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Contemporary Landscape Architecture for Western Living: Preserving and Interpreting an "Invisible Legacy" 

12-09-2015 17:35

Experiment-minded Westerners presented a fertile field to the landscape architect who understood them. What they were willing to take, the architects were more willing to give, and a new type of landscape architecture began to flourish in the West." (See Note 1)
Sunset Magazine

When we think about the preservation and management of historic designed landscapes in the West, specifically California, images of Golden Gate Park, Yosemite, Filoli, or even the Huntington Botanical Gardens come to mind. When we consider the contributions of pioneers of modern landscape architecture in California, the late practitioners Thomas D. Church (1902- 1978), Geraldine Knight Scott (1904-1989), Harriet B. Wimmer (1900-1980), or Garrett Eckbo (1910-2000) may also merit our interest. It is doubtful, however, that we would automatically think about preserving the legacy of these visionary designers from the recent past, let alone the contributions of other living California landscape architects such as Ted Osmundson, Lawrence Halprin, Robert Royston, or Ruth Shellhorn. In all cases we don`t often think of their landscape architectural contributions as historic resources requiring special protection. As a result, their nationally significant works not only remain invisible, but are rapidly vanishing -without a trace, or debate. (See Note 2)

In their book Invisible Gardens: The Search for Modernism in the American Landscape (1994), Peter Walker and Melanie Simo set out to make visible the work of American landscape architects, from 1945 to the late 1970s. The authors suggest that during this period there occurs "one great surge of collective energies-the modern movement, an upheaval of traditional values, beliefs, and artistic forms that have evolved over centuries of the Western world." (The authors find limited evidence of this work as early as before World War I, but within the discipline of landscape architecture, they note that this impact was "more gradual and often less striking than in other visual and spatial arts yet no less profound.") Unfortunately, as Walker and Simo note, "Reasoned criticism did not follow, and modern landscapes slipped beyond even the peripheral vision of art historians." (See Note 3) To that I add most other academic communities and the general public.

Surveying the urban design projects of the period, Norman T. Newton in Design on the Land (1971), a standard text for the profession, reflects in the conclusion of his chapter on "Urban Open Spaces" that "all in all, this adds up to a heartening array of kinds of open space for landscape architects to work on in American cities. If Olmsted and Vaux could, indeed, return to inspect the labor of their inheritors on the urban scene today, one can safely guess that they would be happily surprised at their profession`s expanded role." (See Note 4) Included in this chapter is a survey of projects, among them a perspective rendering of the "out-standing design" for Copley Square in Boston by Sasaki, Dawson and Demay (dated 1966) with the caption, "the famous Copley Square redesigned at last." (See Note 5) Newton`s book remains in print today, but the redesigned Copley Square he celebrated has seen another design competition (1983) and complete reconstruction (1989). Newton`s classic reference book also serves as a catalog of such pioneering efforts of California landscape architecture as Foothill College, Los Altos, Calif., (Sasaki Walker and Associates) and Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, Calif., (Lawrence Halprin and Associates.) (See Note 6) What fate awaits these cultural landscapes?

In 1995 A.E. Bye, FASLA recollected a conversation with Lawrence Halprin, FASLA. "Larry stated that we spend 30 to 40 years trying to get our projects built, and then the next 10 to 20 years trying to make sure that they don`t get knocked down." (See Note 7) When discussing this situation with Halprin, his frustrations are immediately evident. He states, "If a painting or sculpture is purchased, it is safe to assume that it will be respected. A house or landscape, however, may be brought down." (See Note 8)

