Master Landscape Architecture (GSD / UPenn / Cornell / Berkeley / RISD / UVA)


Hi All,

I'm an international student considering the following US programs for a Master in Landscape Architecture - 1 AP or similar (these are in order of preference)

1. Harvard GSD

2. UPenn

3. Cornell

4. UC Berkeley


6. UVirginia

I'd appreciate input on any of the above, but particularly 3 - 6, as both the GSD and UPenn are generous with their provision of information online. 

Some context: I have a 5 year professional BArch degree. Harvard is my first choice as I have been following the work of Teresa Galí Izard there quite closely. I recently co-founded a research and design practice: and much of our work which is funded by the local national Arts Council explores themes that I have seen Teresa work on at both UVirginia and the GSD. She has (sadly) moved to the ETH where they are starting a new program and I will be applying there if I am not happy with my US options, but it will require me to up my German standard quite considerably. Regardless, much of the work taking place at the GSD relating to land, food and nonhuman animals aligns very closely with my own research interests. Of course, UPenn is a close second in this regard, and I have been following their work at the McHarg Centre quite closely, particularly their research for the 2100 project.

I'd appreciate comments on GSD and UPenn nonetheless, but I'd like to get a much better idea of the others. Cornell appears to have a good reputation and the fact that it is embedded in a college of agriculture and life sciences makes it appealing in terms of my own interests. But there is very limited availability of information online, and from the limited student work I have seen, the quality doesn't seem as strong as the GSD or Penn. UC Berkeley has many notable graduates, but am I wrong to think the curriculum is a bit conservative?

RISD appeals to me because it is a strong design school, but I am primarily interested in embedding the logic of living systems into my design process. I fear that there may be too much of a focus on the liberal arts in this program.

Finally UVirginia seems like a very strong school but I would have to complete the degree in 2.5 years, as opposed to 2 years elsewhere.

Looking forward to hearing anyone's thoughts, on any of the above.

May 19, 20 1:15 pm

You haven’t specified what your research and work is about- which would help a great deal. The GSD could cover much of what your interests are, layered with the blanket of the GSD (for better or worse depending on your agenda).  

Penn could accomplish similar, but they are busy updating their McHargian legacy thanks to the newish department chair and some wrk from energized younger faculty.

Cornell has some interesting faculty and offers a strong horticultural foundation, and embraces the more technical aspect of core to the mission of the program. That said, there are some strong designers and an interest in representation. The big benefit is the program is small, 15-20 per class. You’re easily seen by the faculty if you want to become a presence (for good or for bad).

I’d echo the some of those same qualities for UVa. Smaller cohort sizes, and some level of closer connections with faculty. Things to keep in mind- Beth Meyer is fabulous as is Julie Bargmann. Added are Brad Cantrell and Brian Davis, adding novel technical approaches. TBH the more I think about that faculty, the more I’d say don’t rank them so low. Lot’s of legacy/depth and innovation.

May 19, 20 6:18 pm  · 
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Hi Marc, thanks for your comments.

I started a research and design practice just over a year ago to explore methods of expanding the practice of the architect beyond building professional, this is within the context of the dual climate and biodiversity crises.

The practice is in its early days, but the primary motivation of our work is to find ways of intervening in the world; to forefront experts in the bio and life sciences to collaboratively shift environments out of destructive scenarios. We consider our role as mediators, and we wish to find meaningful ways of facilitating these individuals. This might sound naive, but there are so many capable people in the world of science who don't have the platform to practically apply their knowledge in a very productive way. Often they are forced back into academia, or work for years as consultants. We're working closely with an ecologist/botanist at the moment (s sort of mentorship) to explore ways of embedding the logic of living systems into our own practice, and to discover what such a collaboration could produce. It's important to note that we also consider the work we want to do as cultural production - as a form of art - and we're very interested in critiquing ideas of environmental aesthetics.

Our first commission is small: it's an architectural intervention in a town that aims to communicate through feeling and experience: the complexity surrounding biodiversity loss and the role of humans in this process. After the installation comes down we will be designing a Maintenance Plan for a section of the town with the community, in order to facilitate more exuberant environments for wildlife. Environmental aesthetics is also important here, as we are trying to explore what a shared environment between humans and nonhuman animals might look like.

On that last bit, I'm also working on a research project which explores environmental empathy through the framework of human and nonhuman animal relationships. This is really key to my interests and an area that I think needs to be addressed quite urgently in order to effectively find solutions to environmental problems. Other areas we are working on include food systems, the distributed agency of the soil and grass, and novel drawing methods for communicating our research.

