Human/Nature: Wilderness and the Landscape/Architecture Divide

September 7, 2018

Published in Flow: Interior, Landscape, and Architecture in the Era of Liquid Modernity; Bloomsbury: p. 6-17 [1]

The global environmental crisis underscores the imperative for design professionals— architects and landscape architects—to join forces to create integrated designs that address ecological issues; however, long-standing disciplinary divisions frustrate this crucial endeavor. Architecture and landscape architecture have been professionally segregated since at least the late nineteenth century. They are constituted as independent fields, each with its own curriculum and licensing procedure. The challenge of developing a new model of practice—one that is both formally and programmatically sophisticated and environmentally responsible—requires that designers examine how this impasse ever arose. Although my remarks largely focus on what I refer to as the landscape/architecture divide in the United States from the nineteenth century until today, I would suggest they are relevant to this volume with its focus on the relationship between interior and landscape. As I have argued elsewhere, architecture and interiors are interdependent disciplines.[2] The building envelope, understood in conjunction with the interiors they shelter, articulate the
seams where inside and outside meet, and, as a consequence, they shape the way humans interact with one another and the designed environment.

The landscape/architecture schism can be traced back to antiquity and to another deep-seated yet suspect Western polarity: the opposition between humans and nature and thus between buildings and landscapes. One version of the human/nature dualism finds its home in an influential body of thought that arose in nineteenth-century America, the concept of wilderness. The idea of wilderness is so engrained in the American conscience—through literature, philosophy, and even notions of gender and sexuality—that it has effectively shaped the design approaches and even the codes of professional conduct that, in many ways, still define the relationship between  architecture and landscape practice.

Scholars have traced the intellectual origins of American environmentalism to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, American writers active in the second half of the nineteenth century who advanced the concept of wilderness. Indebted to eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Romantics like William Wordsworth, this generation of writers celebrated the ethical and spiritual benefits of living a life in unspoiled nature, uncontaminated by America’s burgeoning urban industrial civilization (Nash 1967).

This account of the relationship between humans and nature marks a pronounced reversal in American thinking about landscape. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, the settlement of the American frontier was predicated on the Judeo-Christian belief that it was the responsibility of humankind to cultivate the wilderness, which was traditionally perceived to be a desolate place located on the margins of civilization and associated with terror and bewilderment.

This conception of wilderness not only perpetuated the age-old human/nature divide but also engrained ideas about the nature of gender. Relying on the longstanding personification of nature as a woman, feminist critics like Carolyn Merchant have shown that the rhetoric underlying the expansion and settlement of the American continent was founded on biblical accounts of the expulsion from Eden, the fall brought about by a woman. Wilderness was depicted as an unruly female to be subdued and ultimately cultivated through the labor of men, whose goal was to recover the paradise lost on earth. For feminists, this biblical injunction was reinforced by yet another gendered Western dualism that opposed material and immaterial, mind and body: rationalist thinking, considered a male prerogative, made possible the Scientific Revolution and a corresponding conception of Mother Earth as a passive body subjected to male domination through technology—a worldview that many eco-feminists argue persists today.[3]

Image 1.1: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley 1903. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LCUSZ628672.

By the mid-nineteenth century the American frontier had been settled. This impending loss of the majestic scenery of the American continent threatened America’s national identity. Fueled by a surge in cultural nationalism and nostalgia for the rapidly vanishing frontier, early environmental activism represented a remarkable shift in wilderness thinking: the spiritual grounding of the young nation had come to depend on the preservation of the natural landscape. As Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world” (Cronon 1996: 69).

By the turn of the twentieth century, the vanishing wilderness also paralleled the imperiled male masculinity. Associated with yet another authentically American trait—rugged individualism—wilderness was regarded as a source of masculine vigor and vitality. The home of the frontiersmen and the cowboy, wilderness represented a safe haven, a refuge where men could resist the emasculating, domesticating forces of urban culture. Theodore Roosevelt famously championed the establishment of America’s first national parks because they countered “flabbiness and slothful ease” and promoted that “vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in the individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibility atone” (Nash 1967: 150) (Figure 1.1).

