Adventures of a Landscape Architect
By Regina Moreno Hernandez
It was the year 1965. Achva Benzinberg Stein had no more than $70, but after hearing about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, she bought a one way ticket on the Greyhound bus from New York to Berkeley. After 4 years, Stein graduated from UC Berkeley as a Landscape Architect. A Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architecture, twice awarded with a Fulbright Fellowship, Stein’s travels and experiences throughout the years have shaped her career as a Landscape Architect.
She came to the United States after she finished her army service in Israel, her country of origin. When she arrived to New York, the Civil Rights Movement had just started. “I took one semester in New York, and then I read about Berkeley in the New York Times; it was about the free speech movement, and I thought Wow! They are having a good time,'” said Stein. So she left New York hoping everything would work out in Berkeley. Not long after she arrived, she realized it wouldn’t be as easy. But she was lucky.
“There was a professor looking for an au-pair girl. He and his wife needed somebody to take care of the kids at night, wash the dishes…but not all day long. They would give you room and board in exchange. By 6 o’clock I took the bus, went up there, they met me, said ok, and that was the end for one semester. It was so fun!” However, being an au-pair girl for the couple wasn’t working, so when the summer came, Stein started working for two older men cleaning house and cooking for them. This job allowed her to look for other jobs too. She worked in UC Berkeley’s library, in a restaurant at the university, where she worked during lunch time, and had a third job as a waitress in the women’s faculty club.
Stein was able to save money for next semester; however, not all her problems were solved. She was a foreign student, so she had no way of getting financial aid from the university. Luckily, she had a loving boyfriend who helped her. Together they went to the library and found a scholarship given to Jewish students studying agriculture. The problem was she wasn’t studying agriculture; she was majoring in Landscape Architecture. So, they sent a letter arguing that she was studying “decorative agriculture.” She got the scholarship.
Later on, David Stein would become her husband. “We stuck together ever since. My husband and I traveling all over. His family lived in India. He’s not an Indian, but his family left at McCarthy’s time. McCarthy was the senator who created this kind of anticommunist feeling in the 50s. My father-in-law was an architect and he worked in low cost housing, and that was considered communist at that time.” Her father in law became a renown architect in India, and thanks to his connections, when Professor Stein’s husband came to study in Berkeley, he knew people from the field.
“He knew all the architects in the Bay Area because of his father, so it was really nice for me, because I got to know all the professors in Architecture school. They invited him and I was his girlfriend. The chair of my department was almost like his uncle, so we used to eat there Friday night, Sunday night…it was really nice,” recalls Professor Stein with a smile. David Stein’s father was a freedom fighter against the British mandate, and her grandmother, who years later would visit her at the university, took part in the French Revolution.
After that, life just happened. She worked all over the globe, Europe, China, India, Israel, and the United States, mainly in public service designing parks, schools, housing projects, and more. She had two kids, and finally settled in California, so her children could be in a stable place during junior high.
“If you want children, then you have to manage,” said Stein, “so when the children got to junior high I said we can’t keep on, so before they got into junior high we moved back to Southern California.”
Years later, Stein was invited to Northern Carolina to start a Landscape Architecture program, both graduate and undergraduate. She stayed there with her husband for five years. Later on, she was invited to start another program in the City College of New York.
“There was one student when it started and 60 when I left,” said Stein with excitement. She explained that being a professor has a disadvantage; even though they have summer vacations and a more flexible schedule, they don’t have much time to design since you are busy teaching, writing books, and doing research.
Once, Professor Stein worked for a private client, the producer of “The Lord of the Rings.” It was the only time in all her career that she designed a garden. Even though it was a great and fun experience for her, she said since it was her first real job, the project closest to her heart was the mini parks she designed in San Francisco. Three of them are considered to be the best in the city. However, she likes all her projects, “I learned from each and every one. I really want to take something nobody has done before, do it, and then it would become a prototype. So that was very good. It matters that you push the profession further.”
“We work to live, not live to work,” she said as she reflected about the choices she has made. Stein is not only an inspiring Landscape Architect, but also and admirable person. She encourages students to think about how much of their time they will put into their work, “It’s a very short life we have, and if we really work like that, ok, so you impress some people, but life is more, it’s made of flowers. Make sure you do enough, but don’t slave to it. It’s not worth it.”
As a last piece of advice from someone who seems to hold the wisdom of age, Stein offered: “Let life give you some chances. You’ll meet nice people, but if you work so hard, you don’t give life a chance. You may not have all the opportunities that you can. Don’t think it’s only work, [do] anything—movies, dancing, singing, painting, writing, sitting in a coffee shop— very important. And find a man that you don’t just love, but is your friend. Someone who really understands you. It’s hard. Life is not so simple, but look at the sunshine. We’re here, talking across ages.”
Learn more about Achva Benzinberg Stein’s work at www.achvastein.com.