David Rubin: Elevating The Design Of Cities

“David is a genius. He’s a flat-out genius,” says one client. “And he really understands the way people interact. He translates this so poetically into physical spaces where everybody is welcome.”

Tony Valainis

Walk around to the back of the Lilly mansion on the grounds of Newfields and look to the west. Until recently, a tangle of scrub trees dominated the view down to the canal, across the lake in 100 Acres, to the oxbow of the White River. It wasn’t exactly an ugly sight. But it wasn’t particularly inspiring either.

At Newfield’s Lilly House, Rubin shows off the improved view made possible by a clearing he suggested.

After Newfields hired celebrated landscape architect David Rubin to create a 30-year land-use plan in 2017, one of its first moves was to follow his suggestion to remove a panoramic section of that overgrowth. Today, the vista—once hidden by twists of invasive species that took hold after the property west of the canal, a former gravel pit, grew back to nature—is one of the most gorgeous in the city. Rubin didn’t need to reshape the hill or plant an elaborate hedgerow. He simply saw what was already there.

“All it took was this clearing,” Rubin said on a recent visit, admiring the joggers and cyclists on the canal towpath below.

Based in Philadelphia, where he runs the firm Land Collective, Rubin also researched the area’s past and its uses over time. He wanted to reveal not only the beauty of the Newfields property, but also the history that made the surrounding infrastructure possible. “You can see former farmland that became a quarry to make the highways and roads around here,” he says. “You can see the canal, which provided water for Indianapolis. All of those things are important. And now from the lake, from 100 Acres, you can see the estate that made it possible.”

Weaving the history of a place into its grounds may sound high-minded, but the Newfields project is a great example of Rubin doing what he does best: revealing the hidden potential of a landscape. To the occasional frustration of his competitors, he has been doing it here a lot lately. Rubin has seen his vision realized at Eskenazi Hospital and Cummins’s new distribution headquarters. He’s currently working on a large park in Westfield called Grand Junction Plaza, a master plan for the White River in Marion and Hamilton counties, the Cummins headquarters in Columbus, and riverfront plans in Fort Wayne and Muncie. Although he’s sought after nationally—Rubin worked on award-winning Canal Park in Washington, D.C. —he opened an Indianapolis office in 2018 to handle this series of Indiana commissions.

In addition to his talent for seeing the unrealized beauty of a landscape, Rubin is celebrated for the social nature of his public spaces, what he calls “empathy-driven design.” His plaza at Eskenazi features a shallow wading pool between two flanks of benches at different heights, a playful invitation to cross by foot or wheelchair and chat.

“David is just a genius. He’s a flat-out genius,” says Matt Gutwein, the president and CEO of the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, who hired Rubin to work at Eskenazi and later connected him to Newfields. “And he’s a person of enormous empathy and compassion. He really understands the way people interact. He translates this so poetically into physical spaces where everybody is welcome.”

Rubin grew up in Philadelphia, where urban design is almost as old as the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers flowing through it. William Penn, a British Quaker seeking religious freedom, formed Philadelphia in the 1600s, establishing a practical grid as the core. “Everything is north, south, east, west—with five parks, one in the center and one in each quadrant,” Rubin says. “The center one became City Hall, but the other four still exist.”

“David is a genius. He’s a flat-out genius,” says one client. “And he really understands the way people interact. He translates this so poetically into physical spaces where everybody is welcome.”

As a teenager, Rubin struggled to both learn in traditional ways and fit in at school. “I was a gay kid who didn’t understand what gay meant until junior high school,” he says. “This was 1981, the same year that AIDS came to light. Suddenly my identity was wrapped in the fear of death. It was a challenging time in my life. I was very alone and insecure.”

Then he met a teacher who introduced him to art history—bringing two of his passions together. “This allowed you to look at different cultures through their artifacts and recognize both similarities and differences, but most importantly, identity,” Rubin says. “I was able to express myself through art and flourish. So I went from failing out of high school to actually having some Latin words after my name graduating college.”

After earning degrees from Connecticut College and Harvard University, Rubin began working as a landscape architect for the large Philadelphia-based firm Olin in 1990. He soon began finding his own vision with projects like Lenfest Plaza at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There, he focused on designing the space for the people who use it—moving beyond what he calls the typical landscape-architecture approach of focusing on aesthetics, “pouring sauce over a building” to make things look nice. That meant really sweating details like the shape of a bench, the way it “received your tush.”

After just a few years at the Olin, Rubin became the youngest principal (the others were 10 to 30 years older than him) in the firm’s history. He brought in a ton of business. “I just loved talking about landscape architecture and what it could do for human beings,” Rubin says. “That allowed me to bring in a level of profitability that the other partners were not realizing, and allowed me to win the Rome prize [landscape architecture’s highest award] for the work that I was doing.”

“I was able to express myself through art and flourish. So I went from failing out of high school to actually having some Latin words after my name graduating college.”

