Landscape for Living by Garrett Eckbo

Robert Riley

You CAN go home again, of course. The question is what you find when you get there. Complexity, most likely; a corrective adjustment to what memory has simplified and purified. A discontinuity in time, a glimpse of a different world from a different life, and, if you’re lucky, a reclaiming, a repositioning that restablizes memory and meaning.

If the three articles authored jointly by James Rose, Daniel Kiley, and Garrett Eckbo, published in Architectural Record in 1939 and 1940, were a manifesto for a new landscape architecture, then Landscape for Living, written by Eckbo and published in 1950, is . . . what? The Das Kapital of landscape architecture? The Bible? A how-to manual? An encyclopedia? A little of each, actually.

Most works are products of their time, but this book is especially so. By 1950 depression and war had come and gone; prosperity had arrived, but not yet Korea or Joseph McCarthy. Suburban expansion was considered positive; if a little worrisome, it was not yet a blight. In the design schools, the Beaux Arts reigned still, its compositional principles intact, its decoration impoverished. Only four avowedly “modern” architectural schools existed in the country, at one of which I sat grudgingly learning “the discipline of the brick,” using Strathmore board and 6H and 9H pencils.

Eckbo’s book was not only of its time but of its place: distinctively American. The Second World War had ravaged Europe. In England, the Labor government was struggling to build a new society in the midst of poverty and deprivation. By contrast, the postwar United States was not only wealthy but intact, its political and social structures strong, undergirded by a hugely expanded industrial capacity, a legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the stepped-up production of the war. For idealistic landscape architects, the design philosophies imported from Europe were tempered by populist and regionalist ideas. The world was new, designers confident.

My copy of Landscape for Living is the third printing. For that edition, Eckbo supplied a one-paragraph preface contrasting the world of 1959 with that of 1950. He remarked on the new prevalence of written works on modern landscape architecture and on the accumulation of built works. “Satellites have gone up, war fever has gone down, and it is a great time to be alive.” The confidence was still there.

Landscape for Living is a manifesto, but more. It includes historical generalizations, moral pronouncements, a survey of the skills available to and needed by landscape architects, lists of the materials of their work, examples of built projects, and a discussion of hopes for the future—not to mention notes on riser-tread ratios. The book not only influenced the progressive landscape architecture of the era, it also affirmed its value and status. For the first time, actual works were presented, offering images of a brave new design world, albeit one mostly Californian. The text and images articulated what right-thinking designers felt. We knew all those things, although we couldn’t have articulated them with Eckbo’s sophistication and comprehensiveness. This book is a distillation of an important midcentury professional attitude, of the zeitgeist of the designers who helped build America in the second half of the 20th century.

Neither the preface nor the foreword indicate an intended audience. Since the book was published by Architectural Record, one assumes its readers were designers. Still, the nontechnical language, along with the focus on a social vision and on American society, suggest that Eckbo wanted to reach a broader audience. Eckbo himself divided the book’s fifteen chapters into four sections: Background, Theory, Practice, and What Next. But I see it as having five sections: the first five chapters define landscape design to the present day; the next five trace a theoretical framework for practice; chapters ten through thirteen provide a grammar for design; chapter fourteen, on “specific conditions,” offers one hundred pages of projects by Eckbo and his partners; the last chapter ponders the future and potential interaction of art and planning. The chapters on theory (which in Eckbo’s words consist of the “why-to” of landscape architecture) are as evocative of their time and place as are the photographs of built work. I can’t remember now how I organized in my own mind the contents of these chapters on first reading, but, almost fifty years later, certain themes dominate, partly (but only partly) because of the contrast with current ideas, beliefs, and attitudes.

Eckbo’s thought and advice emphasized integration, particularly in two areas. First was the integration of the arts, particularly those practiced by the design professions. Imagine a book on landscape architecture filled with unenvious admiring references to the accomplishments of architects. All environmental designers—architects, landscape architects, planners—were co-workers in the new world with separate, if overlapping, skills, but always with a unity of purpose. The second kind of integration was that of design with science. For Eckbo this entailed far more than efforts to critique high-style design in terms of concepts borrowed from physics. He saw science as a valuable tool in the service of society and of design. Science meant climatology, geology, hydrology, and the like. Such fields were tools for analyzing a site and the means for “the control of precipitation . . . humidity . . . temperature . . . light, cleanliness . . . vermin . . . sanitation . . . [and] air circulation” (134-135). Science was also a way of thinking “. . . which takes nothing for granted, accepts no precedents without examination, and recognizes a dynamic world in which nothing is permanent but change itself”1. Eckbo was not alone in this outlook. Landscape for Living was written in an era that sought to rationalize the building process, an era of many books on climate and building, of experimentation with natural lighting and ventilation. More than a decade before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Eckbo mentioned ecology as essential to a healthy environment. Science involved neither the Einstein-babble of Sigfried Giedion nor the metaphor of fractals. (Where now are all those classroom clerestories, all those ventilation arrows and solar diagrams? Made irrelevant by fluorescent lights and air conditioning, I guess.)