At the time of this writing, a substantial number of California modern landscape architecture projects are currently at risk, have been altered, or have even been destroyed. The wide range of lost or endangered projects includes residential designs by Thomas Church (Church residence, San Francisco); roof gardens by Ted Osmundson (Kaiser Center Roof Garden, Oakland; Thoreau Hall Roof Garden, Davis); streetscapes, squares and plazas (Lawrence Halprin`s designs for the Embarcadero Fountain, San Francisco; and Eckbo, Dean, Austin & Williams design for the 18-block Fresno mall); nearly all of the Bullocks shopping center designs by Ruth Shellhorn (Wilshire, Santa Ana, Pasadena, Sherman Oaks, San Fernando Valley); parks (Eagle Rock Park, Pasadena, by Eckbo, Dean, Austin & Williams with architect Richard Neutra; and Mitchell Park in Palo Alto by Royston, Hanamoto, Beck & Abey); campus plans (the residence halls and humanities buildings at the University of California at Riverside by Ruth Shellhorn; UCLA Campus, north end by Cornell, Bridgers & Troller; and Ambassador College in Pasadena by Eckbo, Dean, the Austin & Williams); institutional designs (Oakland Museum by Dan Kiley and Geraldine Knight Scott; Opera House Court in San Francisco and Stanford University Plaza, both by Thomas Church); zoological collections or theme parks (Seaworld and Mission Bay Park by Wimmer, Yamada and Associates; and Main Street and the integrated monorail system at Disneyland in Anaheim by Ruth Shell-horn). Something must be done to shift this tide.

According to Lawrence Halprin, "The ideal situation is when we can remain involved." Fortunately, Halprin had been brought back in as a consultant at Portland`s Auditorium Forecourt Fountain- but this is largely an isolated case. Today, as these visionary pioneers of the California landscape retire from practice, or pass away, their legacy faces ever-increasing pressures for alteration or destruction. For example, when an expansion plan was proposed for the Salk Institute in La Jolla a few years ago, the architectural community was up in arms about the impact of a new building proposal on Louis Kahn`s campus master-work and the obliteration of a section of his central allee of eucalyptus trees. Not surprisingly, the landscape architecture community was absent from this debate-ironic when considering that the landscape design was not by Kahn but by landscape architect Roland S. Hoyt (1890- 1968). Although Hoyt`s Checklists for Ornamental Plants of Subtropical Regions, first published in 1933 and revised in 1958, is still considered a standard reference text by many California landscape architects and horticulturists, his work at Salk had faded from memory.

I again witnessed this invisibility of the original landscape architects` design contributions during a visit to another Kahn project-the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. As with the Salk Institute, there was a controversial expansion plan for the site, this time in the early 1990s. In this situation, however, a decision was made not to expand the museum building over the grounds, which would have affected a large section of George Patton`s (1920-1991) landscape design. The proposed expansion was thwarted by the national attention given the project by a community of architects and historians. Oddly enough, Patton`s landscape architectural contributions were never recognized during this debate. (See Note 9) It remained, as Walker and Simo have suggested "invisible." How then do we change this situation to reveal and rediscover this legacy?

If we begin with the community of architectural and art historians, we can take a step toward reducing the "invisibility" of these landscapes with more landscape listings in the National Register of Historic Places. Up to now, recognition of landscapes has been inconsistent. Successful National Register nominations in the past have embraced buildings that are less than 50 years old, but have not included their associated landscapes. For example, in 1994 the Stuart Company Plant and Office Building in Pasadena was listed in the National Register, but only in the area of architecture (National Register Criterion C). The in-depth nomination noted that the office and manufacturing complex is "an excellent example of early Neo-Formalist design by master architect Edward Durell Stone." (See Note 10) Additionally, landscape architect Thomas Church`s contributions are discussed over three pages of text that place this work in the context of his executed works and writings.

However, in spite of these findings, the nomination states that "the garden in the courtyard does not possess exceptional significance on its own but may become eligible for the National Register in its own right once it reaches the 50-year mark." Nevertheless, it goes on to suggest that Church`s legacy "survives in many intact projects" 12 and notes that Church`s "best known large-scale projects include the Technical Center (1956) for General Motors in Warren, Mich., with Eero Saarinen, and the Stuart Company building in Pasadena, with Edward D. Stone (1958)." (See Note 11)

These findings take on increased importance when considered in the context of listing the General Motors Technical Facility in the National Register on March 23, 2000. The nomination that was originally approved on January 19th overlooked the landscape architecture that the historian who prepared the Stuart Company nomination considered one of Church`s most significant projects. Miraculously, this nomination was amended during its final National Park Service evaluation in Washington, D.C. As approved, the nomination was revised to recognize "significance under Landscape Architecture, Transportation, Engineering and Architecture." (See Note 12)

