New York

“Transforming the American Garden: 12 New Landscape Designs”

Urban Center

Organized by Michael R. Van Valkenburgh and sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, this touring exhibition presents proposals by 12 landscape architects. Van Valkenburgh’s premise is that the garden is to the landscape designer what the private home is to the architect, and that it is a concise area of inquiry to encourage speculation, to confirm personal philosophies, and to examine the sources and directions of contemporary design. Conceptual moments, extracted from design practice, are important exercises, but they too often float in isolation, only marginally informing commissioned work, which is framed by the client’s needs, topography, and other constraints. I suspect that landscape architecture lags far behind even these modest proposals, and that the significance of this exhibition will go unnoticed by most professionals in the field.

The garden is a rich repository of associations that have traditionally satisfied both pragmatic and symbolic requirements. In this sense gardens are like houses, but they differ in that they are more temporal, more vulnerable: cultivation is cyclical, and attention is imperative. The garden is a provocative symbol for this age of indeterminacy; the growth of any garden is an ongoing process, and ultimately without precedent.

Martha Schwartz’s New York City Bulb Garden, 1986, represents the small group of landscape architects who look to art for ideas. This design fora rooftop garden calls for a large planting bed organized on a coded grid. The designer has proposed using four kinds of bulbs that differ in color and bloom successively, spelling out the words “ignorance,” “evil,” “money’ and ”bliss’ This design is like Jenny Holzer down on the farm; the loaded messages that blossom into textual clarity and wilt back into obscurity are a little too derivative, and very perverse.

In contrast to Schwartz’s use of an aggressive art as her source material, Terence Harkness’ proposal represents a more traditional environmental design based on observation of the natural world and an appreciation of the vernacular landscape. In An East Central Illinois Garden: A Regional Garden, 1986, Harkness presents a thorough analysis of an agricultural landscape organized on Thomas Jefferson’s mile-square planting grid and subdivided by rectangular fields of wheat and corn bordered by hedgerows. Harkness’ garden is inseparable from its context of farm economics, and is a didactic yet modest gesture toward the larger issues of political and social reform. It is less consciously about art than Schwartz’s proposal, but it does embody a search for order that is deeply embedded in our culture.

It is reassuring to see the variety of the proposals here, yet it is also sobering to see that landscape architects, like other artists and designers, are struggling with the question of sources. These projects look to diverse sources such as dreams, psychoanalysis, nuclear destruction, and the texts of Jacques Lacan and Elisabeth KublerRoss. But there is a pastiche quality to many of the plans; generative ideas are not modulated in a process of reinterpretation, thereby provoking irony or altering established opinion. But as someone who has followed landscape architecture for the past decade, I feel these 12 projects cast new hope into this arid design field.

Patricia C. Phillips