|Matt Langan is in his twelfth year with the Boston office of Sasaki Associates, a planning and design firm with international operations. In 2014, Cantigny retained Sasaki to develop a property “master plan” that became Project New Leaf. As a senior associate, he focuses on the day-to-day management of landscape architecture projects such as ours.
Langan, reporting to Joe Hibbard, is Sasaki’s project manager for Cantigny, a wide-ranging role involving creative, technical and administrative duties. With Hibbard’s guidance and support from the Sasaki design team, he is the primary design contact for Cantigny and construction manager Featherstone, Inc.
We caught up with Matt during his latest visit to Cantigny in July.
Q: Being in Massachusetts, how do you keep track of the day-to-day demands and details of the project here in Wheaton?
A: The key has been weekly “check-in” meetings with Cantigny and Featherstone that keep everyone updated on design progress. I can also collect information from the staff that helps us understand the real opportunities and constraints for the project. We use in-person meetings for detailed design reviews, focusing on specific park or garden area. Most of our time between these meetings is dedicated to design development (the creative part) and documentation of the design (the technical part). When we transition to the construction phase, the day-to-day demands shift substantially toward daily communication with both Cantigny and Featherstone to keep our pulse on the progress and to ensure that the Construction Documents we developed are complete and that the design intent they illustrate is executed suitably.
Q: How often do you visit Cantigny, and what is your usual agenda when on site?
A: Before COVID-19 it was roughly every 6 to 8 weeks during design. During construction, my favorite part of the whole process, we are at Cantigny at least once a month (pre-pandemic). We normally spend two full days on site. The first day we observe construction progress, documenting issues or deficiencies, such as non-conforming work or unforeseen challenges that could not have been known before the contractors started digging. These observations are issued to Cantigny and Featherstone in field report a few days after our trip. The second day on site usually includes a construction meeting in the morning, run by Featherstone, that addresses progress during the previous month, financial performance of the project to date, and construction activities on the horizon. The look-ahead conversation is an opportunity for Featherstone to receive guidance they may need from Sasaki to prepare for impending work, and to coordinate the work with upcoming Cantigny programs and events.
Q: Describe your interactions with Cantigny Horticulture. For example, when you submit plans for a garden area, is there collaboration before the design is locked in?
A: One of the unique aspects of working with Cantigny is the presence of horticulture and forestry professionals who are focused on maintaining the grounds. Members of Cantigny Horticulture participate in every design review meeting and are involved in many aspects of construction observation. They care as much about successful execution as we do because they ultimately inherit the design. Nothing is really “locked in” until the last plant is planted. While Sasaki’s primary focus is on ensuring a strong framework and theme to the garden areas, we are always working with Cantigny to tweak details such as plant species and hose locations to make the performance and maintenance of the gardens more efficient in the long term. There is a mutual respect for one another’s expertise.
Q: You are educated and trained in landscape architecture. But your job involves a lot more than designing gardens and selecting plants. Can you give a sense of your daily work?
A: Most of what you learn in school is about the tenets of design and how to document a design so that it can be constructed. This appealed to me long before college. In fact, I was mowing lawns, maintaining gardens and constructing modest residential landscapes since I was in the 7th grade! I worked for a landscape contractor throughout high school and college. I love the physical labor aspect of contracting but thought that pursuing a landscape architecture degree would give me more opportunity in authoring the design of projects, rather than the implementation. That said, my daily work entails a lot of tasks that I didn’t learn in school. Project management requires a lot of administration that takes up a lot of my time – emails, phone calls, meetings, subsequent meeting minutes, staffing coordination, invoicing and technical quality control. These things are not “design” but you learn quickly how crucial they are to the whole process. Having your hand in every aspect of a project really gives you an intimate knowledge of the process and a much greater sense of satisfaction when the project is completed. That said, every minute that I focus on these tasks is a minute I am not working on the production of the drawings or specifications. So Joe Hibbard and I rely heavily on our core in-house design team – Zach Chrisco, Steve Engler, Kevin Hebard, Kara Slocum, Chris Myers, Diana Fernandez, Yujia Wang, Jose Miranda, Vinicius Gorgati, Robert Titus, Brendan Rogers, and Sam Pease. They’ve all been critical to the design and documentation of our work at Cantigny.
Q: Of all the Project New Leaf additions and improvements, do you have a favorite?
A: That’s a tough question, but one that I was expecting. Reflecting on the garden areas completed so far, I often think of moments in time, rather than specific improvements. I am always stopped in my tracks by the simplicity and clarity of the new Oak Colonnade – a deliberate “first impression” that gives form to the civic aspirations of Cantigny Park and the McCormick Foundation. I love how the sunlight comes through the honey locust trees near the Keyhole Garden and lights up the south lawn in the mid-afternoon – one of the most photogenic areas of Cantigny in my opinion. I always take advantage of the breeze that blows across the Parade Field into the shady Hosta Garden. The smell of the Sporobolus grasses in the Perennial Border are burned into my memory. The light, and fog if you’re lucky, at Gold Pond in the early morning is always worth getting up early for, a short walk from Dairyman’s Cottage, where we usually stay on trips to Cantigny. Of the Phase II gardens that are just finishing now, I am most excited about the axial promenade from the Visitors Center, past the new Fountain Garden and re-planted McCormick Allée, to the Prairie View overlook. This will be a game-changer for visitor circulation through the park and is a critical component that ties together the many civic scale interventions that we laid out in the 2015 master plan.
A: Our trips to Cantigny are always action-packed, so it’s a challenge to get away for any sightseeing. But I have been able to sneak out to see the Farnsworth House in Plano, the Lurie Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden, the (other) McCormick House at the Elmhurst Art Museum, the Chicago Riverwalk (another Sasaki project), and the Lily Pool at Lincoln Park, which inspired some of our stone work at Cantigny. There are still many additional sites on my bucket list, and I’m open to suggestions. Good thing we still have Phase III on the horizon!