For Eckbo and his contemporaries, nature was basic. It was distinct from humanity, and a mostly benevolent partner in the making of a better world. TV nature shows of the day featured Walt Disney deserts and Marlin Perkins carrying Mr. Hawk on his shoulder, not the copulation and cannibalism now de rigueur on PBS. Nature was a physical presence, not a culturally mediated phenomenon.

Eckbo discussed theory, too, but theory, to Eckbo, was internal theory—a grounding, a normative framework for the analysis of landscape and the practice of landscape architecture. It was not theory that engaged the relationship of the discipline to the larger social and cultural structures, except to the extent that Eckbo regarded design as a tool for democracy and a healthy environment.

Landscape for Living assumes and expresses, as do many classic books, a modern unity or universality of world views that would be considered naive if not outright dangerous today. It assumed, for instance, that people around the world, while different in some ways, have the same basic needs and wants; that problems are solved by logic, science, and good intentions; that people are people and nature is nature. Fifty years later, this dualism is rejected, and so too is the universality of this approach, which, it has become apparent, omitted or minimized elements that now seem critical. Eckbo’s approach was—to use a horrible word—acultural. Poverty and lack of opportunity were the important issues for Eckbo, not the values of diverse subcultures.

Nor was class an issue, beyond the rejection of the dominant role the privileged classes once played as the major patrons of landscape architecture design. Eckbo was concerned that farm workers were rootless, ill treated, and poorly housed. Their poverty and lack of opportunity were the key issues of the day, not their ethnicity or cultural heritage. Eckbo was frank and admiring of folk design, which he saw as straightforward, practical, irregular, and simple; he liked the doodads, the self-expressive use of ordinary objects like bottles. Today, when every ethnic garden is seen as a reflection of cultural continuity, when every folk garden is seen as resisting and subverting the dominant culture, Eckbo’s views seem not only dated and naive but somewhat condescending. As a good postmodernist, in this instance, I’ll note simply that both readings are valid and valuable.

What dismays and shocks me now about Landscape for Living, as a symbol and expression of its time, is its utterly ahistorical approach. It shocks me particularly because I was once a passionate acolyte of the ideas and beliefs articulated in the book. History is noted and then rejected. It really didn’t matter, did it? If history was useful it was only as a moral lesson, for example, one could safely condemn the oppression of a deservedly dead autocracy.

Ah! A new world, a fresh start, a clean slate. Eckbo’s classic modernism is not only ahistorical but atemporal. It didn’t really matter what surrounded the new designs and the new landscapes. It might be bad and irrelevant, but we were good and sure. But when we throw out history, we throw out context, and in this sense the book isacontextual as well as atemporal. Here we find no sense of age or history or evolution. Designs existed in a kind of eternal youth, while at the same time possessing mature, timeless wisdom. Classic modernism allowed no twilight, no autumn.

These characterizations of classic modernism are, of course, familiar. But Landscape for Living exhibits another aspect of American modernism, one less remarked upon: its unconcern with urbanism or urbanity, its emphasis on open land, low density, and regionalism. In this sense, the Eckbo projects contained in the book are physical realizations of the reformist philosophy of the 1930s, of its populism and regionalism. One need only look again at the great American documentary films of the ’30s, especially The City, to realize both the incredible naiveté and the unbounded optimism of America in the first half of the century.

The regionalism advocated here is a logical response to natural features. The substrata, the cladding, and the climatology of sites vary from place to place and region to region, and so too will the logical design response. The site is a fact to be understood and to work closely with. Regionalism is a scientific, not a cultural or historical, phenomenon. Here we find no sense of Richard Neutra’s spirit of the site or of today’s “site as palimpsest.” But at least, if Eckbo’s view of regionalism seems inadequate, it avoids the silliness of postmodern pseudoregional detailing and of the mystic interpretation of regional landscapes that at the extreme produces ideas such asheimat, the Germanic adulation of homeland. As for symbolism, it doesn’t even rate an entry in the index.

Chapters six through nine of Landscape for Living sketch out a view of the world to come. Chapter fifteen tells us how to get there. Since it seems that either we didn’t want to be there in the first place, or that there was no way to get there, the latter is perhaps of less interest than the rest of the book, but noteworthy in maintaining the ambitious optimism of the larger framework. It emphasizes that people need to work together, to organize, to make the new world happen. And because it’s assumed here that we all want the same world, our major job is to ensure that everyone has access to it. What gets in the way? Old habits and real estate speculators.

In between these two sections, Landscape for Living gives us Eckbo, Royston and Williams’s vision of what the new world might look like, specifically at site or project scale. The new world will be spacious, airy, well planted, no taller than three stories; it will all be at a suburban density. The new world will feature no decoration, though “decorative” materials are permissible, and, if they are new materials evocative of industrialization, even prized. It was a powerful vision, and can be seen today, with its strengths and shortcomings, in the landscape designs and plans for the California community colleges, and for the office parks of Silicon Valley.

