The default American landscape before game-changing landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden & Associates (OvS) came along was a great expanse of lawn, really an ecological wasteland, with perhaps a fringe of flowers. But all of that changed with James van Sweden and Wolgang Oehme’s New American Garden style, which burst onto the scene in the early 1960s. A new exhibition at the National Building Museum (NBM) in Washington, D.C. honors this still-evolving approach inspired by Native American landscapes. As NBM explains, “the New American Garden is characterized by large swaths of grasses and fields of perennials.” The style re-creates the seasonal splendor of the American meadow while “celebrating its inherent ecological, sustainable, aesthetic, and ornamental values.” Eric Groft, FASLA, a principal at OvS, one of the firm’s second generation leaders, added that this approach was “sustainable before it was even called that.”
When it first appeared, the New American Garden was a departure from landscape architect Dan Kiley’s formal geometric Modernism. As Groft explained, “Oeme and van Sweden wanted to overwhelm you with horticulture, movement, and color.” van Sweden once told him, “all color is good.”
Linda Jewell, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at University of California at Berkeley and fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., said the exhibition “shows that the world needs color and life more than lawns. It also shows us who they were personally. It’s exhilarating.”
The exhibition, which is the largest monographic landscape architecture one in NBM’s history, takes visitors from their early residential landscapes to their more ambitious civic works. We see 28 of OvS’s residential and civic projects, explained with 50 fantastic large-scale photographs, original plans and drawings, and the historic artworks that played an important role in their development. Three generations of OvS landscape architects’ work are included. Given OvS designed more than 1,000 landscapes since 1975, it’s clear how much work went into curation.
Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which partnered with NBM to organize and design the exhibition, pointed out some of their most significant works, focusing first on the now-famous residential landscape, the Rosenberg Residence in Water Mill, New York, which “galvanized the world of landscape architecture, put OvS on the map, and made the Rosenbergs famous.”
Birnbaum then asked us to focus on the Federal Reserve Board Garden in Washington, D.C., which was a “hinge point” that showed how the New American Garden aesthetic could be scaled up in a civic setting.
Groft explained how the New American Garden style continues to evolve. “It has been changing since its inception. Landscapes are ephemeral, always evolving.” As an example, he mentioned the Slifka Beach House in Sagaponack, New York, which is the project nearest and dearest to him, as he has guided its growth and change for decades. “It’s my life’s work, in a way. It’s the garden I’ve learned the most from over the years.”
Another way the New American Garden style is evolving: OvS is always discovering and applying new plants, even from places as far as South Africa.
But for Groft, this evolution hasn’t been spurred by our shifting climate. “Climate change doesn’t really change anything for us. We’ve always taken out lawns and planted perennials that require very little maintenance. Oehme and van Sweden were always deeply focused on sustainability and managing water using perennials.”
Sadly, Birnbaum said many of OvS’s landscapes are under threat. Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., which OvS created with landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, may get bulldozed if a new National World War I Centennial Commission has its way.
And some 9 of 21 of OvS’s gardens featured in Oehme, van Sweden, and Susan Rademacher’s important book, Bold Romantic Gardens, have already disappeared. Birnbaum explained that this is the 25th anniversary of the book, which was “revolutionary and completely changed how landscape architects used plants.”
He wants to see many of OvS’s landscapes added to the National Register of Historic Places and documented through the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS). “We need a real strategy for keeping these places around. This exhibition will build awareness, but we need to include owners and use tools, like easements, to protect these landscapes.”