I should note that my background up until a year ago was very solidly: building professional. I worked in very good quality design based practices. The sort of places where you walk through the door and building is an art. I absolutely loved it, but the disregard towards environmental issues really concerned me. All of this still interests me and I am fascinated by visual culture: but I'm interested in exploring this with regard to agency.

That was very long, but listing my interests may not have communicated where I'm coming from as clearly. I hope this answered your question, and well done if you managed to get to the end of it.

May 20, 20 6:22 am  · 

Hi Ando,

I too have an architecture background and just applied to MLA programs at most of the schools you listed for Fall 2020. It ended up coming down to Penn and the GSD. Ultimately I chose Penn for a myriad of reasons but it truly was the hardest 'easy decision' of my life.

Of your list I applied to Penn, GSD, Berkeley and RISD, and can give you my brief positive impressions of each.


I found that Penn's strongest attributes had to do with its faculty. The faculty list is slightly smaller than Harvard's, but the faculty as a group seems very cohesive with a diversity of interests. Penn right now sounds like an empowering community where students can frame their own agenda within the context of the program.


I found that Harvard's strongest attributes had to do with its student culture. The students are exceptionally engaged and able to advocate for their work with great vigor. The faculty list is diverse and consists of several leaders in the field. Harvard seemed like a big community where individuals can find their advocate with the right amount of networking.


RISD really emphasizes the idea of making and doing in all their programs. The MLA program has less of an agenda than Penn or GSD, the faculty seemed more student focused than research focused, and they allow their students to explore their own agendas. Those individual agendas range a lot in quality and intensity, but if you are driven it sounded like a good place to explore your own process.


Berkeley is a little harder for me to talk about, I was never able to break through the UC wall, and get an understanding of the program beyond what's on the website. That said the program has a strong list of faculty. The program has two focus areas, urban or ecology, from your interests it sounds like the ecology focus could be a good fit. Berkeley sounded like the place to go if you wanted to write policy and be socially active in design. 

I didn't apply to Cornell (didn't want to live in Ithaca) or UVA. But both programs are highly ranked here in the US. UVA would be my preference of those two.

If you want to chat further feel free to email me. Good luck!

May 20, 20 4:11 pm  · 
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Hi O/S/O,

Thanks for your thoughts. It's great to hear that you're heading to Penn: it seems like a fascinating place to explore the discipline and I'm sure you'll have a great few years there.

I may write to you in the next few months to see how you're getting on if that's alright with, you once I'm further into the process. I would like to hear what other schools you applied to in the mean time though.


May 21, 20 6:47 am  · 

Certainly, I applied to UT Austin as well. My impression of their program was that the while the school is fairly regional and small in size, the faculty are very well respected and engaged in current theory. It sounded like students will definitely get the attention they need their, and of course Austin is a great place to live.

Oh one thing to say about RISD is that they are connected to Brown. While I am not sure about Brown's science programs, RISD's curriculum does offer more flexibility than other schools to take classes outside the core curriculum and you can focus that time at Brown.

May 21, 20 11:09 am  · 
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I’ve edited your comments to what I understood as the core below. Correct me if I’m off:

“The practice is in its early days, but the primary motivation of our work is to find ways of intervening in the world; to forefront experts in the bio and life sciences to collaboratively shift environments out of destructive scenarios. We consider our role as mediators, and we wish to find meaningful ways of facilitating these individuals. This might sound naive, but there are so many capable people in the world of science who don't have the platform to practically apply their knowledge in a very productive way. It's important to note that we also consider the work we want to do as cultural production - as a form of art - and we're very interested in critiquing ideas of environmental aesthetics. “

Still the questions of how comes to mind. Each of these programs offers you a different form of working. I’ll reference the program I mentioned: 

The GSD would allow you to theorize and fetishize the criticism of Landscape and engagement. 

Penn’s McHarg center would provide opportunities to think about people and place across multiple scales, including exploration of how to create opportunities for landscape as a form of social/political leadership.

Cornell would provide you with opportunities to participate in community engagement directly through service learning opportunities.

UVa also has some public engagement, but also has some interesting mapping and technological explorations present in the program.

Finally, in all of these you’re have to have to go out and find the scientists. Eg. Cornell’s situation in the AG school gives you primary access to people in horticulture. The remainder of the College doesn’t have as clear an interaction. Incidentally, this call into question why RISD is so high on the list...

May 20, 20 6:35 pm  · 
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Hi Marc,

I find your comment about theorising and fetishising at the GSD quite interesting: do you not think that there are examples in the school of an interest in the practical application of knowledge? 

Your comments about Penn are useful, and I can sense the potential of the McHarg centre which seems incredibly ambitious; and hopefully effective at contributing to the social and political discourse it is setting out to engage with.

