Arts & Culture

A landscape architect takes helm at NCSU’s College of Design

Decades ago, Mark Hoversten chose not to pursue a career in music. He looked instead to art, architecture and the landscape. N.C. State’s College of Design soon will reap the benefits of that decision.
Decades ago, Mark Hoversten chose not to pursue a career in music. He looked instead to art, architecture and the landscape. N.C. State’s College of Design soon will reap the benefits of that decision.

The new dean of the College of Design at N.C. State almost made music his college major.

Mark Hoversten grew up in the Midwest, not far from a private liberal arts college where his father, cousins, sisters and brothers had all gone to school. “The whole choral thing there was a big deal – I thought I was going to be a choir director,” he says. “But the price tag had gone up so much that I went to a local junior college.”

Still, the value of a liberal arts education stuck with him. Over time, he would pursue extensive studies – not in music, but in art and design. He earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Minnesota, and a bachelor of fine arts. Then came a master’s degree in painting and drawing from the University of New Mexico, a master of fine arts in painting from the University of Iowa, and a Ph.D. in landscape planning from Lincoln University in New Zealand.

He cites Frank Lloyd Wright as an early influence. “I realized the power that design had to change people’s lives, and I discovered architecture and then landscape architecture,” he says. “It’s an acquired taste – as Frank Lloyd Wright said, the land is the beginning of architecture.”

Hoversten learned Bay Area Modernism at the University of Minnesota, worked in the Minneapolis studio of abstract expressionist Peter Busa, but settled on landscape architecture because of its ability to connect people across the environment.

“It’s pretty varied – from large scale landscape planning to habitat restoration down to the human scale of city design,” he says. “Frederick Law Olmsted was bringing landscape architecture issues into urban design – from neighborhood design down to site planning.”

It was the 19th-century’s Olmsted – not architect Richard Morris Hunt – who sited Biltmore so agreeably on George Vanderbilt’s estate near Asheville. “There are a lot of things that we do that we share, like locational analysis for buildings: Is this place suitable for the use we propose? And if not, where is the suitable place?” he says. “We actually study all the systems of a place and find the suitability.”

And though Hunt’s design for Vanderbilt’s home is unmistakable in its grandeur, it was Olmsted’s work to establish a school of forestry at Biltmore – and to manage the forest surrounding it – that earned the estate its designation as a National Historic Landmark. “The discipline is pretty porous, having worked as an architect, a painter and a landscape architect, I find that the legal description of our profession is restrictive,” he says. “A license for a landscape architect or architect puts us in boxes.”

His own career has been anything but boxed in. “Mark is unique in the world in which he sits,” says colleague Jim Heid, president of Urban Green, a sustainable development firm. “He’s chosen academia but he’s covered all threes aspects of the field, as a client, a consultant and an academic. He’s moved through those three worlds pretty seamlessly.”

Learning from Las Vegas

Perhaps his most ambitious undertaking for a client was managing the land planning division of the Howard Hughes Corporation from 1987 to 1991 – with an annual budget of $63 million. “In his craziness, Howard Hughes bought 24,000 acres on the edge of Las Vegas,” Hoversten says. “Of that, 22,000 acres became Summerlin, with 150,000 people living there now. It was desert when we started. It took four years.”

That affluent, master-planned community was the product of a coordinated team of planners, engineers, marketers and construction managers, with Hoversten at the helm. “We took raw land and improved it with roads, parks, open space, town centers and subdivided it into neighborhoods,” he says.

They sold 20-acre lots to homebuilders, as Hoversten supervised all planning, landscape architecture and graphics. They established design guidelines, and worked with officials from the county, the city, the water authority and other public agencies to build schools, churches and firefighting facilities. One company would build the community while another managed it.

“It was a fun time,” he says. “I got to work with some of best consultants in the nation on the fastest-growing city in the country.”

Stepping into universities

From there he moved into academia, establishing the landscape architecture department at the University of Las Vegas. He would stay there 16 years, leaving a lasting impact not just on the school and its students, but on the state – with a program to beautify its interstate highway system. “When you drive our highways today, they’re more aesthetically pleasing,” says Frankie Sue Del Papa, former Nevada attorney general and member of the state transportation board. “The fact that there are sculptures incorporated into them – he was the driving force and a key player behind that.”

From 2009 until he joined N.C. State in July, Hoversten was dean of the College of Art and Architecture at the University of Idaho, beginning at a time when the school suffered from budget cuts and isolation from the rest of the world. “He attacked it with rigor and compassion, and created a lot of positive changes there,” Heid says.

Challenges for the college

Raising money is a skill at which the new dean has proven himself adept – and that’s something the College of Design needs. “His greatest challenge is fundraising – one million dollars a year,” says Frank Harmon, professor of architecture at N. C. State. “The state has been cutting the budget every year for 10 years.”

A change agent, Hoversten is known also for merging fundraising and entrepreneurial qualities in charismatic and personable ways. “It’s not: ‘How do I schmooze? It’s the unique value proposition we can offer – like research,’ ” Heid says. “He thinks about how to create value and create funding.”

He’ll be looking to opportunities for applied research for the private sector here, much the way that universities in Boston, Berkeley and Chicago do. “Wherever you have great design schools, you’ll have a great city,” Hoversten says. “There will be deep user analysis to come up with ideas and to help projects come to fruition.”

Like his predecessors, he’s now standing in the shadow of Henry Kamphoefner, who established the School of Design in the late 1940s and recruited the likes of architects George Matsumoto, James Fitzgibbon, Maciej Nowicki, Eduardo Catalano, Milton Small and Brian Shawcroft to teach and practice in Raleigh.

Back in the day, if Kamphoefner heard about an architect of interest, he’d simply go out and recruit them. It’s not so easy now. “Today if you want to hire somebody, you get 100 responses that are narrowed down to 10 and a committee makes the choice,” Harmon says. “Everything today is done by a certain protocol.”

There are also new trends to incorporate into the school’s agenda. One is toward performance-based design – to measure and recover costs, mixed in with the design phase of a project. That wasn’t expected 15 years ago. “There’s a movement of critical thinking built into the process now – along with industrial design and graphic design – so the design service is a process, and may or may not be designing a product,” Hoversten says.

Decades ago, Mark Hoversten chose not to pursue a career in music. He looked instead to art, architecture and the landscape. N.C. State’s College of Design soon will reap the benefits of that decision, if it hasn’t started to already.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at