Has ASLA Abandoned the Residential Garden?

Yes, No, Maybe so? By Susan Hines

2009 composed salad LA: Coen + Partners  Photos: Paul Crosby, Paul Crosby Architectural Photography

In just a few weeks, the recipients of the American Society of Landscape Architect’s 2014 Professional Awards will be hustled across the stage in Denver for a quick handshake and photo-op. The purpose of the ASLA Professional Awards is to “honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe.” Although, the society recognizes accomplishments in research, land planning and analysis as well as communications, the majority of submissions are in the general and residential design categories. Here, are completed designs of every project type, from corporate campuses and public parks (General Design) to rooftop terraces and country estates (Residential).

Given the talent pool, the best landscape architects of our time, practicing in diverse regions of the country, indeed, around the globe, one would expect a range of work across a broad spectrum of landscape styles. This would seem to be particularly true of the residential design category.  In theory, professionals submitting in this category must respond to clients’ needs and preferences as well as site conditions and varied architectural styles. The potential for diverse ideas, inspiration and just plain eye-candy seems pretty good. 

LA Blasen Landscape Architecture,  Photo: Marion Brenner Photography
Unfortunately, and ever increasingly, the anticipation of professionals and public alike quickly fades when the winning residential designs are revealed. Taken as a group they are almost invariably contemporary residences, actually modern in the true sense of that word—minimalist, rectilinear, frequently flat roofed, glazing galore, devoid of ornamentation. The landscape response resembles a composed salad: Beets here, shredded carrot there, a well-placed radish, a small pile of asparagus served on a bed of lawn. The problem with this comparison is that the salad described is much more colorful than the award winning projects and may contain a greater variety of plants.  

Yet the same jury selects the General Design awards. Within this category, gardens with intricate planting are ever increasingly among the winning designs. Last year, three gardens and the famed Highline (Section Two)—with its exceptional planting design—captured awards. The growing dominance of gardens in the General Design category is the exception that proves the rule. What is the jury signaling?  

Consider this possibility: Landscape architects do not want to be confused with gardeners, garden designers or, heaven forbid, landscapers or landscape designers. When a house is involved, rather than a major public or private open space, the line becomes murky. Historically the term “garden” is associated with a building, most often a house. In the UK the term is used colloquially to describe the front or back of any residence—improved or unimproved. In the US, we use the term “yard” in the same way, as in, ”I love the landscaping in your front yard. Did you use the same company that mows your lawn?”  

Status anxiety is at the root of this dilemma and is nowhere better displayed than in the ASLA residential design awards. Landscape architects are highly trained, licensed design professionals, constantly forced to distinguish themselves in the popular mind from landscapers—the hoi polloi “mow and blow” crowd-- and from gardeners with their unruly plants. If the ASLA national seal of approval were stamped on a residential garden, rather than a landscape with domestic adjacency it may be hard for your above-average landscape architect to take. After all, these professionals already labor in the shadow of a far greater being: The Architect.  

2011 Simple beauty-Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Ltd., image credit same

Here is a fact: Landscape architects depend on architects for work. While “seamless collaboration” is often celebrated, it is seldom the case that a landscape architect is hired early in the design phase. When that does happen it is often because the architect understands the value his landscape counterpart brings to the job. Essential for the architect is the landscape architect’s ability and willingness to highlight the house. 

Ideally, the landscape architect and architect would challenge one another to greater aesthetic heights, a true collaboration. Instead the landscape is subjugated to the house. The architect’s traditional role as lead or prime designer is well established. Because award winners so clearly take their cue from the residence the landscape can’t be more than a green frame for a piece of contemporary architecture in the modern style. It's "shrubbing it up" without shrubs. In many instances it can be described as Kileyfication. Not that I don't admire the late Dan Kiley’s work, but isn’t there more? The winners are good looking landscapes, handsome in a Ken doll kind of way—all variations on a similar theme.

There is, in fact, another jury sanctioned option for professional designers who are less interested in the Kiley approach. Instead of a strict composition, the Genus Loci dictates. Here’s where a hackneyed phrase is useful, “We wanted it to look as if we had never been there.”  Since a garden is an overt expression of human intervention in a landscape, this approach generally involves a landscape restoration of whatever native landforms, hydrological systems, and native plants have been displaced by the construction of the house itself or other historic forms of human intervention—farming or mining, for example.

