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Beatrix Farrand: An Ecological Designer

Blog Posts

Beatrix Farrand: An Ecological Designer

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This blog post is published as part of the #HerNaturalHistory social media campaign with the Biodiversity Heritage Library during Women’s History Month, where we are joining institutions around the world to share stories highlighting contributions women have made to the biodiversity sciences. Learn more: https://s.si.edu/hernaturalhistory


No one ever starts gardening either too late or too early, once it gets into one’s blood it can never get out (like some insidious poison)
— Beatrix Farrand writing a letter to her friend Dorothy Elmhirst (qtd. in Way)

Beatrix Farrand is remembered as one of the most accomplished landscape architects of the 20th century and for her prominent role in the founding of ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects (1899). Despite being remembered as a landscape architect, Farrand preferred the appellation “landscape gardener” finding it a better description of her work. Her preference of the term “gardener” over that of “architect” indicates Farrand’s view of the primacy of plants in her designs. Farrand translated her immense horticultural knowledge into complex designs, creating gardens and landscapes that enhanced the specific genius of a place. Her landscape designs are known for their picturesque qualities, naturalistic plantings, and measured rhythm of circulation.

These characteristics were central to Farrand’s success as a landscape gardener. Though equally essential to her success, other characteristics of her work like the shrewd ability with which Farrand formed her designs around ecological principles, rarely occupy the same forefront as the aesthetic qualities of her work. While Farrand’s work is often dismissed as purely visual naturalistic design, Thaisa Way, ASLA, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, believes her work “wasn’t just a visual style, but about using native plants and collections of plants to transfer habitats. Farrand used aesthetics to portray natural processes" (qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look”). Her process was scientific, but Betsy Anderson explains it was based in “experiment, not observational methodologies”(qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look”). Farrand “‘anticipated the role of science in landscape architecture’ by her willingness to partner with scientists and experiment with ecological design principles” (Green, “Fresh Look”).


East Garden

Reading about Farrand, it is hard not to notice the parallels between her life and that of Rachel (“Bunny”) Lambert Mellon. Both women are remembered for their love of plants, for their drive for perfection, and for their collections of plants and books. Both fashioned horticulture and garden design educations for themselves when their circumstances didn’t allow formal education. And further, both created designs for the East Garden at the White house, now known as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. Originally done in a patterned overlay of ornately shaped beds by Edith Roosevelt in 1904, Farrand was asked by Edith Wilson, the second wife of then President Woodrow Wilson, to designed a garden on the East Lawn. In 19XX, Jackie Kennedy asked Bunny Mellon to design a garden to replace that of Farrand. Images from whitehousemuseum.org


Considering this early marriage of experimentation and landscape design, Way considers Farrand a “transitional figure” in ecological design (qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look”). However, Farrand with rarely associated with the ecological design. There is a two-fold explanation to why this is, partly based in misreadings of landscape architecture’s history and partly based in gender bias.

In the early 20th century, there was ample cross pollination between ecology, horticulture, and landscape architecture. Using native plants to mimic naturally occurring ecologies was common practice; Farrand was not unique in bringing a strong horticultural background to her designs. This mode of praxis was largely replaced by modernism. Modernism of the early to mid-20th century exchanged robust native plantings for spacious lawns and sparse, sculptural plantings (often composed of exotic species).  

The 1960’s saw the rise of a more environmentally oriented class of designers. In 1969, along came Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature, advocating for his new, “rational, mechanical, scientific” design methodology based on ecological relationships (Way qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look"). Now, McHarg is often credited with “discovering” ecological design. There is a tendency to consider any landscape architecture preceding Design with Nature as “unscientific.” McHarg’s approach “‘dis-empower[ed] the scale of plants’ (and the women landscape architects who worked with them), so that ecological design could become a large-scale process that could be applied just about anywhere.” (Way qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look”).


Archives

East Garden Drawing.jpg

Towards the end of her career and after retiring, Farrand and her husband, Yale historian Max Farrand, began creating the Reef Point Arboretum at their home in Maine. Farrand amassed a remarkable collection of both living specimens and books on plants, landscape, and gardening. Mid twentieth century, Farrand realized the arboretum’s future was limited and made the drastic decision to destroy the buildings and the landscape, and to donate her collections to the CED at U.C. Berkeley. Indicative of her meticulous nature, Farrand preferred destroying Reef Point to leaving it to an uncertain future of potential disrepair and lackluster management. Image courtesy of CED Archives at U.C. Berkeley.


