Washington University in St. Louis

Degrees: 3-year MLA, 2-year MLA post prof. (in middle of accreditation) | City: St. Louis, MO | School: Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Date Visited: 10.05.12

Established: Fall 2010
Average Graduate Class Size: 8 – 10
Program Size: 20 – 22
Female to Male Ratio: 9 : 1

Recently launched just two years ago with LAAB accreditation around the corner, the new Master of Landscape Architecture Program at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts has had an impressively strong start and leads the way in the Show Me state as its first landscape architecture program.

With access to resources such as the well-established architecture program at Washington University and the MLA Chair, Dorothée Imbert, a noted scholar and landscape architect from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), WashU’s MLA program has a promising future.

Start of the Program

Washington University at St. Louis is home to some of the oldest design programs in the country; the College of Art was founded in 1879 and the College of Architecture in 1910. In 2005, however, the announcement was made to merge design disciplines into the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, a hub for interdisciplinary programs spread across a series of connected buildings for increased collaboration and discussion amongst the arts.

A few years later, the school approached Professor Dorothée Imbert with a proposal to start the first-ever landscape architecture program in Missouri. I had the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss the program as well as her own interesting geographic background as a result of pursuits in architecture and landscape architecture. Born in France, Dorothée studied architecture and landscape architecture on the west coast in Berkeley, then moved to Harvard in Boston to teach at the GSD for ten years before relocating in the American midwest in St. Louis to chair the new MLA program.

And though WashU’s new MLA program doesn’t have the history of Harvard, there are many advantages to being the new school on the block. Not only can the MLA program learn from the lessons of long-established programs, but it is also much more flexible and receptive to student needs, with professors often asking for feedback about the evolving curriculum structure.

St. Louis

St. Louis was once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., right after New York City. In the 1960s, however, a combination of economic factors and white flight led to the rapid decline of its urban population. But as Imbert puts it, it’s not in as catastrophic a position as Detroit; St. Louis still has hope and, at least, a greater financial edge. The current urban condition of the city with its underused, vacant land also makes for an interesting testing ground for landscape architecture studies and projects.

Another advantage of establishing an MLA in St. Louis is the tight-knit design community. Unlike New York City or San Francisco, ideas are more easily heard and implemented in cities such as St. Louis. Particularly for a city that struggles to revamp its image and attract people back into its urban core, St. Louis becomes a place for innovative design and thought–perfect for a burgeoning landscape architecture program.


Heavily influenced from her experience with the GSD, MLA Chair Dorothée Imbert said that the MLA program will be geared towards developing strong theoretical thinkers, one in which students will be challenged by the question of the landscape architect’s role in our design environment. Rather than taking the antiquated approach of seeing landscape architecture as a sole means to save the earth, the program will focus on negotiating and understanding relationships between man and landscape systems. The program will focus on dealing with existing land uses and its social and ecological demands, ultimately looking at landscape architecture beyond an aesthetic approach. As a result of the theory-heavy approach, MLA candidates take a series of history/theory courses that cover timeframes from prehistoric landscape design to the contemporary.

What I also found interesting was that that a thesis is optional in the MLA program. Rather than making it a requirement, students have the option to either use their final year to develop their thesis or to take on an additional year of studio, often with an interdisciplinary studio option.

St. Louis ASLA Student Chapter

Chartered just last year, the student chapter at WashU has had its hand in an impressive number of extracurricular projects. Laura Barrett, the student chapter president, told me about a variety of projects they’ve been working on as well as their intent to more closely work with the St. Louis city government and communities. For instance, they recently partnered with the local Flora Conservancy to submit a grant proposal for the rehabilitation of a lagoon’s edge condition in Forest Park. They were also involved in this year’s Park(ing) Day, in which they raised awareness about stormwater management. From their description:

“Impervious and paved surfaces, such as roads, parking lots and sidewalks within University City and the City of St. Louis contribute to water quality and quantity problems as well as the urban heat island effect.”

source: WashU student chapter facebook.com

source: WashU student chapter facebook.com

See more on their Facebook Page.


The MLA program offers a series of Representation workshops to teach students digital design tools. Interestingly, the program doesn’t teach Google SketchUp but does focus heavily on animation. Programs that are taught include 3DS Max, Rhino, the Adobe Creative Suite (including Adobe After Effects), AutoCAD, and Quicktime.


Option Studios

In the last year of the MLA program, students are given the opportunity to take an option studio, should they choose not to do a thesis. An option studio is a studio that students sign up to take from a number of studios offered. At the beginning of the semester, professors put on a presentation about their studio. Students then rank their preferred studio and professors try to place students in the studio of their liking. Since these studio presentations are put on by professors of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning backgrounds, these option studios offer an interdisciplinary opportunity for students, so that a landscape architecture student, for instance, could take an urban planning studio course.

Studio Dinners

One of the biggest benefit of a multidisciplinary environment is the sharing of resources. Every semester, a small board of professors reach out to influential architects, landscape architects, designers, and planners and invite them to lecture at the Sam Fox School of Design. The student-run Graduate Architecture Council (GAC) then arrange a post-lecture dinner at a student house where studios of various design disciplines can come together for further conversation. Upcoming lecturers include Dutch urban designer Adriaan Geuze of West8 and American art critic and historian Peter Stutchbury.


Although most studios other than option studios are strictly for students of that respective discipline, there are a number of courses that have a mixture of students from different design backgrounds. Course 317, for instance, is a rigorous, introductory class for both landscape architecture and architecture students. Architecture students are also welcome to sign up for landscape architecture History/Theory courses.

Professional Practice

Students are required to take a 3-credit Professional Practice course with fellow architecture students, in which they visit firms, learn about topics such as contractual documents, insurance, and the procedures for setting up a private practice. The landscape architecture department also arranges a Firm Crawl, where students are bussed around St. Louis to visit various design firms.

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