The Landscape Guide

International Modern Garden Design Style in America

The international modern garden arose from a theory about the unity of the arts - allied to a belief in the creative potential of analytical thought to solve aesthetic and functional 'problems'. This theory can be traced to the tenets of the arts and crafts movement but the garden designers who worked in this mode, like most of their architectural contemporaries, were more interested in a new Italian revival than in the developing a new art for their own times. The heroic pioneers of modernism were the exceptions.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The front cover of the first issue of de Stijl magazine could easily
 be used as a garden plan.

Frank Lloyd Wright might have invented the Modern Garden, easily, for his fecund pen was more than capable. That he had an instinct for the relationship between landscape and architecture can be seen in his designs and read from his comment that ‘no house should ever be ON a hill or ON anything, it should be OF the hill, belonging to it, hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other’. At the Robie house (1908-9) one sees the abstract geometry of the building projected into the lines of the garden. One sees this principle in the County Court and Falling Water (1936-7).  Wright had even less influence on modern gardens than he had on American architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. Though he was an American colossus, few of his countrymen looked upward when there was most to learn. The de Stijl movement, in Holland, was excited by Wright's work and the cover of the first issue of de Stijl magazine could have been used a garden plan. [see Note 1 below]

France took the lead in developing modern gardens with the 1925 Paris Exposition of Modern Decorative Art (the 'Art Deco Exposition'). It showed work by André Vera, Tony Garnier and Gabriel Guevrekian. Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier was the outdoor exhibition co-ordinator. Guevrekian's Garden of Water and Light inspired Charles de Noailles to commission a second triangular garden for his villa at Hyères in the south of France. Le Corbusier was a significant influence on modern gardens. A sculptor at heart, he had a deep concern for the settings of his buildings and that love of natural landscape one would expect from a child of Switzerland. The Villa Savoye (1928-31) was raised on pilotis and has a garden terrace on the roof. A similar principle was used for the Unite d'Habitation (1946) where the roof terrace is as much an abstract modern sculpture as it is a garden. Yet the modern garden did not prosper in France any more than it did in England. Garden designers were influenced by de Stijl.

Fletcher Steele was the most important American designer to take at interest in the Modern Garden in the 1920s and 1930s. His practice was sufficiently profitable to fund regular European tours. This included a visit to the Art Deco Exposition in 1925. He met Guevrekian and visited Hyères. Steele complimented Le Corbusier on his 'strikingly original ideas' and 'odd patterns of concrete walks' but criticised him for becoming 'banal'. Writing in Landscape Architecture (October 1930) Steele considered that 'What a modernistic garden may be is everybody's guess. The reason is that it does not yet exist as a type'.

A New York exhibition in 1932 ('The International Style: Architecture since 1922') showed the work of  Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. It was curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip  Johnson. The Dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Design invited Walter Gropius to America. He arrived at Harvard in 1937, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. Though not personally interested in the design of outdoor space his advocacy of Bauhaus principles had a profound influence. Garrett Eckbo, John Rose and Dan Kiley were in the same class at Harvard. They read Christopher Tunnard's Gardens in the Modern Landscape and two of the young men went on to work for Thomas Church on the West Coast. Kiley remained on the East Coast and developed a practice with  famous modern movement architects, including Eero Sarrinen, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo. He became 'the supreme master of the modern garden' (Brown, p98).

The modern garden also took root in South America. Roberto Burle Marx was trained as a botanist and a painter. He worked  the architects Oscar Niemeyer, Affonso Reidy and Locio Costa, who were influenced by Le Corbusier. Marx's paintings were overtly cubist and his geometrical vocabulary translated easily into garden designs for flat surfaces, especially near buildings. His work with natural landform was less happy. As Marc Treib points out  'More often that not, he appears to blanket the contours in forms derived from his own flat artworks rather than from the lay of the land. Rarely is there any perceivable attempt to, say, derive a shape from the profile of the topography.' (Modern landscape architecture: a critical review, p.53).

Note 1

See FL Wright The Future of architecture  Mentor New York 1963. He had a great sensitivity to design and to places.

'I chose Taliesin for a name – it means "shining brow," and this place now called Taliesin is built like a brow on the edge of the hill –not on top of the hill – because I believe you should never build on top of anything directly. If you build on top of the hill, you lose the hill.' P. 21

 'We see an airplane clean and light-winged – the lines expressing power and purpose; we see the ocean liner, streamlined, clean and swift – expressing power and purpose. The locomotive too – power and purpose. Some automobiles begin to look the part. Why are not buildings, too, indicative of their special purpose? The forms of things that that are perfectly adapted to their function, we now observe, seem to have a superior beauty of their own. We like to look at them. Then, as it begins to dawn on us that form follows function – why not so in architecture especially? We see that all features in  a good building, too, should correspond to some necessity for being – the reason for them, as well as for other shapes, being found in their very purpose. Buildings are made of materials too. Materials have a life of their own that may enter into the building to give it more life. Here certain principles show countenance. It is the countenance of organic simplicity.'(pp 142-3)