School of Architecture

Thursday 19 May 2016

Great Falls National Park design collage from Julia Watson's StudioREDE

As an Australian-born landscape architect, Julia Watson (BArch 1998) now lives and practices in one of the world’s most architecturally captivating cities, New York. In 2013, Julia founded Studio Rede (Studio for Research and Design), focused on the design and conservation of cultural lands and ancient innovations of indigenous peoples. The studio operates as a collaborative, by deeply engaging professionals from disparate disciplines, under the same mission: to improve the public realm. To do this, Julia infuses her design experience from the private sector and elite academia, to create innovative projects at various but predominantly incredibly large scales. Central to her emerging portfolio of work is a human-centred design approach that involves cultural engagement and technological innovation. This unique pairing is embedded with a sensitive ecological approach that allows people to engage with ecology in various ways, including physical and spiritual.

Julia began studying architecture in 1995 at The University of Queensland in her hometown of Brisbane. Since graduating she has acquired 13 years of experience in academia, through teaching and further studies in the field of landscape architecture. She graduated from Harvard with her Masters degree in Landscape Architecture in 2008, and now lectures in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, having previously taught at both the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s School of Architecture.

We sat down with Julia to hear her inspiring story.

You have moved away from a ‘traditional’ career within the architecture profession – tell us about your current career.

The territories where I work fall outside the norm for architects and beyond the formal network of Conservation lands. My attention is focused quite literally on the shadows – within the informal global network of traditional and indigenous peoples’ sacred natural sites - which is termed the Shadow Conservation Network. It’s considered to be the world’s oldest, most successful model of global environmental conservation. 

Studio Rede is a collaborative landscape design practice, focusing on the intersections of culture, ecology, and conservation. Projects have involved unusual allies like anthropologists, digital agencies, governments, and foundations.  Key to the work is the creation of local partnerships to evolve alternative co-management models. These models counter traditional Conservation that removes people from their lands and has resulted in the past centuries rise of 21 million conservation refugees. Through Studio Rede, I explore alternative models for Conservation that improve the public realm, local livelihoods thereby empowering local communities

You created Studio REDE in 2013.What was your inspiration?

After seeing my work on Mount Kailash, one of the world’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, the Republic of Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture and Education invited me to create a Tourism Management Plan for Bali’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites. The site was designated to protect 16,000 hectares of sacred rice terraces and ancient water temples. This was the project under which Studio Rede was born.

Can you tell us a bit about your time at UQ?

In the 90’s, The University of Queensland’s School of Architecture was an incredible place. The research and work coming out of the Indigenous Environmental Study Unit directed by Professor Paul Memmott was ground breaking. I took a course called Aboriginal Environments, which profoundly affected the rest of my career.

What are some of the skills you gained during your studies, or from time in industry that you feel have contributed to your success in your current career?

Academia has offered an amazing platform to test ideas and to gain invaluable feedback especially, in an exploratory design field. Some of the most invaluable tools from architecture have been the ability to systematically unpack complex relationships, to spatialize scientific data, visualize alternative scenarios and work within a participatory design process. The end result often astounds our clients as our methodologies extend beyond the project briefs and our ability to innovate in order to deliver unique solutions is continually evolving. I’m often surprised too.

What have been your highlights as the founder of Studio REDE thus far?

Invitations to speak at conferences are always great. Last year I spoke in Singapore at a Heritage conference and then participated in a charrette to restore the southern wetlands of Iraq. I’d been lecturing about these wetlands and the indigenous community of Ma’dan people who’d once lived there for 5000 years, in my Eco-Technology seminar. I worked with a small team of people to design a waste-water treatment park to treat water that would be used to restore the wetlands drained by Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s, causing the displacement of 1 million people. The non-profit that has been spearheading this campaign is Nature Iraq, led by Jassim Alasadi. For more information visit http://www.natureiraq.org/.

The project I’m about to launch is what I’m most excited about right now. I’m creating a global community and brand that will mainstream spiritual travel to sacred sites. The company called World & Spirit, is another next step towards conserving spiritual sites and ancient wisdom. I’m also writing a book on the world’s indigenous cultures and their unique ecological innovations.