The Genius of Place: Landscape Architecture

By Brian Black, Department of American Studies

A landscape designed by Sir Humphrey Repton

    At this moment, I am certain that the spot in which I presently recline can't be recreated. As with an artistic masterpiece, each detail intermingles to blend into a profound unit. Nature supports me, in the form of the velvety turf conforming to my back, the scattered forest framing my view, and the jet-blue sky unfolding above me. The artist could mimic such aesthetics. Between them, though, is the culture that connects them, creating an inimitable intersection between nature and the cacophony of spinning roller-blade wheels, barking dogs, whispering lovers, and, over a bit of a distance, the traffic and sights of Manhattan. Together, these diverse stimuli create an instructive balance. The symbiosis achieved here recovers my self from a day of exploitation at the hands of the bustling city. Such a reconciliation can't be recreated because it is the artifice of genius.

    Designers and environmentalists share the term that describes such an achievement: "the genius of a place" suggests that a locale possesses ecologically and spiritually unique qualities. In order for humans to live in balance with nature, they must access this genius and allow it to infuse decisions they make when altering a site. The genius of this place was human. He foresaw the City's development and designed a "middle ground" in which urbanites could recover their bearings--possibly by reclining on one's back on the Great Lawn as I do today. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia uses this term to refer to the hermit as the genius of Sidley Park. While such usage functions literally to represent individual brilliance, it more subtly guides the reader to the playwright’s symbolic use of the designed landscape as setting and actor. In a site of designed splendor, rustic artifice and organic forms redefine what is "natural." Landscape architecture ornaments nature with aesthetic design and visa versa. In Sidley Park, only one human knows the truth--the genius of this place--and he is not the landscape's creator. The genius resides in the false hermitage, the most ridiculous of the design's rusticated props. By the end of the play, Hannah has seen this irony and Stoppard has made his point.

    Landscape architecture is not always linked to environmentalism, yet it certainly possesses a clear environmental ethic. In fact, achieving the genius of the place reveals an awareness of humans' ecological interconnection to all else. Aldo Leopold, the well known 1930s conservationist, stressed that an environmental ethic "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." Most architecture can not worry about environmentalism as it goes about filling space. However, more than any other form of spatial design, landscape architecture pursues a natur0al aesthetic as it seeks to use organic forms to make outdoor spaces at once pleasing and useful. The best landscape architecture possesses an interest in applying the genius of the place to construct beauty. Through such an ethic or conviction, the creator and the created can come to possess at least a portion of a locale's genius, transformed into an environmental ethic.
Lancelot "Capability" Brown

    Achieving a connection between culture and nature has become increasingly difficult in modern society. This difficulty extends from the vast gulf separating "nature" from the human visions of progress growing out of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. While gardens and gardening have been a part of human society throughout history, it is particularly during the 1700s that they become an active buffer between society and the private space of the individual. This separation is based on the philosophy of Romanticism, which brought to Europe a sensibility that the human did not simply live at odds with nature. Arriving from Germany and elsewhere, this enlightened perspective met a new vision of progress in Great Britain where the pastoral was swiftly falling prey to the mechanical. With James Watt's perfection of the steam engine in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution altered the fabric of human life in Great Britain. Mechanization changed ways of life, labor, and even physical surroundings. Industrial centers formed cities so that access could be had by laborers to workplace and factories to transportation. Aesthetic beauty lacked emphasis in such an existence. In reaction to this often brutal vision of progress, romanticism served an escapist role in pastoral painting and literature and, eventually, on the physical landscape. Landscape designers or architects were commissioned to make a site resemble the pastoral beauty described in the imaginations of writers and artists. Artist/designers such as Lancelot "Capability" Brown (who serves as the model for the designer of Sidley Park) developed an entire landscape vocabulary during the mid and late 1700s. More than wilderness, fairytale romance provided the basis for these visions of "nature."

    Many American colonists brought with them ideal visions of beautiful gardens, particularly as they declared an individual's economic standing. The nature of the New World, however, was a brutal foe to settlement. While many colonists constructed garden spaces, the proliferation of landscape architecture required the support of a resurgence of romanticism. In the young United States, this sensibility took the form of transcendentalism. From the pens and minds of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Cullen Bryant and others, transcendentalism linked spirituality (religion and God) to nature. In direct contrast to the aggressive enemy that the pioneer perceived in nature, these writers saw the opportunity for spiritual recovery. In their pastoral views, Hudson Valley Painters of the early 1800s similarly created a natural environment replete with spiritual significance. Based on these landscapes and British models, designers planned the first "park-like" site in the U.S., opened outside of Boston as Mt. Auburn Cemetery in 1831. This form became known as the "rural cemetery," a tradition of burial and park recreation that spread throughout the Northeast.

