Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
As the practice of landscape design evolves, our understanding of what is modern also changes. At the turn of the century, in and around Chicago, Jens Jensen was creating urban parks and residential gardens using native plants with great subtlety to evoke the spirit of the prairies; his work was considered fresh and modern in 1910. In 1969 Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature, demonstrated an ecological approach to planning and design that had, to some extent, been anticipated by Charles Eliot in the 1890s. McHarg’s approach, too, could be considered modern in that it is appropriate to our own time and circumstances.
In the 1930s, however, the word “modern” referred to some specific, dynamic movements in virtually all arts but landscape architecture. Among the few landscape designers who challenged current thinking and practice was Garrett Eckbo, a student at Harvard at the time. For over half a century since, Eckbo — a founding partner of Eckbo, Royston, and Williams and, later, of Eckbo, Dean, Austin, and Williams (EDAW) — has worked on private gardens, public parks, housing for migrant workers, college and university campuses, pedestrian mails, regional planning studies, and other projects. Now in his late seventies, he is still debating art and style. And, as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, he is still urging that body to take a stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. At his home in the Berkeley hills, the internationally recognized landscape architect speaks softly, laughs easily, and acknowledges compliments with some difficulty. The public persona is familiar, but the mystery remains: How did this modest man come to rebel against the conventional practices of landscape design in the 1930s and emerge as a leader of the mid-century modern movement in landscape architecture?
The history of this movement has yet to be written, although fragments can be found in the writings of André Vera, Christopher Tunnard, Fletcher Steele, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Thomas Church, James Rose, Lawrence Halprin, Roberto Burle Marx, Eckbo himself, and others. When challenged, some, such as Robert Royston and Dan Kiley, have insisted that they were not deliberately seeking a modern style or form. Rather as they tackled contemporary problems of shaping the land for human needs, they were manipulating forms and spaces in new ways. In time their work was recognized as modern.
Eckbo made plain the need for modem design in his first article, entitled Small Gardens in the City and published in Pencil Points in September 1937 while he was still a graduate student at Harvard: “This is the United States of America, 1937 A.D.— automobiles, airplanes, streamlined trains, mass production, the machine, new materials, new thoughts, new social concepts, a more abundant life. Why not express that, instead of English Tudor, or Italian Renaissance, or French modernistic, or Spanish-Moorish? Why must we be slaves to the ages…?” This article contained some experimental designs for the back gardens of twenty-five-foot-wide townhouses, where living space was extended from terrace to garden shelter by means of steps, ramps, and panels of grass or paving in varying compositions of rectilinear and curvilinear forms. These gardens Eckbo called modern, referring to their “open-minded, uninhibited, straightforward solution of a problem on its own conditions.”
When these words appeared in print, Eckbo’s professors in Robinson Hall at Harvard were still discouraging modernistic solutions to problems in the landscape studio. Walter Gropius, the former Bauhaus professor and architect of streamlined industrial and residential buildings in Germany, was just then infusing Harvard’s architecture department with new life, but Bremer Pond, Henry Vincent Hubbard, and other professors in the landscape architecture department, inhabiting the same building, resisted the momentum of modern art and architecture. “Trees are not made in factories,” they explained, referring to the fact that the basic materials of landscape design remained the same. Still, Eckbo and his classmates, James Rose and Dan Kiley, continued to experiment.
Some of Eckbo’s student work at Harvard appears in’ his first book, Landscapes for Living (1950), including a South Boston recreation center, designed in Gropius’ collaborative studio, and a block of houses surrounding a park, the subject of his Master’s thesis, entitled Contempoville. These projects convey a delightful sense of freedom and dynamism in the movement from intimate, sheltered spaces to broad, open areas. In plan, the playful compositions faintly resemble paintings by Kandinsky, Miro, Malevich, and Van Doesburg. In bird’s-eye views, however, the three-dimensional quality of flowing architectural space is clear. One thinks of Mies van der Rohe, whose Barcelona pavilion of 1929 Eckbo reproduced for the community center in Contempoville. Eckbo’s later designs for gardens, parks, schools, and public buildings, documented in his several books, reveal a similar experimentation with forms, spaces, and textures.
