Human/Nature: Wilderness and the Landscape/Architecture Divide

September 27, 2011

*The following is an essay written by Joel Sanders for the introduction of his book with Diana Balmori, “Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture” (2011, The Monacelli Press)


The global environmental crisis underscores the imperative for design professionals—architects and landscape architects—to join forces to create integrated designs to address ecological issues. But longstanding disciplinary divisions frustrate this crucial endeavor; at least since the late nineteenth century, architecture and landscape architecture have been professionally segregated. Constituted as independent fields, each has its own curriculum and licensing procedure; more often than not, landscape architects are hired to “decorate” freestanding buildings designed by architects.

The challenge of developing a new model of practice—one that is both formally and programmatically sophisticated and environmentally responsible—requires designers to examine how this impasse ever arose. It is imperative to understand the ideological roots of the architecture/landscape divide in order to transcend it. The schism can be traced back to antiquity, 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 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, John Muir, and George Perkins Marsh, American writers active in 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.[i]

This account of the relationship between humans and nature marks a pronounced reversal in American thinking about landscape. Until the second half of the 19th 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, traditionally perceived to be a desolate place located on the margins of civilization and associated with terror and “bewilderment.” Moses’s forty-year exodus in the desert and Christ’s struggle with Satan in the wilderness are but two biblical examples that shaped a much older conception of the wild in America: that it was a domain fraught with moral and spiritual confusion that needed to be tamed by men.[ii]

Such a consideration of wilderness perpetuated not only the 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. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “This great savage country should be furrowed by the plough, and combed by the harrow; these rough Alleganies should know their master . . . How much better when the whole land is a garden, and the people have grown up in the bowers of a paradise.”[iii] 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 ecofeminists argue persists today.[iv]

But by the mid-nineteenth century, the American frontier had been settled. Environmentalists like Thoreau, Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt were confronted with an intimidating prospect not unlike that of today: the disappearance of wilderness. This impending loss of the majestic scenery of the American continent, which they believed surpassed even the man-made monuments of Europe, threatened 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.”[v]

By the turn of the twentieth century, the vanishing wilderness also paralleled 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.”[vi] Ironically, this nostalgic image of the wild was advanced by an elite class who reaped the benefits of the wealth generated by industrial capitalism but found their privileges and authority eroded by cultural developments including immigration and women’s rights.[vii] For wilderness champions like Roosevelt and Muir, who both belonged to this moneyed class, nature, the repository of threatened individual authenticity, was recast as a different kind of woman, not as venerable Mother Nature but as a defenseless virgin in desperate need of stewardship by red-blooded American males.

Today many still cling to the nostalgic American myth of unspoiled nature can actualize , a prerogative traditionally accorded to men. First articulated by writers like Roosevelt and Muir in the nineteenth century, this notion has been disseminated in the twentieth and twenty-first by means of popular culture. The classic Hollywood Western Stagecoach, made in 1939, presented John Wayne’s angular profile against the backdrop of Monument Valley. Since the 1950s, wilderness has been a favorite setting for print advertisements and television commercials.[viii]

Wilderness is no longer an exclusively straight male domain: today films and ads feature women as well men in the great outdoors, driving fast cars and scaling mountains. In a twist on the genre of the Western, Brokeback Mountain naturalizes the same-sex desire of its two leading male characters by setting them against a panoramic mountain range. While these media-manufactured images have become more inclusive, they are nevertheless updated versions of the nineteenth-century dualistic thinking that spawned them: contemporary media continues to generate escapist fantasies that represent untouched nature as the preserve of identity unconstrained by urban culture.

Not only did wilderness as expressed in literature and popular culture form the foundation of American environmentalist thinking, 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 longstanding Western conception of buildings as constructed artifacts qualitatively different from their ostensibly natural surroundings. Ideologies shape not only design philosophies but also professional conduct. 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—valorization of pristine nature as the preserve of authentic individualism, an ambivalent relationship to culture, technology, and the built environment—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 Christopher Tunnard, Garrett Eckbo, Charles Rose, and Ian McHarg. They even underlie the values of many designers working today.

