Mike Fotheringham: Constructing clues to the past

While other boys in his rural elementary school were devouring Hardy Boys mysteries, young Mike Fotheringham was busy deciphering clues left by Mother Nature on the topography of southwestern Utah.

The landscape architecture lecturer grew up around the old mining towns of Milford and Beaver in a desert left behind when Lake Bonneville dried up about 14,000 years ago.

"I was fortunate enough to have parents who let me wander off and play with scorpions," he says, chuckling. Fotheringham recalls outdoor adventures and one puzzlement in particular that left an indelible mark on his career and ultimately influenced his latest endeavor - the $25 million redesign of San Francisco's Union Square.

Lake Bonneville once covered about 20,000 square miles of western Utah. At its largest, the lake was about 325 miles long, 135 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep in parts. As its waters receded in stages, ancient shorelines were permanently recorded on canyon walls.

"As a kid I would see those wave washes on the old valley walls and I always wondered what caused them. I grew up reading the landscape," Fotheringham said.

He has since made communicating a sense of place and history a driving force behind his work.

Historical clues abound in the Union Square project, started five years ago in the heart of San Francisco's commercial district. "Those clues create security and safety - a sense of belonging," Fotheringham said. And building those clues into their proposal probably helped Fotheringham and project partner April Philips land the job, he said.

In July of 1997, Fotheringham's and Philips' "All the Square is a Stage" was chosen from among about 320 proposals submitted in a San Francisco Prize Design Competition to be the design implemented on the 2 1/2-acre square. The contest paid $2,500. But the real prize has been the renovation itself. "There may never be another project like this," Fotheringham said.

The square is set to officially reopen July 25. Mayor Willie Brown will be on hand and an effort to get celebrity attendance also is under way, Fotheringham said.

Union Square dates back to 1850. Its last renovation, in 1941, turned the ground under the square into a four-story parking garage. Of the about 13 million tourists who visit San Francisco each year, Fotheringham said, eight to nine million people stop at the square.

Fotheringham and Phillips have designed a space where tourists, or even locals, can learn a little more about San Francisco's heritage and where a wide range of entertainment can take place, from intimate performances and public art exhibitions, to orchestral concerts with seating for up to 2,000 people.

The corners of Powell at Geary street and Stockton at Post will focus on the socio-political history of the city, with the names of those who have influenced the city sandblasted into granite walls. The other two corners offer clues to the natural history of the region. The Powell and Post corner, which sits 22 feet higher than the corner of Stockton and Geary, will showcase imprints of indigenous upland flora molded into ceramic tiles to resemble fossils. The lower corner will present riparian species.

In addition, a new café will introduce food services to the square.

"The Dewey Monument is the only element from the 1941 design that we've kept," Fotheringham said. "We wanted to take the square to the next generation."

The sale of bonds based on parking structure revenues over the next 20 years is funding the project. As budgetary belt-tightenings squeeze recreation districts' ability to properly maintain parks, Fotheringham said, the square represents a model he hopes more cities will get behind - publicly held space that is stewarded with private monies. "There are a lot of people who would disagree with me on that, though," he said.

Fotheringham has lived in Martinez and worked in San Francisco since 1981. He started his own firm, MD Fotheringham Landscape Architects, Inc., in 1992 and has come to Davis a couple days a week to teach introductory and advanced design classes since 1994.

His firm's work has been diverse - private gardens, public plazas, planned communities. He also has designed a project to revitalize the west end of Golden Gate Park, including the restoration of two antique windmills on the site - clues to the area's past. "Probably 75 percent of the park received irrigation from those windmills," Fotheringham said. "The windmills pumped water to a reservoir near the center of the park, and that water was used to irrigate the park as it expanded to the west."

"It's another chance to uncover the history of the western United States," he said. "We're just too young as a country - we don't appreciate history enough."

What is your dream project? This redesign has to be a highlight. But I'd also like to work on some sites where the landscape has been damaged by industry, like an abandoned oil refinery or military base, and allow nature to reclaim a site. The Naval Weapons Station in Concord has tremendous potential.

What inspires you? Reading about urban planning to see how other cities solved issues, visiting parks and museums. I get to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco about six times a year; I enjoy the abstractness of how the artists communicate. Also, I've started approaching sketching in a different way - sketching with white ink on black paper. I have a pad I keep just for that. I usually use it in those rare moments of total inspiration or desperation. There's a certain amount of neurosis I use as a tool, too.

Any favorite books or movies? Anything by Ayn Rand - I really adore her point of view - and the space trilogy by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." I'm drawn to the fantasy landscapes in those books and how the authors imagine other realities. I also like Star Trek for that reason.

What's your favorite spot on campus? There are two. I like the MU square - it's the hub of student life; there's a lot to be learned there about how people interact with public space. And I just like the whole linear experience of the arboretum; it's very restful and it's a vital landscape.

How about off campus? When I moved to California, I was in the sixth grade and one of the first field trips we took was to Cache Creek. Now, I'll take side roads to go to my parents' home in Woodland just because they will take me by those lands. Riparian landscapes, in general, are ones I'll seek out.

What's your favorite thing about your work? The fact that it's a restorative profession. Usually when something is just built, that's when it looks the best, and from there it degrades. But with a garden, it's just the opposite; with time it grows in strength and diversity. A lot of times it takes 20-30 years to see the final composition.

And your least favorite? Waiting 20-30 years to see the final composition. But it's mainly the fact that agencies sometimes don't have funds available to maintain a project to the level it was intended to be.

What's something you'd like to see changed about the world? I'd like us to get it to the point where we're using all-renewable energy sources and seeing developers really embrace those sources. We spend a lot of time agonizing over energy systems. It would be a comfort to see us make that change sooner than later. •

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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