Feed on

John Sue eventually opened his own practice. circa 1978.

After a short single year of experience on residential gardens, and as a recent graduate, I was unusually fortunate to stumble upon and land  jobs  for some of the most major and certainly the most interesting, unusual Landscape Architectural projects of the time. In 1956, a Landscape Architect’s curriculum did not provide knowledge for the design of Grading and Drainage,  Some fifty years later, in 2009, I still don’t know if current schools provide such training, but if they don’t , they should.

Wet behind the years, a year out of school, I was hired by Ralph Jones, as his sole employee, to prepare construction drawings  for the Sacramento Municipal District Building grounds (SMUD). On the level topography of the Sacramento Valley, Ralph had visualized massive earthwork berms, graded and planted, to visually hide the parking lots, and to create a garden surrounding the outdoor dining areas.

In 1957, I believe, few if any, Landscape Architects, myself included , would have had the expertise to prepare construction drawings for such a design. Shortly, it was apparent that Ralph would not, and could not have provided much help,  He not only did not know how to set up the drawings,for the complex project,  he didn’t have the technical expertise, to prepare the required grading and drainage plans, so important to carry out his concept.

Saving the day, my brother in law, Henry Owyoung, a Cal Trans Civil Engineer  took interest and showed me how to design the storm drainage, to prepare the necessary grading plans for the mounded topography Ralph had envisioned. Struggling for months, I learned and became proficient to draw the contour lines for these plans. The experience proved an invaluable and useful for later projects throughout my later career and practice.

Oakland Kaiser Roof Garden

Kaiser Garden

Kaiser Center Roof Garden, Oakland, CA

After SMUD, I went to work for Osmundson & Staley.  Successfully completing a few projects, Ted Osmundson selected me for the responsibility of preparing the construction drawings for the 4.5 acre Kaiser Roof Garden, at the time, and perhaps even now, the largest roof garden in the USA.

A major challenge was to develop a lightweight soil mix. It’s depth and weight must successfully support plant life, while not exceeding the load limitations of 135 pounds per cubic feet to not collapse the supporting roof. Another challenge was to develop a list of plants able to survive the heat from the garage below. These were uncharted territory, as at the time, there were no prototypical roof gardens, big or small, to be looked at.

Fortunately, we learned, professors at UC Davis had been developing the now famous UC Soil mixes for the nursery trade.  I consulted them, and soon with their help, a successful formula was developed for the nutrients and aggregates to be used at the garden.

As there was no prototypical information available for plants which could be guaranteed to survive the unusual conditions of bottom heat, I simply crossed my fingers, made guesses, to choose those plants I surmised would perhaps do well. Returning over the years, I noted that while the plantings had succeeded, the growth was considerably different from what I had expected.

I feel the success of the garden, derives from the then recently gained  SMUD grading capability, which allowed me to design continuous flowing land forms, visually and aesthetically  knit the garden elements together. As a result, at the garden, one is unaware that soil depth is considerably deeper at the trees, to flow to lesser depths at shrubs and minimal depth for lawns. I am very happy, for both Ralph and Ted, that the early work of an inexperienced recent graduate, proved competent, able to be bidded and successfully completed.

As an employee, I lost no sleep, as at the time, I didn’t realize, or even consider, that my employer’s reputations and liabilities were very much at stake, and subject to ruin.

Gina Owyoung worked at Ribera & Sue... Believe it or Not! circa 1966.

Editor’s Note: John went on to build an exciting practice of his own called Ribera & Sue. John was the conceptualist of the team while Alan Ribera played the sales role. Ribera & Sue specialized in municipal parks and was widely decorated. John even got to go to Washington DC once to receive an award from President Nixon’s wife.

More importantly, Ribera & Sue gave back and helped many family members along including providing space for brother Ed Sue’s early architectural practice and after school jobs for many nieces and nephews.

2 Responses to “A Landscape Architect’s Training and Experience”

  1. sjsue says:

    So we clearly have the design gene in our blood… probably from all those centuries of wading in rice paddies. In his most recent book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out why asians thrive in the American economy–according to him it’s from years of cultivating rice which apparently requires both supreme design and engineering knowledge. Your drainage and soils instincts are like the birds knowing to fly south… we all just do what evolution teaches us… checkout Gladwell’s book, you’ll like his perspectives.

  2. lee McCourry says:

    from my diary
    I was searching for a job in the San Francisco area in the 1960’s…..After being turned down at various Landscape Architect’s offices, I returned to one of them operated by John Sue, Landscape Architect. (of S.F. and Honolulu) He said to me ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have any openings at this time. My spirits dropped. As I walked out of his office, he asked me why I was limping.? I thought if i told him the truth, he would never see me again. I took a breath, and told him the truth, ‘that I had an artificial leg’. He looked at me, did a double take, and without batting an eye said to me ‘can you start Monday morning at 8 a.m.? My spirits went through the roof. To give you an idea how I felt, you can watch this dog running around to the music of Hawaii Five O.

    Hope you enjoy the video.

    Lee McCourry


Leave a Reply