Yet another undercurrent spawned from 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.”[ix] 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 is a deep and persistent suspicion of designed nature that still endures.

The pioneering work of Frederick Law Olmsted, the founding father of American landscape architecture, is fraught with contradictions that betray 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. In his role as the leader of landscape architecture, 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, Olmsted 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.”[x]

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. Upholding the notion of a nature/culture polarity, Olmsted conceived of Central Park as a natural oasis inscribed within the dense metropolis, an oasis 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 longstanding 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.”[xi] For Olmsted, Central Park was not a place for active recreation, as it is today, but a place for visual observation. Renewal was predicated on artifice achieved through carefully composed pastoral views made by “screening incongruous objects” with a new dematerialized “horizon line, composed, as much as possible, of verdure” that allowed the viewer “to withdraw the mind to an indefinite distance from all objects associated with the streets and walls of the city.”[xii]

In a later project, the Boston Riverway, Olmsted again grappled with the ostensible incompatibility between nature and metropolitan design. This massive urban park became America’s first constructed wetlands. Rather than employ a pastoral idiom inherited from the English school, Olmsted introduced plantings that evoked the regional vegetation of Yosemite, making the national park that he had helped to found in California accessible to ordinary Bostonians.

Although Central Park and the Riverway were massive infrastructural projects requiring advanced technology, engineering, and design, Olmsted disguised their constructed character by employing a pastoral vocabulary that viewers assumed to be natural. Even today, this default identification between nature and the conventions of the picturesque has become integral to landscape perception. Of Olmsted’s double-edged legacy, Anne Whiston Spirn writes: “Olmsted was so skillful at concealing the artifice that both the projects he had so brilliantly constructed and the profession he had worked so hard to establish became largely invisible. Today the works of the profession of landscape architecture are often not ‘seen,’ not understood as having been designed and deliberately constructed, even when the landscape has been radically reshaped.”[xiii]

At the outset of the twentieth century, Olmsted was the acknowledged leader of a growing new profession with the potential to guide the design of America’s burgeoning metropolitan regions. Only thirty years later, however, a new generation of landscape architects had lost its way. Struggling to invent a robust landscape vocabulary that would complement the achievements of their architectural peers, this group found its efforts stymied by the supposed incompatibility of nature and design.

Many contemporary critics and architects bemoaned this professional vacuum. Fletcher Steele wrote, “What a modernistic garden may be is everybody’s guess. The reason is that it does not yet exist as a type. We gardeners have always been behind other artists in adopting new ideas.”[xiv] In Gardens in the Modern Landscape, one of the few books devoted to the subject, critic Christopher Tunnard confirmed this sentiment: “For the garden of today cannot be called contemporary in spirit, as can the modern movements in architecture, sculpture or painting. It is not of our time, but of the sentimental past; a body with no head and very little heart. Imagination is dead, romance a mere excuse for extravagance in decoration.”[xv]

The catalog for “Contemporary Landscape Architecture and Its Sources,” an exhibition curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock at the San Francisco Museum of Art (today the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1937, underscored the crisis surrounding the profession’s inability to devise a compelling new modernist landscape vocabulary, a concern that would be echoed by landscape critics and designers for the next twenty-five years. The objective of this exhibition was to do for landscape what the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 “Modern Architecture—International Exhibition” had done for American architecture: legitimate a new movement by bringing together a range of projects that exemplified the tenets of a new school. But unlike the International Style exhibit, with its treasure trove of groundbreaking projects, the San Francisco exhibition organizers acknowledged that their exhibition checklist offered little in the way of stylistic coherence: “Extensive preliminary inquiry before the exhibition had taken form indicated that few definite principles of a contemporary style in landscape architecture had emerged from the diverse opinion held by eminent landscape architects. The exhibition will have served its purpose, if by illustrating diverse accomplishments and experiments in modern gardens, it demonstrates certain tendencies that appear to be fundamental, and directs attention to the general problem.”[xvi]

