Unusually Clever People

Landscape architects I’ve known and been
intimidated by

Memorial_waterfall For a plain-old home gardener and gardenblogger, I've gotten to meet an amazing assortment of landscape architects with marquee names in their profession.  Like Laurie Olin, who redesigned the grounds of Washington Montument, and the late Lawrence Halprin, whose Roosevelt Memorial (photo right) is a local favorite.

And Jim van Sweden, whose D.C.-based firm pioneered the New American Garden style and is now working on the Martin Luther King Memorial.

Another locally based bigshot is the gentlemanly Roger Courtenay, who designed the garden around the American Indian Museum and is now working on the Eisenhower Memorial (more on that later – the architect is Frank Gehry and it's going to blow some minds.)

Michael Van Valkenburgh was in town a lot redesigning Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

And Katherine Gustafson, well known for the Lurie Garden in Chicago, is winning her share of D.C. projects – the courtyard at the American Portrait Gallery, and still in planning, the African-American Museum. 

So now I'll tell you how I've come to "know" (okay, most of them don't even know my name) these stars of landscape architecture.  They've all appeared repeatedly before two review boards I worked for in my previous career, when I provided transcripts of their meetings.  These public events involve designers of all types presenting and defending their projects here in Washington – the big, important ones.  And my front-row seat for this show taught me just a bit about design but made big impressions on me – like how little I actually know as a home gardener, and how awed I am by their profession.  (And not just by these famous ones.)

Lanldscapemanifesto But finally I come to another big name in landscape architecture – that of Diana Balmori, who sits on one of those boards as a presidential appointee.   At the time of her appointment I already knew of her because she co-authored  Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony back in '93 and even coined the term "Freedom Lawn".  A pioneer of the Lawn Reform movement!

So when I heard the title of Diana's latest book – a Landscape Manifesto – I knew I had to get my hands on it and review it right here.  You know, the place with the Manifesto.  

So, presenting myself as the co-author of a popular gardening blog (!) I asked Yale Press for a copy, got one immediately, and dug right in – tackling the section on lawn first, of course.  She calls the American lawn a "dramatically impoverished ecology"and goes on to assert that "Your back yard is…your private property and nobody else's business" – love it!  (She has lots to say about the history of the lawn, and I'll be covering that on the Lawn Reform blog.Diana Balmori_1)

Then I got into the meat of the book, the manifesto part, filled with other-worldly visuals and scholarly discourse, and I came to a realization:  This isn't gardening, or garden writing.  This belongs in the more rarefied world of planners, those artistic, brainy people who get published by Yale, work all over the world and get paid very well.  Like I'm assuming Diana was for her design shown here that surrounds and improves on Gehry's most famous project – in Bilbao, Spain.

What was I thinking?  It's time for me to return the book, or maybe pass it along to a local blogger who's an actual landscape architect for him to review. 

Roosevelt Memorial photo credit.

Posted by on February 7, 2011 at 5:16 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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14 Responses to “Landscape architects I’ve known and been
intimidated by”

  1. Regina says:

    For the record, I would love to see reviews of more highfallutin’ stuff like this, by a gardener. The more time I spend gardening, the more my thirst for understanding it on a larger scale, as it relates to city planning etc. expands. That is, no doubt, the result of living in a city. It’s been my observation that city folk are somewhat design obsessed, and they have drawn me into their point of view (because I no longer have 5 acres to play on).
    Books like this can be intimidating to me too, but reading a review from you would certainly be valuable in knowing just how approachable it would be, for someone like me.

  2. Michele Owens says:

    Susan, I think you are more than qualified to judge any landscape manifesto.

    There are 80 million single-family detached houses in the United States. Those mostly less-than-glorious yards largely define our landscape–and it sounds as if Balmori is aware of that.

    And I’d challenge anybody to produce a prettier backyard than yours.

  3. Tara Dillard says:

    SMELL, SOUND & WATER.

    In the 80′s, new neighborhoods had HOA’s for ‘property value’ with monoculture turf needing: water, mowing, fertilizer, insecticides, labor.

    Codependent with lawns are testosterone-on-wheels-mow-blow-go service providers, $$$.

    An industry worth billions. Why promote new methods to cut their contracts by 50%-90%.

    Older neighborhoods have mixed material ‘lawns’: fescue, clover, moss, groundcovers, dandelion & etc… No irrigation, chemicals, fertilizer, and less maintenance.

    Smells of nature in new neighborhoods are nill. Insects are to be KILLED. Sounds are loud: blowers, mowers, weedeaters.