Not only did wilderness form the foundation of American environmentalist thinking, but it also exerted a direct and profound influence on the subsequent development of two overlapping but increasingly diverging fields, architecture and landscape architecture. The dualistic conception of humanity and nature only reinforced the long-standing Western conception of buildings as constructed artifacts qualitatively different from their ostensibly natural surroundings. If buildings were different from landscapes, then a new type of landscape professional was required to fill the gap and complement the work of architects.

In 1899, a diverse group of gardeners, horticulturalists, and designers, under the leadership of Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr., established a professional academy, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). Over the years, wilderness core values have resurfaced in various guises, connecting the work of a first generation of nineteenth-century American landscape architects led by Olmsted, who were directly influenced by their wilderness peers, to three generations of twentieth-century Modernist critics and landscape designers, including Henry Russell Hitchcock, Garrett Eckbo, Charles Rose, and Ian McHarg.

Yet another undercurrent of wilderness thinking connects this lineage of landscape practitioners. By positing that the human is entirely outside the natural, wilderness presents a fundamental paradox. The historian William Cronon writes, “If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not” (Cronon 1996: 80–1) (Figure 1.2). Wilderness, then, presents designers with a particularly thorny dilemma: how to reconcile the ideal of untouched nature with the imprint of humans and human design. The guilty conscience fostered by this conundrum has haunted American landscape architects, and the dilemma was compounded by the negative connotations of designed nature: decoration, domesticity, and femininity. The result was a deep and persistent suspicion of designed nature that still endures.

Image 1.2:Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way, mural study, U.S. Capitol, 1861. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY.

The pioneering work of Frederick Law Olmsted betrays the paradoxes at the heart of wilderness thinking. Unlike Muir, who turned his back on cities to find redemption in the pristine American landscape, Olmsted fully embraced making nature accessible to urban citizens. Olmsted sought to legitimate the emerging profession by differentiating it from gardening, insisting that it was an art and not a trade. In a letter, he wrote that he had personally elevated landscape architecture from “the rank of a trade, even of a handicraft, to that of a profession—an Art, an Art of Design” (Treib 1993: 19).

Nevertheless, Olmsted’s conception of landscape architecture as design proved inconsistent with the guiding premise of his aesthetic philosophy: communion with nature depended on exposing people to a simulacrum of natural scenery unspoiled by evidence of human intervention (Figure 1.3a and 1.3b). Upholding the notion of a nature/culture polarity, Olmsted conceived of Central Park as a natural oasis inscribed within the dense New York metropolis, one that could offer the weary urbanite refuge from the industrial city through the rejuvenating effects of the visual contemplation of nature. In a passage that exemplifies yet another long-standing Western duality, the mind/body split, he writes, “As what is well designed to nourish the body and enliven the spirits through the stomach makes a dinner a dinner, so what is well designed to recreate the mind from urban oppressions through the eye, makes the Park the Park” (McKibben 2008: 125). For Olmsted, Central Park was not a place for active recreation, as it is today, but a place for visual observation. In later projects, like Prospect Park and the Boston Riverway, he again grappled with the ostensible incompatibility between nature and metropolitan design. Although they were massive infrastructural projects requiring advanced technology, engineering, and design, Olmsted disguised their constructed character by using a pastoral vocabulary that viewers assumed to be natural.

Image 1.3a and 1.3b: Frederick Law Olmstead, Riverway, Boston, Massachusetts, view during and after construction, 1892 and 1920. Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted, National Historic Site.

At the outset of the twentieth century, Olmsted was the acknowledged leader of a growing new profession. Only thirty years later, however, a new generation of landscape architects had lost its way, its efforts stymied by the supposed incompatibility of nature and design. The catalogue for Contemporary Landscape Architecture and Its Sources, an exhibition curated by Hitchcock at what was then called the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1937, underscored the crisis surrounding the profession’s inability to devise a compelling new Modernist landscape vocabulary. The San Francisco curators narrowly defined the problem of the modern landscape as belonging to residential garden design. In the process, Hitchcock grafted principles from architecture onto landscape architecture. Transferring modern architecture’s famed prohibition against ornament to its sister discipline, he advocated that landscape designers renounce their propensity for decorative ornamental planting and instead concentrate on functional concerns. Conflating two design professionals—the interior decorator and the gardener—who he saw as threatening the integrity of buildings by adorning them with ephemeral materials, Hitchcock cautioned against the use of flowers, writing that flower beds “serve primarily a decorative purpose, like curtains or upholstery indoors, subordinate to the useful general purpose of the terrace” (Hitchcock 1937: 19).