Notes in the margins of Eckbo’s Harvard textbook, Hubbard and Kimball’s Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design, also provide insight into the young designer’s developing sensibilities. “Pictures, pictures, pictures,” he scribbled, “What about environment? How about three-dimensional space experience? Why must we be naturalistic or formal? Why not just be natural and do what comes to us from our problems?” Where the authors suggested that naturalistic designs, represented by Repton, Robinson, and Olmsted, were a higher art than the expression of man’s will on the land, as illustrated by Le Nôtre, Eckbo had queried: “Why is nature more perfect than man?”
Other clues are provided by a notebook Eckbo compiled while he was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in landscape architecture. The hefty, home-made volume, hand-lettered A History of Landscape Design and dated May 9, 1934, contains no discussion of modern design, yet a fresh, pragmatic approach to history pervades the whole. The “real greatness” of Andre Le Nôtre, he wrote, lay in his ability to “collaborate amicably with other artists.” On Lake Como, among villas that had been redesigned as landscape gardens in the English style, the Villa Carlotta was “studied to fit into the country rather than look like it.” In Madrid the Parterre of the Retiro embodied for Eckbo a useful principle: “Establish the basic lines of a workable plan, then overcome its harshness and severity by planting.” In Virginia compact plans of colonial townhouses and gardens were worth studying, Eckbo noted, “as we are now trying to create a garden of low cost and easy maintenance which will make extra living quarters for the house. Most significant, he observed, “Garden design is inseparable from the architecture with which it is connected.”
Though he had been abroad once — to visit his Norwegian relations in 1929 at age eighteen — the young Eckbo had not yet seen most of the sites discussed in his history notebook. Some of his observations thus may be traced to photographs and books, to his young instructor, H. Leland Vaughan, or to Vaughan’s friend, Tommy Church, another young designer who occasionally gave critiques in the landscape studio and told students about his own work. Both Vaughan and Church had returned recently from Europe and the Northeast. They had met at Ohio State University, where Vaughan had been a student of landscape architecture (class of 1929) and Church an instructor from 1927 to 1929, having graduated from Berkeley in 1923 and Harvard in 1926. By the time Eckbo entered the landscape architecture program at Berkeley in fall 1932, Vaughan was there, teaching design, history, and construction. Church, who had taught construction briefly at Berkeley, was just opening up his own office in San Francisco. Modern landscape design was not yet an issue; but Vaughan and Church brought a new vitality to the landscape department at Berkeley during the early years of the Great Depression, when changing economic and social conditions were altering the profession of landscape architecture.
In the early 1930s Vaughan’s students had to consider economy in materials, labor, and maintenance. They had to be resourceful, flexible, and able to apply their professional training in new contexts. Given a tight budget, ingenuity in design was particularly critical. And the history of landscape design had to be made relevant.
Reading Eckbo’s notebook of 1934, one senses that history was very much alive for Vaughan and his students. Rather than a grab-bag of styles to be imitated, it was a reservoir of evidence of how people lived, how they shaped their landscapes for particular purposes and under particular conditions. Eckbo observed, for instance, that the gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife could not be understood from our perspective; constructed in Moorish Spain during the Middle Ages, they were “built for entirely different people.” Similarly, the delightful gardens of colonial Virginia and Pennsylvania were creations of other times under other conditions, impossible to recapture. “We can imitate the form,” Eckbo noted, “but it will be hollow.” Under Vaughan’s influence, he focused on plans, plants, and whatever conditions were essential: social, political, religious, geographical, geological, or climatic.
