Architecture student selected to aid in Geneva

Ross is one of eight interns chosen to design eco-friendly embassy grounds.

Landscape architecture graduate student Natalie Ross poses Thursday in Rapson Hall. She will join seven other interns in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mark Vancleave

Landscape architecture graduate student Natalie Ross poses Thursday in Rapson Hall. She will join seven other interns in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ashley Bray

To some, working in a foreign country, staying with an American ambassador and designing a project that could benefit an entire nation may sound too good to be true.
But for University of Minnesota graduate student Natalie Ross, it’s a reality.
Ross, who is seeking a master’s degree in landscape architecture, is one of eight students selected to intern at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, Switzerland. The interns, chosen from a pool of 150 applicants, will spend the first two weeks of August designing a five-year plan to make the grounds of the Mission greener.
“It’s one of those projects that really came from out of the blue,” said Richard Hawks, chairman and professor in the department of landscape architecture at Syracuse University, who will be working with the students in Geneva.
It all started a few years ago when the Mission, an embassy that represents the U.S. government at the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, announced the goal of becoming a flagship post of energy and sustainability for all U.S. embassies, featuring such amenities as solar panels and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.
The movement made sense, as Geneva is known for being a green and international city, which plays host to thousands of visitors from all over the world every year, Terry Poltrack of the American Society of Landscape Architects said.
The embassy’s landscape, however, didn’t measure up to its new sustainability standards, Hawks said, so it contacted ASLA and for help.
“I decided to reach out and see if students around the country might be interested,” Hawks said.
Ross decided the project would be a good fit for her. As an undergrad at Macalester College, she majored in geography and arts.
“I really loved the analytical large-scale aspects of geography, like how cities are built,” she said, “and I also loved to be creative and make things, so it is a perfect fit for me.”
When Ross first decided to apply, she sought out Rebecca Krinke, associate professor of landscape architecture, for advice.
“I said, ‘You should totally apply,’ ” Krinke said, “I think she has all the talents.”
Turns out, Krinke was right. Besides being an excellent designer, a good artist and fluent in German, Ross’s experience with media tools gave her an edge on the competition, Krinke said. The fact that Ross consistently blogs and writes about her classes was likely an attractive factor, Krinke said.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Hawks said. “In fact, it’s a little overwhelming.”
The students will need to consider a variety of factors in making the grounds more environmentally friendly. A major issue is dealing with water runoff. There are several paved areas that water cannot penetrate, Poltrack said. Those areas will need to be opened up, as it is better to have water infiltrate through plants so they don’t pick up oil residue on the street, Ross said.
There are many other things to be considered, such as using green materials that haven’t been sourced from other areas, building green walls and planting more trees, which could enhance visitors’ experiences at the Mission.
“I’m a super big proponent of people being able to enjoy themselves outside,” Ross said.
While all of these ideas are positive starts to the project, students and faculty anticipate obstacles.
One of the main concerns is making sure the grounds look uniquely American using materials native to Switzerland, Hawks said. This will require sensitivity to the indigenous culture while retaining characteristics of an American facility, he said.
“How we’ll achieve that … we don’t know for sure,” he said, “but we have to have people say, ‘Wow.’ ”
The Mission’s high security requirement could pose another challenge.
“They may not be able to have things like tall grasses,” Ross said. “I’m not sure if there are restrictions on heights.”
It will also be difficult to figure out what types of plants grow well in Geneva.
“I’m really familiar with plants that grow well in Minnesota,” Ross said, but designing an American landscape in Geneva using non-invasive plants could be tricky.
If that’s not enough, time constraints could also become a problem, Dave Bramer, a University of Washington student who was also selected for the internship, said.
“I have worked under tight deadlines before,” he said, “but never on this type of a deadline in a group larger than six people.”
If the project is a success, the internship could expand into a yearly project, perhaps at other American embassies around the world, Hawks said.
“We hope that it keeps going every year, because how fantastic is an international experience?” Krinke said. “It’s great for Natalie, it’s great for our department and it’s great for the University.”
When all is said and done, the students and faculty hope to leave Geneva with more than just a new line on their résumé.
“If we can get a design built at a place like the U.S. Mission, that would be exciting,” Ross said. “One of my biggest goals is to get some ideas built rather than ideas on paper.”