In contrast to MoMA’s persuasive demonstration of the capacity of modern architecture to shape a broad range of building types, from single-family residences to factories, 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 to 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: “The most successful contemporary technique is neither embellishment nor ‘improvement.’”[xvii] Conflating two design professionals—the interior decorator and the gardener—who he saw as threatening the integrity of buildings by adorning them with applied 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.”[xviii] Hitchcock’s prescriptive guidelines betray a deep-seated disciplinary prejudice that bifurcated nature and design. The exhibition itself perpetuated two mutually reinforcing perceptions: landscape professionals concerned themselves with trivial pursuits, like the decoration of residential properties for the idle rich; architects instead concerned themselves with essential human problems.

This identification of garden design with decoration tapped into deep-rooted disciplinary assumptions tinged by gender prejudices. Unlike architecture, a cerebral enterprise apprehended intellectually, gardens 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 also condemned decorative plantings, which they equated with womanly decoration, artifice, and masquerade.[xix] While International Style architects focused on pressing social issues, landscape 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 were not exclusive to Hitchcock, but they would soon be reiterated by subsequent generations of landscape professionals, and though often unconscious, they are still pervasive today.

Ironically, while intended to elevate the low profile of the landscape profession, Hitchcock’s exhibition upheld the preeminence of architecture by arguing that landscape designers 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.”[xx] Imposing another key tenet of modern architecture on landscape—functionalism—he contends that designers must treat garden terraces as literal extensions of the interior, as “rooms that promote exterior functional activities.” This passage outlines an approach to marrying modern buildings and landscapes that still dominates the profession today. 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: “The house with its living terraces forms a single formal unit, controlled by geometrical principles of design, set down on a well chosen site, otherwise almost completely untouched.”[xxi]

This statement evokes the modernist paradigm of the “machine in the garden,” a conception exemplified in such modern domestic masterpieces as the Villa Savoye and the Farnsworth House. These pre- and postwar icons conjure the image of the isolated building set in a pastoral setting, as found in seventeenth-century landscape paintings, as well as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalistic gardens reconceived for the twentieth century. Le Corbusier described a version of this vision in “Precision”: “I shall place this house on columns in a beautiful corner of the countryside . . . Grass will border the roads: nothing will be disturbed—neither the trees, the flowers, nor the flocks and herds. The dweller in these houses, drawn hence though love of the life of the countryside, will be able to see it maintained from their hanging gardens or from their ample windows. Their domestic lives will be set within a Virgilian dream.”[xxii]

Le Corbusier’s passage captures mainstream modernism’s Romantic, hands-off vision of the landscape as well as its understanding of the key role that technology plays in negotiating the interplay between man-made and natural. The Savoye and the Farnsworth were conceived as suspended objects that through new technologies—the curtain wall and the steel frame—leave nature deceptively unspoiled. Architecture has appropriated a responsibility once shared with landscape design—the framed view. Divorced from the ground plane, the elevated house allows detached spectators to observe carefully composed views of an ostensibly pristine landscape.[xxiii] The technology that made possible this conception of nature as a spectacle for visual contemplation was deemed the domain of the architect, not the landscape architect. In this way, two unequally matched disciplines—modern architecture and modern landscape—together reinforced the nature/culture, mind/body dualism, effectively confirming nature and architecture as fundamentally opposed entities.

But in a remarkable passage written just one year after the San Francisco exhibition, Christopher Tunnard unmasked the artistry behind the conceit of the modernist “utilitarian building in the garden”: “One strives to create a contrast between the disciplined outlines of terrace walls, paved spaces, pools, etc. and luxuriant vegetation designed to produce a happy decorative effect and to give the impression that it is a work of nature or of chance.”[xxiv] He cautioned architects to resist the fiction of “the wild and beautiful countryside,” which, he argued, lead even trailblazing architects like Le Corbusier to disavow the inevitable and inextricable relationship between nature and art.

