History of Landscape Design – Week 6: Parkways, Modern Design and Brownfields

Blue Ridge Parkway

My history of landscape design class drew to a close last week, with the road ending right back here in the modern world. And I do literally mean road, since roads (and highways, and parkways) shape landscape design through their placement – affecting what stays and what is removed.

Eastern Pkwy

The original idea of a “parkway” (that is, extending the park into a semi-separate roadway for carriages) was conceived by (wait for it) Olmsted when he designed Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn in 1866. Living down the street, I can attest that it is actually very pleasant to walk along, on either side or in the middle island, despite almost being mowed down by very important people in their very important cars. Not exactly the kind of traffic Olmsted was originally envisioning, but the views are still nice!

Other honorable mentions: The Bronx River Parkway, built between 1912 and 1925 as a way to reclaim the land from the unsavory shanty-towns that spoiled the landscape with their reminders of poverty; the George Washington Memorial Parkway, running along the Potomac River, and stopping along the way at a plethora of national landmarks; or, my favorite, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is essentially a road that runs only through a park…in one of the most beautiful parts of this country. Most if not all of the original parkways had to be rebuilt at some point – since their main purpose was to lead the traveler through photo ops, and not necessarily to prevent them from plummeting off that same vista. Which explains why most highways nowadays are “safety first” and pretty last.


The building of major roads created accessibility to the national landmarks of America, while also opening the average mind to start appreciating the landscape as they drove through. This communal interest grew into such organizations as garden clubs and national park associations.

Yosemite National Park travel poster

With roads herding newly minted “tourists” toward them, parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone were suddenly endowed with meaning and history for the average citizen to experience. All this interest in the legacy of the country led Pres. Roosevelt to extend the park system through the Antiquities Act – which paved the way for future laws of preservation.

Villa Noailles

Villa Noailles

Villa Noailles garden

Meanwhile, a little phenomenon called cubism was racing throughout Europe, aided by the 1925 World Expo in Paris. It was there that the landscape architect Gabriel Guevrekian created the “Garden of Water and Light” in the cubist style. This early attempt at “modern” gardening fell a little flat (gardens are already geometric – no need to point it out), but his later design of the Villa Noailles (and its geometric garden) was a huge success as a dismissal of the old style. Guevrekian broke down the idea of the traditional house by creating a seamless integration between outside and in. While this wasn’t new, it was still shocking as a strict separation was the usual method of that time. Interesting that his landscaping only became modern when placed in contrast to his architecture.

Pavillion l'Esprit Nouveau

Pavillion l'Esprit Nouveau

The Le Corbusier designed Pavillion l’Esprit Nouveau epitomized the very new idea of “free time” and “weekends” with its simplified, casual, layout. It was around this time that Russel and Mary Wright released Guide to Easier Living, which preached a new approach to housekeeping and entertaining for a new generation of suburban, casual Americans looking to break free from the stiff formalities of their parents.

I’m assuming you understand what this idea of relaxed entertaining has to do with landscape design. If there’s any confusion, look up any vintage Sunset magazine from the 1950’s or ’60s – landscaping for western living was all about the garden lifestyle, baby.

Alcoa by Eckbo

Alcoa Forecast Garden


The ALCOA Forecast Garden showcases designer Garrett Eckbo’s extreme interest in the interrellation of inside and out. The garden was created because the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) asked Eckbo to create a garden containing large amounts of aluminum, for the company’s publicity purposes. This could be seen by some as a strange partnership, but Eckbo believed in better living through scientific advancement – and if that meant creating aluminum terraces that were too hot for plants to survive under that’s fine…as long as it didn’t mess with his “open” plan.


The Eckbo style of open air design had a challenger in the form of landscape architect, writer and early environmentalist Ian McHarg, who felt that this “casual living” was just another form of suburban sprawl. The more people spread out to get “back to nature,” the more they decreased nature through their growth. McHarg wanted to encourage a move from artiface by responding to what’s there. Close to “consulting the genius of the place,” but more along the lines of designing to enhance the space while ecologically restoring it.


Sidenote: In 1970, sculptor Robert Smithson’s constructed Spiral Jetty in SLC with existing ecology as a critique on permanence and change. This helped jump start an open dialogue between earthworks artists and landscape architects on design, history and ecology.



Landschaftspark located in Duisburg, Germany is an example of a Brownfield: an abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities available for re-use. This once industrial landscape is no longer a place of industry, but a lession in remediation. The structures have been left to become fixtures in the park, reclaimed by the plants as they slowly take over. In an interplay on designed spaces and natural ruin, former bunkers have been turned into garden plots, and empty buildings into galleries. This is the genius of the place in reverse as the ugly is aestheticized. Other brownfield sites include Gas Works Park in Seattle and Fresh Kills right here in Staten Island. Even the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was originally built on top of an ash heap.

Liz Christy old

Liz Christy new

Reclaiming brownfields can work on a smaller scale too. In the 1970’s the Liz Christy Community Garden was created on Bowery and Houston – transformed through people, what was once a dead space was molded into one that’s alive. Acknowledging nature makes us all more human, especially in cold urban environments. We should all take some cues from Liz’s “Green Guerillas” – start with some seed bombs and pretty soon you’ll be running workshops out of your own spot of green. As varied and far-reaching as it was, this History of Landscape Design course has inspired me to reconnect with nature and most importantly, to live Better.

Blue Ridge Parkway photo: Wikipedia
Eastern Parkway: Wikipedia

B/W trailer: unknown
Vintage-style Yosemite poster: by LanternPress at Zazzle


One thought on “History of Landscape Design – Week 6: Parkways, Modern Design and Brownfields

  1. Pingback: BLOGOTO › The Menagerie: because i delete e-letters that mean the world to me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s