One of America’s most influential landscape architects, James van Sweden, FASLA, co-founder of Oehme van Sweden, died last week at age 78 from complications from Parkinson’s disease. Both a designer and prolific author, van Sweden is credited with changing the look and feel of the American landscape, introducing the “New American Garden” aesthetic, which included perennials and wild grasses. His influential gardens go beyond surface aesthetics though and had deeper impact. His free-flowing, grass-filled gardens led the way to today’s broader movement of more sustainable, ecologically-sound landscapes.
In a thoughtful obituary, Washington Post garden critic Adrian Higgins wrote that when Oehme and van Sweden first started their firm together back in 1975, they soon became internationally known for their “radically different approach to landscape design — replacing staid evergreen hedging, bedding annuals and groomed lawns with broad sweeps of long, flowering perennials and ornamental grasses. The vision was a rejection of passive vegetative architecture in favor of the bold massing of grasses and perennials that placed the observer in the midst of a living tapestry. The result was a garden that actively responded to light, wind and seasonal change.”
Many of van Sweden’s most famous work was created in the D.C. area, where Oehme van Sweden is based. Over the past few decades, he and his firm created memorable landscapes for the Federal Reserve, the National World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the International Center embassy campus for the U.S. Department of State, and the Francis Scott Key Memorial Park, all in Washington D.C.
Beyond the high-profile public and institutional work, he did residential gardens at all scales — from the private urban garden to the rural estate. As Higgins notes, van Sweden advocated for transforming spaces, no matter how urban or small, into prairie and meadow. The object, van Sweden wrote, was “to lead the eye deeper into a scene which is not completely revealed.” Gardens of any size could create “natural exuberance.”
According to Oehme van Sweden, he won numerous awards over his career. “Honors include the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s prestigious George Robert White Medal of Honor, awarded to him and Mr. Oehme in recognition of efforts to advance interest in horticulture; the Thomas Roland Gold Medal, the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Alumni Award; the American Horticultural Society’s Landscape Design Award; and The American Society of Landscape Architects’ Design Medal. In 2011, he shared the Longhouse Landscape Award with Mr. Oehme and Firm Partners Sheila Brady, Lisa Delplace and Eric Groft.”
van Sweden’s most recent books include The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design (2011), Architecture in the Garden (2003), and Gardening with Nature (1997).
Image credit: (1) James van Sweden, FASLA. Oehme van Sweden, (2-5) Federal Reserve, Washington, D.C. / copyright Roger Foley. Oehme van Sweden