Garden Design: Influential Styles Throught History

by Gavin Woodworth, Landscape Architecture student, Colorado State University

The evolution of the designed landscape is a story that spans thousands of years and most of the world. The complete story would fill volumes, but none-the-less, this is a brief overview of four major movements affecting Landscape Architecture as it is known today:   the Moorish gardens of ancient Spain, the villas of the Italian Renaissance, the Modernist designs of England and United States, and the religious gardens of Japan.  Each one of these topics could easily fill the entire paper, but much had to be omitted due to space constraints.   What follows is the story of these four movements and their lasting effects. Each section offers a description of the style and highlights some of most influential works  that resulted.  The story begins with the Muslims of North Africa

The Moorish Gardens
The first know designed gardens were modeled on the effects of irrigation in an otherwise dead, dry world.  The vast green blanket of cropland between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers served as an example of what was possible when water was added.   Early Islamic gardens were an idealization of this agricultural land.  These small oases were crossed with water channels and filled with shade trees, uncommon features in a desert region.  The paradise garden was enclosed with high walls to protect itself from the hostile outside world.  With temperatures reaching as high as 120 degrees, the shade and water of the oasis was a needed relief for those who passed through it.  Gardens like this become common throughout the Moorish territories in northern Africa.   After years of conquest and the acquisition of the entire southern Mediterranean seaboard, the first Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711.  Separated from their counterparts across the Mediterranean, these Spanish Moors created a new culture, and with a new environment, evolved ideas of garden design.  The fortress-like inner courtyard stayed a strong theme, but interest had also moved beyond the walls to the surrounding land and its possibilities.   Water and lush vegetation were utilized to regulate the temperature of both the garden and the building.   Experimentation with different elements in the garden led to a continuous evolution in the Moorish garden style and effectiveness.

Under the Moors, Islamic Spain surpassed the rest of Europe as the center of civilization.   Their knowledge of agriculture and horticulture grew through research and testing, and also through research of past cultures.  Through this absorption of other cultures, the Moors developed loose guidelines on the aesthetics of garden design and its relation to the house.   Terraced hillside gardens separated by stucco walls became favorites in the culture.    In the Islamic palace gardens, one can see the link to the desert oasis of the past.   Surrounded by white walls, bisected by waterways and fountains, and heavily planted with evergreen hedges and citrus trees, the connection is strong.  The Moors carried their old habits with them to Spain, but made concerted efforts to improve upon them.   There work did not go unappreciated.   Although the Moors were eventually expelled from Spain by the Christians, their influence on the designed landscape is still evident throughout Western Europe.  

El Generalife
site plan
view of mountains
The Patio de la Acequia, El Generalife
The site plan of Generalife
The view from Generalife to the mountains 
above Grenada

One of the best examples of Moorish architecture in Spain is El Generalife in Grenada.  Built originally as the summer home of the king, the structure sits above the city on the valley wall. Entrance to the site leads almost immediately to the walled inner court, the Patio de la Acequia.   Central to this garden is the long channel of water leading from the main house to the gate lodge at the other end of the courtyard.  To further cool the space and to impress both the eye and the ear, the canal is lined with high arcs of spouting water.   The ground floor of both buildings is an open arcade edged with ornate arches.   The view down the patio from these vantage points is easily the most spectacular feature of Generalife.   To the north is another water garden, the Patio de los Cipreses.  This too is a space with water jets and high surrounding buildings.   The boxy hedges compliment the structure and add deep color to the stark white walls.   Other higher terraces were included in the original design, but many were modified or rebuilt in later years.   A large part of the outlying gardens and the grand avenue of Cypresses were added in the early 1900s, but they only add to the site.

The Islamic garden began as a direct imitation of agriculture and, with time, became a study of irrigation and its effects on temperature and growth.  Their ideas caught on and can be seen in many other styles of garden design.   The gardens have a relaxing quality that remains impressive today.   El Generalife is just one of the many amazing examples of the Moorish Garden era.

