History of Landscape Design – Week 1: Origins

Finally, I got to leave work early again and start classes up at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The class itself is not taught by a designer, but by an uber-excited/excitable academic named Johanna who not only reminds me of my sister (so this is what non-artsy smart people do with their lives…) but even made a BLOG for the class! New bff? Perhaps.

As you can see on her blog, week 1 was all about the origins of landscape design. This meant a lot of class discussion with questions like “What is the difference between a garden and a landscape?” “What is your favorite garden or landscape?” and “What does ‘Paradise’ mean?” My favorite answer to this last question was “Brad Pitt” by a woman who was definitely already a grandma when Brad was born. Sidenote: This class is strongly repped by fabulous older women with white hair and red lips, who “just enjoy walking around the Garden at night.”

What Johanna was getting at is that “Paradise” can mean anything from a simpler place full of innocence to a land of excess and luxury that can only be entered through a wall of porridge. Either way, it is universally agreed upon that Paradise is a place in the past, the future, or somewhere far away – somewhere unattainable and unavailable to us now….and what people try to do with gardening and landscape design is to recreate that paradise lost.

Egyptian garden

Egyptians weren’t just going for looks when it came to those lotus-filled pools. And planting the sycamores in precise rows inside precise compartments was more of a utilitarian approach than OCD. But it wasn’t all work – they loved to indulge by dining in their “courtyards.” practicing ritual reenactments through hunting, and sending babies down the Nile in baskets. Ohwaaayo!


Like the Egyptians, the Romans made progress in agriculture, but they also created the term “Villegiatura” which roughly translates to “the practice of going to your villa.” And when that villa was a seaside McMansion with food served to you on dishes floating down a canal to where you reclined, well then it was really more about the Otium than the Negotium. I do appreciate all the garden murals on the interior walls (bringing the outdoors into the interior space) and the evidence of urban household shrines used for worshipping the rustic gods when they returned to city life.


During Medieval times, the villa spirit was kept alive by monks who traveled to country monasteries to reflect. Everyone else could be found in their small enclosed gardens (aka Hortus Conclusus), perched on turf seats, possibly playing lutes, next to fountains that represented the Tree of Life. It’s also around this time that the infamous Song of Solomon/Song of Songs compared a woman to a garden, which of course caused the Christians to freak the F out (nobody wanted to hear about spikenards sendething forth the smell thereof). Cue a plethora of paintings showing the Virgin Mary in the garden, associated with/representing the garden, even sitting on a turf seat herself (brought down to earth). This brought a theme of redemption to wide-ranging classes of people, through the paradisaical spaces of small (health/peace of mind related) to medium (utilitarian) to large (pleasure/hunting) gardens.

Stay tuned for next class, where we cover the Renaissance, aka the time of the grottoes.


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