Restless About the Natives
Rethinking the aesthetics of designed indigenous landscapes..
By Deborah W. Dalton, ASLA
“The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is one of a very
few places built in the late twentieth century in which the aesthetic
of ecological design permeates and integrates both landscape and
architecture. Dedicated in 1995, the center was designed and built
in southwest Austin, Texas, expressly to model a mission: "to educate
people about the beauty, the economic necessity, and the value of
Photo by Deborah Dalton
Over the years, the highly praised and awarded architecture of
the center has become iconic. Unfortunately, the landscape has been
less universally well received. Many visitors do not "get" the landscape
strategy at all, wondering where the gardens are as they pass through
what look like natural meadows. Executive director Robert G. Breunig
and other staffers admit that some visitors mistake the gardens
for "a bunch of weeds." There is a general feeling that the landscape
has not been able to hold its own with the architecturethat it
needs to have clearer iconic meaning and to be more obviously ordered.
These observations are at the heart of the long debate about ecological
design and the use of native plants in landscape architecture as
well as our ideas about what nature is and how to express it in
designed landscapes. Native plants have almost always been used
in designed landscapes, but usually in conjunction with nonnative
plants and most often in a horticultural or floristic way. The visual
characteristics of individual plants and plant groupingstheir line,
form, texture, and colorhave driven the designs. We are still beholden
to the overly simplistic idea that informal is naturalistic, and
formal means geometric renderings, usually in exotic plants.
Designing with plant communities has become one of the hallmarks
of a number of ecological designers who focus on native plants.
The landscape team for the Wildflower Center, Darrel Morrison, FASLA,
Robert Anderson, ASLA, and Eleanor Mc-Kinney, ASLA, were thrilled
to have a client who wanted them to use native plant communities
as a basis for design and to show the variety of ways that the plants
of a specific region could be used. All three were selected because
of their expertise in working with native plant communities and
their ability to capture the essence of a region in their landscape
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