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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Landscape Architecture Roots in Garden Design

Landscape architecture is a vast discipline dealing with design from the regional scale down to individual garden design, and everything in between.  Landscape architects are the professionals behind the design of our nation’s Capital, the urban Eden of Central Park, and yes even many backyards.  Although many of them would dispute the common perception that all landscape architects do is design backyards, residential clients do account for a large portion of their market, as much as 40%.  

It turns out that many of the best landscape architects got their start designing backyards.  Residential projects are the perfect laboratory for quickly testing and evolving design ideas where many landscape architects (and architects) develop their unique style before becoming heavily involved with larger, more public projects.  As Smithsonian Gardens’ 2011 Enid A. Haupt Fellow , I am researching the aesthetics of planting design in landscape architecture; of particular interest to me is how contemporary designers are using plant materials in innovative ways. 

Michael Van Valkenburgh is one such designer who uses plant materials not just as compositional elements, but indeed in the very process of creating a garden’s structure.  Early in his career while teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1980’s, he maintained a normal practice with a largely residential client base.  Birch Tree Garden in Brookline, Massachusetts, is one of three residential gardens Van Valkenburgh designed for the same couple.  

BirchTree Garden, Brookline, Massachusetts, May 1988, Corliss Engle, photographer.  Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens.
 In this garden we can see examples of how Van Valkenburgh tested new ideas in the conventional garden, juxtaposing common design elements in new ways and creating exaggerated effects with plant materials.  The back entrance of the residence leads out to a stone patio for outdoor entertaining, off of which Van Valkenburgh created a grove of birch trees to serve as both focal point and destination to meander through.  This is an element of the natural landscape, the birch tree stand, which he has taken and simplified to fit in a much smaller landscape.  

Among the earliest examples of this planting style, its evolution has led to now emblematic planting regimes by Van Valkenburgh including Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, Vera List Courtyard in Manhattan, and Teardrop Park in Battery Park City.  Indeed, the projects which sustain Van Valkenburgh’s fame as a contemporary master of landscape architecture rest on the foundation of residential planting design. 

The Archives of American Gardens includes documentation for over 6,350 gardens across the United States illustrating the work of notable landscape designers such as Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand, Lawrence Halprin, Hare & Hare, Umberto Innocenti, Gertrude Jekyll, Jens Jensen, Warren Manning, the Olmsted Brothers, Charles Platt, Ellen Biddle Shipman and Fletcher Steele as well as many new and emerging landscape designers of today. 

Nicholas Serrano
2010-2011 Enid A. Haupt Fellow
Smithsonian Gardens


  1. European landscape architects are also notable for the spectacular designs of their cities.

  2. I agree, but garden design is usually about a family home and there lifestyle needs in it. Landscape Architecture needs to address econmic and social aspects of the site and requires deeper thinking than where to put a bbq.

  3. A beautiful landscape is often attributed to a great landscape architect. It is great to know that the origin of this practice is rooted from one’s love of gardening. Truly, the two concepts are related. Thanks for sharing.