In the studio Vaughan encouraged Eckbo to extend himself, to challenge his abilities. Eckbo’s fellow students, Francis Violich and Corwin Mocine, recall similar experiences. They remember Vaughan as a young maverick, an inspiring teacher who encouraged his students to keep an open mind, to form their own opinions. Much younger than his colleagues, Professors John W. Gregg and Harry Shepherd, Vaughan had already broken away from the systematic Beaux-Arts approach to design then dominating most American departments of architecture and landscape architecture. This approach, derived from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, represented a distillation of design principles embodied in the greatest buildings and sites of all time. At its best, the Beaux-Arts method led to the clear analysis of problems and their ultimate synthesis or solution. At worst, it ignored social issues and discouraged creativity by ossifying principles into rules and formulas.
Reflecting on his early training, Eckbo has observed: “At Berkeley we were not taught a system, as was still true in the eastern schools. We were taught to approach problems simply and directly, on their own terms. Nevertheless, the only design vocabulary available to us, in books and examples, was that embodied in the Beaux-Arts system as applied to California.” This system reduced all possible forms of landscape design to two types: those generated by the architectural lines of a building — regular, geometrical forms — and those suggested by natural landscapes — irregular, meandering, seemingly infinite forms. A further reduction in complexity yielded the two labels, formal and informal, commonly used, then and now, as polar opposites. Eckbo discovered, however, that some of the most fascinating gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area were not truly formal or informal, but both, intensely and simultaneously.
Were it not for the Depression and tight academic budgets, Eckbo might have enjoyed the six-week summer tour of California gardens that the landscape department at Berkeley had, in the past, organized for its students. Instead, in the early 1930s Eckbo and Mocine took a field trip on their own, a trip that probably informed the concluding section of Eckbo’s history notebook, labeled Today.
From Eckbo’s own small photographs in the notebook it is clear that the gardens of Filoli, now owned by the National Trust, were already mature. Two decades earlier, in 1915, they had been laid out in the foothills of San Mateo County by painter and garden designer Bruce Porter for William B. Bourn, owner of the Empire Gold Mine in Grass Valley. In planting the sixteen acres of gardens, Porter had been assisted not only by horticulturist and interior designer Isabella Worn, but also by the client himself. From his European travels and his summer place in Ireland Bourn had brought back seeds and cuttings of plants such as Irish yew, dwarf English boxwood, blue Atlas cedar, copper beech, and juniper. Eckbo’s notebook does not mention Filoli’s designers, but it does offer his own assessment of the place just a few years before Bourn’s death in 1936.
On the whole, Eckbo was delighted by the choice of building materials and plants at Filoli, including the stone paving at the southwest corner of the main terrace, the brick walks, walls, and outbuildings, the magnificent coast live oaks, two Camperdown elms at one end of the Bowling Green, and a half-circle of concrete columns chained together and supporting wisteria and roses, which terminated the longest vista in the cutting garden. He regretted, however, that the huge oaks blocked some views from the house and that the gardens, charming in themselves, were unrelated to the house by any strong axial and other visual connections. One “very pleasing and interesting” small parterre, enclosed by a hedge of Pittosporum tenuifolium, contained graveled paths and beds of portulaca. There the box borders of the outer beds stood higher than those of the inner beds. “This formal garden area may be criticized he noted, “for being more formal than the area immediately about the house, thus breaking the rule that a development should go from formal through less formal to informal. But of course,” he added, “there are no rules in design.”
At each of the estates described and delineated by a sketch plan in his notebook Eckbo saw various beauties and flaws in plan, siting, and materials. At the San Mateo residence of George T. Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle he noted the curving entrance drive lined on either side with a double row of poplars, a well-designed pergola containing a grill, a sink, and cupboards, and an enticing path that led nowhere. The 250-acre Hillsborough estate of Mrs J.D. Grant was a “most delightful development, small but perfect in scale and proportion, simple and livable yet refined and elegant.” There Eckbo appreciated a “splendid” fifteen-foot hedge of Monterey cypress and a sliver of steps leading from a terrace up a steep hillside between clipped hedges, Italian cypresses, and abundant vegetation to a less formal area beyond the house.
