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
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.
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
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
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
The Modernist Movement
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.
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.
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.
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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