The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Women, Modernity, and Landscape Architecture

ed. Sonja Dümpelmann and John Beardsley (Routledge, 244 pp, £34.99 (pb))

Reviewed by Susannah Charlton

This book of essays shines a light on the many little-known but influential women landscape architects of the 20th century. Originating in a conference organised by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, it investigates modernity in both design and the transformation of labour and social relations, bringing new conceptions of public space, especially through the large-scale development projects of the mid-century.

Rather than feminist pioneers breaking down the barriers, these were women pragmatically finding a way into the profession, often with the help of husbands or male mentors. Training in horticulture, followed by work in private gardens or nurseries, provided a way in when entry to formal landscape schools remained difficult. Compared with architecturally trained male colleagues, their designs often show a greater understanding of plants and the natural environment.

Several of these women developed successful careers under fascist, Soviet or apartheid regimes, while in America it was seen as a masculine profession. The journal Landscape Architecture compared the qualities of the urban landscape to ‘38-24-34’, shorthand for the ideal female body.

Women who trained abroad – often in Austria, Germany or England – did not have the benefit of a local network, and so advertising, directories and writing for journals were important means to gain work. They were much more involved in the professionalisation and teaching of landscape architecture through bodies like the IFLA (International Federation of Landscape Architects) than has been recognised.

Ester Claesson, who worked with Joseph Maria Olbrich in Darmstadt, was one of the first female landscape architects in Sweden, and had an international reputation as a designer and author. Compatriots include Ruth Brandberg, who worked particularly on hospital parks, Inger Wedborn, who founded an influential practice with Sven Hermelin, and Ulla Bodorff, active in the IFLA, who is described as rather like Zaha Hadid: confident, striking, ungovernable.

In Moscow, Militsa Prokhorova and Liubov’ Zalesskaia worked with Melnikov and El Lissitzky in the late 1920s, when socialist parks was being developed as a place of ‘meaningful leisure’ for the working class. Their parks combined functional zoning, modern transport, entertainments and space for collective gatherings with the picturesque ‘spectacle of nature’.

The paper on Joanne Pim, seen as the founder of landscape architecture in South Africa, explores the social and political context of her landscaping of new mining towns on a garden city model. She ‘often referred to English landscape history, and specifically … Lancelot Brown and Humphrey Repton’, suggesting to me uncomfortable parallels with the displacement of English villagers by C18 landscaping, just as mining moved Africans off the land. Pim’s modernity lay in her development of landscape practice and the way it supported rapid change and ‘progress’, rather than in its design. Her work ‘embodies the profound moral ambiguity that underlies most landscape improvement, which, because it derives agency from and ameliorates the effects of dominant economic and political regimes, often helps perpetuate them.’

The Viennese private gardens of Anna Plischke and Helene Wolf are hard to reconstruct, as they were middle-class Jewish women, exiled by the Nazis, whose records are lost. They developed the Wohngarten, a counterpart to the functional modern house.

Ingrid Bourne worked in Lyon on the big social housing schemes, which ‘took landscape architects out of their role as gardeners’, using subtle associations of hardy species and indigenous plants. Her contemporary Isabelle Auricoste designed amazing concrete planters with benches for a housing project in Bobigny, while Marguerite Mercier was known for her work on public landscape policy.

In the USA, Ruth Patricia Shellhorn was known for transposing the immaculately maintained private garden to California’s upscale new shopping centres, and also for working at Disneyland. Robert Moses hired a number of women to work on the modernisation of New York, like Clara Stimson Coffey, who was Chief of Tree Plantings in 1936. The first garden for those with disabilities was designed by Alice Recknagel Ireys at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was the first woman to receive the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award in 2011.

These essays not only introduce us to women landscape architects who deserve our attention, but also provide food for thought about the relationship between modern architecture and landscaping, and the concept of modernity itself.