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She's a Natural

Northwestern’s landscape architect isn’t only known for her green thumb

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February 2, 2010
Flowers outside Annie May Swift Hall will be in full bloom again this spring thanks to Ann Ziegelmaier, landscape architect.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A stroll with Ann Ziegelmaier, Northwestern's landscape architect, offers a leisurely lesson in Northwestern's horticulture delights.

From a Kentucky coffee tree "growing surprisingly well" in the shadow of Kresge Hall to a cluster of tall cottonwoods that "look older than they actually are," Ziegelmaier can instantly name every plant in sight and the progress of its growth. She draws upon 25 years of experience tilling Northwestern soil.

Recently, Ziegelmaier's and her grounds team's landscape efforts were recognized by the City of Chicago. Abbott Garden, a community green space on the Chicago campus with a colorful and often-changing flowerbed, received a 2009 Mayor Daley Landscape Award.

But Ziegelmaier isn't only known for her green thumb. An artist with a master's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago, she also designs the outdoor campus directories, has original paintings hanging in the Tech Express Café and even designed a "gateway to Northwestern" in 1993 -- now a central landmark of the Evanston campus, known simply as The Arch.

The resident horticulturist took a break from planning and pruning -- the main tasks of the winter months -- to talk to Andrea Albers about her job keeping Northwestern green.

What is landscape architecture?

Landscape architecture encompasses land design and land use. While horticulture is a big part of my job, it isn't the only part. I design everything from flowerbeds to parking lots.

How do you design an outdoor space?

First you have to consider what it will be used for and what you're trying to achieve -- is it a walkway, a recreational space, are you trying to steer people a certain way? When considering what species to plant, I think about factors like sun and wind exposure and water access. A plant that thrives in Deering Meadow might not succeed on the Lakefill, for example. Of course, factors like color and shape are important as well.

How has your job changed over the last 25 years?

Sustainability is now a huge factor in the decisions we make. Landscapes used to be considered nothing more than wallpaper, but now people are realizing they are living, valuable systems. We know there are finite resources and finite space so in that respect, there isn't room for mistakes anymore.

How is Northwestern sustainable?

Water conservation is a major concern. With every new project we consider whether we can install another cistern that collects and stores rainwater underground. When we can, we also use drip irrigation so water is deposited right into the ground instead of using sprinklers because a lot of water is lost through evaporation. We've also installed sensors, which turn off irrigation systems in the rain.

Tell me about your role in creating The Arch.

It was one of my favorite projects. In 1993, President Arnold Weber had a vision of constructing a gateway to campus and he asked me to design it. I came up with a few versions until we landed on the one we see now. We had a team of structural engineers and masons who helped bring my design to life. I had no idea it was going to be a famous symbol of Northwestern.

How does your master's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago aid in your job?

I love art. In fact, some of my paintings are hanging in the Tech Express Café in the Technological Institute. Landscape architecture combines both my love of art and my love of the outdoors. My job requires me to consider shapes, spaces and color. It is just a different medium.

What do you like best about your job?

It is never static. There are always new buildings, renovations and new additions. There are a few areas on campus we've redesigned five times. But I like being busy. I like the challenge.