At Long Last, Landscape Design Witnesses a Renaissance

Tom Lockett remembers how his ambition to be a professional golfer led to his love of landscape design.

"When I came to terms with the realization that I'd never be another Jack Nicklaus, I discovered that the many hours I'd spent on the El Centro golf course in my youth had fired up a passion for the beauty of a well-ordered landscape," he said. "Walking the greens gave me a feeling for nature subtly altered by design."

Recent Changes

Though he may have been seduced into a love of landscape architecture by walking the greens, Lockett now designs urban environments rather than golf courses. And now, after 18 years of professional practice and as program head of the UCLA Extension landscape architecture department, his experience reflects the radical changes that have occurred in recent years in the ancient art of landscape architecture.

Long architecture's neglected handmaidens, landscape architects rapidly are becoming major partners in the planning and design of cities and suburbs. They help organize projects from inception, integrating architecture and the urban street-scape into a seamless whole.

"In the 1970s, when I started in practice, landscape architects were thought of primarily as 'landscapers'--a sort of fancy garden expert," Lockett said. "We were called in during the last stages of a design, usually by the architect, to fill in the leftover spaces around the outside of buildings. Now we're an integral part of the design team."

The widening range of landscape architecture's scope is illustrated in the UCLA Extension Landscape Architecture Student Show scheduled Friday through Sunday at Colorado Place in Santa Monica.

The four-year UCLA course, leading to a professional designation certificate recognized by the California State Board of Landscape Architects, trains students in every aspect of the modern profession, from traditional garden layouts to urban design and large-scale project planning. The course counts toward the six years of training and experience required to become a state-licensed landscape architect.

In their first year, students research and design a classical garden in Spanish, Italian, Moorish or English styles. One sculpture garden shown in the exhibition explores the many manifestations of water, from its liquid form through solid shapes as ice and the gaseous vapor of steam.

By the fourth year, students--trained in computer-aided design and construction management as well as the traditional disciplines of horticulture and hydrology--tackle problems as complex as the planning of an urban boulevard or an entire suburban subdivision.

Studies of Van Nuys Boulevard on display in the student show grapple with a problem at the heart of contemporary urban design: How to integrate the private realm of buildings with the public realm of the sidewalk and the street to create a humane environment.

'Gives Life to City'

"Landscape design gives life to the city," said landscape architect Emmet Wemple, former head of the USC landscape architecture course. "We help fit all the bits and pieces together--the buildings, streets and public spaces--by marrying the 'hardscape' of architecture with the 'softscape' of people and their social patterns."

Wemple's statement reflects the new emphasis in landscape architecture, but the sentiment is far from new. A century ago, Charles Eliot, an American landscape architect, declared that "Landscape does not consist in arranging trees, shrubs, borders, lawns, ponds, bridges, fountains, paths . . . to produce a picturesque effect. It is rather the fitting of landscape to human use and enjoyment."

A Title With History

The title landscape architect dates in the United States to 1863. Famed designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out Manhattan's Central Park and the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles, rejected the then-current designation of "landscape gardener" to give the fledgling profession more prestige.

Olmsted and a dozen associates founded the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899 in New York City. Today the group has 10,000 members in 47 chapters. In California, the designation landscape architect has been reserved for qualified professionals by state law since 1954.

In Olmsted's day, landscape architecture and civic design were intertwined. Olmsted's urban concepts influenced the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful movement, which inspired the design of towns like Pasadena.

But in the early- to mid-20th Century landscape architecture and civic design were split apart by the rise of the new profession of city planning. As planners proceeded with grandiose post-World War II urban renewal projects that devastated the downtowns of many American cities, specialization replaced integration--to the great cost of the quality of the urban environment.

Now the split is being healed. Today, a landscape architect may be the first design professional consulted by a developer or a public agency contemplating a new project.

"We are increasingly asked to do a lot of the initial imaging in a proposed development," Lockett said. "In my private practice, for instance, I was recently approached by a developer to lay out a new subdivision in Los Alamos, near Santa Maria. Desiring to emphasize the overall street-scape character of the subdivision, rather than the individual architectural expression, the developer came to us first, as the primary designer."

An integral part of this initial imaging was a program of community consultation. Lockett, like many landscape architects, finds himself increasingly called upon to explain concepts of an urban design to local residents, who may be hostile to any new development in their neighborhood.

Sensitive Issues

Landscape architects are sensitive to the fact that people want to have a hand in designing their neighborhoods. They know they want to share favorite social memories, images and values with the professionals and see those qualities manifested in the finished landscape.

While some, more conservative architects resist the rise in the landscape designer's status, the more enlightened ones welcome the collaboration.

Los Angeles architect Barton Myers, recently chosen in a national competition to design the U.S. pavilion at the 1992 Seville World's Fair, included Emmet Wemple in his winning design team. "Architecture is about making spaces, and landscape architects are experts in creating outdoor spaces," Myers said. "As our concern for the urban quality of life increases, especially in public spaces, the landscape architect's contribution is crucial."

Landscape architecture's widening role and increasing variety of scope is attracting a broad range of new entrants to the profession. Among the UCLA course's 120 students, ages 25 to 50, are former developers, mortgage bankers, graphic artists, business managers, engineers and lawyers.

Scott Whitaker, a student and professional classical singer, said he entered the UCLA course to "help achieve a more pleasant landscape for society, especially in the city." The course heightened his awareness of the way people can enhance or diminish the quality of their surroundings. "It made me realize how much I prefer to be a friend to the city, not its adversary," he said.

Lockett rejoices that all the building design disciplines, from interior designers to architects to planners to landscape architects, are beginning to work together as a real team.

"At last everybody in the band is playing from the same sheet of music," he said. "And the symphony is sweet."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World