Break Out, 2004

Tom Leader

Location: Berkeley, California
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Tom Leader takes his work seriously— but not too seriously. His studio works comfortably with advanced technology and the humble materials of everyday life alike, in projects ranging from an interwoven network of pedestrian plazas in Shanghai, China, to a 2004 installation of hay bales and screen doors at the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma County, California. Wit, playfulness, and experimentation are a vital part of the collaborative studio’s work, which always acknowledges the importance of the community that will activate and inhabit the places it creates.

After a number of years spent “rolling with the punches” in the business of making landscape architecture, Leader decided that it was time to get less serious. Break Out, Leader’s project at Cornerstone, elicits a laugh, but not because it is a oneliner. Walls made of bales of hay surround a maze of screen doors that creak and slam as visitors and the wind pass through, evoking barnyards, porches, and the vernacular culture of rural California. The spirit of Johnny Cash inhabits Break Out as scratchy fragments of his songs intermingled with bugzapping sounds play on speakers throughout the site. The project, which has a dark side—its title and maze refer to incarceration and tough times—inspired a new project, a temporary garden made of shipping containers, catwalks, and scaffolds at the Fresno Museum.

Leader’s work is not always gritty and humorous, but as the studio takes on more sophisticated large-scale projects, such as the Railroad Reservation Park in Birmingham, Alabama, it tries to keep experimentation and unpredictability an important part of its working process.