I can certainly see the opportunities to develop my interests within the Cornell college of agriculture - and would value a solid grounding in horticulture - but the school's lack of transparency online worries me sightly. I'm concerned about the quality of work that might result from the department not being part of a design school: in the absence of nuch student work online, I can only speculate. While it may be a USP that the department is embedded within a college of agriculture and life sciences, I wonder might it suffer from a lack of parity across the disciplines: is it regarded as a distinct discipline in the college with specific and unique output? Excuse me as I think out loud.

Your point about RISD is well judged on the science side. My attraction to the school is partly a result of the liberal arts program Nature Culture Sustainability Studies: which explores many contemporary issues in philosophical ethics (such as environmental aesthetics and critical animal studies); interests which are closely embedded into the work I explore. This could provide interesting crossovers.

Am I correct in thinking you are a member of the Stuckeman School? I've been studying the school's symposium document from 2017 on Ecology and Design quite closely. There are some incredible insights in there which I've been finding very useful.

Thanks for all your input Marc. 

May 21, 20 7:10 am  · 

Yes, I’m at the Stuckeman School. Your comment about Cornell are accurate, but in reality is “complicated.” Re: the GSD, one their unstated
missions is to frame the discipline- hence leaning towards more intellectual tendencies. This not to say what they do is irrelevant, but it is a different mode operation.

May 21, 20 8:51 am  · 
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Also- in your view how are environmental *aesthetics * helpful to a public?

May 21, 20 8:57 am  · 

Thanks for comments on the GSD. 

Environmental aesthetics is a relatively new area in philosophy which I find particularly useful in terms of conceptualising how we might begin to rethink the world around us. Sight is fundamental to how we (as humans) experience our place in the world. But our perception of the environment is significantly coloured by cultural production, particularly with the emergence of landscape painting (both pre and post the 'picturesque'). But the condition of environmental systems are - of course - independent of our perception of them. There is a lot of interesting intellectual opportunities for exploration here.

On a very practical - and basic - level however, we are currently working with a community to explore how certain areas in their town can be less rigorously managed: to allow space for wildlife to thrive. This is very hard to convince people of because the beliefs 'lawns are a public amenity' and 'public land is for public (human) good' is held by the large majority of the population, even if they have never thought about it. Trying to negotiate a space for both humans and nonhumans in the world requires exploring what other opportunities might look like. 

I think it will turn out that there are lots of opportunities, and that carving space for humans out of an area set aside for wildlife would be significantly more enjoyable. Unfortunately this exploration is on hold for obvious reasons, but look forward to seeing if it produces useful results. I hope that answers your question.

May 21, 20 9:32 am  · 

Maybe so but aesthetics have always been central to the production of western landscape, so to say it's a new niche is only partially accurate- it's more like recently recognized. There's lots to say around this, but do you really think your client base cares enough to listen to you or they would prefer for you to get on the business about dealing with invasives, migrating growing zones, rainfall and runoff, etc. Again, I'm not criticizing, I'm trying to understand who you are really trying to work with, and how you fit yourself on the spectrum of the discipline. Once you start talking about emerging aesthetic niches, it seem you are more suited to the GSD, but they're lean towards the production of critical knowledge versus "real world (eye roll)" client based services. I think the work that you are doing might seem revelatory. 

Good luck with the community engagement. It's not a new problem, but it's always telling when communities knee jerk at ideas revolving around degrowth.

May 21, 20 10:32 am  · 

Hi Marc, thanks for your honest and direct approach,

May 21, 20 10:38 am  · 

Environmental aesthetics is an interest embedded into our practice, primarily concerned with living systems and practical methods of making meaningful contributions. When I refer to it, I am referring to the area of environmental aesthetics in philosophical ethics, which is relatively new and has become popularised by the like of Timothy Morton.

May 21, 20 11:08 am  · 

You've touched on the main reason why I have decided to return to university. Determining who the client is and how to develop a critically engaged practice with a meaningful impact requires institutional support. At home, I don't underestimate the difficulty of this in a market economy: but we are seeing interest in our work at the local council level.

These philosophical ideas I've discussed are an intellectual framework of course, and not something I intend on burdening any client with. There's an interesting essay on the McHarg centre website which addresses the lack of conversations in aesthetics around ecological conversation in landscape architecture. I really think practitioners need to address this. Rainfall / runoff / migrating zones all require decisions to be made which have a visual impact on the world around us. Landscape isn't just a science but also cultural production.

I appreciate your suggestion that I may be best suited to the GSD. I will certainly explore it as an option to develop my practice.

May 21, 20 11:16 am  · 
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