    As the American field of landscape architecture spread from the cemetery model during the 19th century, Andrew Jackson Downing cut the greatest figure. A gardener and designer by trade, Downing designed home grounds for the wealthy of the Hudson Valley. He defined a new mode of living outside of urban areas (later called suburbs) by mimicking the country cottages of Great Britain, such as Sidley Park. Most importantly, the well-connected Downing knew how to influence broader cultural tastes, and he began publishing plans and recommendations in magazines and books, culminating in his own influential periodical, the Horticulturalist. After establishing himself as the national expert in landscape design during the 1840s, Downing accepted the commission to design the Mall area in Washington, DC in 1850. It was planned that the new design would stand as a national model for rustic planning; instead, Downing died in a riverboat accident and the mall was designed by those less imbued with the genius of place. The linearity and monumentality of today's site stands in direct contrast to Downing's plan for curved walkways accentuating privacy and sublimity.

    Before his death in 1852, Downing publicly urged for the construction of a central park area within the growing metropolis of Manhattan. A few years later, his associate, Calvert Vaux, joined forces with the superintendent of the existing municipal park, Frederick Law Olmsted, and submitted the "Greensward Plan" for a 778- acre, multi-use park and pleasure ground within Manhattan. Completed in stages during the early 1860s, Greensward revolutionized the American view of its landscape and represented a new relationship between Americans and the natural environment. Through Olmsted, the ethic introduced by Emerson and Thoreau had found a physical form that specifically appealed to American ideals. In Central Park and his later designs for communities and parks, Olmsted pursued a vision of "democratic recreation" that admitted the human need to interact with the natural environment in order to maintain "psychological equilibrium." Through Olmsted's idealism, the genius of public parks became universal access to nature for every American. Olmsted's vision led to the establishment of the National Park system, and he designed "parks within nature" for Yellowstone and Yosemite.

    While these roots of landscape architecture seem obviously tied to environmentalism, some of their outcomes do not. Chief among these is the most ubiquitous American form of landscape architecture: the lawn. Downing and others began arguing that every home should be surrounded by a "green carpet setting" that would properly accent the landscape ornamentation, but they had no idea that the American turf grass savanna would come to cover 25 million acres or 40,000 square miles of the continent--an area slightly less than that of Pennsylvania. Turf grass is not indigenous to the U.S., making it certainly outside of the genius of this place. Wherever turf grass occurs in America, it was brought from elsewhere. "Lawns," writes nature writer Michael Pollan, "...are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land." The lawn, even the one on which I presently recline (designed by Olmsted), seems to become a symbol of abstraction, of pure artifice balanced with no organicism. However, where do we draw the line between what is natural and what is false? Between what is cultural and what is natural? Our consideration has come full circle and we arrive at Stoppard's dilemma.

    Arcadia suggests that naturalness alone does not indicate a locale's significance or merit. The artist accesses the genius of a place by studying its past, human and natural, and using them to inspire creativity. The thoughtful artifice then captures the unique depth of the place's meaning--its essence, its genius. Landscape architecture's quest is to pursue this nebulous ideal; yet it is a lesson that might also instruct each human living in the 1990s. Where landscape planning began with environmental ethics and then deviated, Americans now can use environmentalism to return this equilibrium and attempt to right their teetering ecological dinghy. "We cannot live in it," writes Pollan, "without changing nature irrevocably; having done so, we're obliged to tend to the consequences of the changes we've wrought, which is to say, to weed."

    What is landscape architecture if not weeding? As Stoppard suggests, providing inspired order to chaos is the artist's role. Proper weeding begins with a knowledge of what belongs and what is extraneous. Such a perspective leads us beyond the superficiality of the picturesque hermitage and even beyond Arcadia to begin to grasp a genius transferable to any place, in any time. Stoppard guides us to this empowering realization when Hannah discovers the true symbolism of the hermit, the keeper of Sidley Park's genius. "I thought my hermit was a perfect symbol," she states. "An idiot in the landscape. But this is better. The Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness! The genius of Sidley Park living on in a hermit's hut!"

Brian Black is an American social and cultural historian who specializes in landscape and environmental history. Lounging in Central Park is a rare treat for him. Normally, he is writing and researching on the relationship between technology and the natural environment in 19th and 20th century America. He is the author of PETROLIA: The Landscape of Pennsylvania's Oil Boom and is currently conducting research on the American whale fishery.