The Landscape Guide

Garden Design in America; since 1970

By 1970, modern garden design was well-established in America. The revolutionaries from Harvard GSD's class of 1936, Kiley, Eckbo and Rose, had become established practitioners of an admired style, with many followers and numerous awards. But something went wrong. The building industry experienced a recession in the during the early 1970s, coupled to a book in ecological awareness. Individual practitioners shifted their focus to the provision of environmental and planning advice to corporate clients. Peter Walker associates this trend with the adoption of aconyms  pp250-259 in M. Treib Modern landscape architecture). Skidmore Owings and Merrill became SOM. Garret Eckbo became a partner in EDAW inc. JJR, SWA, HOK and POD followed. The firms often described themselves as 'site planners' and their work became separated from the fine arts. Treib believes that designers were jogged out of this position by the the land artists. The examples he gives are Robert Irwin, Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Irwin himself draws a clear distinction between art and design. But some of his works have functions and could be read by the un-informed as examples of landscape architecture.

Peter Walker can be associated with the land artists. He has made a significant contribution to the modern American garden with his designs and with has book on Minimalist Gardens (Spacemaker Press 1997).  Minimalism was an influential mid-twentieth century '-ism' which grew from the principles of early cubism. When artists broke away from confines of gallery space, it led to the development of Earth Art, Land Art and Environmental Art. In applying these ideas to gardens, Walker has produced some of the best twentieth century examples of garden and landscape design in the Abstract Style. In the preface to Minimalist gardens , Walker describes himself as 'a late-second-generation modernist trained in the 1950's'. He graduated from Berkeley with a landscape architecture degree in 1955. His early work used the renaissance idea of extending a building to create a setting combined with the landscape idea of creating a transition from the setting into the surrounding landscape. In the 1960s he began collecting minimalist artwork and saw minimalism as 'a revival of the analytic interests of the early modernists that parallel in many respects the spirit of classicism'. Gradually he found his taste in art influencing his professional work. Carl Andre's metal floor pieces became  'metaphors for gardens'. A tour of French gardens in the late 1970s persuaded him that a minimalist approach to landscape architecture was both possible and desirable. He argues that 'to be visible, I believe an object must be seen, at least partly, in and for itself'.

Interestingly, John Dixon Hunt has argued that a study of what happened to landscape and garden design after 1800 is crucial to an understanding of modernism. One of the ideas resulting from the crisis of 1800 was Loudon's Principle of Recognition. Loudon believed that, to join the circle of the fine arts, a garden must be 'recognisable' as the work of man. No one took an interest in his idea but it may be that, transformed into Walker's call for the 'visibility', American garden and landscape design may be able to shake off a discredited nineteenth century 'naturalism' and re-join the circle of the fine arts.