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Thomas Jefferson, landscape architect. Part IV: Washington

East Capitol Street, Washington.

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By now we know that the 45th president of the US is not somebody who is going to spend a whole lot of attention to the relation between state and landscape. Still, there remains much to learn from the landscape architect/president. The development of the nation’s capital shows how the versatility of landscape—unlike the firmness of architecture—allows for a unification of conflicting political ideals.

For 26 years of his life, Jefferson’s energies were devoted to promoting and perfecting the new capital. Repugnant as the evils of city life were to him, he must have made a great concession in his anti-urban philosophy to devote so much time to creating the national capital. During the summer of 1790—while George Washington was the first president—two issues paralysed Congress: the future location of the nation’s capital and the question of how America’s finances and debts should be handled, “two of the most irritating questions,” as Jefferson remarked. With great effort, spending years of careful politics, he managed to broker a deal combining the two, by exchanging the south’s acceptance to pay for a larger part of the debts, for a favourable location of the new capital: on the Potomac River along the Maryland and Virginia border, far away from the commercial and urban centres, and thus expressing the vision of the United States as an agrarian republic.

At that time, professional city planning had not yet emerged from the art of architecture and science of military engineering which had for centuries been responsible for the design of European cities. The city of Washington was the first attempt to plan a national capital for a democratic form of government on a site deliberately picked for that purpose. The design of the city was to express the government and its (lack of) power. Thus, Jefferson, as a Republican, wanted it to be unobtrusive, while the Federalist President Washington envisioned a grand an imposing city.

The sketch Thomas Jefferson made for Washington.

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Jefferson’s first memorandum about the future capital stated that it should be laid out on a rectangular grid that would grow organically over time, spreading out from its centre. The city should be a city of gardens, interspersed with squares for public walks. He laid out the programme, specified as “a territory not exceeding 10. miles square to be located by metes and bounds. […] I should propose [the streets] to be at right angles & that no street be narrower than 100. feet, with foot-ways of 15. feet where a street is long & level.” Obviously, his conception of the future city was based on the conventional gridiron plan with which he was familiar. He wrote down precise rules and regulations, foreseeing almost every problem that would be encountered.

The L’Enfant plan of Washington DC, 1791.

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By contrast, the magnificent city that Washington and his chosen designer Charles L’Enfant dreamed up, would proclaim a mighty, dominant central government. The scheme that L’Enfant submitted, a radial plan superimposing the grid that Jefferson had proposed, was no other than André Le Nôtre’s design for the gardens of Versailles. However, a year later L’Enfant was fired, because of his stubborn refusal to submit to the authority of the commissioners, and Jefferson was left with the responsibility to complete the already accepted plan. With L’Enfant’s plan being so enormous that the city grew in small clusters around the important buildings instead of around a single centre, Jefferson’s improvement was to work on roads to link these separate areas.

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Even before the first houses had been built, Jefferson had suggested lining the avenues and streets with trees—after all, a house could always be erected quicker than a tree would grow to maturity. Regarding tree-felling as “a crime little short of murder,” he also told the commissioners that people were not allowed to cut existing trees that he thought to keep for ornamental purposes for the city. But with no means to enforce this, by the time he became president, most trees were lost.

While Jefferson failed to stop Washington’s and L’Enfant’s grand plans, he managed to infuse them with his own ideals. Because of the capital’s remote location and the continuous lack of funds, for many years it wasn’t a bustling metropolis but remained a rural town, reflecting both the federalist ideals in its grand plan, and the republican ones in its atmosphere of a “very agreeable country residence … free from the noise, the heat, the stench & the bustle of a close built town.”

Pennsylvania Avenue, the grandest street in town…

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sources

Nichols, F.D. and Griswold, R.E. (1978) “The City of Washington” in: Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect. pp. 38-75.

Wulf, A. (2011) “City of Magnificent Intentions,” in: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. pp. 124-153.

