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History of Landscape Design: An Introduction


Flowers and lemons from the garden

Moving through the folds and undulations of history is admittedly daunting yet exhilarating. This section of TELCS explores the terrain of landscape design history, knowing that I will only scratch the surface, like kicking the dirt in my well-worn gardening clogs. If I have learned anything about historiography, it is to not rely on a chronological order of events. A timeline is for those within the events, performing actions of daily lives lived, the people that came before us, gardening, landscaping, designing, creating policy, expressing cultural values, influencing, and interacting with others each day. The telling or writing about historical subjects pulls from what we study, interpret, and assemble at a given moment, or multiple moments, with the benefit of exploring how one subject was influenced over time by different people, places, and events. I can only harvest that information, just as I would collect flowers from the garden, clipped only when they are ready to be arranged in a vase.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

If I were to start discussing the history of landscape design chronologically, particularly American landscape architecture, I would have to start with the profession’s accepted founder(s), Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Vaux if often missing in “who founded landscape architecture,” so I include him here. Vaux’s influence as an architect and business partner to Olmsted should not be dismissed, nor all the other events and influences that led up to the founding of the profession. To understand how landscape architecture came to be, we need to explore numerous other subjects, such as cultural, philosophical, and socio-political events of major periods, our collective evolution from hunters and gathers to settlement and expansion, and, using a modern word, discuss key influencers that came well before Olmsted and Vaux. Way too much for a simple blog!

Bubblegum Alley, San Luis Obispo, CA

Thankfully, tomes to the subject already exist. When I studied landscape architecture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, we relied upon one textbook, and I found another along the way. Our readings were from Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s The Landscape of Man (1975), an unfortunate name in today’s woke society. Even so, the compendium is still relevant, offering “social and intellectual” context that influenced what the discipline of landscape architecture became. Landscape architects are visual people, so the Jellicoes balanced their narratives with a collection of photos and illustrations, all in black and white, that support our understanding of landscape design. Two years after publishing, Peter Hornbeck, Harvard Graduate School of Design, offered a candid review summary. “The book will serve two types of reader but not many in between. It will be of interest to – but will not satisfy for depth – the person already versed in the history of design who is looking for additional linkages and examples in a handy way. The other reader is the beginner, who seeks an introductory view of what’s what in environmental design history. The reader in between will seek more specifics and depth of discussion than is available here” (1977).

Perhaps Hornbeck’s betwixt and between review prompted the Jellicoes to collaborate on The Oxford Companion to Gardens (1986), which was my second reference I could not live without. As one would find with any encyclopedia, its content is in alphabetical order offering solid but limited context. I just acquired what appears to be its latest update with a slightly different name (2006), so I look forward to looking into comparative information. Already knowing what one is looking for is essential, so this reference offers more detail if The Landscape of Man does not suffice.

Harlaxton Manor, Grantham, United Kingdom

Here is an absolute guess on my part, but it would not surprise me if Elizabeth Barlow Rogers accepted this challenge by Hornbeck, to provide a deep dive into the subject. Rogers’ Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History (2001) is our textbook today, and from what I understand about landscape history coursework, other colleges and universities require it as their reading as well. Dense is an understatement, often forgoing photos and illustrations for lengthy narratives on subjects that could be more succinct. An online reader from a virtual big box confessed exhaustion just after reading the introduction, calling out one seventy-eight word sentence, grammatically correct but tedious. A fair warning for what is presented in the remaining 500+ pages.

Central Park, New York, NY

Despite this criticism, I rely on the experience of my students that have told me Rogers’ work is worth the study. At times exhausting, confirming online comments, Rogers enabled students to answer for themselves, “What is landscape architecture?” Based on their understanding, students can determine if landscape architecture or design is right for their studies and subsequent career paths. In a subject often difficult for people to define, landscape, Rogers succeeds in providing clear distinctions in support of design and urban planning.

I can only describe subsequent blog posts as dabbling in a subject deserving even greater discussion, particularly considering global conditions where landscape…oh, let’s go big…Mother Nature is not happy, and in some way, we are all paying the price. This has opened doors for landscape architects to challenge their understanding and practice of land stewardship, a key subject to mitigate our collective impact on this planet.

The Woolsey Fire, California

Each subject will be discussed as “then” and “now” to help readers discover the relevance in our contemporary world. My goal is to not have to answer, “why is this relevant to me?” but instead let readers decide. I hope you will enjoy the read, or in the least be encouraged to look further into landscape design.


Barlow Rogers, E. (2001). Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. New York: Abrams.

Hornbeck, P.L. (1977, March). Reviewed Work(s): The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Pre-History to the Present Day by Geoffrey Jellicoe and Susan Jellicoe. Society of Architectural Historians, 36(1), 60-61.

Jellicoe, G., Jellicoe, S. (1975). The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day. New York: The Viking Press.

Jellicoe, G., Jellicoe, S, Goode, P., Lancaster, M. (eds.) (1986). The Oxford Companion to Gardens. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, P. (ed.) (2006). The Oxford Companion to the Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


"20181119-woolsey-fire-PB-008" by the Forest Service, USDA is Public Domain and is sourced via flickr.

"Central Park New York City New York 23 cropped" by Jet Lowe is Public Domain and is sourced under U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record. Survey number HAER NY-194-7.

All other photos by TELCS.

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