This identification of both interior design and garden design with decoration clearly tapped into deep-rooted disciplinary assumptions tinged by gender prejudices. In a similar vein to the criticisms made by male architects about interior decoration, gender prejudices also shaped cultural perceptions of landscape, a practice that also relies on the most ephemeral of materials—trees, plants, and flowers—to adorn the stable constructions of architects. Unlike architecture, a cerebral enterprise apprehended intellectually, gardens, like tactile interiors, elicited visceral pleasures stimulated by the textures, colors, and scents of material Mother Nature. If, in a strict Modernist view, all of landscape, whether cultivated or untamed, was considered an accessory to architecture, then gardens were even more inconsequential. As they repudiated ornament based on its association with feminine adornment, Modernists like Hitchcock also condemned decorative plantings, which they equated with womanly fashion, artifice, and deception. While International Style architects focused on pressing social issues, landscape designers, like interior designers, devoted their attention to the inconsequential and devalued domain of the female homemaker. In short, the discipline of landscape could redeem itself only by transcending its own tainted history as a superficial pastime affiliated with women. These prejudices would soon be reiterated by subsequent generations of landscape professionals.

Ironically, Hitchcock’s exhibition upheld the preeminence of architecture by arguing that landscape designers should extend architectural principles from indoors to outdoors: “Gardening on roof terraces and in close conjunction with houses is not so much a separate art as a sort of outdoor architecture” (Hitchcock 1937: 15). Imposing another key tenet of modern architecture on landscape—functionalism—he contended that designers must treat garden terraces as literal extensions of the interior, as “rooms that promote exterior functional activities” (Hitchcock 1937: 15). He maintained that outdoor spaces immediately adjacent to the house should be treated architecturally, but those farther away from the building should be left intact. This approach was exemplified in such prewar domestic masterpieces as the Villa Savoye and the postwar Farnsworth House, both of which conjure up the image of the isolated building set in a pastoral setting. They were both conceived as suspended objects that, through the new technologies of the curtain wall and the steel frame, leave nature deceptively unspoiled.

Architecture has appropriated a responsibility once shared with landscape design—the framed view. While buildings in the West have largely been conceived of objects independent from the landscape, architects working in concert with gardeners have employed devices—like French doors leading to porches aligned with trees and hedges—that articulate a smooth transition between inside and outside. But now divorced from the ground plane, the elevated house allows detached spectators confined within the interior to observe carefully composed views of an ostensibly pristine landscape (Hitchcock 1937: 15, 18).

It was the responsibility of a next generation of American landscape architects—Garrett Eckbo and James Rose—to find a way to reconcile the designed landscape with the nature/culture mentality underpinning modern architecture. Preoccupied with the burden of generating a viable direction for Modernist landscape, they seemed stymied by a professional inferiority complex. They shared the conviction that their discipline’s legacy of creating pretty pictures composed with ornamental plantings must be overturned by embracing modern architecture’s core values.

These two landscape architects practiced in California. Allying themselves with a loosely defined California school of Modernist landscape designers like Thomas Church and Lawrence Halprin, they sought an alternative to the Modernist paradigm of the isolated machine in the garden. Instead, they endeavored to take advantage of the West Coast’s gentle climate and relaxed lifestyle to marry architecture and landscape in a way that facilitated indoor-outdoor living (Figure 1.4). But these practitioners had few role models in their own field. Instead the works of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra, as well as the Case Study architects, represented a departure from the prevailing conception of architecture as a self-contained object building with nature as a foil.

Image 1.4: Thomas Church, Donnell Garden, Sonoma, California, 1948. Photo by Charles A. Birnbaum, The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

These resourceful designers looked outside their discipline to fine art. They absorbed the influence of maverick early European landscape designers, including Gabriel Guevrekian and Pierre-Emile Legrain, and like contemporaries Roberto Burle Marx and Isamu Noguchi, they were indebted to Cubism and Surrealism. The outcome was a series of modest residential designs that borrowed bold abstract forms and motifs from a variety of modern art sources, including Theo Van Doesburg, Joan Miró, and Jean Arp.

