A Richer Experience of Place

Judith Maloney
June 01, 1995
top of old building with green roof

On a hot Sunday in June, 62 professors from the United States, Canada, and Scotland were following Peirce Lewis, Penn State professor of geography, up and down the hills of Bellefonte, stopping when he stopped, crowding beneath sidewalk linden trees for the scant shade they offered, as Lewis, a man with cropped grey hair, a trim grey-white beard, and a frank, folksy manner, demonstrated how to read Bellefonte like a book.

Or, to use Lewis's vocabulary, like a "document."

As the culture of the town has changed through time, he explained, its landscape has also changed, becoming "a kind of document, a kind of cultural autobiography."

Despite the heat, despite the hills, despite it being the second long day in a working conference, Lewis' audience of scholars listened closely. They stood on High Street looking up at the dark-red brick facade of the Women's Christian Temperance Union Building, which bears a date stone of 1903, and, under Lewis' tutelage, "read" this physical document: In its fine brickwork, its brownstone base, its arched Romanesque windows they read of taste and expense, and, in turn, of the seriousness of purpose that impelled the Bellefonte Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1903.

Earlier, Lewis had pointed out the pattern of old railroad ties in the grass of the city park and, from these and other clues—a millrace, a set of concrete piers that once supported a bridge—had conjured up a vivid image of turn-of-the-century Bellefonte: railroad yards, great black smoking trains coming and going, baggagemen and travelers going from the train station to the four-story Italianate hotel, the Bush House, across the street. The Bellefonte of that time was a thriving center where men and women, drawn in from outlying rural areas, encountered urban excitements and excesses for the first time. Inevitably, Lewis explained, alcoholism became a serious problem: ergo, the Women's Christian Temperance Union building.

History thus revealed, says Eliza Pennypacker, associate professor of landscape architecture and co-organizer of the symposium What Do We Expect to Learn from Our History?

A week after the symposium has ended, Pennypacker sits in her roomy office in Engineering Unit D. Poised, affable, with dark bobbed hair and oversized eyeglasses, she speaks of the "passion" and "pent-up energy" the participants ("virtually all of the most renowned scholars in our discipline") brought to the symposium: Many of them, teaching and researching landscape architecture history in departments emphasizing design, planning, and ecology, had felt isolated. The title of the symposium, says Pennypacker, "reflected the existing uncertainty of our group. Consequently, the symposium began with discussions by eminent historians in sister disciplines—cultural geography and art history—telling us how they do what they do." The landscape architecture historians then wrote "position papers" on a dozen topics, from "What are the appropriate historical methods?" to "How should we address preservation and restoration?"

If the term "landscape architecture" itself is broad (first used around 1860 by the designers of New York City's Central Park, it has swelled to include almost any planned "intervention" in the land), then the term "landscape architecture history" seems almost boundless. To some, it is the history of the "designed landscape," from the mortuary complexes of ancient Egypt to Disneyland. To others, it is the history of the landscape architecture profession. Or conservation history. Or history of landscapes in literature. Or history of the politics of land use. Participants at the Penn State symposium considered forging a single definition of landscape architecture history, but quickly abandoned the idea: "I think the continual discussion of definition, the same way we continually try to figure out what landscape is, or what landscape architecture is," Ken Helphand of the University of Oregon said, "is more fruitful."

Pennypacker wants history to be better integrated into landscape architects' training; history should not be, she says, "musty old stuff, irrelevant to design." She argues that knowledge of history makes contemporary design richer: "If you can create a place that meets contemporary needs, but that also acknowledges the past, it helps people to feel a sense of tradition, it helps people to feel rooted."

Acknowledging the past, which can be done subtly, on many different levels, Pennypacker says, is different from preserving the past. At the symposium, a few voices had cautioned that landscape architects steeped in history may tend against innovation. Catharine Ward Thompson of the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland said, "I come from a country where every educated person is an amateur antiquarian; we suffer from perhaps an excessive preservationist sense. And I'm nervous about landscape history leading us to strict preservation. I think there's a great danger there: Do we preserve the cultural past at the expense of the cultural present? Or future?"

Another participant told of being "appalled" when students to whom she had taught landscape history "went retro—in their designs of communities there was nothing that didn't look like an historic community." Students, particularly those who are "at sea about modern design," she said, "can become lost in the past."

Yet to study landscape architecture history, says Pennypacker, is to study the principles of design. "If you're looking at Italian villas of the 16th century and you're learning about how they responded to topography and to climate and to Roman Catholicism and to the rise of a wealthy merchant . . . If you see the kinds of things those designers paid attention to—the political, social, and religious issues they responded to and the kinds of things they finessed—then you in your time and place have a greater understanding of your own act of design. You have the opportunity to come to the intense realization that design is not conducted in a vacuum."

