In a lecture at the National Building Museum on the legacy of Modern landscape architect Dan Kiley, Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, one of the founders of landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand, said of Kiley, “we share a love of order, a disdain of ornament, a love of common things — the field, the hedgerow, the tree canopy. Like him, I want to return these all to glory.” Introduced by Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, head of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), who connected Hilderbrand to the rich Modern traditions of Kiley, the focus of a new exhibition organized by TCLF at NBM, Hilderbrand talked about both Kiley’s projects and his own, illuminating some parellels between their work in interesting ways.
For Hilderbrand, Kiley was part of the movement that steered landscape architecture away from its traditional focus on the garden. Kiley, and his fellow students Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, displaced the garden, suggesting that teaching gardens to graduate students was “disagreeably aristocratic and irrelevant.” They all felt a “greater urgency for public landscapes, the infrastructure for urbanization.” Whether their aim was explicit or not, “they caused the garden to vanish for a long time.” (Except, as Hilderbrand noted later, perhaps Kiley never fully vanquished the garden, returning to it with many small gardens and his famous Miller Garden, which created a “singular sense of modern living.”)
A Modernist, Kiley wanted to distill landscapes into their core elements, removing any excess. “He loved ordinary things like the field and the forest canopy, and he made them extraordinary.” As an example, Hilderbrand showed Kiley’s Dallas Museum of Art, with its stark rows of trees (see image above). “For Kiley, it was totally natural to plant trees in rows; it wasn’t contrived. How can that be? It’s because it’s natural for humans to plant trees in rows, like orchards, so the trees can be more easily grown, watered, pruned, and harvested. Planting in a grid is then the most natural thing.”
Kiley used Modern techniques to create a paired-down yet also heightened sense of nature. Another site, Fountain Place in Dallas is “like being in a cypress forest; it smells and feels like a forest. It’s truly remarkable.”
The influence of Kiley can be seen in Reed Hilderbrand’s own thoughtful, minimalist projects, with their focus on the essential. Hilderbrand gave the crowd of more than 200 a tour of four sites:
The Central Park Wharf in Boston is about taking infrastructure and creating an “inhabitable landscape, a work of living architecture.” For Reed Hilderbrand, the challenge was, “how do we make the surface of this park feel alive?”
To create that feeling that the Wharf park is alive, they had to build “below ground-infrastructure.” Hilderbrand used an apt metaphor here: “You can’t create a great meal without a great staff in the kitchen.” A structure was put in place to hold up the ground and seating areas. A medium of soil, with drains that form a trellis-like system, maintain precise amounts of moisture for the 25 oak trees planted. “Sensors let us know if the trees are getting enough water.”
This complex system made simple really worked: the trees, which were planted large, experienced a phenomenal 10 feet of growth since they were put in the ground.
Central Park Wharf is now “instantly recognizable for its cover canopy, with lights wired through the trees.”
A second project, restoring the landscape around Philip Johnson’s Beck House in Texas, and then re-connecting it to the home, was challenging because the “landscape was highly degraded, a jungle, really.” But then, Reed Hilderbrand can see the “opportunity in anything.” The Beck House is a grand building in the vein of Johnson’s Lincoln Center. What was difficult was finding a way to make this fantastic home part of its surrounding landscape.
Hilderbrand said they ended up being critical of Johnson’s approach to the landscape, which was to cut it off and make it a source of panoramic views only. Their team brought trees into Johnson’s blank arcade, reduced the height of retaining walls, and built a flight of low, grassy stairs to pull the entrance outside of the building. The overall effect is to better root the building in its surrounding landscape, making it feel more like a piece of the place than disengaged from its environment.
They then restored the creek and bridge, editing out invasive plants and trees, and set a series of long white planks that brought a further sense of order to the estate’s grounds.
Hilderbrand then took us to Marshcourt, a historic manor by Sir Edwin Luytens in England, where his firm is reintegrating the surrounding chalk landscape back into the place. The buildings’ walls are made of chalk and flint. The nearby chalk quarry proved to be an inspiration for what Reed Hilderbrand did: create the sense that once is driving through a “cut of chalk,” then going through a “door,” upon which you open up into the copse. “The contractors thought we were out of our minds compacting chalk into steep slopes.” But the effect is worth it: the meadows planted on top of the slopes are beautiful.
Lastly, Old Quarry, a project on the Long Island Sound in southern Connecticut, tells the story of finding order in an old stone quarry. Paths are like jetties. Footpaths were created across paths of rocks. Reed Hilderbrand used a simple, coastal plant palette. Hilderbrand said this project took four years, and was like being a “kid in a sandbox.” Stone masons actually spent two years on site, forming the stone into patterns. “This was definitely a luxury.”
According to Hilderbrand, all these examples prove that “a landscape architect never begins from scratch. We always begin with a story, maybe centuries of stories.” And those stories may not necessarily need to be understood by those seeing them. “Whether the experience is rational or emotional, we don’t have to understand everything behind a landscape.”