Finding the Muse

Insight, 3. March 2016
By: John Hill

Kongjian Yu: Shenyang Architectural University Campus, Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, China (Photo courtesy of Turenscape)

In her new book, The Inspired Lansdcape, landscape architect Susan Cohen explores the creative process of 21 leading international landscape architects. Here we present an excerpt from the book and highlight just a few of the projects found in its pages.

First, World-Architects asked a few questions to Susan Cohen, the Connecticut-based landscape architect and coordinator of the Landscape Design Program at the New York Botanical Garden, about The Inspired Landscape.

World-Architects: What was your inspiration, if you will, in deciding to write a book about the inspirations of landscape architects?
Susan Cohen: When I received a call from Timber Press suggesting I might propose a book about landscape architecture for publication, I had just had a conversation with a group of designers about their favorite gardens. That led to a discussion about inspirations in their work, and that, in turn, led to the idea for my book. 

How did you select the 21 designers to feature in the book?
Before the book was in my mind, I had heard many lectures in which landscape architects discussed their work. For the book I looked for passionate designers, a variety of landscape types and scales and a range of international locations. Of course, I especially listened for stories where there was a clear spark of inspiration.

In turn, how did you select the projects that are the focus of your exploration of inspiration?
The designers and I looked at their projects, and we decided together which one would be most appropriate. For Kongjian Yu, I could not resist using two projects that were very different from each other but both inspired by his farming childhood.

What did you learn from writing the book, perhaps in terms of what direction(s) landscape architecture is heading?
What I learned most from writing this book is that landscape architects, by training and inclination, are able to draw design ideas from an inexhaustible well of inspiration, in a process that can be unexpected, and even mysterious.

Cover image courtesy of Timber Press

The following is taken from The Inspired Landscape © Copyright 2015 by Susan Cohen. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

"Finding the Muse," Introduction from The Inspired Landscape by Susan Cohen

Through training and experience, landscape architects have the ability to recognize the possibilities of a given site as well as its constraints. They know how the sun will move across the sky and where the shadows will fall, how the wind will blow, which plants will grow well, where the best views might be, and where people are most likely to walk or gather. They know how to analyze the existing soil and how to accommodate both natural conditions and the surrounding built environment. Most importantly, they understand how to meet the needs of people who will use the space.

However, like musicians, painters, poets, and sculptors, the best landscape architects are also artists. They use their skills, their imaginations, and the materials of their craft to create something new, works that move and change through time. And like all artists, they must begin with an idea; they must invoke their muses to create a singular landscape that is also a work of art.

This book explores and illustrates the sources of these ideas in the work of twenty-one outstanding landscape architects in their successful projects in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Italy, Israel, China, and Japan. Although there are threads that link some of their thoughts and methods, each created landscape is unique, and all the landscape architects have a story to tell about how the spark of a design idea—inspiration—came to them.

It is no surprise that the inspirations and influences for their projects are as varied as the landscape architects who made them and the sites on which they worked. And yet many projects here resonate with each other.

L: Signe Nielsen: Fulton Landing, Brooklyn, NY, USA (Photo courtesy of MNLA). R: Gary Hilderbrand: Old Quarry Residence, Guilford, CT, USA (Photo: Charles Mayer)

For instance, Signe Nielsen’s Fulton Landing, a small urban park in Brooklyn, New York, is very different from Gary Hilderbrand’s residential property in Guilford, Connecticut. But both landscape architects turned to the historical uses of their waterfront sites, drawing inspiration from the shoreline activities of centuries past. Nielsen’s influences include the decorative patterns of Native Americans who once lived here, Walt Whitman’s famous poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” about the Fulton Ferry that departed from this location, and the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge adjacent to the site. Hilderbrand was struck by the extensive stone debris that littered his clients’ property, remnants of the extensive old granite quarry that had provided the stone for the base of the Statue of Liberty in the nineteenth century. Instead of carting away tons of this abandoned stone, as many of the neighbors had done, Hilderbrand used it throughout the property in ways both practical and artful. In doing so, he felt he honored the work of the hundreds of experienced stonemasons, most of them immigrants from Europe, who had toiled here a hundred years earlier.

