“By exploring the history of designers, we find out who we are as designers,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, at a conference on Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. For Van Valkenburgh, who is well-known for his ecological and contemporary campus, park, and residential projects, “standing in the shoes of Farrand and trying to figure out what decisions she would make in new circumstances is both a responsibility and a great pleasure.” He did just that in restoring and expanding upon Farrand’s original landscape architecture at Princeton University.
To understand Farrand’s work at Princeton, he dug into old photos, seeking out “anecdotal photographs of historical precedents.” He found that Farrand, a consulting designer at Princeton, organized the campus around ecology. Partnering with Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of Princeton University’s old stone campus, she created “passages through sequences of courtyard spaces.” Within the courtyards, she orchestrated a “close relationship between building and planting; there was a taut ground plane, no thickets.” Farrand said her goal was to “adapt one’s self to nature’s way.” She was a “lady intolerant of discords and “evoked effects that were subdued.”
Farrand took on a real “trial and error approach,” trying out plants and trees here and there. While “sexist” critics of her day would view this approach as “ding-batty,” Van Valkenburgh said her way was spot-on. She had a way of “going over things again and again.” Through trial and error, Farrand also perfected her “signature practice: training shrubs on building facades.”
She emphasized seasonality. By testing things out, she also sought to understand what a landscape looked like in “autumn, winter, and spring.” She was “big on palettes.” An early trend-setter, she showed a distinct preference for native plants.
“She had a strong interest in the different maintenance capabilities of plants.” Farrand oversaw the creation of tree and plant nurseries on campus and “actively managed what was grown there.” Van Valkenburgh said Farrand knew that “grounds people aren’t stupid. It really takes a gardener to raise a landscape.”
Working in Farrand’s shadow, Van Valkenburgh tried to figure out what she would do. Blair Walk, the central grand promenade through the campus, was in disrepair. His firm replaced the stone walkway and used “new old plantings,” an act of preservation, which also involved “restarting elements of the design.”
Because the university wanted to widen the walk in some places due to heavier foot traffic, Van Valkenburgh, in his sensitive historical approach, simply kept the original path width, but tacked on permeable pavements at the edges. “She would have gone for this because she was into stormwater management.”
In another project, he pushed the woodlands into the campus. Because the campus had expanded to such a degree – “Farrand would have been shocked by its size” – his team wanted to recreate the original campus’ woodland feel, which had disappeared with its later expansion. “We re-asserted the presence of the woodland at the edge of the campus,” in effect recreating Farrand’s original relationship between campus and environment. (Apparently, some alums didn’t really get this).
For another campus project, he created a subtle new bridge that weaves through nature. There, Van Valkenburgh said, his goal was to “preserve the beauty of the landscape.” Unveiling his design philosophy, he said landscape architects “have made a big mistake by trying to be modern. The beauty of a landscape is in its fragility. If you remove the fragility, you take out the beauty.” Farrand really understood this, and even went one step further, incorporating “irregularities into her designs as a complement to Cram’s buildings. There was a complementarity through contrast and distinction.”
Other speakers at Dumbarton Oaks spoke about Farrand’s legacy: Dennis Bracale, landscape architect and historian, discussed Farrand’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, an oriental garden in Bar Harbor, Maine, that is a mix of Western, Chinese, and Japanese landscapes. She had worked closely with the Rockefellers — who amassed an amazing collection of East Asian art that would later became the founding collection at the Asia Society — creating a garden that traced paths through priceless stone sculptures. The landscape design was based in Chinese spatial relationships and a Japanese appreciation for using found, natural materials. Mrs. Rockefeller had wanted a “spiritual retreat,” which she got. Farrand studied gates and wall designs from Beijing’s Forbidden City and replicated these designs to a tee. The garden, and its surrounding natural landscape made accessible via paths — which Bracale said also mirrors East Asian landscape patterns – was meant to evoke the maxim, “God is in nature.” So we understand yet another side of Farrand’s versatile practice.
Judith Tankard, a landscape historian, then covered Farrand’s final years in Maine, where she created the Reef Point arboretum and amassed an amazing collection of plants and trees (and tens of thousands of books, which were later donated to U.C. Berkeley). At its prime, the arboretum had some 4,000 visitors a year, but Farrand complained that most visitors were tourists and not real lovers of plants. By the mid-1950s, Farrand realized the arboretum had no future, so she decided to “obliterate” this part of her life by destroying the buildings and landscape, as opposed to letting it fall apart through mismanagement. Forever the perfectionist, Farrand would destroy things that didn’t live up to her standards.
To learn more about Farrand and other women landscape architects in the early twentieth century, check out these books: Beatrix Farrand: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes by Judith Tankard; Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century by Thaisa Way, ASLA; and Women in Landscape Architecture: Essays on History and Practice by Louise Mozingo, ASLA, and Linda Jewell, FASLA.
Image credits: (1) Princeton campus / DLand Studio, (2) Farrand facade / Princeton University, (3) Blair Walk / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (4) Woodland expansion / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, (5) Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden / Fine Art America