The Italian Renaissance
As the western world shook itself loose from the Middle ages, a new enlightenment was born.  Beginning around the year 1400, the Renaissance spawned new interest in knowledge, leisure, and a general awareness of the surrounding world.   Universities were built, great philosophers were born, and society as a whole was redefined.   These new concepts lead to great advancements in art, music, literature, and, as is our focus, the garden.  At the heart of this movement was Italy.
 When the feudal system began to fall apart, new rich families took the place of the feudal lords.  One of the first and most notable was the Medici family of Florence.  Although they rose quickly to great power and vast amounts of money, the Medici were confined to the heart of the city.  With this cultural rebirth came an interest in the wonders of the outside world, and this was difficult to appreciate from downtown.  In order to escape the city, the family erected villas in the countryside around Florence.  At these country estates, not only was the house important, but the grounds were also seen as an equally influential feature.  In Italy, the word villa  encompasses the structure and the surroundings as a whole.  The two were not separate entities; they were joined to become one.   This trend defines the Italian Renaissance in garden design, a formal combination of the indoor and outdoor to make a cohesive space.

The most remarkable of the Medici legacy is the Villa Medici at Fiesole.  Nestled into the hillside, the villa not only combines the building and the garden, but also manages to capture and embrace the scene of Florence and the distant hills as if they were built along with it.  The terraced gardens drop away so as not to impede the view and the large walls and buildings only help to focus attention to the continuity between the garden and the outlying vista.  The garden actually becomes part of the scenery, and vice versa.

 Perhaps the finest example of an Italian garden is the Villa Lante at Bagnaia, about 50 miles outside of Rome.  Construction on what can be seen today was begun in the mid fifteen hundreds by Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara, the bishop of Viterbo at the time.  After the death of Cardinal Gambara in 1587, the villa was given to Cardinal Montalto, nephew of the pope.  It was Montalto who brought the Villa Lante to its current form.  The site is laid out in a nearly flawless bilateral symmetry.   Almost everything is mirrored such that is has a likeness across this central axis.  It is along this line that four terraces step back into the hill.

villa Medici
Villa Lante
 The Villa Medici at Fiesole
 One of the twin casini at Villa Lante
 The Lower Garden fountain at Villa Lante

The terraced gardens are crisply separated, but put together such that movement from one to the next is smooth.  The Lower Garden, the most elaborate of the four, is arranged on a grid of squares, central being a fountain and four-piece pool.  Surrounding the fountain are the box-like hedge gardens and reddish gravel pathways.  Rather than relying on quantities of flowering plant, the Lower Garden is mostly colored by the blue pools, the evergreen hedges, and the gravel.   In the back corners of the lower garden are the twin casini.  Between these buildings the ground slopes up to the second level.  Most noticeable here is the Fountain of Lights, formed by concentric circles leading up into the next terrace.  The cascading water leads perfectly to the third level.  Central to this garden is a long, stone water table that leads into yet another water feature, the Fountain of the Giants.  Lounging amidst the moss-covered pools are two large stone men.  Serving as their backrests, two staircases lead to the fourth and final terrace.  Sitting on top of the fourth level, and the entire site, is the Fountain of Dolphins.   A large octagonal, multi-layered fountain that got its name from the numerous dolphin water jets.  This fountain pours into a channel that runs down the central axis and feeds   the top level of the Fountain of the Giants, tying itself and the upper garden to the rest of the site.   The symmetrical layout of Villa Lante could conceivably lead to an overbearing central axis, but this middle line is actually kept very subtle.   To lessen the visual affect of such a strong spine down the center of the site, it is rare that one can actually walk along this axis.  The views, which are generally on some diagonal, are not suggestive of such a strong symmetry. The entire site seems to be an experiment with geometry. The formal gardens, symmetrical spaces, and seamless relationship between site and building make the Villa Lante one of the best models of an Italian Renaissance garden.

The Italian garden movement began as a rediscovery of life and remains classic today. These villas stand as a shrine to the outdoors and man's place within it.   They served to expose the resident to his surroundings and, if possible, include him into the whole.  The building, the grounds, and the view were all intertwined to create one simultaneous experience.  The Villa Medici and Villa Lante are just two of these timeless classics.