    Smells of nature in old neighborhoods (without HOA’s & monoculture turf) are multi-layered. Insects welcomed, birds attracted.

    I noticed over 2 decades ago the smells/sounds of old vs. new neighborhoods. Removed every inch of lawn in my landscape then too.

    This isn’t rocket science.

    It’s becoming aware of landscape design/exterior styling as tools.

    Ironically, it’s water bills that will dictate how people will landscape.

    It’s already happening. Who wants water bills over $300/mo? And you can cut your maintenance bill by half or more. With zero expense for fertilizer/chemicals too.

    Designing landscapes for this scenario is FABULOUS. Italy has been famous for it for a few centuries ! I’ve only been doing it for 2+ decades.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  4. susan harris says:

    Michele, I’m looking out onto my back garden at its absolute ugliest right now, so your nice words about it give me hope!

  5. Michelle D says:

    If you’re looking for another opinion on this book from someone with the scale of knowledge that goes along with understanding urban design then a landscape architect, city planner, landscape historian or an academic or student studying the fields of social community development would be a good choice.
    It always strikes me a little funny when the average person derides a landscape architect for not having a huge palette of plants to design a garden with. Designing with plants is but one of the smallest aspects within the profession. The meat lies in civic and social programming.. yes that sounds impersonal and dry, but read Ms. Balmori’s book and you will get a glance further into the field of landscape architecture and urban design.

  6. John Aios says:

    Thanks for the post this information really helps not only design or architects during their current practice but also students aspiring to become involved in this field. (This is where I fit). Looking forward to reading more about those in the landscape architectural field.

  7. Rich Regan says:

    I enjoyed your article.

    Rich Regan
    Amateur landscape architect

  8. We’re all capable of understanding this stuff, and should bring our own viewpoint to it. Trust yourself.

  9. Jeff Z says:

    I second the comment above. Review the book. I’m a landscape architect, and see an awful lot of what goes on in my profession as more than a bit pompous and often more about obfuscation than about bringing fabulous new ideas to the people. If more people outside of the profession of landscape architecture, and were willing to say ‘what the hell?’ in a garden rant sort of way when it needed to be said, you might see more landscape architects designing spaces for people, rather than monuments to themselves.
    You have at least one fan and regular reader who is a practicing landscape architect, and I’d rather read what you have to say than what is in Landscape Architecture magazine. Review it already!

  10. Tami says:

    Susan, I’m a middleaged gardener turned LA grad student. Take my word for it: YOU ARE MORE THAN QUALIFIED TO WRITE ABOUT IT.

    Actually, I’ve seen the book already (it’s being heavily promoted on blogs and I got it through interlibrary loan) and – in my opinion – I didn’t see any information that was really cutting-edge news or even overly scholarly. She was spot on calling it a ‘manifesto’ because her writing is clear and ideas forceful. She wrote it to change minds, not advance scholarship. It’s also a terrific overview of the very fine work Ms. Balmori has done in recent years and shows us why she should be mentioned in the same list as Olin, Gustafson, et al.

    Dig in and write up!

  11. susan harris says:

    I appreciate everyone’s vote of confidence but really, I don’t review books that are beyond my own experience. (I’m no authority, so experience is all I have to go on.) Another example for me is growing vegetables – a hot topic in the publishing world but one I’m unqualified to review books about.

  12. Susan, one of the great things about you is the fact that you are a connector in the garden/landscape architecture world. I love landscape architecture and its new commitment to ecological urbanism (it WILL change the world), but for the life of me, can never understand why LA’s have turned their back on the garden. You are one of the few bridges I know . . . I LOVE that about you and your curiosity for the green world.

    I am always pleased to see academic books like this one by Ms. Balmori. We need manifestos, essays, and scholarly articles about this great field. Personally, I feel that one of the reasons LA’s embrace THE CITY with such gusto is out of a sense of insecurity about their own profession. I can’t tell you the number of dinner parties I’ve been to when I tell a stranger that I’m a landscape architect and they think that means a “landscaper” (insert question about why their pansies won’t grow). Plus architects, builders, developers routinely ignore or belittle landscape architects.

    So we LA’s snub the garden and embrace urbanism, in part, as a way of distancing ourselves from the stereotypes.

    Good for Ms. Balmori and her book. But even more so, good for writers like you who link landscape architecture to its forgotten garden roots. Gardens came first.

    Thomas

  13. susan harris says:

    Thomas, fascinating insider stuff, and thanks for the encouraging words!

  14. Michelle D says:

    A link to a review about the book if anyone is interested :
    http://www.archpaper.com/e-board_rev.asp?News_ID=5100

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