Every movement in architecture or landscape architecture has its own style of graphic presentation. These days, when a design movement might produce three or four sequentially isolated forms of representation, it’s often a toss-up, looking back over decades, whether the projects or the drawings seem more dated. Whatever the case, the rendering style of the work shown here seems as suitable, complementary, and sympathetic to the designs as any could. From the vantage of fifty years, the geometry seems restless and exciting, a strange blend of energy, new materials, and California zigzag. The very Californian drawings remind us that they were done just as dingbat was about to turn into googie. The elements are there, but handled with restraint and sophistication and sensitivity. They are clear and direct, these drawings and designs, but not minimalist.

So are we left with only an historical document? Only a powerful, passionate holistic statement of a world that we no longer live in, or care to? Partly, of course. But the section that Eckbo calls theory and that I call vocabulary and grammar—the chapters on “Materials,” “Earth-Rock-Water,” “Plants and Planting,” “Structural Elements”—and parts of the chapter on “Space and People,” are of more than historical interest; they are of potential utility today. These chapters offer a thoughtful, thorough (almost encyclopedic) guide to principles of landscape design as Eckbo saw them. In the chapter “Plants and Planting,” for example, he discusses aesthetics, size, texture, form, color, fragrance, unity and variety, surfacing, etc., with advice and directives about all. The book does make classic modern value judgments, for example, the superiority of mass and void, balance and line, and materials over compositional rules and applied decoration. It contains observations, too, that are somewhere between timeless and homiletic, like the description of brick as a universally appreciated, humanized material.

But Eckbo also provides us (to use the fuzzy and abused but useful linguistic analogy) a detailed analytical vocabulary, including principles of syntax, that form a grammar linked to the language of classic modernism but not entirely congruent with or dependent upon it. Such a system of analysis and synthesis, lying between philosophy and pronouncement on the one hand and built work or style on the other, is the stuff of which design studios are still made, if less explicitly and articulately. But why, when we look at historic landscapes, do we restudy philosophies and styles and works but never analyze or compare the systems and elements of transformation internal to a particular design process? Fletcher Steele and Garrett Eckbo might be worlds apart—but what a lot we could learn by comparing their design principles. It is easy enough, and common enough, to offer planting design studios that ask for design “in the manner of Olmsted,” but these usually produce little more than plans and sketches of the designer’s most easily caricatured proclivities. But what of a designer’s assumptions about use, about plants, about the effects of color, the hierarchy of functions, the juncture of land and water, etc.? Can we develop a timeless, universal system? Of course not, nor should we want to. But such systems, while linked to time and place, are not inextricably tied to either. Their worth should be evaluated as a function of their utility in design and education, and they might also be pragmatically tested and compared. This section on theory is the richest part of the book, and contains the complexities that memory, at least my memory, simplified if not outright ignored.

What more could one ask from a book, almost fifty years old, than that it be a powerful, impassioned statement of its time and place, that it express the will and intent of a whole era of design, and at the same time contain ideas that remain valuable today, even for those who would reject many of its social and theoretical assumptions?

A book like this is not going to appear today. Eckbo was one of the rare designers who wrote a lot and who seemed to consider his writings as important as his designs, not simply as captions for pictorial puff jobs. He’s similar to Richard Neutra and Charles Moore in this respect. But the rarity of top-notch designer/writers is only one reason why this book remains important. This book was the start of an era, of a time of confidence; its recommendations are direct and simple, untested but uncriticized, except for the forces of the status quo. Its comprehensiveness results from a self-limited scope of consideration and from a unitary, positivist world view, before that view was marked by schisms, much less counterrevolutions. Irony and ambiguity can produce manifestos, but seldom bibles.

The design literary scene has changed, too. Earnest, rich, difficult writings aimed at designers, academics, and a concerned public alike are rare. Less rare are pretentious introductions to the latest glossy annual or hero picture book. The lay audience Eckbo was addressing has been well served for half a century, on the domestic scene, bySunset magazine. Coffee-table books are a mass market phenomenon. Since Eckbo’s time, the academy and the profession have spawned a new genre of periodicals aimed at a heterogeneous audience of designers, academics, and sophisticated urban consumers—witness Metropolis.

But much of what Eckbo had to say would today be treated in academic journals and seminars and conferences, such as those held recently in Berkeley and Cambridge, featuring historical investigations not only of the Modern movement but, ironically, of such antihistorical heroes as Dan Kiley and Garrett Eckbo. The journals and learned articles focus on a new kind of theory, one that relates the design professions to the world around them and the cultures in which they are embedded, with strong emphases on class and capitalism and consumerism, on theories more complex, more removed, and usually more interesting and stimulating than the older narrow debates or internal theories of design. Today the academy rejects the simpler, unitary, practice-oriented theoretical approach and investigation that inform this book. Whether the world is more complex today than the world for which Eckbo wrote is a moot point, but certainly we see the world as more complex, varied, problematic, puzzling, and troubling. The field has grown in intellectual sophistication, and despite our penchant for silly borrowings of jargon from other more intellectual fields, the level of intellectual inquiry and sophistication has indeed risen. One can regret or not the passing of the attitudes expressed in this classic modern polemic, but on rereading Landscape for Living, one must, I think, respect them. We know more now, but we care less.

Robert Riley is professor of landscape architecture and architecture, emeritus, at the University of Illinois.