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Landscape architecture students, faculty and staff read same book at UC Berkeley, attract author to campus
08 April 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Inspired by the City of Chicago, which invited its residents to each read "To Kill a Mockingbird" last summer, a group of students, faculty and staff members at the University of California, Berkeley, also is reading a so-called "book in common."

And Anne Michaels, the Canadian author of "Fugitive Pieces," the chosen novel, was so impressed with the project at the College of Environmental Design's landscape architecture and environmental design department that she accepted an invitation from students to visit UC Berkeley next week. From April 14-16, the University of Toronto creative writing teacher will do a reading from her book, attend a class where students are sketching scenes from her novel, and even explore Berkeley neighborhoods on a student-led tour.

"Fugitive Pieces" is a 294-page novel in which a young boy reconnects to the world after World War II in a saga that creates links between landscapes, memory and emotion across settings ranging from urban to rural.

This "book in common" project was the idea of Helaine Kaplan Prentice, a guest lecturer in the department, who said something "just clicked" after she heard about the Chicago experiment.

A landscape architect and author of books on gardens and architectural preservation, Kaplan Prentice noticed how her department was immersed in a wide range of natural resource interests - from the scale of the state of Alaska to a plaza in downtown Oakland - and thought a book in common about the force of the landscape on the human condition might inspire designers' insight and help build a sense of unity.

She spread the word to gauge interest and received 65 suggested titles that met the primary criterion - landscape content - from 20 people throughout the department. Michaels' book was the nearly unanimous choice of the selection panel of six students and four faculty members.

Students rejected easier books, contending that a serious year with events such as Sept. 11 called for a serious book such as Michaels' novel about faith and love after the Holocaust.

The book "provides a long-term perspective on the landscape that will stimulate us to think beyond our immediate landscape focus," wrote Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Chair Walter Hood, recommending the book in a department-wide message last December.

The student chapter at UC Berkeley of the American Society of Landscape Architects bought 20 copies of the book, including some on tape, to share. The environmental design library offered several copies as well, and reading began over winter break. The readers included undergraduate and graduate students, librarians, and the gardeners of the Blake estate, home of the University of California president. Some chose to re-read the book during spring break.

Next week, Michaels' time on campus will include attending a class about landscape and architecture, sitting in on a class on the urban design of Mexico City, and serving as a juror evaluating students' work.

Marcia McNally, a UC Berkeley professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, said she and her students will lead Michaels, possibly by bicycle, through Berkeley neighborhoods such as Northside, Fourth Street and the south side of University Avenue, noting their landscape, architectural heritage, and historical elements.

After students in McNally's class on neighborhoods read the book, she asked them to imagine the boy today, wandering Berkeley neighborhoods, and the type of home where he would chose to live, complete with landscape design and even neighbors. Then they drew what they envisioned.

Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design, tucked a quotation from the book inside his jacket pocket that read: "The best teacher lodges an intent not in the mind but in the heart."

Graduate student Daphne Campbell said that "Fugitive Pieces" offered her a number of valuable lessons and inspiring passages. One, she said, was: "Important lessons: look carefully, record what you see. Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful."

So far, said Kaplan Prentice, the guest lecturer at UC Berkeley, the book in common project is proving that "you can present a provocative book to creative people and they will come up with original ways to use it."

In addition to the College of Environmental Design, sponsors helping to bring Michaels to UC Berkeley next week include Canadian Studies, Jewish Studies, the Forestry Department, English Department, and the Townsend Center for the Humanities.