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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2008 Issue

Sustaining Beauty: The Performance of Appearance
Can landscape architects insert aesthetics into our discussions of sustainability?

By Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA

Sustaining Beauty: The Performance of Appearance

Landscape design practitioners and theorists understandably focus on the ecological aspects of sustainability; this seems reasonable given that the site and medium of our work is landscape—actual topography, soil, water, plants, and space. It seems imperative given the growing consensus about the impact of human action on the global environment. Beauty is rarely discussed in the discourse of landscape design sustainability, and if it is, it is dismissed as a superficial concern. What is the value of the visual and formal when human, regional, and global health are at stake? Doesn’t the discussion of the beautiful trivialize landscape architecture as ornamentation, as the superficial practice of gardening?

I find American landscape architecture’s limited discussion of sustainability curious, especially given the profession’s history. In the 19th century, one of its leading practitioners, Frederick Law Olmsted—a former farmer, journalist, and director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during our Civil War—was moved to make urban public parks and landscapes because of their perceived agency as spaces of urban social and environmental reform. For Olmsted, parks performed in two ways: First, they were environmental cleaning machines, open spaces of healthy sunlight, well-drained soils, and shady groves of trees reducing temperatures, absorbing carbon dioxide, and releasing oxygen. Landscape architectural works such as urban parks, promenades and boulevards, public gardens, parkways, and suburban residential enclaves were cultural products that responded to, and then altered, the processes of modernization and urbanization.

In Olmsted’s estimation this urban environmental function was equaled, if not exceeded, by the second function—or in contemporary theoretical terms, performance—of the designed landscape’s appearance. He cared about what those landscapes looked like as well as how they worked. Based on his readings of psychologists, art critics, and philosophers, Olmsted believed that the experience of that appearance—the combination of its physical characteristics and sensory qualities—altered one’s mental and psychological state. In other words, a particular form of appearance, the character beauty, performed. Examples of this are found in the recuperative, transformative power of aesthetic experiences in nature. Olmsted developed his theories on the psychological effects of landscapes as early as the 1850s, before he had started to design, according to Charles Beveridge, Honorary ASLA, the historian most closely associated with Olmsted’s archives. During his career as a landscape architect, these theories were embedded in the firm’s annual or official reports for park boards or clients of projects such as Prospect Park, Brooklyn, the parks and parkways of Boston, and Mount Royal Park, Montreal. And when asked to lecture on parks, Olmsted concisely summarized his ideas, as in his conclusion to his 1868 address to the Prospect Park Scientific Association: “A park is a work of art, designed to produce certain effects upon the mind of men.”

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