When Eckbo visited the Villa Montalvo near Saratoga, formerly the estate of Senator Phelan, it was owned by the San Francisco Art Association. One “compact, livable, and delightful unit” was composed of a three-sided, cloistered patio on the garden front of the house and a raised terrace with a swimming pool surrounded on three sides by a pergola incorporating dressing rooms and a casino. The Italian garden, glimpsed across a sweeping lawn lined with conifers, seemed to him too distant from the house and poorly planted. Elsewhere at Montalvo he noted fine Irish yews and a splendid group of seven Italian cypresses to the right of a sphinx-guarded staircase.
Of all the Bay Area places Eckbo described, only the Hillsborough estate of Mrs George A. Newhall, Sr, had a decidedly French character. Described as the embodiment of “tremendous grandeur and dignity and extreme simplicity,” this garden was laid out on a single axial alignment of plane tree allée, forecourt, house, terrace, pool, and 175-yard allée of hawthorns terminating in a temple of love. In contrast, the residence of George A. Pope, also in Hillsborough, was “typically English in that it is laid out in a very helter-skelter manner, with various formal and semi-formal developments” that were not integrated into a coherent whole. There, however, he did enjoy the drive curving past “fine, sweeping lawns and grand old trees,” the “pleasant English house,” and the view from its balustraded terrace over a steep hillside.
Eckbo’s descriptions of two other residences confirm his objectivity as a critic. Regardless of the size or character of a place, he was looking for quality in plants, care in maintenance, and a continuous spatial experience. The property of Andrew Welch in San Mateo was English in character, with well-designed elements within an incoherent overall scheme. Its Japanese-style garden, containing a tea house, was pleasant and understated. One secluded, not entirely symmetrical, formal garden he found “very interesting.” At the more rural Blaney estate, Rancho Bella Vista, the rambling Spanish-style house was surrounded by “wonderful big oaks” and seemed to have “grown into and become at one with its farm and countryside.” The only formal gardens here were sited on a steep hillside, where a narrow slit of stairs and landings was lined with boxwood, Italian cypresses, and weeping Lawson cypresses surrounded by wild oaks and undergrowth. At the bottom of this densely shaded staircase, brilliant sunlight warmed a terrace with pool. Enclosure was secured by dipped euonymus hedges, tall chamaecyparis hedges, and two splendid Italian cypresses. Though he could have wished for better maintenance and more distinctive planting, Eckbo was charmed by Rancho Bella Vista, where the feeling of a garden was extended even into the orchards and fields by hedges of box, privet, cypress, and euonymus. The distant farm, too, he found worthy of comment.
These personal views of gardens visited give a hint of the young designer’s independence of mind. His diaries also tell something of his early life and development. An only child of divorced parents, he grew up in the small town of Alameda, California, with his mother and, over time, two stepfathers. He recalls an impoverished childhood without much sense of purpose or inspiration. While in grammar school, he loved to spend weekends puttering around on a farm in Walnut Creek. He did not dwell on the laborious tasks of the old farmer (the father-in-law of one of his teachers); instead he made lists of the animals he sketched (three horses, five cows, two bulls, etc.) and thought of becoming a farmer someday. After high school, inspired by the visit to Norway with his uncle, a prosperous lawyer, he decided to go to college. (But inspired is too tame a word; in revealing to him a new world of a warm, extended family, intellectual achievement, and material well-being, the visit to Norway changed his life.) Some time later, in a university catalog, among courses in botany, chemistry, and soil sciences, he found his life’s focus, for it was within the agriculture department that the University of California, Berkeley, offered, as did many other land-grant institutions, instruction in landscape architecture.
After graduation from Berkeley in June 1935 Eckbo moved to Ontario in the hot, dry Pomona Valley of southern California, which introduced him to an entirely different climate and topography. He had come to take his first professional job at Armstrong Nurseries, a thriving operation with several hundred acres of growing grounds, a sales and display yard, and offices for a local and nationwide wholesale business. There, working under landscape architect J.A. Gooch, Eckbo and one other draftsman produced garden designs based largely on graph-paper surveys and snapshots. “These were grassroots, nuts-and-bolts landscape problems,” he recalls. His solutions, some one hundred gardens in all, he remembers as competent, sometimes experimental, rarely inspired. His other duties included advising customers on planting and maintenance for a range of microclimates from mountains to beaches and deserts.
