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Home » Clarion » 2012 » September 2012 » Life/Work: Building with an Eye Toward Nature

Life/Work: Building with an Eye Toward Nature


Achva Benzinberg Stein
Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, City College
BA in Landscape Architecture (UC-Berkeley)
MA in Landscape Architecture (MIT/Harvard)

Achva Benzinberg Stein relaxes in the Moroccan courtyard she designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Growing up in a small town outside of Tel Aviv during Israel’s early years, Achva Benzinberg Stein watched a landscape of sand dunes transform to one of parks and gardens.

“I didn’t know at the time it was called landscape architecture, but I knew it was a nice job to do,” she told Clarion. Since coming to the United States in the mid-1960s as a college student, Stein has won widespread acclaim in her field as a scholar, an educator and a practicing architect. She came to City College in 2005 as the founding director of the School of Architecture’s Graduate Program in Landscape Architecture.

Much of Stein’s work has focused on Moroccan gardens and courtyards, which are a response to the climate and life in the Mediterranean. These walled compounds, common to many Moroccan homes and buildings, offer privacy from the outside world and a cool, refreshing space for tranquil reflection. In 2011, she designed and supervised the construction of a traditional 14th-century interior courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painstakingly created by Moroccan artisans who worked on-site.

In all her work, Stein emphasizes building structures and communities that act in concert with the natural world instead of trying to dominate it, which she says has often left her “swimming against the current” in a field where a bigger is better mentality often holds sway.

“The world is on loan to us and we should return it in good condition,” Stein insists. “It’s not just for us. It’s for everybody.”

Arriving in Berkeley in spring 1965

I liked the ideas. It was a different face of America. I thought I would find kindred spirits and I did – it was where I met my future husband, David Stein. At the time, he was coordinating legal defense for 800 members of the Free Speech Movement who faced criminal charges after engaging in civil disobedience on campus. Today he’s an urban and regional planner. We are probably one of the few couples still together from that time.

People’s architecture

While studying at UC-Berkeley, I was a part of a group of of landscape architecture students who opened a small office near campus and helped members of the community design community gardens, parks and other amenities they wanted to bring to life. It was very idealistic. We helped the community do what it wanted to do.

Shop steward

After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a parks designer in the public works department in San Francisco. I was the shop steward for the union local that covered myself and about 25 other parks designers.

My favorite local project I’ve worked on in New York City

Library Lane outside the new Bronx Central Library that opened in 2005. The design, which I worked on with the City College Architecture Center, transformed a neglected alleyway that was a neighborhood eyesore into a public space with a plaza and gardens. I learned a lot about working with various non-profit organizations as well as the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT). And in the process, I gave my students a better model of working with communities. The plaza and the street realignment have been completed, and DOT is now continuing the second phase.

I first became interested in Moroccan gardens and courtyards when…

My grandmother showed me a postcard from Morocco when I was growing up. She commented to me that Tel Aviv would have looked very different if the architects had been trained in Morocco instead of Germany. This thought caught my imagination and planted a seed that has continued to grow to this day. The uniqueness of the Moroccan tradition is that it has never died and the craftsmanship has been maintained despite colonization.

What I like about the Moroccan garden is…

It’s a wonderful reflection of the culture and the ability of a culture to make use of limited resources, which we all need to learn how to do because now the whole world has limited resources. Clay, wood, stones and metals are used – very simple elements which are brought to the highest level of design by the efforts of people’s work and craftsmanship.

On working with Moroccan artisans on the courtyard at the Met

The six of them were unbelievable. Few of them finished high school, but they were geniuses. They were working with soft plaster and clay and the simplest tools you can imagine, just little knives. They were so meticulous, doing all their work by hand. They could do it without looking at the drawings. They could eyeball it and always get the right proportions. It was human skill working on simple material and turning it into gold.

My father was a bronze cutter. I grew up around people who worked with their hands, and they knew it as soon as I stepped down to look at their work. Working together, we had a good relationship. We are all the children of Abraham.

Why I teach at CUNY

I came here because it’s public. The heart of landscape architecture is not about designing private gardens. It’s about healing the environment and creating public spaces for people to come together and understand the world they live in.

On being awarded the 2011-2012 Teacher of the Year Award at CCNY

Everybody deserves to enjoy the world we were given. Students get it. They see this reflected in my class and that’s why they think I’m a good teacher. Young people have an ability to hope.

Current research projects

I’m writing two books – one on sustainable water storage and distribution systems around the world, and one about my father-in-law, Joseph Allen Stein. He migrated from the United States to India in 1952 as a refugee from McCarthyism, and became one of that country’s foremost modernist architects – as well as someone who inspired my overall outlook. [Editor’s note: When Joseph Allen Stein died in 2001,The New York Times wrote “In the nearly half-century he spent in India, Mr. Stein won acclaim for marrying his structures to the natural landscape. He favored buildings that merged into the trees, lawns and ponds surrounding them.”]

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