The successful registration for the designed landscape at General Motors on March 27th shortly preceded the National Historic Landmark multiple property listing of Eliel Saarinen and Dan Kiley`s contributions to Columbus, Ind. The nomination, entitled, "Modernism in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Design, and Art in Barthomew County, Indiana, 1942-1965, National Historic Landmark Theme Study," is a first, giant step in reversing the invisibility of these landscapes. Recognizing the significance of Kiley`s landscape architectural design contributions, and even. discipline of landscape architecture in the title of the nomination, may result in a greater attention being paid to safe-guarding their integrity and interpreting this legacy. (See Note 13)

Today, belated recognition for these once invisible landscapes is also a result of institutional memory. At the National Park Service, for example, the Regional Historical Landscape Architect intervened when maintenance driven alterations were proposed for the landscape of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Mo. In this situation, the findings of a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) revealed the degree to which the landscape design was integral to the overall concept of the memorial as it had evolved over nearly 20 years of close collaboration between Saarinen and Kiley. (See Note 14) As documented in the CLR, the role that landscape architect Dan Kiley played had dropped out of institutional memory because his contributions had not been mentioned in previous historical accounts of the arch construction. Since Kiley`s reputation as a preeminent figure in contemporary landscape architecture is well established, the historical significance of the arch landscape rested on resolving the question of the landscape`s integrity, or the ability of the existing landscape to reflect the essential qualities of the original design. (See Note 15)

Integrity is defined by the National Register of Historic Places as "the authenticity of a property`s historic identity, evidenced by the survival of physical characteristics that existed during the property`s historic period." (See Note 16) Therefore, if features that are critical to the overall significance of the design are removed or altered, the integrity of the design will most likely be compromised. To illustrate this principle, let`s consider the implications of recent management decisions to several examples of modern landscape architecture in California:
  • The addition of a concrete timber-form bridge where one never existed and the demise and failure to replace three olive trees in Ted Osmundson`s design at the Kaiser Center Roof Garden in Oakland;
  • The severe pruning of the historic allée of trees at the San Francisco Opera House Court, altering Thomas Church`s intended spatial and visual relationships;
  • Failure to replace items or resolve challenges posed by the death of two sentinel California Live Oaks that framed views from the Dewey Donnell Ranch out to Sonoma in Thomas Church`s original 1948-50 design.

The loss or compromise of the integrity of many California gardens is just one area of concern. The greatest loss of integrity often occurs with the redesign of outdoor regional shopping centers and pedestrian malls-thus eradicating an important chapter in the profession`s evolution from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s. Usually not outright demolition, these projects are most often "upgrades" involving the removal and destruction of site-specific character-defining pavements, lights, and streetscape furnishings that are now difficult to maintain or are perceived to be out of fashion. For example, a cursory survey of alterations to Lawrence Halprin`s work includes the 1995 destruction of Old Orchard Shopping Center, in Skokie, Ill.--his first design in the semipublic realm (from the mid 1950s) and a 1990s overhaul of Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis (1967). Other examples of altered Halprin commissions include two projects from the 1960s: the Riveroaks Shopping Center outside of Chicago and Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco-Halprin`s first opportunity to "recycle" old structures for new uses.

In the case of Nicollet Mall, which was the first such streetscape project by Halprin, Lance Neckar, ASLA, states, "The mall was an experiment- designed using new, untested materials that were not durable or appropriate to Minnesota. It became costly to maintain over the long term (for example, the maintenance of the lights alone ran $100,000 annually). As a formal idea we regret its passing, yet the local group was adamant that it had to change."

Recognizing a variety of limitations and both physical and natural pressures, what is the possibility of documenting, evaluating, and preserving works of modern landscape architecture-from parks and gardens to shopping malls and college campus designs? Based on the situation previously outlined, the following ideas could be endorsed:
  • Continue to nominate modern landscape architecture to the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Develop a greater context for modern landscape architecture through published books, monographs, and oral history projects.
  • Document threatened work in measured drawings, photography, and video. Record the work as existing, as originally designed, as executed, and any changes over time.
  • Consult with the original landscape architect, client, and caretakers when possible.
  • Educate owners, public stewards, and the general public to make these landscapes less "invisible."
  • Establish creative partnerships to ensure their ongoing preservation and management.
  • House, catalog, and conserve landscape drawings and related historic materials in accessible archives.
  • Apply the Secretary of the Interior`s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes to all project work and all on- going management projects in historically significant modern landscapes.

