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Historic Styles in Landscape Design

Beyond the broad distinction above drawn between the humanized and naturalistic modes, there is space but for the briefest reference to a few specific historic styles in landscape design.

The Moorish gardens in Spain had for their direct prototype the gardens of Persia and Syria.  They were most often patios surrounded by buildings, shady, cool, full of the scent of flowers and, the splash and sparkle of running water.  The gardens were necessarily a part of the architectural scheme, both being in a clearly marked style which moulded the culture of Spain, and through the Spaniards influenced the style of the buildings and gardens of Mexico and California in a manner peculiarly suggestive for the great arid, but irrigable, regions of the southwestern United States climatically so much like Spain and Persia. 

The villas of the proud, powerful, ostentatious, artistic nobles of the Italian Renaissance were based on the design of the gardens of the old Roman patricians and served a mode of life not very different.  They were usually the unified work of one designer, often a well-known architect or sculptor, and the style of the garden designs reflects the rise and development of the style of the Renaissance in the other arts.  The villas were set on steep-sided hills facing the open view and the cool breeze.  In earlier times the design was simple, — the main building and its terrace being the center of a scheme of gardens with still pools, and statues and fountains, often of great sculptural excellence.  In later times the villas became more conscious architectural schemes of axial relation, with decoration less for intrinsic merit than for general effect.  Throughout the three centuries of their development there was shown in the villas a feeling for the beauty of water, displayed in increasingly ingenious ways; for the refreshing deep shade of foliage and its contrast in design with open sunlit spaces, qualities peculiarly precious in the Italian climate and landscape but precious in every climate of bright sunlight; a feeling for the inspiration of the open distant view; and a feeling, never as yet elsewhere equalled, for effective formal design in materials of architecture and vegetation. 

In France, England, and Holland the Renaissance called forth an expression of architectural design in outdoor areas, stimulated by Italian influence, which flowered in different periods.  The Dutch had their small, trim, topiary gardens, the English their Tudor and Elizabethan country estates with pleasant flower gardens, stretches of turf, and homely kitchen gardens, enclosed one next to the other; and the French had their great open parterres and large gardens, consisting of different treatments of rectangular units more or less intervisible, — precursors of the art of Le Nôtre. 

Le Nôtre's work at Versailles expressed the power of France and the magnificence of Louis XIV.  Built on relatively flat land, and extending for miles, the palace grounds produced the effect, of great extent with recognizable unity and variety of open and wooded areas by the use of allées, — straight tree-lined avenues, here for the first time employed at so great a scale, — separating the bosquets or groves of formal outline, connecting various points of interest, forming vistas large and small centered upon the architectural and sculptural decoration of the scheme.  Next to the garden façade of the main buildings, a great terrace decorated with water basins or carpet-bedding served as a foreground to the architectural design. 

This formal design in the "grand manner," which extended its influence all over Europe, even into Russia, and was often carried to extremes by incompetent designers, invited, as we have seen, a reaction towards the naturalistic mode.  The landscape style, originating in England where it was expressed in the work of Kent and Brown, was influenced deeply by the work of such landscape painters as Claude Lorrain and also somewhat by ideas introduced from China.  But its most vital characteristics were inspired, like those of the Italian villas, by local conditions of climate, vegetation, topography, and modes of life.  In the deer-parks of England there had long before been produced, without much conscious artistic control, wonderfully beautiful landscapes marked by undulating, open, verdant, universal greensward, upon which as a background were dispersed robust masses of wide-spreading tree-foliage, and occasional thickets of undergrowth.  These, with the soft and mellowing atmosphere of the same climate which perfected the greensward and the spreading trees, created an exquisite beauty no less characteristic of England than the contrasting deep shade and brilliant sunshine and turfless distant views are characteristic of Italy. 

The "Landscape Style" of England spread over France and other parts of the continent with the Romantic movement, and fell later into extremes and perversions as unfortunate as any of those of formal design.  For the formal it substituted the formless, or an obviously theatrical affectation of naturalness, and for aesthetic unity it substituted the Romantic symbol, before it settled to the more rational and sincerely naturalistic style of Repton in England and of Pückler-Muskau in Germany.  It is interesting to note how deeply and characteristically climate and local habits of thought based upon climate, affected local adaptations of style in landscape architecture both as the Italian Renaissance influence spread northward through France to England and as the "English" naturalistic influence spread south through France to Italy.  In either style the northern type consists essentially of a background of turf and other verdure out of which is cut a more or less shapely pattern consisting of bare surfaces of earth or pavement in the form of paths and roads and terraces and so forth.  In the southern type, where turf is essentially exotic, the bare surfaces of earth or pavement form the background of the design while the turf and other verdure constitute the shapely pattern applied to it.  It is not a question of the relative quantity of the two elements, but how they are used that makes the difference between a pattern of green on gray and one of gray on green. 

There are charming formal gardens dating from many different centuries in England, and based on English tradition in America from Colonial times onward, in which the Italian Renaissance influence can be traced, but which are truly English and truly American, because only those qualities of Italian work were borrowed and adapted which were not contradicted by the local climate and vegetation and way of living, and which lent themselves to a complete renationalizing, as it were, under new skies, enriching and stimulating the development of good native characteristics.  By contrast, some mechanical attempts at more complete or arbitrary imitation of Italian, English, and other foreign styles in America and elsewhere have produced merely barren expatriates, utterly unassimilable and serving only to distract attention from lines of development essentially in accord with the local needs and opportunities. 

As in all art, it is not the name of what you do that counts, but how you do it in relation to time, place, and surroundings.

— Frederick Law Olmsted  


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