At times, Eckbo admits, the job seemed quite limited, but in retrospect he recognizes its lasting benefits. He learned that practice rarely lives up to theory unless the theory is mediocre. Visiting botanical gardens and spending many evenings drawing up plant lists for various conditions, he developed a much broader familiarity with plants. Beyond this, he experienced a refreshing new atmosphere. In the smog-free plains, among grander mountains and wider beaches than those of the foggy San Francisco Bay Area, the air was clear, sparkling. People were different, too. Eckbo recalls, ‘There was a sense of drive, action, dynamism that I had never felt in the north.”
After about a year at the nursery he won a competition for a scholarship to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and drove across the country in fall 1936 with his friend Francis Violich. Violich eventually combined landscape studies there with city planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eckbo remained in landscape architecture at Harvard, the only Californian in his class to complete the Master’s program. He stood out from his classmates in other ways as well. Though his undergraduate studies had included the same basic elements of landscape design (design, construction, plants, and history), he had acquired the pragmatic outlook and skills suitable for a California practice in the mid-1930s. Even his understanding of history was colored by the California perspective. In his history notebook the Mediterranean traditions of rectilinear design were dominant, while the Oriental and Anglo-American traditions of naturalism were slighted. The name of Olmsted appeared not once. Moreover, Central Park, New York, the only work of Olmsted mentioned in his notes, appeared in an unfavorable comparison with the Tuileries in Paris. Whereas the Tuileries, redesigned by Le Nôtre early in his career, had become a public park in a great city, accommodating huge crowds in its formal spaces, the romantic landscape of Central Park was “not nearly as efficient,” and, Eckbo assumed, an attempt to “bring a piece of nature into an environment to which it is not suited.”
One might have predicted that Eckbo himself was not suited to, or not destined to thrive in, a landscape department founded by the son of Frederick Law Olmsted. Apparently the legacy of the elder Olmsted, still cherished in that department at Harvard, had never been impressed upon him. But the fundamental reasons for his distance from his new academic environment, his sense of being out of place, lie deeper. He had grown up in an environment of striking beauty and heroic scale. As a boy, when free from household chores, he would wander with his dog along the tidal flats of the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay or pole a homemade raft in the shallow waters. He had hiked all over Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, then accessible only by ferry. Most of the state in which Eckbo grew up was still free of urban development. In contrast, landscapes in the highly urbanized northeast had seen so much human intervention, including the destruction of forests and pollution of streams, that a growing reverence for nature in all its fragile and unaltered beauty, was perhaps inevitable there. Surveying the environmental damage in 1917, Hubbard and Kimball had underscored the responsibility of landscape architects to preserve precious areas of natural beauty for the recreation and inspiration of future generations. This focus on preservation was, for a variety of cultural reasons, accompanied by their belief that the expression of man’s will in landscape design was not so high an art as naturalistic designs, the “expression of nature’s self.”
As a student, Eckbo was reluctant to follow Hubbard and Kimball’s lead. Three decades later he and Ed Williams would provide the state of California with their firm’s Urban-Metropolitan Open Space Study, a solid documentation of the urgent need for preservation within two vast regions. But in 1936, nurtured in the less altered environment of California, Eckbo was more interested in design at the small scale. He knew that both farmers and garden designers could design with nature without attempting to copy it, or even to express “nature’s self.” He was convinced that modern life demanded a new approach to landscape design, and, with a few like-minded fellow students, teachers, and colleagues, he was just setting out to define it. But that is yet another story.
[A shorter version of this article appeared in Perspectives, the newsletter of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects, Student Chapter at Radcliffe Seminars, in February 1988.]