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Entries in landscape design (9)


Garden Design May Be Inspired by Works of Art, a book review for

The Artful Garden, James Van Sweden and Tom Christopher, Random House, ISBN: 978-1-4000-6389-5

The theme of this beautifully written and breathtakingly illustrated book is that great garden design may be enriched when it references and embraces creative elements that are found in the plastic and performing arts.  

Such a phenomenon is called synergy in industry and in horticulture it is metaphorically referred to as hybrid vigor. It represents a cumulative result that is superior to the sum of its parts and explains the cross fertilization that sometimes takes place between two artistic disciplines. As composers collaborate with choreographers and sculptors are inspired by painters, the resulting works are often richer and more powerful than what might have been created alone. Extending this metaphor to garden design, the authors suggest that the inspiration derived from the arts can raise a landscape to a higher level, making it more creative, and more meaningful.

According to Mr. Van Sweden, a garden may be likened to a painting because it can be described as a two dimensional depiction. It is also similar to a sculpture because it is a space through which the eye moves. There is a third dimension to a garden because it is constantly in motion due to seasonal change and rhythmic repetition. In that respect, it is similar to music and dance. However, because nature controls the pace of that change, an element of unpredictability is inherent in any garden – and that is its mystery.

In planning landscapes of any size, the reader is boldly advised not to rely upon “horticultural rules of thumb and clichés” as these produce “passionless mediocre results”. Instead of focusing on borders and beds, or paths and meadows, the authors encourage garden designers to consciously incorporate what they have observed, or experienced in other media. It is suggested that the resulting landscape design might “….resemble a tapestry woven from sky, trees, rocks, vines, flowers, grasses, and space”.

To elaborate on this perspective of landscape design, Mr. Van Sweden interviewed performance and plastic artists who garden. These include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, sculptor Grace Knowlton, textile designer Jack Lenor and painter Robert Dash. It is through their unique garden experiences and artistic mindsets, that the authors introduce the fundamentals of design that include positive and negative spaces, form and scale, as well as light and shadow. Additional design concepts discovered in the unique landscape of these artists include composition, color, symmetry, line, harmony, contrasts, rhythm and movement - aka music, foliage and texture. Finally, there is a brief discussion about creating the illusion of depth with textures and about layering a garden for mystery and excitement.

This informally written publication offers readers more than inspiration; it gives us insight into the brilliance of a landscape architect whose gardens are great works of art. James Van Sweden, along with his partner Wolfgang Oehme, was responsible for introducing his vision of the New American Landscape, an artistic and horticultural achievement that continues to receive international acclaim for more than twenty years since its conception. We are pleased that, with the assistance of Tom Christopher, Mr. Van Sweden has chosen to share with us the art - inspired creative process that makes his gardens beautiful beyond words.

Photos accompanying this review are meant to illustrate the New American Landcsape and may be found on the website of the landscape architecture firm of Oehme Van Sweden and Associates.



The Artist as Landscape Designer and Vice Versa; a book review for

From Art to Landscape, Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design, W. Gary Smith, Timber Press

Examine the front cover of this book. Notice how it is divided into 5 distinct color bands, each one deliberately positioned to play against the band adjacent. Notice too, how beautiful is the pastel sketch of a forest in band three and how it relates to and echoes the photograph in band four. This cover illustration, a work of art in its own right, heralds the beautiful visual experiences the reader will find inside this publication. Day after day, I would find myself returning to it, simply to enjoy the pictures. Often, I would forget that I was supposed to purposefully read it in order to write a review.

Mr. Smith is an award winning landscape designer specializing in botanical gardens. He is also a talented artist. His book takes the topic of garden design to a new level by raising the bar on the discussion about the role of art in landscaping. His work is neither a manual, nor a guide, nor a text book. It is an ode to the beauty and creativity we insert into nature when planning great estate gardens. Readers should not dismiss this book if the phrase great estate gardens does not apply to them. These settings illustrate universal elements of creativity in landscaping. Lessons learned here, and there are many, can be applied to gardens of any size..

The book is divided into two sections. In the first, the author introduces himself with a sensitive autobiography that narrates his development as an artist. Then he proceeds to build our visual vocabulary with elements of design that empower a garden designer. This section, pivotal to the overarching theme of the book, includes concepts such as shapes, forms, and patterns. These are categorized into scattered, mosaic, naturalistic drifts, serpentine, spiral, circles, dendric, and fractured. For each, there is a brilliant visual demonstration how such a concept impacts design.

According to the author, the next step is to encourage landscape designers to get in touch with their own creativity, and to sensitize their eyes to beauty. In that respect, the following chapter is a natural extension of a theme developed by Fran Sorin, in her publication, Digging Deep.  Mr. Smith’ recommends that we develop an aptitude for sketching, painting and drawing. These skills, he believes, liberate us from constraint and encourage creativity.

Furthermore, the author suggests, garden designers may be inspired by artists from other disciplines such as painters, sculptors, photographers and the performing arts, as all have a role to play in artistic nurturing. For example, in an examination of the Cascade Gardens at Longwood, the author demonstrates how cubism and abstract expressionism influenced the overall design of that garden and, in the next chapter, discusses how the Garden at Winterthur is, in its totality, an expression of fine art.

Part two of Mr. Smith’s book is a journey through the author’s professional accomplishments, with an emphasis on the artistic elements that shaped each of his works. These include The Pierce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens, The Tropical Mosaic Garden at the Naples Botanical Gardens in Naples, Florida, The New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods at Framingham, Massachusetts and The Enchanted Woods at Winterthur. The final chapter discusses the essential role that garden designers can play in the conservation and establishment of ecosystems and the philosophical relationship between art and gardening.

Prepare to be overwhelmed by the stunning images that the author has complied for our education. Some readers may find it necessary to put down the book after each chapter, to savor the moment. But don’t read it for that alone. Read it also to appreciate the author’s richly colored images of proposed and executed garden designs. I would welcome the opportunity to hang all of Mr. Smith’s artwork on my walls; He is that good.



Appreciating the Garden Photographer

It never fails to amaze me how important a role the camera plays in our appreciation of landscapes. Even those gardens that we have visited and admired look more interesting when caught by the creative lens of a photographer. Unlike the average visitor, who follows an easily recognizable path, the photographer takes the path least travelled or never attempted, in order to discover an aspect of a garden that might otherwise remain unseen.

The upper image caught my eye because the photographer made a leap of creativity to discover a powerful composition in pink, nestled in the stone wall of the garden. Perhaps a leap of the body was involved, as well. The lower photo is what a visitor might observe in that same magnificent garden, without effort or exploration.

Blasen Landscape Design of San Anselmo, California, created this residential garden in Big Sur, California.


Working With Professionals

Whether one is landscaping parkland or an urban back yard, the starting point is always the same. Before contacting a landscape architect or garden designer, one should try to rough-sketch a layout that incorporates one’s vision and requirements. If a sketch is too daunting, write down what the function of the garden will be and how it should make you feel when it’s completed.

This advance reflection will contribute to making the meeting with the professionals less overwhelming. They are bound to ask about an over-arcing vision, about favorite colors and plants, and about the intended usage for the garden. Trying to imagine all of these matters before the meeting can stimulate ones own creativity and in the end helps to facilitate communication between professional and client.

The photo posted here is a view of Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, IL, USA. It is considered one of the finest Japanese gardens in North America.This garden was created by Kurisu, a garden design firm in Portland Oregon, that is acutely aware of the restorative effect that breathtaking and serene environments have on the human spirit.

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