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Naturalistic Mode in Landscape Design

By contrast the aim of the "naturalistic" mode in landscape design is to obscure or at least to subordinate all evidence of human craftsmanship and control over the landscape while securing a high degree of beauty through unity and the subtle kinds of order found in natural landscapes. 

To get real pleasure from looking at the wilder natural landscapes such as mountains, deserts, and stormy seas, those landscapes most expressive of the absence of human control, is a relatively modern development if we can judge by the evidence of literature and painting.  It is man's increasing domination over the world about him, which has created the desire and need for seeking this enjoyment of "natural" scenery as a relief from the too insistently man-made surroundings of civilized life.  And deliberate control of landscape in a naturalistic mode, in artistic pursuit of these newly appreciated qualities in certain landscapes, is even more modern.  It first began to be much practiced and studied in England in the eighteenth century, partly as a response to this deep-seated human need marking a new era, and partly as a mere passing reaction against an overworked fashion of the previous century for widely extended and exaggerated formality in landscape design.  Many stupidities and blunders and affectations have been committed in the name of this naturalistic mode.  These have been failures mainly in that they did not make the element of human control inconspicuous but focussed attention on it by transparent theatrical disguises.  They have been due to lack of skill in a very subtle and delicate art, or to attempting this mode of landscape treatment in cases where no possible skill could have attained success and where a frankly "humanized " treatment would have been the only road to successful landscape beauty.  Still more often a confused and hesitating purpose has led to hopeless compromises between the humanized and naturalistic modes. 

But where it is possible and appropriate the naturalistic has a place of growing importance, side by side with the humanized mode, in a civilization whose people are so submerged among insistently man-handled surroundings as to become weary of all humanized landscapes, beautiful and ugly alike. 

A simple example of the naturalistic is found in the treatment of a trail through a mountain wilderness, where the mere removal of obstructing vegetation may open beautiful landscapes, wholly "natural" except for these removals.  A more elaborate example is a park created on a bare flat field by such shaping of the surface and such planting and other operations as will produce a landscape having essentially the same qualities as a natural landscape of a more interesting and beautiful type than that of the original field. 

In landscapes more or less dominated by buildings, especially if, the land areas are small, as they are about most public buildings and about so many dwellings, the naturalistic mode tends to be more and more difficult and less and less appropriate compared with the opposite mode. 

But it must be borne in mind that this fundamental distinction between the humanized and naturalistic modes is not a distinction of a physical kind, as between blue and yellow.  Few naturalistic landscapes are without recognizably humanized elements.  The distinction is one of consistent and deliberate emphasis upon one set of qualities or upon another, and can be successful in either direction only if circumstances permit those qualities chosen for emphasis really to dominate the character of the landscape as a whole.  Here as elsewhere compromise is fatal. 

The place more than all others where it is essential to have consistent adherence to the naturalistic mode at almost any sacrifice of admirable qualities incompatible therewith, is in the larger public parks and scenic reservations set apart primarily for the recreation of people nerve-weary from the routine of intensive man-made civilization.  The term "parks" is applied to places of outdoor recreation of many kinds, for some of which the most elaborately "formal" of humanized landscape treatments are admirably adapted.  But among the many kinds of parks there is great and growing need of those consistently naturalistic landscapes which alone can supply the sort of refreshment toward which the modern urbanized man is learning more and more to turn.  The larger a park is and the more perfectly it can supply the qualities of natural landscape the more essential it be- comes to protect it against the injection of avoidable "humanized" elements.

— Frederick Law Olmsted  


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