If the above stated goals and strategies are applied to modern landscape architecture, significant works from the recent past will have a better chance of being documented, preserved, and interpreted. This agenda should be multidisciplinary in approach and will require outreach, support, and education at a variety of professional levels. Today, this growing constituency includes practicing landscape architects, architects, geographers, and planners, in addition to art, architectural, landscape, and social historians-many whom recognize the benefits of the preservation and/or documentation of these nationally significant works.

Based on the recent successful National Register and National Historic Landmark nominations that include contributing landscape architecture and new initiatives to undertake Cultural Landscape Reports for landscapes from the recent past, how can we begin to share these success stories with a broader public? Why does the public so often allow for the demolition or overhaul of modernist works? How can we take the necessary steps to nurture a greater public interest in the future of our heritage of modern landscape architecture? Research findings about public tastes and perceptions published in Vitaly Komar and Aleksandr Melamid`s Painting by Numbers (1997) may provide valuable clues as well as strategies to address this unfortunate dilemma.

Russian immigrant artists Komar and Melamid, assisted by a professional polling firm, conducted a survey of what Americans, regardless of class, race, or gender, really want in art. This first-ever scientific poll surveyed 1,001 American adults. Questions included: What is beauty? Who defines it? And why is high art so remote from most people? Using the survey results, Komar and Melamid painted the works that were deemed "America`s Most Wanted" and "America`s Most Unwanted." The conclusion reached about aesthetic attributes in painting can also apply to works of landscape architecture:

Art should be relaxing to look at
66 percent agree
15 percent disagree

Realistic or different-looking
44 percent realistic
25 percent different

Sharp angles or curves?
2 percent sharp angles
61 percent soft curves

Colors blended or separate
45 percent colors blended
20 percent separate

Favorite Color
24 percent blue
15 percent green

It is interesting to apply these "values" to two significant American landscapes. The first, a pastoral view over the deer park at Lyndhurst, a National Trust property in Tarrytown, N.Y., laid out in the mid 19th century, while the second is an aerial view of the 1960s Sasaki, Dawson and DeMay Associates design for Boston`s Copley Square. A quick look at these images readily reveals that those landscapes of the historic Hudson River Valley or the works of pioneering landscape architects, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., or Jens Jensen, possess the same characteristics that appear in art that is "most wanted" in this country. Conversely, the aerial photograph of Copley Square, like Lawrence Halprin`s design for San Francisco`s Embarcadero Center or Dan Kiley`s design for the Burr sculpture court in Hartford, all reveal the same commonalities. They each possess many of the same characteristics that appear in the "most unwanted" painting- thus, to the visitor seem unfamiliar and even unnerving. It`s no surprise that the "shelf life" for any of these projects has been less than 20 years and that they often become highly controversial.

In a 1995 New York Times article, columnist Anne Raver noted that "these invisible landscapes are being taken up by a growing number of landscape architects around the country, who are organizing to protect their work, both as works of art and as vessels of cultural history." (See Note 18)

Perhaps Ms. Raver`s statement, which echoes the sentiments of Walker and Simo, holds the key to this situation. The future of this irreplaceable legacy lies in the hands of the professional community of landscape architects, who are increasingly doing a better job of educating themselves and must now communicate with the historic preservation community-and the public-about the significance and uniqueness of these distinctive places. Such communication is essential if we are to preserve this distinct body of landscape architecture. As illustrated by this account and echoed in the conclusion to Invisible Gardens, we must work together to safeguard this largely unheralded legacy which "stands alongside the architecture of its age as a selection of useful and beautiful emblems." (See Note 19)

This paper updates and expands two papers published by the author in Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture: Papers from the Wave Hill-National Park Service Conference (Cambridge, Mass.: Spacemaker Press, 1999).


