Bless the landscape architect

Miller House, in Columbus, Ind. (Indianapolis Museum of Art)

Miller House, in Columbus, Ind. (Indianapolis Museum of Art)

Julie Iovine, the Wall Street Journal’s post-Huxtable architecture critic, has written “The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley.” Her piece on an exhibition of the work of the late Kiley, who died in 2004, earns a place in my collection of pieces whose authors, though sympathetic to modern architecture, feel they must criticize it in order to establish their credibility. Iovine begins her essay this way:

The movement to preserve modern architecture can be a hard sell, especially when the structures are geometric abstractions and the materials colorless concrete.

Forget about the movement to preserve modern architecture. It’s the movement to build modern architecture that’s a hard sell, or should be. Aren’t the structures always “geometric abstractions and the materials colorless concrete,” or some such iteration of the ugly, the stupid and the useless?

Thankfully, landscape architecture covers a multitude of sins. In the case of the Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Ind. (photographed in black and white, of course), a superior landscape design might have been an elegantly woven network of trees, shrubbery and vines rising up in organized chaos to create a dark cave within which the house can persist without frightening the horses. (Lighting optional.)

Of course, Columbus and its community leaders – mainly one rich guy – have made a fetish of hiring famous modernists, in this case Eero Saarinen, to design buildings for their fair city. Maybe nowadays the citizenry has fought back and that’s not Columbus’s schtick anymore. I doubt it. But Dan Kiley certainly did yoeman’s work in toning down and, to a degree, covering up for the essential tedium of the Miller House.

The problem he had to address, and has addressed not just at private homes but in a multitude of city centers botched by urban renewal, is that modern architecture denies itself the tools of its own profession. It has no aesthetic strategy by which to tone down the brutality of hardscape. Stone and even concrete graced by traditional ornament and sculpture can survive without the intervention of nature’s embellishment, but modern architecture must have it. And landscape architects such as Kiley have stepped forward to do the job. No doubt he was a talented artist, but it doesn’t take much artistic virtuosity to improve upon architecture that refuses to improve upon itself.

Here is another passage in which Iovine makes that point in a manner that I must assume forced her to suppress a cringe:

Time works for and against landscapes. And landscape architects can only forecast what a full-grown garden is supposed to look like, sometimes never living to see the day. Maintenance is an even greater challenge. Modern urban landscapes have taken the hardest hit in part because they favor man-made structure over organic form. Concrete sunken plazas and basins are marvels to behold when pumping with jets of water, frothing cascades and dimpled pools. But they become dank and depressing symbols of blight in winter, with the water turned off and rotting leaves and trash clogging them.

Kiley can hardly take much credit for the Miller House tree that plays such a major role in the success of the landscape surrounding the boorish Saarinenian concoction. Kiley planted it but cannot claim responsibility for its pleasing outreach of branches.

And yet landscape architects may be thankful for working largely in a medium that puts man’s poor hand to shame. The more regrettable the architecture, the more beautiful is the part played by nature, orchestrated in some degree by a designer. The landscape architect mutes pain inflicted upon the eye. Bless them all, for wherever they work they make things better. Often, as is no doubt the case in Columbus, Ind., that is saying an awful lot.

An exhibition of 29 other examples of Dan Kiley’s work is at the Center for Architecture, in New York City, runs until June 20. It is sponsored by AIANY.

A doff of the ol’ topper to Lee Juskalian, former Providencian, now Californian, who sent me the Iovine review. (I wonder how she pronounces her lovely last name. I prefer to hear it in my heart’s ear as ee-O-vih-nee. Not exactly Ionic, but nice.)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Bless the landscape architect

  1. barry says:

    Its a hard sell to get the public to support ” geometric abstractions” and “colorless concrete?” She might as well have begun her essay “its a hard sell to preserve modern architecture if its built with turds.”
    But the tree is nice. Perhaps such trees should be planted in front of the Boston City Hall T Station noted in another post.

    Like

  2. John Norquist says:

    David,

    Dan Kiley’s last project was in Milwaukee; the Santiago Calatrava addition to the Art Museum. Calatrava is a Starchitect who has taken his share of criticism, but I like his work in Milwaukee. He lined his design up with the center of Wisconsin Avenue, precisely terminating the vista. This violated Gropius’ weird diktat that vistas should never be terminated in line with the center of the street.

    I especially like that Calatrava fought the museum board’s plan for a surface parking lot in front of the museum. He also asked(insisted) that Kiley do the scape design.

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    • Is there an architect in existence, modernist or otherwise, who would not fight a parking lot directly in front of his world-famous edifice? I doubt it. And I congratulate him for going against modernist diktat on closing the prospect. But I’ve seen pictures of the museum and to me it is a dog. Sorry, Mr. Mayor: The site of any – ANY – modern architecture can be improved by replacing it with no more than a mediocre traditional building.

      Like

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