Landscape Architecture versus The Garden

Between Two Worlds

I am a landscape architect by profession. It is a career I chose out of passion and calling. I love the nobility of the profession’s history. Frederick Law Olmsted’s sweeping democratic vision created parks that made America’s great cities habitable after the Industrial Revolution. I love the expansive scope of the profession. Landscape architects design almost any site under the open sky, including highways and bridges, water treatment plants and power lines, urban plazas and parks, green roofs and greenways. I love the breadth and diversity of projects. In the last two months, I spent one day wading through a woodland swamp, one day in the Library of Congress researching historic letters, one day sketching a plan for a three-acre urban park, and one day designing a high speed race track. Next month will be entirely different.

Yet despite my love for landscape architecture, it is the garden that I keep returning to. The garden speaks to my intellect, my emotion, and my spirit. I am beginning to understand why Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho calls himself a ‘gardener’ rather than a landscape architect. “I say ‘gardener,’” says Caruncho, “because this mythical word belongs to mankind and contains memories of our purest origins, so full of resonance and touching aspects both elemental and fragile.”

What’s the difference between landscape architecture and gardening? Some have described the difference between the garden and landscape architect as a matter of scale. The garden is simply a more concentrated version of landscape architecture. Gardens are to landscape architecture what poetry is to prose. But I think the differences are more profound. Each discipline involves a different approach to land.

Corporate Headquarters, San Francisco.  OLIN.  Photo by Marion Brenner
Landscape architecture adopts an essentially rationalistic approach to analyzing land; after all, the profession emerges from a hybrid of architecture, engineering, horticulture, and ecology. The term landscape can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which refers not to land but to a picture of land. Landscape architecture creates a concept of land, an idea of what land should be, and then executes it. Celebrated landscape architect James Corner writes, “Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imaging.” It is this imaging or conceptualization that is the hallmark of the practice.

Image from The Ministry for Food, 1941
Gardening, on the other hand, is essentially relational. It is not about a picture or an idea for a piece of land, but about a personal relationship with a piece of land. Literary critic and garden theorist John Dixon Hunt calls gardens a third nature. Resurrecting concepts from the golden age of Italian gardens, Hunt recounts that the First Nature is wilderness, an undomesticated wild that predates man; the Second Nature is man-made agriculture and towns. The garden resides between these two zones. Gardens are a third nature, a place where art and thought are in relationship with nature.

One of the themes of this blog is to advocate for gardening. Garden more, garden now, just get out there and garden. What we need now is not so much a new concept for re-shaping land, or a new image for landscape. What we need now more than ever is to be in relationship with land. The blessings that flow from this engagement are myriad and mighty. Be absorbed in a garden: I can think of no purer expression of the human condition.
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