Cultivating Appreciation

Cultivating Appreciation

By Charles Birnbaum
Sixty years ago it was Mies, Alvar, and Lou. Today it’s Zaha, Rem, and Renzo.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in a state of low-grade irritation over the tendency to call our leading architects by their first names, as if they were movie stars, while landscape architects go unnoticed.

I can’t resist dropping references to Dan (Kiley) or Larry (Halprin) at cocktail parties. What do I get in response? Nada.

Thomas Church, the California landscape architect, once said that he and his peers were often dismissed as "parsley around the roast." Over the past 25 years I have visited no fewer than 1,600 locations that collectively represent the story of landscape architecture in America. It’s not parsley.

I founded the Cultural Landscape Foundation nine years ago to teach Americans how to see landscape architecture, and to value it as they do art and architecture. I’ve been called a crusader of forgotten places and the Johnny Appleseed of landscape preservation.

For someone who has devoted his life to saving endangered landscapes, I grew up in an unlikely place: the postwar suburb of Bayside, Queens.

My earliest exposure to gardens and grounds came on weekend trips to my grandparents’ home in New London, Connecticut, where I helped them garden among prodigious beds of black-eyed susans and hydrangeas. While planting tomatoes there when I was about eight years old I uncovered a Moxie pop bottle that had been tilled under some 40 years earlier. It was my first brush with landscape archaeology, the field of remembrance and conservation. I still have that bottle tucked away in my kitchen.

I could scarcely ignore the residue of history even if I’d wanted to. At every turn, my parents dragged my sister and me to Colonial Williamsburg, and virtually every other restoration village on the East Coast. I took my seat in the family’s Chevy Impala under protest. "I don’t need to see yet another lady in period garb making a candle," I told them.

Like it or not, I absorbed the history lessons, and I retained them with a memory so exceptional it qualified me as something of an oddity. Even as a five-year-old, I could beat grown-ups at elaborate memory games.

These powers of retention serve me well in the field, where I work to raise awareness of a community’s landscape heritage. I visit cities with endangered landscapes 80 or so times a year, and it always astonishes me how much of the history is lost. As the bulldozers rev, I engage in a flurry of emergency meetings with local landmark officials (who are most accustomed to dealing with buildings) and city officials (who inevitably see landscapes as voids to be filled). All the while I’m rallying residents, feeding quotes to the press, and taking hundreds of
photographs for the foundation’s archive.

I’m part scholar, part grassroots agitator. Unfortunately, it often falls to me to play the heavy, so the local preservationists can stay on good terms with elected officials.I can intimidate if I have to. The days of capitulation are over; if we care about a place, we have to step up. Naturally, these encounters can be emotional, and I try not to add to the heat. On the contrary, I do my best to convey my love for these places—parks and plazas, gardens and cemeteries—and I hope it proves infectious.

As a culture, we’ve learned to "see" architecture and form opinions about it. Landscapes are subtler. The artist Sol LeWitt once said that"successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity." So it is with the best landscapes: When trees and lawn, forest and field are manipulated successfully, the hand of the landscape architect is all but invisible. My challenge is to educate a community about a place so that it can be judged on its history, not just its appearance.

Of course, I’ve suffered my share of setbacks and disappointments. I wept in 1994 when the 150-year-old hemlocks at the Springside estate in Poughkeepsie, New York, the only surviving work by Andrew Jackson Downing, died after years of disease, neglect, and encroaching development. And I was badly shaken by the demolition last year of Lawrence Halprin’s sculpture garden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and by the loss of the grid of palms and crape myrtles designed by Dan Kiley at NationsBank Plaza in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, museum expansions destroyed both. They were not places loved or understood by most people, but I would have fallen on my sword to save them.

You’d think that prominent architects would show their support, but that’s often not the case. The proposed renovation by Daniel Libeskind of Civic Center Park in Denver, Colorado, would destroy one of the great public spaces produced by the City Beautiful in the early part of the 20th century.    

Fortunately, for every NationsBank Plaza there is a gem still to be found. A few years ago I drove around Woodside, California, with Marc Treib, an architectural historian, looking for some of the surviving gardens by Thomas Church. One of the highlights of the day was an impromptu stop at a home designed in 1950 by William Wurster with a garden by Church. For years I’d admired a photograph of the garden in Church’s 1955 book, Gardens Are for People. I had to see for myself what was left of it.

We arrived unannounced and rang the doorbell. The owner invited us in, and to my surprise he unrolled blueprints of the garden. He knew nothing of Church, but was delighted to learn about him. When we stepped into the backyard, I did what my friends call my happy dance—a soft-shoe version of Riverdance.

Miraculously, the garden was intact and had matured to fulfill Church’s intentions. The two original oaks, now majestic, crowned the central lawn and the sweeping pedestrian path, with its neatly clipped hedge border, was still razor crisp. Church’s signature pavilion—a steel-framed structure with a wood slat roof—cast dappled light on cascading begonias and campanulas that called to mind players in a Busby Berkeley musical. Fifty years later it was still beautiful, simple, and functional.

I can never linger too long in places like that. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of significant landscapes threatened by development. So I move on quickly, in hopes that I can save them from a quiet and ignoble death.


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