It was the responsibility of a next generation of American landscape architects—Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, classmates in the landscape architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design when Gropius arrived in the 1930s—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. Their writings in journals recount self-deprecating themes justified by the same ideological and gender prejudices espoused by Hitchcock, Fletcher Steele, and Christopher Tunnard. They share 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. But formulating an approach grounded in science, technology, and human use was easier said than done: the primordial nature of landscape seemed to resist the application of new technologies and materials. In 1948, Brenda Colvin wrote, “Architecture is dealing with completely new materials as well as new needs, whereas the natural materials of landscape (land and vegetation) and the basic human needs which landscape fulfills are ageless. In garden design and in the wilder landscape, any conscious effort to create a ‘new style’ will be sterile.”[xxv] Borrowing terminology from modern architecture, Eckbo and Rose attempted to prove the naysayers wrong by espousing a “structural” or “scientific approach” that was muddled and vague at best. Pragmatic design guidelines—the use of honest materials, treesthat were isolated” rather than planted in traditional clumps, and plant species suitable to local climates—never matched their lofty rhetoric of marrying science and design.

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 took advantage of the West Coast’s gentle climate and relaxed lifestyle to marry architecture and landscape in a way that facilitated indoor-outdoor living. 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. These architects instigated indoor/outdoor continuity via architectural means, extending materials and built elements—patios and roof overhangs—from inside to outside. But what contribution could landscape architects make to this initiative without resorting to a familiar picturesque vocabulary?

Absorbing the influence of early modernist designers, including Gabriel Guevrekian and Pierre-Emile Legrain, these resourceful designers looked outside their discipline to fine art, particularly to landscape and to Cubism and Surrealism. The outcome was a series of modest residential designs, widely published in popular regional periodicals like Sunset in the late 1940s and the 1950s, that borrowed bold abstract forms and motifs from a variety of modern art sources, including Theo Van Doesburg, Joan Miró, and Jean Arp. In projects like the Martin Garden (1948) and the Zwell Garden (1950), Garrett Eckbo juxtaposed two signature modernist motifs, the cubist zigzag and the biomorphic amoeba. Perhaps the most resolved example of this approach is Thomas Church’s Donnell Garden (1948), whose dynamic composition combines zigzag stone walls, curved biomorphic planting beds, and a kidney-shaped pool.[xxvi]

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, not the trained professional, due in part to the emergence of mass-market publications like House Beautiful.[xxvii] Instead, taking advantage of a burgeoning postwar economy, Eckbo and Rose shifted their focus to large-scale commissions like university campuses, corporate office parks, and suburban subdivisions. Modeling their practices on such architectural entities as HOK and SOM, Eckbo and his colleagues joined 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. But professional success came at a price. Eckbo acknowledged the tensions between corporate practice and design: “When does such an expansion divorce the professional more or less completely from the design process and leave him as primarily an organizer, promoter, administrator, director, critic and contact man?”[xxviii]

For the most part, the early experiments of postwar Californians in attempting to bridge functionalism and abstraction in residential work are largely overlooked today. And when they are studied, critics tend to dismiss them as superficial appropriations of Cubist and Surrealist clichés that are graphic, not spatial. Although at times awkward and unresolved, these works nevertheless stand out as exceptional and noteworthy examples of the ongoing struggle to invent a viable alternative to naturalism, a compelling form language that can reconcile nature, humans, technology, and design.

