Alumni Kris Lucius: A Leader in Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture alum Kris Lucius reflects on his time at Ohio State, how he has reconnected with Knowlton, and what he's working on now.

Alumni Kris Lucius: A Leader in Landscape Architecture

Among the last class of students at Brown Hall, Kris Lucius, PLA, ASLA (’04) received his Bachelor of Science degree in landscape architecture at Ohio State, where he graduated magna cum laude. In 2008, he received a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Currently a Design Principal at SmithGroup in Chicago, Lucius is a creative lead for a broad range of landscape and urban design projects. These projects include: Wanxiang Innova Energy City Block 6, Hangzhou; South Lakefront Framework Plan, Chicago; Lakeland Medical Center, St. Joseph, Michigan; and Chamberlain Group Headquarters, Oak Brook, Illinois. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Illinois Institute of Technology and has taught at Boston Architectural College.

Lucius has remained connected to Knowlton through his role as an instructor, as a current member of the Landscape Architecture Advisory Board, and as an Alumni Mentor in the Honors and Scholars Programs.

We asked Kris to reflect on his time at Ohio State, how he reconnected with Knowlton, and to offer insights into his current landscape architecture practice.


To start off, can you tell us about some of your current work at SmithGroup? What projects are most likely to draw your interest?

My studio in Chicago is a team of about 20 landscape architects and civil engineers working within a 1,300-person interdisciplinary firm. Together, we aim to design landscapes that engage and interest people, ground them in their environment, and color and shape memories. We like to make design moves that do many things at once—ideas that go beyond human enjoyment to mesh with smart, functional site systems that bolster local ecology and reinforce and express the client’s mission. Urban design and park planning are my center of gravity, but I also work in the healthcare, higher education, science and technology, workplace, and cultural practices. I’ve built a reputation for saying “yes” to just about any opportunity that comes along! We are a curious group and can find interest in any site, any project, anywhere. More likely to draw me to a project are the people involved: the client, the allied professionals, and the stakeholders.

A doctor and patient talk in green space

I find the greatest reward in the projects that build communities—both the physical green infrastructure of cities and the cooperative spirit that arises from intense community engagement. In 2018, I led the South Lakefront Framework Plan with the Chicago Park District. The Framework Plan proposes a future for Chicago’s Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center amidst great physical and social change and in the shadows of Frederick Law Olmsted and President Barack Obama. The plan re-stitches waterways through the parks and establishes new connections and a new program to reconcile historic vision with current dynamics. This was the highest-profile project I have ever worked on, with dozens of large-scale community meetings and almost daily coverage in the local media. I am particularly proud of the community engagement process we developed for the project; over 800 people attended our first meeting! It was important to give south side residents agency on decisions made about their park, from whose history many felt dissociated. I believe we delivered on that and gave the Park District a plan that will serve fellow Chicagoans for decades. When I first learned about Jackson Park from Jane Amidon in Brown Hall all those years ago, I never would have imagined I would have my own small role to play in its history!

Currently, SmithGroup is working on several buildings for Advocate Aurora Health in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Their Illinois Masonic Medical Center campus is squeezed into a dense neighborhood and most building edges have zero-lot-line setbacks. There’s not much room for landscape, so even the smallest spaces have high value for wellness and healing. At one of the buildings, we are taking advantage of a 15-foot transit authority easement to make a garden that is a therapy tool for the hospital and a pocket park for neighbors. Working with the occupational and physical therapy practitioners who will use the building, we are designing the garden with a variety of surface materials and transitions specific to the needs of neuro-patients in the final steps of acclimating back to navigating real-world environments.  


During the autumn semester, you co-taught the landscape architecture G3 Southwyck Studio with Paula Meijerink. Can you tell us how your paths have crossed in the past and how this relationship evolved into this studio?

Paula is one of my heroes and closest friends. She has long been a role model for me as a professional, critic, teacher, and parent. We met when she was my professor in a studio about asphalt. At the time (and maybe still now) it was radical to have a material-based (as opposed to site-based) landscape architecture studio. Her structure for it—successive, rapid-fire ideating, testing, and building—forced the students to work together and with her. Bonding over beds of cooling asphalt evolved into a lifelong friendship. Since then, we have worked together periodically, most memorably for a temporary public art installation in Brooklyn in 2009 for which we designed and built (in partnership with NYCDOT) a 40’ x 20’ dragon tattoo on a city street.