The Modernist Movement
The Italian Renaissance movement eventually spread to France and England where it became the standard for several hundred years.  As the style became old and, seemingly, unchanging, a new concept came to light.   Moving away from the formal garden, the landscape began to be seen for its natural beauty,  rather that the qualities of its design.  The beginning of the eighteen hundreds marked the start of the romantic notion of nature that sometimes bordered on deification.   The newly discovered interest in "Nature" found a medium in art, literature, philosophy, and the landscape.   Nature was seen as the ultimate perfection that was to be emulated as much as possible.   A common belief among the romanticists was that nature abhors a straight line.  Despite the fact that straight lines are common natural occurrences, such as bones or tree trunks, this became widely accepted.  The more curvy something was, the more natural.  Inevitably it was a guideline that transferred over to the designed landscape.   This romantic English garden movement later became know as Modernism.

One of the first people to apply this romanticism to the landscape was William Kent, a self-proclaimed scenic designer.   After trying his hand at some smaller projects, Kent was hired to improve the gardens at Stowe.   His design consisted mostly of rounded lines and random curves, and despite his best efforts he had little affect on what currently stands on the site.   Kentís largest contribution to the Romantic Movement, it seems, was his understudy, Lancelot Brown.   "Capability" Brown, as he became known, worked along side Kent and, after his death, finished work at Stowe.  Brown's renovations, as it turned out, called for the replacement of a large portion of the previously finished work.  What remains at Stowe today is mostly due to the hand of Capability Brown.    He soon became a well known designer in England and his nickname spawned from his ability to see "capability" in a site.

Perhaps his best known work is the grounds of the Blenheim Palace.   He was hired to improve the existing formal garden, so repairs followed the "natural" pattern, of course.    His first course of action was to raise the water level in the current two lakes to create one large body of water.  Not only did this unify the lakes, it served to compliment the stone bridge that was poorly complimented by the previous layout.  The shoreline near the bridge was also molded to accentuate the quality of the old, stone structure.   Much of the site was reformed to create rolling hills and vast meadows.   Combined with the forested regions of the grounds, these allow for some very picturesque views.   The Blenheim Palace is a great example of the English Romantic Movement.  It mirrors nature in attempt to fool the visitor into thinking it actually is a wild landscape.  Curving shorelines and irregular planting patters are standard in its design.  This is the essence of Modernism.

Central Park
The gardens of Stowe
The bridge of Blenheim Palace
Formal walk at Central Park

By the time the Modern movement reached America, the issue of land management was already a common topic.   More and more land was being set aside for national, state, and city parks.   The people of the country had come to respect "Nature" and wanted to preserve it (or create likenesses of it).   To do this, cities and states had to find places to accommodate the growing demand for public parks.  After years of acquiring enough land, the city of New York announced a public competition for the design of the soon-to-be-built Central Park.  With a location in the heart of New York, it was bound to have a large impact  on the city and the career of the chosen designer.   In 1858, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park named a young Frederick Law Olmsted as the winner.  He was immediately appointed Architect in Chief of the project and by the fall had over 2,500 men under his command.   By the end of the 1860ís the park was nearly complete and Olmsted had officially coined the term "Landscape Architect".   Olmsted  had some difficulties with the project and eventually resigned, but his accomplishment lived to become one of the best known parks in the  world. The park was instantly popular among day trip visitors, and ice skaters.   Before the rest of the park was even finished the frozen lake served as a large attraction for anyone wishing to try out their skates.   This is still a yearly winter tradition.   One look at Central Park tells you that it wouldn't exist, under normal conditions, in the center of New York, but yet there it sits; a tribute to nature amidst a colossal built environment.  Olmsted designed the park with the romantic notion of nature in mind. Central Park emulates nature, despite its unnatural setting.   The curving, irregular shoreline of the lake, the winding paths, the dense forestland:  these are all features that define it as a romantic landscape.  The park acts as a soft reprieve from the madness of the surrounding city and the relative  lack of hard lines helps accomplish this.   Central Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous examples of Modernism in this country.

The Modernist landscape is one that has a romantic notion of nature.   This fascination with the replication of the natural world leads to sites with few straight lines and little evidence of man.  Although these landscapes are very scenic and often very convincing, a closer look and comparison with the natural world will show a definite difference.   The idea is not to be "Nature", but to represent it.   Modern landscapes are very popular all over the world and probably the most commonly seen style in daily life.  Capability Brown and Frederick Law Olmsted were two prolific figures in the advancement of the movement.  They helped define Modernism.

