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Professor Kristi Dykema (above) received the Great Places Award from the Environmental Design Research Association in January for a project that linked the landscapes of California, Australia, and New Orleans.
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Eddy Perez | Photographer | Office of Communications & University Relations

Landscape Architecture professor brings new perspective to students

These days, assistant landscape architecture professor Kristi Dykema isn’t wearing a cowboy hat or sleeping under the stars. Since then, Dykema has found a way to link the Australian outback, California farmland, and Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans together, through people and the stories of their surroundings.

Although Dykema grew up in rural Texas, her journey to LSU started on the west coast with an idea for her thesis project at the University of California–Berkeley. She wanted to travel the world and find the link between where people live and how they live there, in ways of their everyday life. When her fellowship was approved, her quest began.

She spent more than three years living in different places including Bosnia and South Africa; however, the bulk of her studies were in Australia, California, and New Orleans.

“I started to see that it was too significant for a thesis project,” she said. “LSU was willing to let me continue the research as I focused on a Louisiana landscape.”

Dykema’s study, “The Landscape Totem: Speculations on Growth and Decay,” focuses on a group of migrant cowboys in the Australian outback, traveling farmers in California, and a Lower Ninth Ward community post-Katrina. Dykema spent extended periods of time in these areas, particularly noting her time in Australia.

“I’ve lived so many places,” she said. “I lived in Australia for three months following five cowboys as they traveled south with 130,000 heads of cattle.”

The cowboys, cattle, and Dykema walked eight miles each day toward their destination—a trip that takes nine months to travel.

“We slept outside, under the stars every night,” she said. “It was crazy, and I still can’t believe I did it.”

In California, she picked cherries and bell peppers with laborers on a small farm. In New Orleans, she walked neighborhoods and discussed lost landscape with victims of the storm.

Although her background is in building-specific architecture, she teaches landscape architecture. Her lessons often end up combing the two disciplines, similar to “The Landscape Totem.”

“I look at the way people live in a house, on a farm, or around a landscape over long periods of time,” she said. “There is a series of steps we all go through when we move. Although where people live may not look the same, the steps they took were the same.”

The study specifically looks at the relationship between the want for permanent, sturdy environments and the inevitable process of change. The “totems” come from the myths and stories that come with an area of land. Often, those stories are reflected in the building architecture and the people who inhabit them.

Dykema said we all go through a grieving process during a move. The patterns are repeated each time we move, in the ways of getting prepared for the change. After traveling, Dykema herself was looking to move. Her childhood in Texas had her craving a college campus with a little bit of country.

“Farmers and ranchers are my people,” she said. “I really wanted to move back to a college campus, and I chose this landscape over something more urban.”

Dykema joined the landscape architecture faculty in 2007. In January, her research was rewarded. After one year at the University, she received the Great Places Award from the Environmental Design Research Association for “The Landscape Totem.”

The Great Places Award is given in cooperation with Places Journal and Metropolis Magazine. Now in its 12th year, the Great Places Award is one of the most prestigious awards in the area of landscape architecture. The winners represent excellence in environmental design, research, and practice.

“The award validated for me that I’m going in the right direction,” she said. “You get so in your head that you start to worry there’s no place for this information in the field. Since I’m trying to speak about communities and landscapes, now I know they are in fact interested in what I have to say.”

Dykema teaches two classes each semester, one design studio and one seminar class, which is an introduction to drawing course. Currently, her students are spending time in the River Road area working on a number of new projects.

“River Road has brought different kinds of work onto my plate,” she said. “We are trying to get River Road designated as a national byway. It would enable a larger population of tourists and be recognized nationally as a landmark.”

During the course of their research, Dykema and her students found that River Road indeed was a river, and once it shifted, people then traveled to the road instead of to the water. Her group would like to capture that historical energy.

Even in her spare time, Dykema makes trips to River Road with the Tiger Cycling Foundation to participate in recreational rides and scheduled races.

Dykema is humble about her research and her award, but it is obvious her element is where people meet their landscapes and the stories they create. “The Landscape Totem” gives a look into Dykema’s bright future at the University.

Holly Ann Phillips | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
February 2009