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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 native plants."

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 architecture—that 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 groupings—their line, form, texture, and color—have 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 designs.

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