Japanese Gardens
While the rest of the world had to reacquaint itself with the natural world during the Modern movement, Japan never became distanced from it.  The idea of nature is significant in the culture to the point of religious awe.   The basic Japanese religion, Shinto, revolved around the elements of the universe.  The reverence was aimed not toward a human-like god, but toward the sky, the sun, the sea, the animals, and the earth itself.  It was a religion based purely on the worship of nature.  In time, Zen Buddhism expanded on the ideals of Shinto and sought to gain intellectual enlightenment through the contemplation of the surroundings.  This combined life and landscape into a conscious religion.   The garden had now taken the position of teacher and shrine, something to be respected and worshiped.   Eventually, the house, too, became part of the experience.  The transition between the two was sometimes unnoticeable.  The entire grounds came to represent the connection between man and nature.  The further development of these gardens led to three major categories into which most genuine Japanese work fits:   the Artificial-Hill Garden, the Flat Garden, and the Tea Garden.

The Tsukiyama, or Artificial-Hill Garden, like the name implies, consists of a hill or series of hills that represent far-off mountains.  Normally set in the background of the site (in relation to the house), the hills set the stage for the pond and stream in the foreground.   In the pond, rocky islands surface, often planted with grasses and a weathered pine.  Their placement represents the turtle and the crane, symbols of luck and long life.   The shorelines are usually formed from rock arrangements and small plantings.   The site as a whole is planted with evergreens and low growing mosses in order to maintain a feeling of vitality and life, even in the winter.  Some flowering plants may exist, but are generally understated.   In many cases, a waterfall edged with tall stones will be placed toward the left side of the garden.   Through all of this, a winding path of steppingstones offers the guest frequent places to take in the picturesque views offered by the garden.   The Tsukiyama is very scenic and, of the three styles, the most romantic.

water feature
An unassuming water feature
common to the Tea Garden
The famous Zen gardens at Ryoan-ji.  This rock 
garden is a classic example of a Flat Garden
A view of a shinji-ike, a pond 
in the shape of a Buddhist symbol 
for heart and soul. 

The Hira-niwa, or Flat Garden, is an enclosed garden without any hills or water.  The level ground plain is planted and arranged to symbolize the inherent scenery in nature.   Trees and pruned shrubs come to represent mountains or islands, while the gravel and grass embody the sea.  Another name for this garden, Kare-sansui, literally means Dry Landscape.  These gardens are common in Zen temples, and are very meticulously designed and maintained.  It is not uncommon for the site to be off limits to anyone but the raker.   Rocks are often placed carefully throughout the sea of gravel or grass in a balance determined to be the most harmonious with the garden.  In order to focus attention on the garden, a Flat Garden is walled on all sides.  The Hira-niwa are appreciated greatly for their tranquility and religious significance.

The last major Japanese garden style is the Cha-niwa, or Tea Garden.   This garden got its namesake from its historical position next to the teahouse, in which a traditional tea ceremony was held.  The surrounding garden is normally broken into two parts.   The outer part, the roji, contains the entrance to the garden and exists to slowly break ones connection with the outside world.  When passing through the narrow garden, the path curves lazily through continuously evolving naturalistic plantings and views.  The roji is designed specifically to help the guest forget the outside from which they just came, and prepare them for the inner garden.   The inner teahouse garden is a small, enclosed garden in which larger, distracting objects are excluded for smaller, unassuming features.   Ideally, the inner garden will be a subdued, tranquil spot that gives off the appearance of rustic old age.  The Tea Garden is definitely one of the most ceremonial of the Japanese Gardens.

Over the course of many hundreds of years, the Japanese perfected their relationship with nature to an art form.   Nature is part of the culture and religion, and through these gardens it is possible to convene with the natural world.  The traditional Japanese Garden isn't merely a designed landscape; it is a shrine to the world around it.

What exists in the landscape today is almost entirely a function of history.  Garden design has been progressing since man first learned to farm.  The original Islamic oasis was first the to view the landscape as a canvas.   As these ideas evolved, new styles of garden design were born.   From the Italian villa to the Japanese garden, the designed landscape became very diverse.  It is from these past stylings that today's Landscape Architecture draws its inspiration.  The new is never possible without the old.


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