 

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“… it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”[1]

A landscape architect for president. How about it? In Thomas Jefferson landscape architect. Part I this idea turned out to be not as far-fetched as it sounds…. All first American presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be, with Thomas Jefferson as their champion. In part II of this feuilleton let us zoom in on his life work: Monticello.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation, wasn’t the first American pleasure garden, but certainly the most influential one, uniting arts, science, production, experimentation, expression of both power and of democracy, of renewal and tradition.

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Already in college Jefferson started planning his own house and garden, and never stopped planning it for the next 50 years. He inherited most of the land from his father, and his first action was to level the top of what had been his favourite spot since childhood, a hill that rose 170 metres above the river, and which he named Monticello [little mountain]. Two years later, he started building his house, inspired by Palladio. Although some Palladian plantation houses existed at the time, none was as sophisticated as his, and with the house he had a strong statement about who Thomas Jefferson was and would be: fashionable, powerful, looking toward the future. For him Palladian architecture, looking to the ancient past for models of the future, wasn’t old in essence, but modern.

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As with the house, he had been planning the garden from early on. Before beginning to build the house, he was already planting fruit trees on the hillside. His first plan for the grounds laid out an astonishing landscape vision: somewhat lugubrious, fairly decadent and shamelessly romantic for someone who is celebrated as a master of sober and statesmanlike prose, totally unlike the no-nonsense Jefferson he was as a president.

To present an image of his ideas, let me describe one of these never-built phantasies. The graveyard, which he described as a circle surrounded by a hedge of cedar, among ancient oaks interspersed with some “gloomy” evergreens, with “no mark of any human shape that had been there, unless the skeleton of some poor wretch, Who sought that place out to despair and die in.”[2] Temples, a pyramid and statues would mark the graves, with inscriptions in pseudo-classical Latin describing water and grottoes. The whole arrangement would be planted with native beech and aspen trees, and a vista would be cut open to the river. There would be fragrant plants and an Aeolian harp would play mournfully by the shifting winds, unseen.

These and other visions were derived directly from his European books, and from the many travels he made when he was a Minister in Paris, spending most of his time touring gardens in France, England, Holland, Germany. His favourite was the jardin anglais, which he saw as the expression of Enlightenment, as a reaction against the autocracy and the oppressive rule of the privileged few (disregarding the reality of hundreds of poorly paid servants needed to keep up these gardens). The new naturalism was an expression of politics—the progress of civilisation moves toward greater liberty and justice, claiming the political powers that be were “natural” —, of the scientific revolution, geared toward empiricism—true knowledge can only be derived from the physical examination of things themselves—and of a new philosophy, with reason replacing faith and religion as the central organising principle, all of which fitted Jefferson’s views.

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He kept perfecting his house and garden, living for years in a building site, tearing half the building down and replacing it with a taller portico and a single dome (modelled on Villa Rotunda) to make it aesthetically perfect. In the meantime, all his ideas to make money from his large plantation, such as introducing crop-rotation systems and soil-improving crops, did not deliver, whereas the nail-factory that he started, worked by boy slaves, did, presenting a total contradiction of Jefferson’s deepest-held belief that the United States should be a nation of farmers. This made him one of the first factory owners, the forerunner of what would transform the nations’ economy and social structure.

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Despite his ideals, Jefferson was less a farmer than a plant-obsessed gardener of scientific bent, using his garden as an experimental laboratory. Even as an old man, he supervised the plantation almost daily. He was a zealous record-keeper, writing down all his observations, whether the wind direction, the blooming dates of wildflowers, or the life cycle of a destructive insect.

After retiring at Monticello, all his previously designed, unexecuted plans eventually led to the plan that was put in action. Working carefully with native material, although he was constantly experimenting with exotic plants, he created a very original version of a landscape garden. Based on his love for botany, agriculture and surveying, in this final vision he imagined the hilltop as a ferme ornée, an ornamental farm, with temples, clumps of trees, a swooping drive surrounded by flower beds called “roundabout”, a grove, a fish pond, a vegetable garden, fruit garden, and orchards. Outbuildings were moved out of sight, vistas were created, and the wooden fence replaced by a ha-ha.

