Joe Y. Yamada (b. 1930)
By Todd Pitman

Over the past few years San Diego has begun to rediscover its mid-century architectural history.  Architects like Richards, Ruocco and Mosher are once again revered for their significant regional influence on the development of San Diego as a whole.  In coming years I suspect that Joe Yamada will join that elite group as he represents the best of San Diego mid-century landscape architecture.

Yamada’s background in landscape design started as a young man working as a gardener with his father in the early 1940s.  This experience would prove valuable as Yamada gained an understanding for how landscapes and gardens change.  Unlike architecture the landscape evolves and the most talented of landscape architects are able to visualize that future.

Following a brief stint in the Air Force, Yamada started his formal education at the University of California, Berkeley.  As a student at Cal in the early 50s, Yamada would study under landscape architectural giants.  Garrett Eckbo and Thomas Church would play a significant role in Yamada’s education.   As a senior Yamada would study under the eye of Lawrence Halparin, remarking that “Halparin doodled all over my work” in reference to Halparin’s tendency to actually scribble on Yamada’s plans as they were drawn. During this time, Eckbo would complete his book “Landscape for Living” which detailed much of what have been considered the principles of modern landscape design.  Yamada would carry these influences to San Diego lending his modern landscape design talents to an emerging group of San Diego modernist architects.

In 1954 Yamada returned to San Diego and approached Harriet Wimmer for employment. Wimmer had opened her own office within Lloyd and Ilse Ruocco’s Design Center on Fifth Avenue.  The Design Center was ground zero for many of San Diego’s most notable architects and landscape architects.  At that time, Wimmer depended on the young architects working at Ruocco’s office to prepare plans for her landscape designs.  Wimmer agreed to hire Yamada for a period of two weeks. After seeing Yamada’s skillful handling of her landscape plans she hired him on permanently and informed Ruocco that she would no longer need the assistance of his draftsmen.  Apparently those two Ruocco employees, Henry Hester and Fred Liebhardt, were not very good with landscape plans but they were certainly skilled architects.

From 1954 to 1958 Yamada would gain valuable experience while working with Harriet Wimmer.  Joe notes that she was really a talented horticulturist “she understood how to put plants together.” Gardens designed by the firm through this period embody signature features of both landscape architects.  Wimmer’s plant palette is unmistakable; masses of plants and simple palettes. Joe explains that Wimmer preferred simplicity in her planting; foliar contrast and texture were the foundations of her work.  Wimmer was once asked if she liked to use flowers in her designs she responded “absolutely…… as long as they are all white”.  Understandably, plant species with white flowers are one of the signatures of Wimmer Yamada designs.

Yamada was more interested in the land form and design of hardscape features.  Several projects on the University of California San Diego campus exhibit his influence.  Yamada often manipulated the ground plane to screen unwanted views and accentuate others.  This grading technique allowed new buildings to sit more comfortably on the site.  Following the completion of a project at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Roger Revelle, who at that time was director of the Institution, commented to a colleague that the little bumps throughout the landscape were “Yamada mounds” .  Another Yamada signature feature was the use of beautifully detailed redwood.  Screens, benches, decks and fences provided utility while adding a richness to the firm’s designs.

In 1958 Yamada left the firm and worked for San Diego City Schools working on large-scale projects including public recreation areas and master plans.  When Harriet asked Joe to return to the firm as a partner in 1960 the firm of Wimmer Yamada was formed.

The firm’[s work was a fixture on modern architectural design of the time.  Wimmer Yamada was the landscape architecture firm of choice for San Diego’s premier modernist architects.  Wimmer’s standing within the architectural community gained the favor of such local architects as Ruocco, Delawie, Mosher, Drew, Deems, Lewis and others.  The firm’s reputation began to expand as larger projects for the City and the new University of California at San Diego materialized. 

The firm would prove to be the starting point for many of the regions landscape architects.  Through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, landscape architects such as Michael Theilacker, Frank Kawasaki, Dennis Otsugi, Ron Teshima and later Pat Caughey would all come under the influence of Harriet Wimmer and Joe Yamada.  As Wimmer Yamada & Caughey the firm continues to influence the region’s built environment today.

Joe Yamada's oral history has been videotaped and uploaded to YouTube. His early years are HERE. Joe's time at Cal is referenced HERE. His work in La Jolla is referenced HERE. His recollections of the Wimmer Yamada firm's history is HERE.


1963 Wimmer Yamada design for IGPP at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography (Lloyd Ruocco Architect)


1963 Wimmer Yamada design for IGPP at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography (Lloyd Ruocco Architect)


1962 Wimmer Yamada design for student housing at UCSD
(Bob Mosher Architect)


1964 Wimmer Yamada design for Galbraith Hall at UCSD
(Deems Lewis Martin Architects)


1964 Wimmer Yamada design for Galbraith Hall at UCSD
(Deems Lewis Martin Architects)