“Jeff Koons’ Split-Rocker is a marvel,” explains Matt Donham (MLA ’03), principal at RAFT Landscape Architecture. This giant flowering topiary with over 50,000 flowering plants — half toy dinosaur, half rocking horse — is at the same time cutely irresistible and almost monstrous in its looming scale. “The sculpture expands our understanding of where landscape can exist and what it can look like.”
It is also somewhat of a metaphor for Donham’s approach to his work: the need to zoom in and out between technical detail and the larger overall goal to deliver on a vision; a love of form; and a passion to build landscapes which are both progressive and expressive.
In 2012, Donham was hired by Glenstone, a private museum and sculpture park outside of Washington D.C., to reimagine Koons’ Split-Rocker as a permanent installation. The sculpture was first exhibited in Avignon in 2000, and subsequently in Versailles (2008) and Basel (2012). Donham conducted extensive research on Koons’ previous topiary installations — talking to gardeners and engineers, and creating structural models and planting palettes — in order to modify the piece to thrive year-round.
In the spring of 2014, Koons tapped Donham to develop the “living systems” for the sculpture’s newest installation in Rockefeller Center, which opened in June. With just 7 weeks to complete a normally 20-week installation process, Donham and RAFT worked closely with Jeff Koons, Public Art Fund, Gagosian Gallery, Tishman Speyer, engineers, contractors, irrigation consultants, and local nurseries to maximize the project’s success.
Research is an integral part of Donham’s work and this project benefitted from the previous research he’d done for Glenstone. The Rockefeller Center installation required the production and delivery of 50,000 plants in full bloom, specialized soils, breathable surface materials, and highly-tailored irrigation and drainage to help the plants to flourish, regardless of their orientation.
Prior to founding RAFT, Donham was a partner at PWP Landscape Architecture and project manager for the National September 11th Memorial. During the project, he came to understand the critical role of the landscape architect as design advocate. “Everybody has their individual interest, especially with public works projects. It’s our responsibility to understand the goal of the project vision and advocate for that,” he explains.
Donham’s proximity to the leaders of PWP and lead role in the ongoing conversations with players in virtually every aspect of the Memorial project was transformative, shaping his current approach with clients. He believes strongly in holding to the galvanizing narrative that manifests the vision, while also articulating confidence and caring. “Working for Pete Walker I became adept at delivering on his ideas. It takes political skill to work with a big name, but it translates well to delivering on your own vision.”
Today at RAFT, Donham along with fellow CED classmate Rebecca Hill (MLA ’03) are generating a new form language, where shape making and space defining combines with ecological sustainability. Last spring, the firm installed a landscape in the Hudson Highlands where a gentle S-curve designed into an existing road makes room for planted swales that filter runoff while enhancing the overall composition of the landscape. It’s a small example of landscape productivity and form working together. Currently Donham is collaborating with Walter Hood, David S. Woo Chair of Environmental Design, on the garden at the Cooper Hewitt in New York which begins construction this fall.
Donham has also just begun teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. This has inspired him to reflect back on his experience at CED and what he wants his own students to take away. “CED challenged me to determine, believe, and express my personal convictions about how the built environment should be formed,” he said. “When I am speaking with clients and trying to convince them to invest in my solutions, I find that the strength of my conviction is important. People can feel it.”