Monticello is the quintessential expression of the ideal of a virtuous rural retirement, of a country of farmers in the tradition of Virgil’s “Georgics.” The rational exploitation of agricultural lands for profit (utility) married to a concern with pleasure and taste (beauty).

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For further reading: Graham, S. (2011). American Eden; From Monticello to Central Park to our backyards: what our gardens tell us about who we are. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[1] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782.

[2] From Jefferson’s Memorandum Book

Last summer students of the Master track Landscape Architecture of the TU Delft could follow a summer course in the Tuinen Mien Ruys in Dedemsvaart, made possible by a generous subsidy of the NHBos Foundation. It was a hands-on workshop in a real life situation addressing the practical skill of planting design, a basic skill for any landscape architect. We thought it wise to start at the smallest scale: the design of a border. The students experimented with different angles to approach this topic, playfully gaining knowledge of the formal, technical and biological aspects of plant species, which can be used in different circumstances.

The Tuinen Mien Ruys – a lifetime’s work of Mien Ruys, one of the most important garden architects in the 20th century – contain 30 gardens with experiments in design, plants and materials, presenting an overview of garden architecture from 1924 to the present day. The location was chosen because here the students could both study planting design in real life, and create a design that could be executed in situ, working back and forth between studying real situations and own design experiments.

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Early July, with a nearby campsite as base, eight students came together and worked for an intensive week, studying plants, planting combinations and compositions, under the guidance of both teachers of the TU Delft – Frits van Loon, Nico Tillie and Saskia de Wit – and a garden expert from the Tuinen – Conny den Hollander. Each day had the same structure, thus gaining a step-by-step insight in the characteristics and behaviour of plants and planting compositions: a guided tour with a different theme, studying and drawing existing situations of plant combinations, experimenting with new plant combinations. At the end of the week each student had made a full planting plan, of which one was chosen for execution. The chosen design, made by Pierre Oskam, gives a nice twist to the classical border, built up from low to high. Interestingly, the starting point is the movement of pedestrians.

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Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ with Potentilla x hopwoodiana, Crocosmia masoniorum,  Thalictrum delavayi

Three months later we returned to the gardens, armed with boots, gloves and rainproof clothes, in order to execute the chosen design. This was supervised by Marjolijn Storm, a young gardener in training from nearby AOC De Groene Welle, who was learning how to supervise a gardener’s team. The ground had been dug prior to the execution, and then dug for a second time, in order to give a malleable, weed-free plant base. Marjolijn had already marked the areas with rope, and the plants were waiting for us, lined up in neat boxes. All we had to do was space them out, put them in the soil, and then rake over and over again.

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So now we have a TU experimental border in Dedemsvaart, still looking young and fragile, and we can’t wait for it to grow. The gardeners of the Tuinen Mien Ruys will maintain the garden for the next couple of years. Who knows, when we return 2 years from now, we will find Pierres drawing in real life…

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In February 2013, MSc students of Landscape Architecture were taken to the Nieuwland Museum in Leystad for a three day workshop, led by an artist. Cora Jongsma, who has worked extensively with felt, introduced students to the fascinating similarities between two seemingly incongruent occurrences: the creation of felt from wool and the creation of polders.

Exhibition by Cora Jonsma in Nieuwland Erfgoedcentrum, LelystadExhibition by Cora Jongsma in Nieuwland Erfgoedcentrum, Lelystad

“Essentially, polders are created when water is pumped out of land. Similarly, to create felt, wet wool is flattened with a rolling pin. The constant rolling shrinks the fabric to create a smooth surface,” explains Inge Bobbink, coordinator of education at the Chair of Landscape Architecture. “Going through the process of making this fabric themselves gave students an insight into the process of how polders were created and how the land subsided due to the fact of drainage,” she adds.

