio in San Francisco, from the smallest (a five-foot-wide public stairway in Malibu that threads down to the beach) to the largest (a proposed urban plan for the neglected waterfront in Hunter’s Point and Candlestick Point, San Francisco). "I find it all fascinating," says Wilson. "There’s no scale limit to urbanism."

To lure visitors into an exhibition at San Francisco's Museum of Craft and Design, Wilson strung up solar-powered phosphorus-coated wires, creating a glowing path to the museum's front door.

Unusual for a landscape architect, Wilson regards his projects as problems that can be solved through technological means, both high-tech and low. "Clients describe their needs, and I imagine an invention specific to them," he explains. "Landscape architects often work with the same five materials over and over. I’m interested in a radical expansion of that palette. I’m always looking for new applications completely outside the landscape realm."

For the 700-acre development site at Candlestick Point and Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco, he designed a master plan that seeks to re-create some of the city's lost habitat types, while at the same time improving environmental health, spurring economic development, and creating new open space and habitat.

To that end, when the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design asked him to create an installation for the entry to an exhibition, he employed solar-powered phosphorus-coated wires, a material more frequently used in the movie and special-effects industry, to create a glowing terrain over the existing garden that lured visitors from the sidewalk. And for a competition to design an interim use for the 70-foot-diameter hole in Chicago where a Santiago Calatrava skyscraper will eventually be built, Wilson devised an "urban Old Faithful," using basic plumbing hardware to fashion a machine that lofts rings of steam into the sky. "When you approach a design problem with a wide palette," says Wilson, "you get radical new possibilities."

Marcel Wilson in his studio, surrounded by examples of his recent work.

According to Wilson, the Hunters Point project represents an opportunity to protect and enhance the City’s biological diversity.

Here's Wilson's honorable mention-winning proposal for Chicago's Spire Site, which he envisioned as an "urban Old Faithful" or "unnatural wonder," lofting rings of steam into the air every fifteen minutes.

For a steeply sloping backyard in San Francisco, he devised this all-in-one wooden wall, which provides seating, a fountain that helps block out highway noise, and, at the top of the steps, a lookout point that offers a view on the surrounding neighborhood.

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