When the city fathers wanted to transform Fort Lauderdale from the Spring Break capital affectionately known as “Fort Liquordale” to a more respectable place in the late 1980s, they sought the help of EDSA, a local landscape architecture firm.
To achieve that goal, EDSA helped change A1A from a cruising strip for cars to a beachside promenade akin to the one flanking Brazil’s famous Copacabana beach. The EDSA design called for separating the north and south lanes with a palm tree-lined median and replacing the diagonal beachfront parking with a brick-paved walkway bordered by an undulating wall that resembles the foamy white crest of a wave. The Wave Wall not only keeps beach sand from blowing onto the roadway, but also provides makeshift seating and serves as the city’s signature attraction for both tourists and locals.
“It is unique,” says Douglas C. Smith, president and principal of EDSA. Inspired by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx’s iconic Copacabana Beach mosaic with its meandering “S” curves, the walkway and wall in Fort Lauderdale embodies EDSA’s philosophy of “attempting to improve the way the world looks, one project at a time.” According to Smith, “the Wave Wall became a visual icon to create a brand of tourism.” A city website lists the beachfront renovation cost at $26 million, and according to the EDSA website, that investment paid off: “The revitalization effort generated over $1 billion in private sector investment within the first 10 years of completion.”
EDSA — named for its founder, the Yale- and Harvard-trained landscape architect Edward Durell Stone Jr., and his associates — has been designing sustainable projects worldwide from its headquarters in Fort Lauderdale since 1960. From Malta to Mexico, Africa, Asia and the Americas, the boutique firm has helped design and enhance projects in more than 100 countries, including urban design, hotels, resorts and residences.
Many of the firm’s design concepts are memorable, such as the iconic promenade and plazas at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington; the PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., with its greenswards and landscaped sculpture garden that included large works by renowned artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and David Smith; and the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which revolutionized the tourism industry with its themed resort that features what was once the largest outdoor aquarium in the world.
Today EDSA is one of the top five landscape architectural firms in the country in terms of revenues, according to Smith, who oversees 110 employees in the headquarters, located just blocks from the beach that his firm helped to redesign. With gross billings exceeding $23 million last year (compared to $22 million in 2011), EDSA is continuing to grow. Smith projects a 15 percent growth goal for 2013. In February the firm opened its sixth office in Shanghai. That’s in addition to its Fort Lauderdale headquarters and offices in Orlando, Baltimore, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Beijing (as a joint venture with a local Chinese company).
Smith wants to clear up a popular misperception that landscape architects are glorified gardeners. “We’re not just garden designers,” he says. “There’s a much larger role that we can play in the development and history for responsible land use, and really looking at things on a master plan level and scale. Landscape architects, because of the training we get, we have a unique ability to see a bigger picture and, because of that, lead whole consulting teams through the development process.”
In the past, landscape architecture was mostly handled as an offshoot of architecture. Today, landscape architecture is thriving as an independent field, with approximately 16,000 licensed landscape architects nationwide, according to the Washington-based American Society of Landscape Architects. The ASLA projects a 16 percent growth in the industry over the next decade.
The revamping of Fort Lauderdale Beach epitomizes what EDSA does: creating memorable outdoor spaces – both public and private – that are designed to uplift and influence “the moods, opinions and behavior” of everyone who comes in contact with their projects. Even James Bond appeared impressed with their design of the One&Only Ocean Club in the Bahamas, where the villas literally open onto the sugar-sand beach overlooking tourmaline blue waters, providing an intimate setting for the British agent to seduce the girlfriend of his nemesis and serve her champagne and Beluga caviar.
EDSA also designed the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, where Ugly Betty got into a cat fight with her archrival, Amanda, while racing down a giant water slide during a fictional fashion shoot for Mode magazine. Sharks swim in the water below, giving the sensation of imminent danger.
“Atlantis was a real success story for the Bahamas in particular because it changed the face of tourism,” Smith says in a matter-of-fact manner. EDSA was involved in the project from the master plan, which included developing the concept of the Lost World of Atlantis, to the tiniest details, “down to the paving materials around the pool deck and the tiles in the pools themselves,” Smith says. The project, which began in the mid-1990s, continues today, with ongoing upgrades in the Bahamas and similar, but different, Atlantis projects in Dubai and China.
Nova Southeastern University is another example of a long-term client. EDSA began working its first project with Nova in 1992. More than two decades later, an EDSA team member proudly showed a Miami Herald correspondent the designs for the school’s recently completed Oceanographic Center.
EDSA uses a design concept where studios, or groups of people with complimentary skills, work together from start to finish on a given project. That gives their projects continuity and comprehension.
Nova’s vice president of facilities management, Pete Witchen, remembers working with EDSA when its founder was still alive. “I grew up cutting my teeth with them,” says Witchen, who also served as the assistant city manager for Fort Lauderdale. “My first job with Fort Lauderdale was to kill Spring Break,” Witchen says of the assignment he worked on with EDSA back in 1986. “They changed the vision of Fort Lauderdale,” he says, adding that they did the same for Nova. “Their approach was to give us a real long view of what the university would be,” he says, describing their latest project at the Oceanographic Center as “timelessly classic.”
The firm is currently working on 293 projects worldwide, with 93 of those projects begun in 2013. By far, the big money is coming from China. An estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of new revenues are projected to come from China, where one of the latest projects involves a resort in a mountainous region that resembles something out of the movie, Avatar. Another project in Asia is the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, which incorporates office, retail, parks, a convention center and residential golf community. Then there’s the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort in the United Arab Emirates that an EDSA studio has been working on since 2007. That project includes a massive desert zoo, where visitors can see herds of gazelle and oryx roaming over sand dunes in great expanses of desert, as well as habitats set aside for giraffes, white tigers and flamingos.
The U.S. projects include anything from redesigning Virginia Key and its dilapidated Marine Stadium; creating a tranquil and tropical shopping fantasy at the Bal Harbour Shops with lush landscaping, fountains and waterworks; Fort Lauderdale’s River Walk; and designing a residential community for active and retired U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina; to providing people with a perceived version of a simpler time through the creation of the town of Celebration, near Orlando. While Celebration may seem like a surreal stage set to outsiders, reminiscent of The Truman Show, the concept behind the Disney community was one of bringing people together by embracing a pre-World War II nostalgia, where people sat on their front porches and parked their vehicles in garages behind their homes.
For Smith, each EDSA project is unique, with problems to solve and sentiments to evoke. Sometimes the plan calls for changing human behavior, such as designing a community to help its residents remain fit by including sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly areas. Or, in the case of Fort Lauderdale, rather than looking for ways to ban beer-swilling co-eds during their annual collegiate rite of passage, the EDSA designers sought to make the beach more inclusive of the entire community and inviting to vacationing visitors of all ages.
“We want to draw upon the attributes of the place wherever we go,” Smith says. “ We don’t have a formulaic plan or theme that we go plunk down wherever we go.”