The Relevance of Landscape Pioneers

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When we think of modern landscape architecture, whose name comes to mind? Dan Kiley, Thomas Church, Garret Eckbo, James Rose, Lawrence Halprin, etc. But how many students or recently graduated landscape architects (designers) actually see the relevancy of  these great thinkers and problem solvers in their OWN work?

Granted, if a recent graduate gets a job at a firm they are usually taking direction from a senior landscape architect. As we connect polylines in AutoCAD, I’m sure we aren’t pondering the genius of Kiley’s vertical organization of canopy height, shadow density, and color surrounding the Miller House.

When it comes down to actually ‘designing,’ after being asked to ‘take a wack’ at a new entry plaza or residential backyard patio, do we look to the previous design of Tommy Church, the proclaimed founding father of residential design in California? I’d like to think we can recall the wondrous placement of sculpture and vista at the  Donnell Garden.

I’d like to think we spent our time reading about systems of hierarchy; reading about visual and spatial hierarchy prevalent through the Miller garden. After all, one mustachioed man once told me: ‘Half of everything you learn while at the University comes from what you read at your own volition.’

Many of us have actually visited these places of great merit, designed by the notable landscape architects: Kiley’ Fountain Place, Philip Johnson’s Water Gardens, etc. I personally feel those experiences a few years in the past have been the greatest influence on the intensity of my ardor to create improved and resounding spaces!

Considering the exasperating event of actually visiting these places, I would suggests taking it upon yourself to visit as many of these great gardens as you can. Now, I realize not everyone is geographically or monetarily advantaged to take such influential and satisfying trips, but one can read about these places and the ideology of their designers in their published books and articles. The internet isn’t the most reliable source, but there are a few images dotting cyberspace with delightful views of the build genius of place. The search now, after graduation, has allowed me to appreciate more than ever the University Library, for their extensive collection of books containing full color prints for me to drool over, as well as countless books on landscape theory. But now, with access only to the city library, I have become limited in a sense. I believe some firms, depending on their size taut their own libraries, from which their carefully chosen employees can further their base of knowledge.

My point here is we as designers can learn from our own experiences: a visit to a world famous garden, but also from a walk through the woods as the forest breaks to reveal a hollow room of forbs and blooming grasses edged by young whips. I feel these experiences must be combined with a thorough understanding of the ideologies of the past, whether they be Kevin Lynch’s 5 elements of ‘wayfinding’ and mental mapping (paths,edges, districts,nodes, landmarks) or Garret Eckbo’s  vision of breaking from the staunch academically endorsed Beaux Arts movement and seeking the interaction of art and science to create environments that were functional and livable, while maintaining the social, ecological and cultural approach to design.  Of course every designer chooses their own influences and mentors but it is rather important to be open to change and novel ideas while we acknowledge we work in a landscape comprised of systems in a constant state of flux.

For further reading consider:

  • 1950. Landscape for Living  Garret Eckbo
  • 1955Gardens Are For People: How to Plan for Outdoor Living  Thomas Church
  • 1965. Gardens Make Me Laugh James Rose
  • 1969. Design with Nature Ian L. McHarg

images via: Concept, Landscape Architecture Daily, flickr, Modern Landscapes for Living 



  1. Also, Lisa Horne started an interesting discussion on ALSA’s LinkedIn group: What books influenced you the most as a Landscape Architect

    She also organized the responses and made a word doc.

  2. I had also seen that discussion a couple of weeks ago. That list is great I will have to take it upon myself to start reading a few of those books. I really want to start with Alice in Wonderland 🙂

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