With the onset of this “new” age of ecological design, a “real knowledge of plants and native planting design fell out of favor, being viewed as “feminizing the profession.” (Green, “Fresh Look”). Farrand’s legacy is subject to this bias, but also to broader gender bias. Female contributions to the sciences have long been marginalized, silenced, and forgotten. Narratives that endure have been subject to distortion, with women’s contributions to the sciences being criticized or trivialized. Michael Van Valkenburgh, ASLA, is restoring and expanding Farrand’s original designs at Princeton University. As he delves deep into research, studying whatever documents, plans, photos, and accounts of the design he can find, he has come to the conclusion that Farrand organized the campus around ecology. Farrand employed a “trial and error approach,” trying out plants and trees here and there (qtd. In Green, “In the Shadow”). Van Valkenburgh explains while in her day, this experimental approach could have been considered “ding-batty” by sexist critics who saw this as not conforming to the field, that this practice was ultimately important and had big rewards (qtd. In Green, “In the Shadow”). Way argues that Farrand’s designs, like those of other women at the turn of the 20th century, weren’t just “focused on aesthetics” but “offered important approaches that experimented with adoption and adaptation to ecological values” (qtd. In Green, “Fresh Look”). Farrand was an innovative and responsive designer who achieved what many landscape architects aspire to today -- a perfect marriage of art and science.

Farrand is remembered as an exceptional landscape architect. Despite landscape architecture being full of accomplished and innovative female designers, Farrand often stands alone amongst a sea of heralded men. It is important to acknowledge that the biases that influenced Farrand’s career and legacy were likely far worse for other female landscape architects without her celebrity, connections, and access to clients. Nonetheless, countless women contributed to advancing landscape design and the natural sciences despite these biases and significant barriers. Way’s book, Unbounded Practice, is a great resource for anyone interested in the early profession of landscape architecture and the many women botanists, landscape gardeners, and landscape architects who shaped it.

To reconsider Farrand’s life and legacy is to re-frame both the scientific contributions of early landscape architecture and the immense contributions of women in the natural sciences. As such, we are particularly excited about the new documentary film “Beatrix Farrand’s American Landscapes,” from director Stephen Ives and horticulturist Anne Cleves Symmes. The film is set to premiere at the New York Botanical Garden the evening of March 15th. After the screening, Ives with join the film’s narrator, Lynden B. Miller and John Beardsley, the Dumbarton Oaks Director of Garden and Landscape Studies, in a conversation moderated by our very own Peter Crane. We look forward to the premiere and the opportunity to revisit Farrand’s work and legacy, along with those of other women in science.


Dumbarton Oaks

Many of Farrand’s 200 gardens and landscapes no longer exist; Dumbarton Oaks is a fortunate exemption. This remarkable landscape came into being when Farrand was hired by Mildred Bliss in 1921 to “design a mix of formal and informal terraced garden rooms on steeply graded farmland” (Dumbarton Oaks). For the next 19 years, Farrand worked collaboratively with Bliss to create a series of garden rooms. In 1941, Harvard acquired Dumbarton Oaks at the same time Farrand was winding down her career. Owing to both these factors, Farrand penned a Plant Book for Dumbarton Oaks . The Plant Book is both a landscape narrative and a care manual. In rigorous detail, Farrand walks readers through the landscape, describing her design intentions in scrupulous detail. She lays out her rationale for plant choices and provides direction for future pruning and planting. Photos courtesy of The Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library at Penn State.


Sources

Green, Jared. “Beatrix Farrand Gets a Fresh Look.” THE DIRT, The American Society of Landscape Architects, 11 Mar. 2013, dirt.asla.org/2013/03/11/beatrix-farrand-gets-a-fresh-look/.

Green, Jared. “In the Shadow of Farrand.” THE DIRT, The American Society of Landscape Architects, 13 Mar. 2013, dirt.asla.org/2013/03/13/in-the-shadow-of-farrand/.

Way, Thaïsa. Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century. University of Virginia Press, 2013.