But this fertile period of small-scale experimentation was short-lived. Eckbo and Rose, like many of their postwar peers, gradually withdrew from taking on the residential commissions that were the bread and butter of many noted American landscape designers: Charles Platt, Warren Manning, and Ruth Dean at the turn of the century and Thomas Church in the 1950s. Small-scale residential projects came to be regarded as the domain of the amateur female homemaker, due in part to the emergence of mass-market publications like House Beautiful (Harris 2002: 180–
205). Eckbo and Rose shifted their focus to large-scale commissions like university campuses, corporate office parks, and suburban subdivisions, joining the ranks of a generation of corporate landscape firms that would dominate the profession for years to come. By the 1970s, the ASLA awards reflected this shift: only five of two hundred awards went to residences.

Another postwar practitioner, Ian McHarg, partnered with state and federal agencies to tackle the infrastructural challenges of formulating ecologically minded master plans that could transform entire metropolitan regions. He outlined his ecological approach in Design with Nature. For McHarg, writing in 1969, Olmsted’s worst predictions had been realized—rapacious capitalism aided by remarkable technological advances had tipped the precarious balance between nature and civilization, resulting in environmental casualties in America’s polluted, slum-ridden cities. McHarg compared city dwellers to “patients in mental hospitals” consigned to live in “God’s Junkyard” (McHarg [1969] 1995: 20, 23).

McHarg also wrestled with the issue of reconciling nature and design, although he pursued a different course from Olmsted, who smoothed over the paradox of constructing nature by concealing art, engineering, and infrastructure with a design vocabulary that appears to be natural. Likewise, McHarg departed from Modernists like Tunnard, Steele, Church, Eckbo, and Rose, who strived to wed functionalist precepts to abstract form making derived from the fine arts. Instead, McHarg turned to the natural sciences. Not really interested in new materials or technologies, he nevertheless shared the preoccupations of contemporaries like Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto, who, following in the footsteps of nineteenth-century designers like Viollet-le-Duc, Ernst Haeckel, and René Binet, were interested in the underlying laws of form generation in nature.

Natural scientists were for McHarg what engineers were for Le Corbusier. In a quasi-functionalist argument reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, he advised designers to study and emulate the morphology of plants and animals, not human works of engineering (McHarg [1969] 1995: 170). By identifying the natural sciences as a bridge between the constructed and the natural, McHarg made a more convincing claim for the integration of science and design than his functionalism-inspired predecessors. No longer specific to architecture, science became the legitimate purview of the landscape architect, who was now capable of generating seemingly inevitable designs grounded in the logic of science that integrated the built and the natural without resorting to art.

McHarg pioneered an ecological methodology that encouraged designers to consider a range of interconnected environmental factors—climate, water, flora, and fauna. Nevertheless, his comprehensive regional proposals, generated through a process-oriented approach grounded in the supposedly objective logic of the natural sciences, largely evaded design. His master plans were too large, conceptual, and abstract to engage issues of form, space, materials, and the human body in the way traditional garden designs once did. While McHarg’s design approach coincided with and reflected the process-oriented, ecological values that dominated the late 1960s and the 1970s, his philosophy nevertheless betrays the same struggle to come to terms with the supposed incompatibility of nature and design that preoccupied two generations of American landscape designers before him. McHarg revisited many wilderness-inflected themes inherited from his predecessors: a dualist way of thinking that views nature as a vulnerable feminine entity that must be protected from the predatory interests of humans, including architects; a professional bias against designed nature, decoration, and feminine artifice; and a preference for large-scale problem solving based on a deterministic design approach justified by science.

