The Interview: Catherine Mahan

Catherine Mahan, 64, founding member of Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture firm, is stepping down as president but will remain as chairman of the board.
Catherine Mahan, 64, founding member of Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture firm, is stepping down as president but will remain as chairman of the board. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Catherine Mahan founded a landscape architecture firm in 1983 on the first floor of a Mount Vernon rowhouse. She had four employees and scraped by at first doing jobs for local architects and designing backyards for homeowners.

When she retired from Mahan Rykiel Associates this year, the Baltimore-based firm had 42 employees, an office in Hong Kong and a long list of completed projects in the United States, Portugal, Japan and Mexico.

Under Mahan's guidance, the firm has handled many local projects as well: It designed rooftop gardens for Harbor East's high-rise residences and for Mercy Medical Center, created a backdrop for the infinity pool deck at the new Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, redesigned Center Plaza in downtown's office district, landscaped the light rail line and created the plazas at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The firm has worked out of the former Stieff Silver building in Hampden since 2001. Mahan spoke recently with The Sun about her career.

I understand when you first started the business you had an unusual system for storing drawings. How did that work?

I wanted to be in Mount Vernon, in an urban place that was really cool, but the only thing we could afford was residential space. We rented this office on St. Paul Street, on the ground floor of a house. We didn't have enough money to buy a flat file, so we'd roll up the drawings and put them in the bathtub. The dimensions of the bathtub were perfect.

How did Scott Rykiel come to join the firm in 1993?

We had worked together at [two firms]. He and I were out having lunch and he said, "If you ever think about having a partner, give me a ring." I thought, what a great idea. You get this decision fatigue when it's all you. I thought it would be great to have someone share the burden. Also, he had developed an expertise that I didn't have. He liked commercial, retail and resort work and I liked working in the public sector, for parks, institutions and for private residences. He brought a new client base to the firm.

Are there particular places you have found especially inspiring for your work?

I grew up in New England and my parents always had a love of the mountains and outdoors. We used to climb mountains on weekends. I come from a family that loved beautiful outdoor places. My husband was an exchange professor in China and we traveled in Japan. … All the gardens were so conceptual and so spiritual. They're doing a whole different thing from Western gardens. These were done in 1500 and show there is a possibility of creating outdoor space that matters and touches people in a profound way.

What is your favorite outdoor spot in Baltimore?

I'd have to say I have a lot of affection for Cylburn Arboretum — it's one of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore. … I was teaching at Morgan [State University] and I used [to bring students to] Cylburn. … I [also] used to take my kids there for walks. When you pull in off Greenspring and go down that driveway, it's so beautiful. You're leaving the city behind.

What made you want to become a landscape architect?

It's not my first career. I started out as a language major at Georgetown [University]. Somewhere along the way that changed to fine arts, and I graduated with a degree in fine arts. But after graduation, I realized there weren't any jobs for artists. I was a language teacher, but it wasn't something that could sustain me. I was thinking about what is my next step and went to see this movie, "Alfredo, Alfredo," an Italian film. It had this woman in it who was so smart and beautiful and warm and she was asked, "What do you do?" [She said:] "I'm a landscape architect." I thought, if that would make me like [her], I would do that. It got me thinking about art and design.

If you had to pick one of your projects in Baltimore that has had the biggest impact, what would it be?

I've become interested in health care projects and working on hospital gardens. At Kennedy Krieger, these kids are just so needy. A lot of gardens are sites for future buildings, but at Kennedy Krieger they had the wisdom to say, this is going to be a permanent garden. It really is a therapy garden. We wanted to have a space that is engaging, where kids go out and [do] therapy but think they are playing. We wanted a space staff and families could use as a refuge.

Do you find you are always assessing outdoor environments?

Yes, and my kids say they hate it when I do that: "Why didn't they put the entrance over there?" But the good thing about never being able to turn it off is you're constantly in search of ideas and constantly looking for clues to new solutions.

What are some concerns you have about your profession?

There is a real emphasis on sustainability and getting LEED-certified buildings, and it's overshadowed other aspects of what's going on in landscape architecture. It's what we have been doing all along. Sometimes it overshadows the basics of creating wonderful outdoor spaces that touch people.

Can you describe your experience as the local landscape architecture firm working to design the landscapes at Camden Yards, including the picnic grove and Russell Street Plaza?

That was one of our first really big projects, that and light rail. We so wanted to get onto a big project, but every meeting had 35 people in it and every decision was like turning around the Queen Mary — and you didn't feel a direct connection with the client. But that's the price you pay to work on a large project with large teams. … When the games are over you have 42,000 people coming out into the streets. We worked a lot on having a big enough space so people wouldn't blindly walk into the streets. That's how the plazas came about. That was our project, to create a place [where] people would gather. Over the years they have used it that way.