Visit the ASLA awards website, look at the photographs. Oddly, these images increasingly are submitted in black and white. Read the jury comments. Year after year, jury after jury heralds “restraint” above all else in residential landscape. Why this celebration of restraint in the built landscape, since it downplays, in theory and in practice, the landscape architect’s own contribution? Yet, new groups of nine professionals consistently select another round of award winners that share more similarities than they display differences.  You want eye candy. Every year you get a handful of red and green M&Ms. 

A contemporary Manhattan town house project from 2011, prompted this comment from the jury, “It’s astonishing how much vegetation they packed in there, yet it doesn't feel at all as if there is too much.” First, is the strange use of the word “vegetation” to describe plants, but more important is the tacit assumption that too many plants is an all too common downfall, indicative as it is of a lack of restraint.

Confusing a residential landscape with a garden is almost too easy. ASLA juries make sure that won’t happen, at least at the national level, by upholding an unstated standard or perhaps expectation for national award winners in this category. Very appropriately, since we seem to be stuck in the modern period, it is highly reminiscent of the Good Design concept that MOMA put forward in the 1950's, except that MOMA was completely forthright about it. The ASLA Good Design standard can be summed up in a phrase from Daniel Kaufman, the curator of those mid-twentieth century exhibitions. "A good design will never pretend to be more than one thing at a time,” Mr. Kaufman declared. 

2012 Black and white 2012 LA Reed Hilderbrand image credit Millicent Harvey
Over the last decade—before and after the economic unpleasantness--that "one thing" is obvious: It’s about the house. There are a few gabled roofs among the award winners but very few.  One of these, from 2012 is an old Rhode Island farm turned “family compound.”  The landscape is showcased mostly in black and white photography.  Not surprising, this award winner epitomizes the “We wanted it to look as if we had never been there” style.  The call and response between submitting firm and the jury says it all.

Landscape Architect: The project artfully integrates a network of restrained architectural and landscape interventions with the existing fabric, creating a lucid landscape structure and illuminating the peninsula's striking beauty. 

2012 ASLA Jury comment: Simple can be so beautiful. It feels both contemporary and permanent. While the pages of Dwell may suggest otherwise, not all people who commission contemporary modern homes disdain gardens full of plants. Dwell magazine’s tendency to focus on more obtainable modernism suggests many of the homeowners featured on its pages have already blown their dough on the house and its minimal but tasteful furnishings.   Not everyone has that problem. People who engage high caliber architects and landscape architects usually don’t lack funds. Lush planting around a neo-modern house looks fabulous. Examples exist, believe me.  The client base isn't dictating the standard, so what is?

Cherchez la architecte! A look at AIA award winners, for example, or Architectural Record ’s annual “Houses of Record” issue provides a clue.  When residential architecture is featured the striking preference is for contemporary modern—perhaps “neo-modern” should be the term. Just this year, the magazine’s introduction to the issue noted, “It is so true: in selecting RECORD Houses, the editors are often drawn to taut modernist planes, spaces that flow indoors and out, elegant details, and crafted materials. These tend to arrive in rectilinear packages.” 

The more architecturally oriented publications seem to be stuck in a single style, preferring to explore the possibilities implicit in the modern approach by bringing to it advances in building materials and an emphasis on sustainability. Many highly successful residential architects work in other genres, they just don’t win AIA awards and their work won’t be found among the annual Houses of Record. 

From before the economic unpleasantness. 2007 Mikyoung Kim LA and Photo
So it is with landscape architects working in the residential realm. The majority have not abandoned the garden with its inherent exuberance in favor of purity and restraint.  One assumes, given the numbers of submissions, and even a cursory knowledge of the profession, they haven’t stopped submitting these residential landscapes to the ASLA awards. Not all wealthy people (let’s just get that out of the way) want a contemporary residence constructed on a top of the line, highly sustainable stormwater management system with extraordinarily discrete planting.  The rich may different from you and me, but many want a garden and most can afford to have it lushly planted and well maintained.  

The 2014 winners provide gardeners and landscape architects who design gardens with a reason to hope.  The changes are fairly subtle.  Ponder them yourself here, my thoughts to come.

Susan Hines was the founding editor of ASLA's LAND Online and The Dirt. She served for several years as a writer/editor on the staff of Landscape Architecture magazine (LAM) and is a recipient of the Bradford Williams medal for writing in LAM. A former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers Project, Susan earned an MA in history from American University.  She occasionally contributes to American Gardener.
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