Another postwar practitioner, Ian McHarg, also preferred to think big. Like Olmsted, he worked at a scale even larger than that of his corporate peers. He often partnered with state and federal agencies as he tackled the infrastructural challenges of formulating ecologically minded master plans that could transform entire metropolitan regions. A charismatic professor and self-promoting public intellectual who disseminated his ideas through print and television, McHarg outlined his ecological approach in Design with Nature, a book that grappled with an Olmstedian ambivalence about the role design plays in reshaping urban environments. 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.”[xxix]

McHarg’s diagnosis of the problem extended beyond the confines of the design disciplines, encompassing history, philosophy, and ideology. Using sweeping rhetoric that in many ways anticipated the anthropocentric critique launched by contemporary ecofeminists and deep ecologists, McHarg located the roots of the environmental crisis in misplaced Western values that he traced back to the Bible’s “raucous anthropocentrism which insists upon the exclusive divinity of man, his role of domination and subjugation.”[xxx] According to McHarg, greedy, profit-driven capitalists aided by new technologies reinforced centuries-old Judeo-Christian values by treating nature as a mere commodity.

Like Olmsted, McHarg aspired to redeem what had become America’s sprawling and decaying metropolitan regions. But how? For McHarg, landscape architecture had little to teach. He attacked his profession along the lines advanced by Steele, Tunnard, and Rose. In a chapter titled “On Values,” he restated a recurring disciplinary debate that pitted the French Formal school against the English Naturalist approach. McHarg dismissed the achievements of André Le Nôtre by enlisting a familiar argument tinged with gender prejudices: he deplores the “ornamental quality of plants” used to impose order on a “submissive,” “flat and docile landscape.” Instead, McHarg praised the English tradition as a precursor of his own ecological approach: “Nature itself produced the aesthetic,” and the English practice “applied ecology as the basis for function and aesthetics in landscape.”[xxxi]

As the title Design with Nature attests, McHarg also wrestled with the issue of reconciling nature and design. But McHarg 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, he 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. “Consequently the astronomer and geologist, the plant and animal morphologist are just as concerned and competent in the business of meaningful form as the painter,” he wrote.[xxxii] In a quasi-functionalist argument reminiscent of Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, he advises designers to study and emulate the morphology of plants and animals, not human works of engineering.[xxxiii] 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, guided by ecological principles, 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. He wrote, “I conceive of non-ecological design as either capricious, arbitrary, or idiosyncratic, and it is certainly irrelevant. Non-ecological design and planning disdains reason and emphasizes intuition. It is anti-scientific by assertion.”[xxxiv]

McHarg pioneered an ecological methodology that encouraged designers to consider a range of interconnected environmental factors—climate, water, flora, and fauna; this system is still immensely influential today. 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 entity that must be protected from the predatory interests of humans, including architects; a professional bias against designed nature, which he dismisses as a frivolous pursuit affiliated with residential gardening, decoration, and feminine artifice; 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 professionals. Aspects of this mentality can be detected in the work of some of today’s most progressive practitioners, many of them students of McHarg. Setting their sights on large-scale infrastructure rather than medium- or small-scale commissions, they are apt to generate ambitious abstract proposals that map a methodology driven by ecological rather than by formal factors.

The core values associated with wilderness thinking—in particular, its dualistic disciplinary worldview and its preference of science over aesthetics—also informs mainstream professional design practice, strongly shaping the parameters of green design today. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, two types of design professional—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. For the most part, style alone differentiates high-design approaches from market-driven directions. 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 to make the acres of traditional lawn and shrubs that adorn buildings conceived as isolated objects. When innovation in green design takes place, it is generally architects, not landscape architects, who take the lead, employing such formally expressive solutions as rain screens and double-layered louvered skins; landscape designers tend to favor more understated solutions. This bifurcated approach mirrors and perpetuates the design professions’ ambivalence about the relationship between technology and nature since the nineteenth century: the former is embraced as long as it leaves no visible trace upon the latter.

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 this outmoded and environmentally detrimental paradigm and instead reimagine buildings and landscapes as mutually interactive entities that effortlessly incorporate sustainable materials and techniques? What would it take to foster a new, formally progressive, integrated approach to sustainable landscape and architecture, one mandated not only to conserve resources but also to sponsor new forms of interaction among people in social space?