After Rubin won that honor in 2012, he served a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. While collaborating with artists and designers from multiple disciplines there, he began to consider starting his own practice.

“It was a very difficult decision,” he says. “I looked inward to figure out what would make my practice different and what was making me successful at my old firm.” While at Olin, Rubin took a personality test and charted high on empathy, showing that he had a capacity to think beyond himself to solve design problems. “The measure of my happiness was actually doing good for others,” he says.

Rubin left Olin and formed Land Collective in 2012. Before long, he employed 12 staffers in a former art-gallery space a few blocks from the Liberty Bell. Plenty of work was rolling in to keep the growing firm busy in Philadelphia. But around that time, he received a call from Gutwein, the hospital executive in Indianapolis, that would change the course of his career.

When Gutwein first began thinking about the facility that would replace the aging Wishard Hospital he ran, he knew he wanted a world-class designer for the new grounds. A public hospital attracts an extremely diverse group of people, and he needed someone who could create a community feel outside. “When done right, great public spaces are what bring everybody together,” he says.

Gutwein had spoken with a number of local people with connections in the design world, including Max Anderson, then CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Many of those discussions ended with the name David Rubin. Gutwein found the landscape architect’s phone number on Google and cold-called him. “I said, ‘I may sound crazy, but I’m doing this project in Indianapolis, and we’re interested in you,’” he says. “And a week later, he was out here talking with us about what we were trying to accomplish.”

Rubin was drawn in immediately. “Matt was speaking about public health in the same way I was speaking about landscape,” he says.

1. The Healing Waters—a shallow pool Rubin designed to invite visitors to stop and wade together—automatically changes shape every 30 minutes. 2. Rubin included trellises in the landscape for growing vegetables. Here and at the hospital’s adjacent Clinic Building, urban farmers harvest 3,000 pounds of produce annually. 3. The Falls Fountain flows year-round—creating ice sculptures in winter and a cooling effect in summer. 4. The program spaces allow for healthy activities like public CrossFit and yoga classes. 5. Green roofs and multiple ways of recovering storm water helped earn this campus LEED Gold status, a rare designation for a hospital.

The goal was a comfortable and welcoming space at the entrance of the new Eskenazi Hospital, where many people would go for uncomfortable reasons. Rubin sketched out the wading pool that would provide soothing sounds for patients doing physical therapy exercises on the lawn or seeking some quiet in the midst of tumult. Named The Commonground, it became a regular hangout for Rubin as it took shape in 2013. He personally planted many of the flowers, and stood in the waterfall he designed, directing the stacking of the stones. Gutwein recalls walking into the plaza one day and seeing Rubin in the water with his pants rolled up.

He had a hammer and chisel in his hands, and he was chipping away at a rock.

“He didn’t like the way the water was coming off of the stack,” Gutwein says with a smile. “He didn’t think it made quite the right sound, so he was chiseling away to get the angle he wanted. He wanted it to be absolutely perfect.”

Eskenazi opened to rave reviews at the end of 2013, and Rubin’s work there led to additional jobs at Newfields and Grand Junction Park. The following year, he gave a keynote speech at the Arts Council of Indianapolis’s Start with Art luncheon that would lead to another huge commission. Rubin finished that speech by telling the audience: “I encourage you to be vulnerable, to think strategically about what you want people to see that is emblematically you. Be vulnerable to great design, the idea that it might be different than the norm. Because it will make a statement as it did at Eskenazi, as it did at other places where great design lifts and elevates culture, and brands you as the extraordinary city that you are.”

Among the 900 people standing and applauding was Sally Leyes, an executive at Cummins. She pulled Rubin aside and told him her company would like to talk with him about the grounds surrounding their new distribution headquarters on Washington Street. Famous for the design of its campus in Columbus, Indiana (and the architecture it inspired throughout that city), the company had hired Yale School of Architecture dean Deborah Berke to draft the building. They wanted someone equally renowned for the plaza outside.

1. Rubin hopes adding a screen to the parking garage will beautify the street and unify the structure with some of the surrounding architecture. 2. New townhomes that will bring density and needed mid-priced housing to downtown will, at Rubin’s suggestion, include terraces to also bring more activity to the street. 3. Streets reconfigured to be two-way will be better for businesses and more inviting for people walking and biking. 4. In addition to improving the feel of the street, the installation of rain gardens and trees will help with stormwater drainage.

Rubin loved the staggered design of the building, and as the landscape project got underway, he reflected it in the pattern of the plaza pavers. Flying back and forth between Philadelphia and Indy, he packed plants from home in an extra suitcase, and began planting them just so at the Cummins site. “Bringing my own horticulture to these projects has become an emotional connection to the work for me,” he says. “There’s some physicality and ceremony to the act of planting something from one’s own garden and sharing it on site.”

Perhaps the most Rubinesque element of the design is the “high-tech harvest table.” A long slab with electrical outlets, it encourages the public as well as Cummins employees to have a seat and plug in a laptop to work among the Kentucky coffee trees (another Rubin signature). As far-fetched as it might sound, Rubin sees the potential for creative breakthroughs in the simple act of bringing a diverse group of people together outside.