In her own current research Pennypacker examines the history of a landscape familiar to many of us: the "expanses of turf, the clipped shrubs, the unused but well-maintained front yard" of the American middle and upper-middle class." Those who rail against the lawn as an "aesthetic dinosaur," she says, have tried to convince these Americans to do something other—preferably, to create ecologically sustainable landscapes—with no success. They are baffled, she says, by the stubborn attachment to the lawn: "Why in the world do you grow something that has to be fed incredibly, that has to be herbicided to death, and then as soon as it grows a little bit you have to cut it down? It is really a nonsensical entity."

But behind the lawn, Pennypacker says, lie deep-rooted values. "Taste," she says, "for this large yet surprisingly homogeneous group . . . is less about art than it is about etiquette—it's about belonging to the group, not rocking the boat, being a good citizen (read 'quiet,' 'dignified,' and ' hard-working')." This notion of taste can be traced as far back as 1841, when Andrew Jackson Downing published his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening; Downing argued, according to Pennypacker, that "every man's character is (and should be) visible in his home."

"The 'tasteful' landscape of 19th-century America—promulgated by Downing and others," Pennypacker writes, "was filled with characteristics that embodied American values ranging from community and patriotism to stability and honesty. Indeed there exist at least four components of the tasteful 19th-century home landscape which still seem to be essential within contemporary tasteful landscapes . . .—greenness, a sense of history, openness, and scrupulous maintenance."

Greenness, she explains, "speaks of country as opposed to city—which removed the homeowner at least in spirit from that sordid place. Green connotes health and fresh air. Green suggests repose and relaxation." Yet, "this luxuriant green sameness doesn't just happen. Today, as in the 19th century, this tasteful color dictum of green grass, trees, shrubs, and understated contrasting colors suggests subdued elegance, graceful repose, and enterprising effort." The sense of history, Pennypacker finds in the American prediliction for old "houses, trees, barns, furniture, fences, or follies," each "prevented from looking decrepit through careful mending and preservation (if they are authentically old in the first place)." Openness between properties, she writes, suggests "belonging to the group and having nothing to hide," while scrupulous property maintenance suggests "good American community-mindedness." As she writes, "Neatness signifies cleanliness of mind, stewardship, and a strong work ethic; and, once again, it shows that the owner wants to contribute to the community through maintaining the respectability of his property."

Thus, to change the form of the front yard, Pennypacker says, landscape architects must understand that "by and large, the values haven't changed" that formed it. They must present new ideas in a way that honors, rather than threatens, those values.

Dan Nadenicek, Pennypacker's colleague and co-organizer of the symposium, finds the present moment particularly rich in challenges, with society and the environment "on the cusp of change," and landscape architecture "one of the professions that could be heavily involved in carving out the future."

Watching the Los Angeles riots of 1992, for example, Nadenicek considered the role played by the physical environment. "In our society," he says, "there is this group that lives out on the edge, in basically private places, versus those that are concentrated in the centers of places like Los Angeles." People separated physically, he says, become equally separated in their understanding of each other. If landscape architects—along with architects and city planners and others—are to help reunite society, he suggests, they need to understand why society is pulling apart.

Unlike Pennypacker—who, seeking "a balance between intellectuality and creativity," went directly from undergraduate study in liberal arts to graduate study in landscape architecture—Nadenicek arrived in the discipline by a long, indirect route: a master's degree in history, then a stint in the family business, then years spent as a landscape contractor. Building others' designs, Nadenicek says, he "became very intrigued by what landscape architects did." When he returned to school for his master's degree in landscape architecture, he says, it was "with the intent of bringing history and the landscape together." Nadenicek, with a broad face and steady, honest eyes, speaks with the eagerness of one who is pleased, perhaps even surprised, to find himself exactly where he wanted to be.

"Though we might not be able to come up with the design that will save the world," he says, "we can build things that are going to push the bounds a little bit, designing complete communities, for example, that will provide the opportunity for people to interact and come together."

In a position paper drawn up during the symposium, one group wrote of history's power "to demonstrate technologies and philosophies that have led to richly satisfying and sustainable places" in the past. Knowledge of their history, Nadenicek says, can guide landscape architects in "making better places" for the future.

"Without understanding where we came from and how we got to this point," Nadenicek says, "we're not going to be equipped to deal with the challenges that face us."

The symposium, "What Do We Expect to Learn from Our History," was organized by Eliza Pennypacker and Dan Nadenicek of the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Arts and Architecture, 201 Engineering Unit D, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9511. The symposium was supported by funds from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies; and, within the College of Arts and Architecture, the Committee on Creative Accomplishment and Research, and the Office of the College Dean for Research.

Eliza Pennypacker, M.L.A., is associate professor of landscape architecture; Dan Nadenicek, M.L.A., is assistant professor of landscape architecture; Peirce Lewis, Ph.D., is professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Judith Maloney is a freelance writer and novelist in State College, PA.

Last Updated June 01, 1995