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Critic's Notebook: L.A.'s landscape architects labor in anonymity

How to explain, much less minimize, the relative obscurity of L.A.'s landscape architects? There's no easy answer but our open spaces and preservation efforts give the issue added urgency.

April 20, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • The Val Verde garden in Montecito, a Lockwood de Forest masterpiece, is in demise.
The Val Verde garden in Montecito, a Lockwood de Forest masterpiece, is… (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles…)

"In Southern California," the architect Charles Moore wrote in 1984, "the part that is planted is very likely to be more sophisticated than the part that is built."

If that's the case — and I'd say it has been in nearly every phase of the region's design history — how to explain the fact that Los Angeles architects have for so long been much better known, locally and around the world, than their counterparts in landscape architecture? Why have our best gardens tended to be even more susceptible to neglect or demolition than our best houses, which are themselves infamously vulnerable?

Why is it that everybody in L.A. seems to remember that Bertram Goodhue designed the original Central Library downtown, but few know that the acclaimed landscape architect Lawrence Halprin is responsible for the Maguire Gardens at the building's feet, added when the library was restored and extended by architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer in 1993?

And what about Ruth Shellhorn, one of the chief landscape architects for Disneyland? Or Ralph Cornell, who designed the almost comically underappreciated setting for the 1967 Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden at UCLA?

Those questions — and the careers of those landscape architects — were at the heart of a symposium organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation and held last Friday at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "Landscapes for Living: Post-War Landscape Architecture in Los Angeles" brought together landscape architects, historians, photographers and others for a series of discussions — some meandering, others revelatory — that produced seemingly endless variations on a single theme: the longstanding, stubborn obscurity of the Southern California landscape architect.

Explanations for that obscurity came in a rush all day long. Landscape architects don't publish or promote their work the way architects do. They don't create objects, easily photographed and quickly understood, the way architects do. And perhaps most obvious of all: Their work is ephemeral by definition, quicker to decay and easier to modify than buildings are, to say nothing of a painting, a symphony or a novel.

All those explanations make sense, but they are mostly universal: They don't say a whole lot about the particular battles fought, and often lost, by landscape architects in Southern California. Los Angeles would seem to be a potential Garden of Eden for the profession. The city's near-perfect climate allows almost anything to grow. And its horizontal, low-to-the-ground development pattern is ideal for putting landscape architecture on prominent display.

To get at the peculiar anonymity of the Southern California landscape architect, it seems to me, requires exploring a notion that barely got a hearing at "Landscapes for Living," at least during the panels I attended: the L.A. garden as a vehicle for — and expression of — a certain democratic impulse.

Because Los Angeles was built from its earliest days around the primacy of the single-family house, garden space here has always been widely available to families with a range of incomes and backgrounds. Instead of a Central Park by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted at the very heart of our metropolis, we developed tens of thousands of private amateur parks in our backyards, to go with a relative handful of parks and plazas by prominent designers.

Another question I didn't hear any of the panelists address directly, though they seemed to circle around it all day, was this: In a world quickly turning every artistic discipline into digital form — even architecture, with fancy computer renderings of unbuilt projects now routinely splashed across the front pages of newspapers and the covers of books and magazines — how can landscape architecture possibly compete? If gardens are nearly impossible to appreciate in two dimensions, they are also best understood over time.

To a certain degree landscape architects are faring surprisingly well in this new cultural context. As American cities try to reclaim their waterfronts or carve out more space for pedestrians, bike lanes and open space, landscape architects are increasingly leading diverse teams of designers, ecologists and planners, giving them opportunities for newfound prominence and authority.

A few landscape architects have already turned such projects into springboards to relatively broad fame, including James Corner (the High Line in New York, with architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro), Ken Smith (the Orange County Great Park) and Peter Walker (the forthcoming ground zero memorial in Lower Manhattan, with Michael Arad).

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