One of the consequences of this way of thinking is a mistrust of the designed environment, a legacy that continues to haunt many design professionals. The legacy of wilderness core values inhibits alliances not only between architects and landscape architects but also between interior and landscape designers. Its dualistic worldview conceives of interiors, like architecture, as a human endeavor, an art that intrinsically exists in opposition to the natural. Moreover, engrained disciplinary biases further undermine the marriage of interiors and landscape. In the same way that interiors are literally subsumed within the building shell that separates inside from outside, interior design is considered a subordinate branch of architecture. Interiors and landscapes, two fields devalued because of their pejorative association with femininity, domesticity, and decoration, must be controlled and regulated by the master discipline, architecture. In short, architects and the buildings they make both literally and figuratively impede the marriage of two fields: architecture, like a stern but wellmeaning parent, forbids the union of its potentially unruly offsprings, interiors and the brash interloper, landscape.

The residue of wilderness thinking—in particular, its dualistic disciplinary worldview and its preference for science over aesthetics—also has environmental consequences, strongly shaping the parameters of green design today. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, two types of design professionals—architects and landscape architects—and two sectors of the construction industry—builders and landscapers—have developed parallel strategies for making buildings and landscapes more sustainable. Products and materials are generally designed to replicate the environmentally irresponsible ones they replace: solar panels are attached to sloped or flat roofs, renewable materials clad the interior and exterior of conventional buildings, and organic fertilizers and indigenous plantings are eco-friendlier ways of improving the acres of traditional lawns and shrubs that adorn buildings conceived as isolated objects.

In short, green design fosters a product-oriented mentality that generally evaluates materials and techniques on the basis of performance and efficiency, rarely taking into consideration issues of form and program. Moreover, by taking disciplinary divisions for granted, sustainable design unwittingly reinforces one root of the problem: the dualistic paradigm of the building as a discrete object spatially, socially, and ecologically divorced from its site. As a consequence, this American ideal—itself derived from wilderness thinking—inhibits designers and manufacturers from treating buildings and landscapes holistically as reciprocal systems that together impact the environment.

Might it be possible to jettison these outmoded and environmentally irresponsible prejudices and instead reimagine buildings, interiors, and landscapes as mutually interactive entities? Relinquishing wilderness values will allow designers to adopt the more complicated viewpoint advanced by progressive scholars and scientists: a recognition that nature and civilization, although not the same, have always been intertwined and are becoming more so. Climate change reveals that there is not a square inch of the planet that does not in some way bear the imprint of humans.

It is important to adopt a more complex understanding of the relationship between nature, science, and technology. Common ground must be sought between technophobia and technophilia. Environmental problems can be resolved only by considering nature as both a scientific and a cultural phenomenon. Realigning deeprooted preconceptions and conceiving of culture and nature, and, as a consequence, buildings, interiors, and landscapes, as deeply interconnected entities will allow designers to usher in a new model of integrated practice, a way of working that reunites three fields of inquiry that should never have been divided.

This new mentality will allow representatives of three disciplines now accorded equal status to forge productive continuities between interior and exterior. Designers are encouraged to pay attention to the interface—the seam, or overlap, where indoors and outdoors meet. A critical awareness of the fluid connection between natural and synthetic, as well as between exterior and interior space, motivates designers to think about scale, form, and materials in entirely new ways: materials become the connective tissue that enacts the passage between interior, building envelope, and landscape. The scale of the human body becomes the crucial common denominator that bridges the intimate scale of interiors with the expansive scale of the outdoors. Considering the spatial and material junctures that link inside and outside through the lens of ergonomics, these can generate new ways of thinking not only about form but also about program, positioning human activities, both inside and outside, in a way that coincides with twenty-first-century notions of what it means to live with nature.

[1] This chapter is an abridged version of an essay included in the book Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture by Diana Balmori and Joel Sanders (2011).
[2] In “Curtain Wars: Architecture, Decorating and the Twentieth-Century Interior” (Sanders 2002),
I argued that deep-seated cultural prejudices resulted in the problematic professional split
between two inseparable fields, architecture and interiors. This essay extends this way of thinking
to account for yet another arbitrary professional divide between architecture and landscape. In
my view, “architecture” refers to both the hard and soft surfaces that clad both the interior and
exterior of buildings and that together enable the performance of human identity.
[3] For two influential feminist accounts of the intertwined relationship between nature, science,
capitalism, and gender, see Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the
Scientific Revolution (1980), and Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993).