Designers must radically readjust their ways of thinking and working. First, wilderness values, the unexamined foundation that still shapes the perception of what it means for people to live with nature, must be called into question. The polarizing mentality that pits humans against nature continues to pervade mainstream environmentalist thinking, at least as it is transmitted by the media. Consider the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar: this ecological parable depicts greedy capitalists who threaten to exploit the natural resources of Pandora, an Eden-like planet occupied by gentle natives capable of spiritual communion with plants and animals.

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. Landscape and culture intermix in various combinations; while constructed elements are more common in urban areas and natural elements predominate in rural zones, organic and synthetic operate as a gradient of differing intensities that forms a continuum across the surface of the earth.

It is important to adopt a more complex understanding of the relationship between nature, science, and technology. Designers need not demonize technology as an agent of destruction deployed by avaricious commercial interests, as many ecofeminists and deep ecologists are prone to do. Nor should they uncritically embrace science as a solution to pressing environmental problems. Cultural critics like Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles have demonstrated that nature is not an a priori fact but a historical fiction that reflects changing social values and ideologies; science has played a central role in inventing and perpetuating narratives about nature that are taken as objective truths.[xxxv] 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 deep-rooted preconceptions and conceiving of culture and nature, and as a consequence buildings and landscapes, as deeply interconnected entities will allow designers to transcend the architecture/landscape divide and usher in a new model of integrated practice, a way of working that reunites two fields of inquiry that should never have been divided.

Since 2000, a new way of thinking and working has been gaining momentum. A wide range of international architects and landscape architects—many of them included in this volume—are creating provocative projects that register this more nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between humans, nature, and technology. As these practitioners call into question the contested boundary between buildings and landscapes, they remain open to yet critical of technology. On one hand, they mine the formal and programmatic potential of sustainability. In the same way that a first generation of modern architects harnessed newly invented materials like plate glass and the steel frame to generate a building language adapted to modern life, these designers recognize the potential of advances in green materials and techniques to instigate the development of a truly innovative design vocabulary. But on the other hand, these contemporary designers part ways with their modernist forbears: rejecting modernism’s often unqualified faith in technology and its general indifference to the designed landscape, they have spurned the paradigm of buildings as constructed artifacts floating in a predictably naturalistic landscape and instead freely invent hybrid landscape/architecture solutions that effectively mingle natural and synthetic. Groundwork champions this new breed of cross-disciplinary pioneer who recognizes that combining technological, formal, and programmatic innovation will lead to the creation of high-performance environments suited to twenty-first-century life.


[i] For a classic study of the origin of the American wilderness concept, see Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

[ii] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 70–71.

[iii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Young American,” Dial 4 (1844): 489, 491, as cited in Carolyn Merchant, “Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Recovery Narrative,” in Cronon, Uncommon Ground, 142.

[iv] 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 (New York: Harper Collins, 1980) and Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993).

[v] Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Works of Thoreau, ed. Henry S. Canby (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 672, as cited in Cronon, “Trouble with Wilderness,” 69.

[vi] Theodore Roosevelt,”The Strenuous Life,” in The Winning of the West, The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, Memorial edition (23 vols. New York, 1924-1926) p. 15 cited in Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p150

[vii] For both William Cronon and Donna Haraway, wilderness—represented as the American frontier or the African jungle—served as an antidote to the emasculating effects of American industrialism for an elite class of industrial capitalists who ironically [you use “ironically” in the text related to this citation—rework here—cynically?] believed they needed to escape its debilitating effects. For an account relating the meticulously crafted taxidermy of the African dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History to a spectacle of nature designed to compensate for a threatened white privileged masculinity, see Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989). For a discussion of how America’s wealthy citizens sought refuge in the first wilderness tourist retreats, see William Cronon, “Trouble With Wilderness,” 78.

[viii] For a discussion of the way media disseminates images of rural masculinity see Hugh Campbell, Michael Mayerfeld Bell and Margaret Finney, “Masculinity and Rural Life: An Introduction,” in Country Boys: Masculinity and Rural Life (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).