“A unique asset of the exterior is that you might end up sitting next to somebody who is not a Cummins employee, and they may come up in conversation with an idea that will help Cummins move their diesel-engine technology forward,” Rubin says of this publicly accessible private space. “It’s that notion of serendipitous encounter.”

Responding to the growing interest in his work here, Rubin opened a small Land Collective office on Mass Ave two years ago. Since then, Central Indiana has seen a groundswell of ambitious landscape architecture projects such as the White River Vision Plan. Some of this energy can be attributed to Rubin.

“One thing I love about Indiana right now is how open people are to supporting big ideas,” says Newfields deputy director of horticulture Jonathan Wright, also a recent transplant from Philadelphia. “David has really found his niche here because he does everything with so much heart. He thinks big. He dreams big.”

Kevin Osburn, a principal at the local landscape architecture firm Rundell Ernstberger, competed with Rubin for the Cummins distribution headquarters job. While it’s not easy losing a big client like that to a new competitor, Osburn sees his arrival as a boon to the local design scene. “I’m glad David is working on these projects because I really respect his ideas,” he says. “He’s bringing a different perspective and has elevated the conversation about public spaces.”

1. The custom-built “high-tech harvest table” allows Cummins employees and visitors to work together. The table includes built-in power, and the plaza offers public Wi-Fi. 2. Rubin planned the staggered pattern of pavers in the plaza to reflect the facade of the Deborah Berke–designed building. 3. Although it’s hard to see in this rendering, terraced seating encourages workers to get comfortable and create, whether individually or in groups. 4. All stormwater is captured on site. About 20 percent sinks back into the groundwater, while 80 percent is gathered in a below-grade cistern to reuse for irrigation. 5. The end-cut wood of the benches is a nod to the technique’s use in early-20th-century factory flooring—and Cummins’s industrial history.

Local architect and urban planner Lourenzo Giple agrees. “It’s no longer, ‘I’ve known you for 20 years, and you do OK work, so you are going to do the job, even though I know it could have been done on a higher level,’” he says. “Clients are getting exposure to something else, and they want more.”

This translates into great work for others, not just Rubin. Rundell Ernstberger competed with Land Collective for the Lugar Plaza project in 2018, a reimagining of a barely used area between Washington Street and the back of the City County Building. The former firm won that commission, and created an inviting space that Rubin appreciates. And many other local firms are involved in the labor it takes to realize the big plans at Newfields.

“There’s a lot of talent here that is overlooked,” Giple says. “And support is hard to find in a creative field that people see as a luxury item, not a necessity. If you can’t step up and produce, then somebody else is going to come up and do it. If you’re not willing to adjust and adapt, you fall by the wayside.”

All of which is good news, because historically, Indy’s approach to landscape architecture hasn’t always been adventurous. Rubin points to the Indiana War Memorial Plaza, a five-block stretch from New York Street to the Central Library on St. Clair Street, as a space in need of imagination. Right now, he says, that area is monumental and little else. As Indianapolis grows and more people are living downtown, it could be far more than a pass-through. Bringing a dining option or games to the solemn plaza could evolve it from being a symbol to being a place—a home for the kind of gatherings found at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

That kind of proposal could easily attract criticism, especially from a newcomer who’s now being watched closely. Rubin has landed a lot of business in Indiana recently, and while professionals like Giple are complimentary and no one would go on record with complaints, there are rumors of discontent in the local design community about that fact.

Giple connects any concerns about Rubin—an outsider coming in and getting lots of attention—to what happened when graffiti artist Muck Rock visited Indy from the West Coast last year and painted dozens of murals here in a matter of months. Local muralists vented on social media about the injustice of it all.

“There’s a lot of talent here that is overlooked,” Giple says. “And support is hard to find in a creative field that people see as a luxury item, not a necessity. But Muck Rock did put herself out there and hustled really hard. And in both of these situations, it’s survival of the fittest. If you can’t step up and produce, then somebody else is going to come up and do it. If you’re not willing to adjust and adapt, you fall by the wayside.”

Mostly, Rubin has been overwhelmed by the positive reception he has received here. “Indianapolis is not just poised for greatness, it’s on the leading edge of that wave,” he says. “That’s why I was determined to invest in the place. My approach to landscapes, to sociology, to the design, was so well-embraced by this constituency. The generosity made me think I should stay.”

As he prepares to get his hands dirty with the Grand Junction Park project in Westfield and a redesign of Cummins’s Columbus headquarters landscape in 2020, Rubin sees some of the other firms in town making more ambitious proposals and embracing an empathetic philosophy.

“I think our approach is sort of elevating the game a little bit here,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a person coming in from the outside to say, ‘Hey, why are we doing it this way? Because it doesn’t need to be like that. It could actually be this other way.’”