During the course of the workshop students were first taught how to make felt and then about mixing colours, creating layers and texturing. On the final day they were asked to recreate a part of ‘their’ polder using the felt and colours made by them. Each student works parallel to the workshop on a design for ‘a recrational waterlandscape’ in a polder.

WoolSketching landscape structureTesting felt landscapeThe final effect of the workshop is definitely remarkable. As Bobbink walks us through the exhibition, the scraps of fabric begin to make sense. One is a landscape surrounded by crisscrossing water bodies; the fabric has been dyed in different hues of blue to create a sense of depth. Another is a greener landscape – a park on a polder. One looks like a prize-winning landscape garden.

The tableOverall, it is equal parts scientific and aesthetic. “The making of felt is for me the same as cultivating the landscape… I keep this natural process in mind with my Experimental Polders of Felt, with the only difference that felt softens instead of hardens… I try, as an alchemist, to transform the area into gold, and to say the least, in felt,” says Jongsma, in an introduction to the workshop.

Bobbink says that since the workshop she has noticed a marked improvement in how the students engage with the course. That’s not all. “Playing with designs, using technical know-how with imagination is something that will be handy to them in the long run as landscape artists,” she adds.

Interview by Damini Purkayastha from DELTA

Proeftuinen van Vilt on Cora Jongsma’s website

Whatever happened to the garden? “The art of the garden is dead,” pronounced the French garden designer Achille Duchêne in 1937. Was it? And is it now? If we take the thriving industry around experience and lifestyle, where the garden coexists happily with watches, kitchens and interiors, it is alive and kicking. But it is having a hard time as the most basic expression of landscape and nature, within the profession of landscape architecture. Although nobody denies its roots in garden design, ever since landscape architecture began to settle as a grown-up profession, the position of the garden has been under attack. The garden as a design problem seemed unable to stand its ground against the large issues of regional and recreation planning, dealing with the social and environmental consequences of advancing urbanization.

But of course it is not a matter of the garden like a Calimero as opposed to the ‘large issues’. The skill of designing a garden – the ideals, the art and the craft – should be part and parcel of the way of addressing the large issues.

In 1945 the Danish landscape architect C. Th Sørensen designed the Musical Garden for an urban park in Horsens, at the surface a sterile exercise in geometry, but in reality an extraordinary range of spatial variations. Sørensen himself described the design as “the best I have designed, something that gives the mind an inexplicable joy.” Clearly he saw gardens as an art form, but he translated these geometric exercises also into large landscape projects, like the Kongenshus Memorial Park (1945-53). In the design his analysis of the natural basic forms of the heath landscape concurs with the visual power of the geometric forms.  The garden as an experiment for landscape architecture.

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And what about the baffling similarity between the axial composition of Vaux-le-Vicomte (1656) and the 19th-century Paris of Haussmann? Clearly the lessons learned within the safe playing ground of the garden were taken well into account when the need arose to control the grim reality of traffic and hygienic problems and violent civic uprisings, following the advice of Abbé Laugier, who said in 1775: ‘Let the design of our parks serve as the plan for our towns.’ The design for Versailles (1661) gives a nice insight into how the transition was made from garden design into urban design.

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I am aware that the present day metropolitan landscape is characterized more by instable and dynamic processes than by the compositional logic of the classical city. System theory models seem to be better applicable than rational plans and spatial designs. However, if we would apply these models and allow the metropolitan landscape to arise as a logical consequence of integrating sustainable systems and processes, the spatial quality of our living environment would get lost in the process.

The core business of a landscape architect will always be the creation of spatial compositions, however large the shifts in context and problematique, and what better laboratory and experiment is there then the garden? A laboratory other design professions don’t have. We are lucky to have this, so let’s start making better use of it.