1.) Published by "the editors of Sunset Magazine." Sunset Landscaping for Western Living. (Menlo Park, Calif., Lane Books.) See the discussion on "Landscaping for Western Living," p. 7. First date of publication is not credited. Based on the photography and the fact that this is the twelfth printing from 1967, the initial date of publication is assumed to be in the early 1950s.

2.) The lack of scholarly context avail-able to guide new project work is regrettably well illustrated in the recent demolition of Ruth Shellhorn`s landscapes designed for Bullocks department stores throughout California. As revealed in a conversation between the author and the retired practitioner on June 29, 2000, Mrs. Shellhorn bemoaned that "all of the Bullocks department stores were sold --new owners came in and tore out everything in the landscape. The landscape design for the Santa Ana store, in particular, was my pride and joy. They tore out everything and put in a lot of new buildings. I can`t even bring myself to go there today. This project was a departure from other shopping mall projects. The design included a park that people would come and use-even on Sundays when the store was closed. It was a quiet place. Today it has all changed-it`s all about money."

3.) Walker, Peter and Melanie Simo, Invisible Gardens: The Search for Modernism and the American Landscape. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, (1994), p. 3. Along with Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review, edited by Marc Treib (MIT Press, 1993), sufficient context exists to begin a thoughtful survey and analysis for works of modern landscape architecture from this period and the designers who created them.

4.) Newton, Norman T., Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1971), p. 639.

5.) Ibid. Newton, p. 653.

6.) Ibid. Newton, p. 651, 654.

7.) This comment was made during a phone conversation between the author and A. E. Bye in April 1995 and reinforced again during a follow-up conversation at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston in 1999.

8.) The author had several conversations with Lawrence Halprin in March and April 1995.

9.) I visited the bookstore at the Kimbell Art Museum in April 2000. Although well stocked with a variety of monographs on Louis Kahn the architect and the design of the museum (including Noguchi`s contribution to a sunken sculpture court), no mention of Patton`s work can be found in any materials available on-site. After talking with a curator I learned that Pat-ton`s landscape plans are housed in their collections.

10.) The Stuart Company Plant and Office Building in Los Angeles County was listed in the National Register on November 23, 1994.

11.) It is not clear what this statement is based on. In the April-June 2000 issue of Studies in the History of Designed Landscapes: An International Quarterly, a theme issue titled "Thomas Dolliver Church, Landscape Architect," with guest editor Marc Treib, notes that Church "realized over 2,000 gardens." Was a contextual analysis of executed and surviving work made for this nomination?

12.) Ibid. p. 24

13.) The nomination for General Motors Technical Center in Macomb, Mich., was amended "to note that the designed landscape contributes to the property`s significance. Section 5 of the form, Number of Resources within Property, is amended to add one contributing site (the designed landscape)."

14.) This nomination has two themes, "patronage in public architecture" and "modern architecture and landscape architecture." Under the latter the nomination notes that "the Columbus area hosts an exceptional collection of modern buildings, landscapes and public sculpture that reflect the development of these design idioms on a national basis." With both the registration of the Bartholomew County properties and the GM Technical Facility to the register, in the spring of 2000, prototypes exist for future registration.

15.) A Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) is the primary report that documents the history, significance, and treatment of cultural landscapes. To date the National Park Service has undertaken CLRs for two works of modern landscape architecture: the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis and Independence Park, both designed by Dan Kiley.

16.) Mary V. Hughes, ASLA, was instrumental in educating managers at Jefferson Memorial Park about the virtues of Kiley`s design. In August 1995 she facilitated the hiring of a landscape architect for the park whose job description required an understanding of cultural landscape preservation issues and a knowledge of contemporary landscape architecture design.

17.) National Park Service, National Register Bulletin 16A: How to Complete the National Register Form. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, NPS, Interagency Resources Division, 1991). 18.) Raver, Anne, "Cherishing Landscapes as Living Art," The New York Times, 30 November 1995. Cover Story, Home Section. P.C-1,C-6. 19.) Walker, Peter. Ibid. Epilogue by Peter Walker, p. 316.

Publication Date: Fall 2000


Author(s):Charles A. Birnbaum