From Concept to Design: An Interview with MFA Student, Ritta

Ritta Lei Zichun has been in San Francisco now for 3 years, pursuing her dream of becoming a Landscape Architect.  After just 30 minutes with Ritta, I learned that she is eager, clear about her goals, and incredibly kind-hearted. She inspired me in the way she paused to answer questions honestly and how she leaned forward to express ideas with bright energy and a smile.

As Ritta begins her master’s thesis, we can all learn from her thought process and approach to design. Ritta created an active art alley out of the one-way street connecting Polk and Larkin, in SF’s Tenderloin District. Learn about her design process and get a brief glimpse into the landscape architecture mindset.

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

An Interview with LAN MFA Student, Ritta

What made you choose the field of Landscape Architecture?

I just wrote a paper on this for my thesis project! In my country, China, city development is making us lose open space, green, and nature because we are focusing only on the economic and most of the land is being polluted—polluted air in China is very serious! So I chose landscape architecture to try to use my own skills to help rebuild our development. Maybe I can restore some outdoor area to reduce the pollution problem.

LAN 680: Site Planning and Sustainable Design Studio with Instructor Jeff McLane

Why did you choose the Tenderloin?


The San Francisco Planning Department wants to come up with some ideas to refresh this area. I worked with my instructor, [Director Jeff McLane] to choose Cedar Alley.

When I asked Ritta to tell me about her project, she “walked me through” the space, pointing and describing the areas from left to right:


The first area (left side) could provide different markets throughout the week: farmers market, art market, etc. Because of the context, being right next to an Indian culture center (Rigpa Center), the community could use that space to share their culture and thinking. The central area has a strong relationship with art [already] and I want to make the are in front of the pub full of paintings for a closed-space feeling. The pub could use it like an outdoor music plaza to attract more people to the site. Also, the sitting area could be used by the office nearby for outdoor lunch or to relax. The last space is available for Jane Coffee to have flexible seating outdoors, and the Chinese Grace Church could have space for any kind of big outdoor activity like, for example, sharing food for the homeless.

What was the biggest challenge?

I needed to find a strategy to slow down the traffic, to allow access for pedestrians and for cars to access doors and garages. I came up with this curve-strategy and also raised the street six inches up—a no-curb condition. This allows pedestrians to easily walk through the whole alley and makes drivers think before entering: [Ritta squints here to demonstrate a driver, hands grasping an imaginary steering wheel.] “Can I drive through? Oh I can, but I need to drive slow!” [Ritta and I both laugh.]

Finally, can you help us understand how a “concept” is used to create a design?

I think it depends on what kind of project. My concept is about providing an active art alley for [the people]. In a different project, an area might have another small culture or history which could make a specific idea come up.  For example, in one project near Yerba Buena Park, there was complex Jewish culture in the area, so I came up with a design using a Jewish symbol. But, in the end, [the symbol] is not very obvious. I think some ideas are hard to [translate] but the most important thing is what they can use in the design and how the designer can provide the people with what they need. Then, even if [the people] don’t understand the complex concept maybe they can learn [to appreciate the art in the concept] later through the landscape.


A note from the author:

I want to thank Ritta for spending time with me and for sharing her creative mind with our community. Please leave comments or questions for Ritta below and help us encourage her as she embarks on the daunting and exciting journey of creating her master’s thesis project.

By Kathryn M. Baldwin, LAN Administrator