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History of Landscape Architecture: The Beginning

Learn a little about the history of the profession, and some of the famous projects created that are historical landmarks in America . Many people are unfamiliar with this profession, yet it has undoubtedly touched their lives on many occasions.

In this history ‘Lesson’, we would like to introduce to you the profession of landscape architecture, by briefly talking about how it came to be. With any historical account, there are many individuals and events that chronicle the past, and the study of the history of landscape architecture is no exception. And with that said, within the confines of this article, is a brief review that will focus on events that led to the origin of the profession as we know it today. You could look at this as your Intro 101 class. Don’t worry, there will not be a test at the end!

So we begin here in America. The time was the mid 1800’s. A new profession was lying just beneath the surface, waiting to be translated into the common language. The man who would bring it to full fruition was Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered the founder of American landscape architecture, and through his numerous projects eventually became regarded as the most notable, and internationally known landscape architect. His projects fell into the full spectrum of project types ranging from regional plans (Bostonians no doubt are familiar with his “Emerald Necklace” parkland and parkway design), residential communities (designated in 1970 as a National Historic Landmark, Olmsted’s Village of Riverside, Illinois, near Chicago , is a world renown planned suburban community, one of this country’s first), to private estates and college campuses.

His first commission came as a result of a design competition that he and another designer had entered in the year of 1857 for a proposed park that would encompass an 843 acre parcel of land.

Steps leading to Bethesda Terrace. Beautiful architectural stonework of the columns & balustrades


Their design won, and Olmsted oversaw the construction of the site for the next few years. The project actually took about 20 years to complete. Most everyone knows, or knows of, this site: it is called Central Park, in the heart of Manhattan, in New York City . He envisioned this project to be for people who lived within the city to have an escape where they could go to, and travel through, a rural-like environment that also functioned to serve their needs.

Olmsted wanted a proper description of what his role was in the Central Park project, and also for the new perspective (the inclusion of pavement, water, grading, structures) that this project gave to this design field. And thus he was inspired from that time forward to refer to his profession as landscape architecture. At that time in history, the word ‘landscape’ would have properly been defined as meaning ‘the lay of the land’. Thus, a simple definition of landscape architecture would have meant the design and construction of, in, and on the land while making use of, and preserving, as much of the natural environment as possible. The practice of landscape architecture also includes a process of design referred to as planning, which can best be described as envisioning the project site as a whole to allow for the design of the individual parts to work in continuity within the whole, i.e. a master plan. As a side note, the term landscape architecture had previously been used in the earlier 1800’s, but not in the same context as Olmsted had come to see it, during the Central Park project.

For some, this may be interesting and informative. Others may say ‘T.M.I.’ (too much information)! So to end on a lighter note, we should mention some of the college campuses (college campuses are fun!) and residential estates that were designed by the landscape architecture firm founded by Olmsted. Some of these campuses are Yale, Brown, and Stanford universities, and one of the more well-known estates is Biltmore in North Carolina . Also, Olmsted’s Central Park has become the stage for events he could not have imagined back in the mid 1800’s. It has been the location site for many movies including Enchanted, Elf, and When Harry Met Sally. Check out under ‘History’, then ‘Central Park in the Cinema’ for a complete list!

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