What inspired you to become a landscape architect and was your educational background directly related to this?
My family house has also been a small lab experiment, I used to constantly plant and design and this has helped know more about gardening, landscaping and design. When I graduated from high school, I immediately applied to the American University of Beirut to study landscape design and when I finally graduated I knew that I had made the right choice of career, since almost all of our modern day problems focus on sustainable environment, garnering ecological solutions and fostering natural and organic development.
Myriam Al Hajj
In your opinion, what are the essential attributes that any landscape architect should possess?
I think that a landscape architect must primarily have great respect for biodiversity, a sense of admiration for ‘mother nature’ and our planet, a sense of wonder and exploration to the natural environment and a great appreciation of the craft. Landscape is an art and a process; one must be patient and possess a will, ability and vision to come up with interesting concepts and designs. Innovation is also an essential quality, since our work demands a great deal of creativity and meticulous detail, therefore when working on little drawings or on huge maps, the quality of work must be coupled with a level of originality and imagination.
What really helps to differentiate one landscape architect from another is an attention to detail, the passion to improve and the constant effort to better the environment and focus on involving nature everywhere in his/her designs.
The Middle East has seen major developments in the landscaping industry over the past few years with major projects in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Now the attention must be turned to sustaining these ‘Green’ landscapes for years to come. How can this be done bearing in mind our environmental responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint and the limited skills of the maintenance workers who are left to preserve the landscapes once the architects have handed over the job?
We should as architects take responsibility of our projects and work, we should not only be interested in the work done for private companies and households, but we should step up and become part of the change that is sweeping our planet. The fact that global warming and the need to go green is becoming hard evidence in our present world, is posing numerous problems but this should not be the sole motivator for us to come up with innovative green and eco-friendly solutions.
The Middle East, known for its deserts and less than friendly hot weather does not help sustain green landscapes, however as technologies move forwards, irrigation technologies have made a great leap forward and the ways to provide water to large scale surfaces has also grown in number and output. However there are water solutions such as using the sewage and filtering, preservation of natural rivers and sustaining wells and irrigation systems. Desalination has also been one of the solutions but it is too expensive to consider, therefore private sector and governments in the Middle East must work on preservation, raising awareness to agricultural sectors, maintenance and field workers to help optimize levels of water irrigation and using techniques to sustain the green landscapes without increasing costs or carbon emissions. Much work and research must be done and a lot of free sessions, seminars and workshops must be given to the workers in the agricultural and industrial sectors to enhance their green concepts and encourage them through subsidies to use green technologies and methods.
Water will become the most precious resource in the coming years and it’s likely to become a source of conflict. How can you as a landscape professional plan ahead in your work to ensure that water is treated with the respect it deserves and not wasted?
Nowadays water conservation has become an ever pressing and controversial issue around the world; because many areas are experiencing drought, limited access to water, poor irrigation conditions, and lack of advanced utilities and infrastructure that could help allocate water.
A professional landscape designer will have to ensure that installations and irrigation will be produced and installed diligently. Unfortunately, not all landscape designers can and will be able to review the way the irrigation lines are installed, however continuous testing must be done at all times, and careful allocation of water becomes the responsibility of any landscape architect. Moreover, the landscaper should understand more thoroughly the nature of the land so that he/she understands what is needed in terms of irrigation and installations and this will help optimize water consumption and quality and allocate such installations to zones and areas according to needs of plants and trees.
Solutions to limiting water consumption can be done by minimizing that consumption altogether, whilst still keeping high and optimum levels of water usage without depleting or diminishing the environment; furthermore, architects must cooperate with irrigation specialists on each project, engineers and environmental preservationists to gain access to accurate information which will help landscapers do more for less and present cutting edge solutions in poor water conditions.
There is no one single solution that will help us reduce water use in landscapes but there are many tools we can use and practices that can be adopted so to benefit from water without depletion.
Do you believe that the landscape industry in this region will undergo a major change in their design practices and be forced to adapt in the years ahead to overcome this problem of water scarcity and how can you avoid having only arid landscapes?
I think the leading roles of landscape architects nowadays, must not be limited to the architectural and design areas of landscape, but to the preservation of natural resources through their designs; we must be ready to start engaging in ecological solutions, present new and innovative plans that help sustain environmental development and preservation of natural resources. Moreover, our mission and vision of the future should be paced with the present developments in green architecture and solutions.
The MENA region is starting to become a hub of experiments in landscape, especially when it is witnessing a large demand for water and experiencing troublesome hot weather, typical to the desert of the Arabian Gulf. This climate change proves to be a serious problem; water scarcity will eliminate much needed water for plantation and eco diversity, and as a result many landscape projects would be diminished and inefficient. In addition, arid lands will become a hard reality with little, if any governmental interventions that can stop the desertification of the region. This is a fact, however, solutions which are modern, sustainable and technologically oriented can prevent this and the need for a higher caliber of landscape architects are needed to become part of the solutions. Design practices will definitely change, planning and design will undergo development and the role of landscape architects would be more challenging and increasingly involved in environmental protection.
If you could create your dream project, what would it entail?
My dream project would be working on a large-scale urban development project, which would provide water treatment for the city, ensure plant diversity, and should gradually move from the scale of individual buildings to cover the entire enclave.
The goal would be to establish resource-efficient and healthier places to live and work in, within walking distance to public transit, with the intention of increasing economic viability, maintaining the workforce and integrating the infrastructure district wide.
As a woman in a male dominated profession, what has been your experience working in this field in the Middle East?
It has been definitely a bit of a challenge in the Middle East, especially in a field where there is much experience, research and innovation. I think women are becoming more and more aware of the challenges placed in front of them, but have become more resolute in rising to these challenges. There is more openness to women in the field, in terms of consulting, freelance, planning and design, women architects are excelling in all these areas and have proven to be more competent in some cases than men.
As a woman I am witnessing changes in gender equality and as a landscape architect I am also witnessing more and better opportunities for women in the region, and I think woman in landscape will take on more important roles than men and become more involved in the decision making processes as well.
With the exception of water, what are the main challenges your industry will encounter in the coming years and how can these be overcome in your opinion?
Global warming has been a major reason behind the increasingly alarming state of our planet’s ailing resources. Our natural environment is experiencing more changes than ever, and the main challenges of my industry will have to deal with all the transformation happening in the ecological context; from climate change, reduction of eco diversity, natural disasters, as well as higher costs of labour, food and crop shortages.
Research, awareness, creativity and policies are all tools and instruments needed to rise to the challenges for a better more balanced future for our planet. The green concept is sweeping the world and many developed and developing countries are becoming partners in saving our planet and preserving the environment. Architects, engineers and policy makers are working together to develop, build and maintain a sustainable infrastructure and utilities system. This will have to increase much more in the future and regulations like the Kyoto Protocol must be taken more seriously to reduce CO2 emissions and start initiating better planning and construction policies oriented towards the preservation of the environment.
What advice would you give other women wanting to enter this profession, both here and overseas?
Women should not let the issue of gender limit their opportunities and they should not dwell on the negative aspects of gender related work issues. They should instead focus on their thoughtful, skilled professional attitude because hard work will pay off.
Women must be flexible and ready for change within their careers as their perspectives change. They must remain faithful to their own motivations and inspirations and expand their skills to accommodate new goals and priorities. In addition, they should explore developing trends in the profession, especially early in their careers as well as they need to become more aware of the tools that are available to them, detect and utilize them to advance their careers. Women also need to employ mentors, specialists and get their work published to reflect their competitiveness and market themselves in such a field.