It was 7:30am on a May Monday morning, as I sat on a public bench in Washington D.C. I was rereading a book for the third time because I could never get myself to finish it. Crowds of employees disappeared into their office buildings. One woman stood out to me in particular when she sat next to me to change from her walking shoes to office shoes, giving me the most perplexed look before entering the building in front of me. I kept my nose in the book until it was time for me to start my first day of my internship.
As I was introduced to my new position as an urban planner, I learned that one of my projects was the J. Edgar Hoover Building, the relocation of the FBI headquarters from Pennsylvania Avenue. It was conveniently located next to my own federal workspace that summer. I quickly understood my unintentional statement and the volume of my voice, which was loudly heard by the perplexed woman; I was reading 1984 by George Orwell in front of the FBI headquarters and across from the Department of Justice.
I have never been a politically outspoken person, so the whole event felt like an out of body experience. Could you imagine if I was reading something more controversial instead that morning? The experience shed light to how an appropriate platform can project a powerful voice. As a landscape designer, I really embraced this lesson and transformed it into a graduating thesis.
I was reluctant about the idea at first. On the surface, it did not accurately reflect my professional or personal identity. I questioned how this fell into my hands. I took this opportunity to creatively harmonize my life experiences, my values and the modern issues of the world. I went down the rabbit hole of ethics, morality and cultural perspectives of endless contradicting ideologies. As I spent more time reinforcing these abstract ideas, I felt like I was moving further away from the final tangible product. Remember, I just design outdoor spaces!
However, my department saw value in my identity exploration, even when I personally did not at the time. They encouraged me to commit, even when I was pushing deadlines. I eventually focused on the intertwines of self-expression within a political landscape, an idea that originated from the novel that started it all. I transformed a physical and figuratively opaque FBI headquarter into a transparent public park, primarily for the first amendment located on America’s main street: Pennsylvania Avenue (#poeticjustice for my zoomers).
“It is important to listen to your environment, to engage in your local community and to find your stance in their world”.
The J. Edgar Hoover Building was first occupied in 1974. The building was solely used for FBI offices, but there were plans to encourage ground floor retail to allow continuous activity along Pennsylvania Avenue. Now half a century later, the prospect of the FBI office relocation provides an opportunity to redevelop the seven-acre space. The updated proposed plans share similar visions to the ones in 1974, which include development that accommodate for the public realm, such as commerce, everyday activities and civic events. I followed these guidelines in my academic thesis project. For more details on the proposed plan for the space, please visit here and here.
As of July 2020, the current status of the FBI headquarters relocation and the following development for that space has been cancelled due to insufficient congressional appropriations to proceed with the project.
In hindsight, I concede my thesis project’s success to my educators. The findings I had about my identity are the ones I value most after academics. I learned that my principles lie in enhancing the public’s physical and mental health, and civil rights, which are all outspoken platforms despite my introvert personality. My industry is traditionally known to be bipartisan, but in the current light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, it is the American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) mission to resolve systemic racism in our practice. I felt an inch of vindication in my personal goals after six years from the original exploration and more importantly, being involved in the progress.
Moving forward, I recognize the benefit of having a purposeful foundation when I entered the workforce. This applies to all professions. The daily tasks will be tedious, and it is easy to get burned out. But when I end the day by billing my time down to the minutes, I am reminded that my time is valuable, not in the terms of hourly rates, but in the development of a long-term career, and even personal development. Having a strong identity is the motivation to fuel your daily grind, to avoid burnouts and mid-career existential crisis.
The creative in me took a specific moment and transformed it into a design mission. I gained the most versatile lesson: Any industry and any position can provide service to the community. It is important to listen to your environment, to engage in your local community and to find your stance in their world; to use your skills, your time and your ballot towards the progress of your beliefs, whatever they may be; and to always refine and practice your rhetorics of speech and thought as regularly as you check your phone’s notifications.
Tammy Gaibrois is a graduate of John R. Lewis High School, in Springfield, Virginia, U.S. She continued her education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is now taking a sabbatical from her career as a landscape architect to raise her two children in Denver, Colorado. She is a supporter of independent artists, writers and public policy advocates. She loves to follow new creatives and organizations. You can connect with her on Instagram here.
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