Pebbles In The Pond: News & Musings by Landscape Architect Dick Bell

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A Ghost Of A Profession July 3, 2009

Filed under: On Landscape Architecture — Blueplate PR @ 6:20 pm
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Following is part of a letter I wrote to Landscape Architecture magazine a few years ago during a time when I was particularly worried about the profession to which I’d devoted the past 50 years of my life. I began with a bit of background, noting that I opened my first practice in 1955. I share this part because I still feel it needs to be said…

The ‘60s and ‘70s were very good to [landscape architects]. We became the “traditional” practitioners, protected by the cloak of professionalism and buoyed by the extroverted activities of our profession’s best writers — Jim Rose, Garrett Eckbo, Ian Mcharg, John Simonds, Robert Burle Mark, and others. And we celebrated the first 100 years of Frederick Law Olmstead’s profession.

Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture

Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture

During what we perceived as the “environmental decade” of the ‘70s, we also became inspired to seek legislation to protect water, earth, and sky, and to advance environmental education. Despite the struggle to keep our day-to-day practices afloat, we also worked many long, hard hours to promote environmentalism.

The time came, however, when the steady effort to identify our profession and to seek enforcement codes to protect natural systems finally wore us out. And that’s when we were suddenly struck by a serious question: What were we becoming? Had all of our efforts relegated our profession to sedimentation control, environmental lawyers and engineers, code writers and enforcers, and extension specialists? All of these “specialties” began to replace landscape architecture as a recognized profession within our state and local governments. Our reward for actively pursuing environmental causes led to nothing more than terms on “planning boards” (actually real estate boards) and so-called “appearance commissions.”

Where do we go from here? Obviously we are no longer headed for sainthood like Frederick Law Olmsted. We have gored the profession I knew and of which I was once so proud. I honestly believed we were God’s stewards of the land and could properly design it as a cultural entity for everyone’s health, safety, and welfare, couched in the value systems of our forbearers. We were a profession that created art in nature! And I believed we would train our citizens to appreciate the beauty of our natural systems and imaginatively respect and utilize those resources in ways that would last for hundreds of years.

Instead, we have managed to invent a world not much bigger than the cubicles we sit in and the computers we use to store and retrieve information. We have become the masters of disinformation, and our new practitioners have no idea, it seems, that they have been trained merely to meet rules and regulatory edicts, not to design. They “design” ways to meet government regulations, not to create art, inspire learning, enhance the public’s enjoyment of the natural systems and, as a result, improve their physical and emotional health.

Olmsted consistently preached his belief that “the experience of scenery” could “refresh and delight the eye and through the eye, the mind and the spirit.” He once wondered, “What artist [is] so noble…as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty…sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations…?”

I used to believe landscape architects were such “noble artists.” My generation of practitioners was trained to be just that. We were educated to be artists – broad-thinking generalists. Today’s practitioners are educated to become specialists – erosion control, storm water containment, highway construction, etc., etc. — and are destined to become members of the bureaucratic machine, which, by definition, does not allow freedom to think, to feel, to appreciate, and to create art.

Within the pages of Landscape Architecture, it is obvious – and heartening – to see that there are still some true artists in our profession who manage to trudge through the muck and mire of misguided, so-called “environmental” rules and regulations to create beauty. I applaud them and wish them much continued success. I’m certain it has been a journey fraught with difficulty. Or else they’ve had the great fortune to work with enlightened clients, as I admit I did on many projects.

So, despite the sad state of affairs I perceive in landscape architectural education today, despite our government entities’ utter disregard for art or beauty or the healthy pleasure derived from humans connecting with nature, and despite the proliferation of rape-and-pillage development that results when engineers and contractors are let loose on the land rather than landscape architects, I will continue to believe in the profession I helped create in the South — even if that profession has lost faith in itself.  — Dick Bell

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