By coincidence, two landscape architects were similarly inspired by a natural desert phenomenon: the streambeds that carry intermittent floodwaters in times of heavy rain. Desert wadis, as they are called in the Middle East, sparked Shlomo Aronson’s design for a gathering place at Ben-Gurion University in Israel’s Negev Desert. His evocative stone wadi at Kreitman Plaza, which runs continuously with burbling water, shares kinship with a winding garden creek that collects rainwater in Christine Ten Eyck’s Capri Lounge garden in Marfa, Texas, where such desert washes are called arroyos.

L: Shlomo Aronson: Kreitman Plaza, Beersheba, Israel (Photo courtesy of TCLF). R: Christine Ten Eyck: Capri Lounge, Marfa, TX, USA (Photo courtesy of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects)

For others, a single work of art provided the spark of invention. While sketching design concepts for the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, Sheila Brady took time out to visit a museum and found, in a wood sculpture by Martin Puryear, her inspiration for the abstract shape of a large pond, the new garden’s central feature. Similarly, Cornelia Oberlander, who has admired the pioneering work of the nineteenth-century photographer Karl Blossfeldt since her childhood days in Germany, found the vision for the form of a green roof in Vancouver in his photograph of a gently undulating orchid leaf. For the Sunnylands Center and Gardens, James Burnett was encouraged by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting A Wheatfield with Cypresses to use drought-tolerant plants in large sweeps, creating an unexpectedly lush landscape in the southern California desert.

All landscape architects study garden history as part of their training, and most are inveterate visitors to gardens old and new. So it is not surprising that they reach back to gardens of the past for ideas. Tom Stuart-Smith, invited by the owner of an English country estate to make a walled garden on a sloping piece of land not far from the manor house, created an imaginative terraced composition that references the famous seventeenth-century Villa Lante in Italy. While in Rome at the American Academy, Laurie Olin made countless visits to both ancient and Renaissance-period Italian gardens, which he studied, sketched, and photographed. He used several ideas and details from these gardens in his landscape redesign at the academy. For his roof at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Ken Smith cited as inspiration two gardens created in 1958: the patently synthetic garden in the film Mon Oncle and Isamu Noguchi’s rooftop Peace Garden at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. For Shunmyo Masuno, a landscape architect and Zen Buddhist priest, remembered landscapes are part of a centuries-old tradition of garden making in Japan.

L: Ryoko Ueyama: Kitamachi Shimashima Park, Saitama, Japan (Photo courtesy of Ryoko Ueyama Landscape Design Studio). R: Park Duisburg Nord, Duisburg, Germany (Photo courtesy of Latz + Partners)

Some landscape architects find their muse in the site itself. In looking for the “memories of the land,” landscape architect Ryoko Ueyama was thrilled to discover that her 4-acre site for a park north of Tokyo was located directly on the axis between two mountains, one of which is the iconic Mount Fuji. Calling this coincidence a “divine pronouncement,” she emphasized this line in her design with a diagonal pattern of stripes that runs the length of the park. In Duisburg, Germany, Peter Latz was struck by the huge abandoned concrete and iron structures on his post-industrial site and found imaginative and useful ways to incorporate them into his plan for a new public park.

Others find flashes of inspiration from childhood memories. For Kongjian Yu, the remembered landscape is his family’s rice fields in rural China and the paths through which, as a boy, he led the village water buffalo to graze. Across the world, Stephen Stimson grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts. His strong bond with a five-generation agricultural past led him to use stone walls, orchard-like plantings of trees, and benches bracketed by heavy metal fastenings that recall farm implements in his project at the University of Massachusetts. Kim Wilkie’s childhood in Iraq and Malaysia gave him an obsession with ziggurats and old Mesopotamian sites, as well as a fascination with all things sacred and mystical. These early interests inspired his Orpheus landform at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, England.

Great landscape architects, like their counterparts in other arts, seem able to draw inspiration from diverse sources: a place, a poem, a painting, a remembered garden, a path taken in childhood, or the shape of a leaf. Judging from the work presented here, the ancient muses of invention are still among us, providing spirited inspiration to landscape architects practicing today.