Landscape architecture student projectStudents' design would decrease Purdue's environmental footprint.

Winning Designs

Landscape Archite​cture Students Capture Top Awards

By Emma Hopkins

Purdue University has the third-ranked undergraduate landscape architecture program in the U.S., so faculty have high expectations of students in the program.

But last fall, four majors surpassed even these high standards by achieving awards at the state and national levels in competitions sponsored by the American Society of Landscape Architecture. A jury of professional landscape architects and university faculty judged submissions.

Zhicheng Xu's winning entry.Zhicheng Xu's winning entry on the Wabash Corridor. Full size image.

From the 93 accredited landscape architecture programs in the U.S., there were 391 student submissions to the ASLA national contest.

Zhicheng Xu won the Award of Excellence; Lana Merrill and Camille Mahan jointly received the Award of Honor; and Zheming Cai, also captured an Award of Honor.

Sean Rotar, an assistant professor of landscape architecture and director of Purdue's Center of Community and Environmental Design, was one of the several faculty members who advised the four award winners. He says he knew their submissions were outstanding, but was still surprised when they were so successful in the competitions.

"This is an incredibly competitive program," Rotar says. "Winning is very difficult, especially when you consider the state and national competitions are open to both undergraduate and graduate students."

Rotar says he could not be more proud of his students and their award-winning work.

"They're wonderful designers and thinkers; each one is going to be an exceptional luminary in this profession in the years to come," he says. "They took these projects and attacked them with astounding rigor, developing final products that really deserved this recognition."

Zhicheng "Daniel" Xu

Zhicheng "Daniel" XuZhicheng "Daniel" Xu

Zhicheng "Daniel" Xu, a junior, won the Award of Excellence at both the state and national levels of the ASLA design awards for his project, "A 30-Year Plan for Wabash River Corridor in Lafayette, Indiana." This award is presented only if the judging committee feels a particular submission stands out among the rest.

Xu developed his project from an assignment in his Community Planning and Design class. The project was an overview of a long-range, broad vision for the Lafayette area to reconnect the under-appreciated Wabash River Corridor with the community and alleviate stormwater and flooding problems in the area.

The theoretical 30-year, plan considered population growth and the cultural history of Lafayette and the Wabash Corridor to provide recreational and residential space.

Xu says it was a pleasure to carry out the project because the research was fascinating to him. "I'm always interested in this topic of how human culture can interact with nature and influence the built structure," he says.

Xu has been interning in Boston for Sasaki Associates, a design firm that works in landscape architecture. He will be back at Purdue fall semester.

Lana Merrill and Camille Mahan

Lana MerrillLana Merrill

Lana Merrill and Camille Mahan, who both graduated in May 2013, won the Award of Honor at the state and national levels for their project, "Designing for Resilience: Reshaping Our University's Campus for an Ecologically Sound Future."

Their project looks at ways to reduce the amount of stormwater and sewage overflow from the Purdue campus into the Wabash River. The main focus of the project was reducing Purdue's environmental footprint and how to handle stormwater runoff in a way that is sensitive to historical areas and the aesthetic appearance of campus.

One possibility their plan ruled out was construction of an expensive water treatment plant, which they estimated could save $850,000. Merrill and Mahan worked with Purdue's campus planning department to ensure maximum economic efficiency in their project. Their plan incorporated rain gardens—areas planted with water-tolerant vegetation that allows for water to filter into the ground—and rainwater retention systems.

Camille MahanCamille Mahan

Mahan says winning the award gave them confidence in their design ability and basing the project around Purdue was rewarding.

"Focusing on improving Purdue's campus with the knowledge we gained while at the university was extremely fulfilling," Mahan says. "I am proud that we were able to give back to Purdue with our senior project."

Merrill, too, says she felt a sense of accomplishment with the project.

"I realized the project's importance to the local and regional communities, but was beyond thrilled to get national recognition for the first time," she says.

Mahan currently works at Berger Partnership, a landscape architecture firm in Seattle, Washington. Merrill works at MKSK Studios, a multidisciplinary firm of architects and planners in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Zheming "Taro" Cai

Zheming "Taro" CaiZheming "Taro" Cai

Zheming "Taro" Cai, who also graduated May 2013, originally created his project for a competition held by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. His project connected instead with judges in the national ASLA competition, winning the Award of Honor. His submission, "Preservation as Provocation: Redefining Tourism," was a design brief for a historic military site on Shutes Folly Island off coastal South Carolina.

His goal was to decrease human impact on the ecologically sensitive island while keeping it a tourist destination. While many of the submissions for this contest constructed new tourism buildings, Cai's plan proposed building a floating visitors center off shore to ensure the minimum amount of damage to the island's natural beauty. Cai says he was happy to incorporate two of his interests, cultural landscape and "genius loci," which refers to the distinctive spirit or atmosphere of a place, into his final project.

"The ASLA award is a huge compliment in our discipline," Cai says. "I was happy that I was able to forge some of my interests and theories into one design."

Cai is a student in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.