[ix] Cronon, “Trouble With Wilderness,” 80–81.

[x] Frederick Law Olmsted to Mrs. William Dwight Whitney, December 16, 1890, as cited in Laura Wood Roper, FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 447, as cited in Catherine Howett, “Modernism and American Landscape Architecture,” in Mark Treib, Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 19.

[xi] Frederick Law Olmsted “A Review of Recent Changes, and Changes which Have Been Projected, in the Plans of Central Park,” reprinted in American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, ed. Bill McKibben (New York: Library of America, 2008), 125.

[xii] Olmsted, “Review of Recent Changes,” 124.

[xiii] Anne Whiston Spirn, “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” in Cronon, Uncommon Ground, 91.

[xiv] Fletcher Steele, “New Pioneering in Garden Design,” Landscape Architecture 20, no. 3; reprinted in Treib, Modern Landscape Architecture, 110.

[xv] Christopher Tunnard, Gardens in the Modern Landscape (London: Architectural Press, 1938), 126.

[xvi] Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Contemporary Landscape Architecture and Its Sources (exhibition catalog, San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1937), 13.

[xvii] Hitchcock, Contemporary Landscape Architecture, 15.

[xviii] Hitchcock, Contemporary Landscape Architecture, 19.

[xix] For a discussion of the way modern architects justified a prohibition against the decorated interior by comparing it to the presumed artifice of the adorned female, see my essay “Curtain Wars: Architects, Decorators and the 20th Century Interior,” in Harvard Design Magazine 16 (winter/spring 2002), reprinted in Joel Sanders: Writings and Projects (New York: The Monacelli Press 2004).

[xx] Hitchcock, Contemporary Landscape Architecture, 15.

[xxi] Hitchcock, Contemporary Landscape Architecture, 17.

[xxii] Tunnard, Gardens in the Modern Landscape, 78.

[xxiii] In his exhibition catalog, Hitchcock repeatedly describes buildings as viewing apparatuses that transform the landscape into “pictorial” compositions. He advocates thinning out existing trees that obscure distant views so they [what is they? the buildings themselves? the trees?] can function “like a window in a wall, a means of providing a view of what lies beyond” and using screen walls with “glazed or unglazed openings through which the landscape appears like a framed picture.” See Contemporary Landscape Architecture, 15, 18.

[xxiv] Tunnard, Gardens in the Modern Landscape, 77.

[xxv] Brenda Colvin, Land and Landscape (London: John Murray, 1948), 62, as cited in Treib, Modern Landscape Architecture, 55.

[xxvi] For a discussion of the influences of modernist fine arts on landscape designers see Mark Treib, “Axioms for a Modern Landscape Architecture,” in Treib, Modern Landscape Architecture.

[xxvii] Dianne Harris, “Making Your Private World: Modern Landscape Architecture and The House Beautiful, 1945–1965,” in The Architecture of Landscape 1940–1960, ed. Marc Treib (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

[xxviii] Melanie Simo, 100 Years of Landscape Architecture: Some Patterns of a Century (Washington, D.C.: Spacemaker Press, 1999).

[xxix] Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (1969; reprint ed., New York: John Wiley, 1992), 20, 23.

[xxx] McHarg, Design with Nature, 29.

[xxxi] McHarg, Design with Nature, 71, 73.

[xxxii] McHarg, Design with Nature, 165.

[xxxiii] McHarg, Design with Nature, 170.

[xxxiv] McHarg, Ian L. “Ecology and Design.” Ecological Design and Planning. Eds. George S. Thompson and Frederick R. Steiner. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. 321. [come on, I should not have to do this work for you—cite properly; also, get original facts of publication for Ecology and Design]

[xxxv] For discussions of how science crafts cultural narratives about nature see Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s,” Socialist Review 15 (March–April 1985) and N. Katherine Hayles, “Toward Embodied Virtuality,” in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).