Over the years, I have built a long list of sites that I find interesting and thought “ooh I should teach a studio about that.” The list is far longer than I will ever have time for, and I have started to suggest the ideas to friends who I think suit them. The Southwyck idea was perfect for Paula. An abandoned mall site in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, Southwyck has interesting adjacencies and a strong, if not eerie spatial presence, like a large inland sea of decomposing pavement. Toledo has been building new parks in unlikely places and is in desperate need of new ideas for this once-important, long-vacant site. Her first reaction was to co-teach it together, and within weeks we were developing the syllabus.


How did you approach your role as an instructor for this graduate studio? Can you speak about the relevance of academic work like the Southwyck Studio to landscape architecture practice? 

Teaching has been an important part of my practice since early in my career. Every firm I have worked at has a strong ethic of teaching and a practice founded in this balance. Teaching allows me to strengthen muscles that I may not always use in daily professional practice but want to exercise. Teaching makes me a better critic. It forces me to recognize, understand, and explain my thoughts in a way that is coherent, memorable, and helpful. It also affords me a better view of the context in which I practice, and to be party to discussions about the emerging critical issues that landscape architecture can confront.

In a studio co-taught by a professor and a practicing professional, it would be easy to fall into a simple set of roles, where Paula would push the students to be bold and crazy and I would reign them in with boring pragmatics. It was important (and natural) for us to avoid this. The G3 students were well-rounded thinkers with provocative ideas and the skills to turn them into reality. I helped answer their questions on cost, constructability, and the structural capacity of specific materials; however, I felt that my role throughout was to help them develop the question-asking that will make them better professionals. In design, in graduate school, or anywhere, great teachers are more guides than authorities.


You graduated from Ohio State in 2004. Given your involvement with the studio, were you able to draw out any distinctions in how students today approach a design challenge, especially with shifts in technologies since you were a student?

I was in the last class to graduate from Brown Hall, and anyone from my era does not need to spend more than a few minutes in Knowlton Hall to see just how incredibly different the environment and the tools are. During my recent visits, I have been impressed by the emphasis on research and independent inquiry, even for undergraduates. The ethic of questioning and rigorous testing is readily apparent in the students’ work. I see an understanding of landscape at a level of a comprehension that I wish my own student work possessed.


You are currently a member of the landscape architecture advisory board and have recently participated in a school-sponsored panel discussion on the state of the practice for our graduating landscape architecture students. Can you speak to your interest in staying connected to Ohio State, and would you have any advice to our alumni who may be interested in engaging with the school?

After graduation, my wife (and OSU classmate) Anne and I lived outside the Midwest and didn’t return to campus for nearly a decade. By the time we came back, the faculty had turned over, and we did not know the building nor most of the people in it. But it was important to us to find ways to be involved with the school, and we found that Dorothee Imbert and the faculty were equally motivated to include alumni like us. Just as teaching makes me a better professional, the program and the students are both strengthened by exposure to practice, and I have found numerous ways to give something of value to the school. In addition to teaching and the advisory board, I am a regular at studio reviews, present my work to classes, and mentor students. Any alumni who have an interest in giving back to Knowlton has an opportunity.  


What aspects of your education in the landscape architecture program at Ohio State have been valuable in your professional practice?

I am constantly reflecting or actively incorporating a skill or lesson I learned at OSU. I truly value how well-rounded my OSU education is. As I collaborate with designers from around the world and taught or critiqued at various schools, I’ve realized that mind and hand, theory and practice, are not always so well balanced as they were for us. I’m still amazed that as an undergrad I had the chance to take theory classes with people like Ken Smith and Peter Walker, to be encouraged to do some really abstract, right-brained diagramming for Reid Coffman and Deb Georg, and yet learn the tectonics of how things are built, hundreds of plants, and basically everything on the LARE. I’m forever indebted to those teachers, especially Jane Amidon, Jane Wolff, Norm, and Larry, and I hope I can give back one-quarter as much to Knowlton as it has given to me.