The profession of landscape architecture is very much rooted in the European tradition of garden design, and it didn’t germinate as a distinct profession in the United States until the 19th century.
In conjunction with the field of urban planning, designers like Frederick Law Olmsted set out to shape the municipal American landscape alongside garden designers such as Beatrix Jones Farrand (the niece of the great American novelist Edith Wharton) and Warren H. Manning. These designers, among others, had a hand in designing many of the great estate gardens throughout the country. Farrand was the only woman among the 11 founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). In 1899, the group set out to “establish landscape architecture as a recognized profession in North America, develop educational studies in landscape architecture, [and] provide a voice of authority in the ‘New Profession.’”
As the landscape architect Thomas Dolliver Church explains in his book Gardens Are for People: “The Columbian Exposition in 1893 ushered in the greatest wave of ‘copyism’ since England discovered Palladio.…While this resulted in some fine reproductions of old-world gardens, it proved the hollowness of imitation without reason.” Church, who created some of the most iconic California-style domestic landscapes of the 20th century, stated that what was needed was for “modern” to be “revived as an honest word”—–that designers must “realize that modernism is not a goal but a broad highway.” This, of course, is true for any medium, but perhaps particularly so for one that deals so directly with our surrounding environment and our public spaces.
Today’s landscape architect or designer must work within a number of social and climatic parameters. The disappearance of natural and rural space—–not to mention environmental imperatives stemming from climate change—–are shaping the field dramatically and encouraging practi- tioners to do more than simply create aesthetically pleasing landscapes. Most contemporary practices do a combination of public and private design as well as large-scale restoration and redevelopment projects. No matter the scale, the process always involves organizing and shaping a landscape for a desired effect and function. Incorporating elements of spatial division through fencing, planar manipulation, built-in seating, water features, and hardscaping allows land- scape architects and designers to create more fluid spaces. Today, most trained practitioners are well versed in sustainable applications and are able to create environmentally sensitive landscapes through xeriscaping (drought-tolerant planting), native planting, smart irrigation, and the incorporation of green roofs.
Though domestic landscapes may not possess the grandeur of some large-scale corporate and municipal commissions, they serve as a succinct encapsulation of how a landscape architect works. A successfully designed landscape will not only be more useful, it will also be more beautiful.