On Seeing

Reformed by modernist principles, picturesque landscapes unite human experience to nature’s phenomena, writes Gary Hilderbrand.

In the early morning light of a photograph taken by Alan Ward in the summer of 2010, a canopy of cedar elms hovers over a pavilion, a swimming pool, and gently graded lawn terraces. The image was made on the bank of Upper Bachmann Creek in Dallas, Texas, on a six-acre property where Philip Johnson designed a house in 1964 for Henry S. and Patricia Beck. When Doug Reed and I first visited this site in 2003, the spatial power of these trees was barely visible. Fully engulfed in a tangle of two species of Ligustrum—one shrublike, growing up to twelve feet in height, the other with three-inch trunks reaching nearly twenty feet—the land was virtually impenetrable. For perhaps two decades, an aging Mrs. Beck had neglected portions of her property east of the creek and benignly allowed nature to run its course. More than a hundred volunteer cedar elms and a handful of other trees, including several Texas live oaks and a single giant cottonwood, had formed a canopy that merged with comparably overgrown woodlands on either side of the parcel. We saw a degraded, illegible landscape.

Philip Johnson’s Beck House, south facade, before renovations. © Hester + Hardaway

Mrs. Beck sold the property in 2002 to a young Dallas family of four, and the new owners committed to a massive project to rescue and reinhabit Johnson’s house and to recover health and functionality for the landscape. Over a seven-year period, we transformed this patch of emergent forest through a set of operations and practices whose evidence is sometimes visible, often obscured. Recapturing a space for family life and for the display of sculpture necessitated significant disturbance and successive rehabilitation efforts: removing dozens of the poorest trees and preserving the most viable; opening up the canopy to improve light and air; eliminating invasive plant species; correcting drainage and soil structure; reinforcing and replanting the stream bank; and establishing several kinds of grassland and prairie and groundcover crops.

Today the tree canopy delimits a restful space—an extended shady grove—populated by the dispersed and irregular gray trunks of the preserved cedar elms. Most of these trees would be poor specimens on their own; they are a unified crop of survivors, managed back to good health and collectively shaping a newly found space of extensive horizontal and vertical reach. Ulmus crassifolia, the cedar elm, is a tough and adaptable plant that thrives in the soils of creek banks and upland slopes. The tree propagates readily from seed distributed by birds; its roots readily adapt to irregular terrain or obstacles, and in unmanaged conditions, as in Mrs. Beck’s floodplain and uplands, individuals can coexist only a few feet apart. Over time, canopies merge with each other in a battle for light and space; through competition, the trees adventitiously twist and swirl in shape, and this results in a calligraphic silhouette of thrusting, pointing branches.

Ellsworth Kelly, Briar, 1961, black ink on woven paper, 22 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches, gift of Samuel Wagstaff in memory of Elva McCormick, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT/ Art Resource, New York

Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings, produced over an entire career, capture the particular form and habit of plant anatomy.

The space beneath the canopy already existed here, though it wasn’t easy to see; in simple terms, we unleashed it from an uninhabitable thicket. Inserting a system of concrete risers made it possible to preserve the cedar elms while also creating level spaces for family activities and sculpture platforms. We installed nearly 4,000 feet of these linear grade breaks; they range from single curbs to aggregated sets spread broadly or stacked vertically as steps. The concrete piles that support them keep the riser elevations stable against the swelling and shrinking of the soil; the concrete occasionally bridges over masses of elm root at differential elevations, so as to not disturb critical anchoring or feeding functions.

Behind these precisely accentuated stepping grades lies a complex unseen project to devise a topographic system that would be complementary to Johnson’s house but expressive of other design motivations. This work involved balancing existing and proposed grades with real precision; testing and prototyping several configurations of concrete beams and piers; excavating the soils by machine, hand, and pressurized air; forming, curing, and finishing concrete; and rebuilding a landscape surface. This system structures and supports an equally obscured yet vital living dynamic: rooting networks, moisture retention and drainage, and an organically induced soil ecology that promotes nutrient cycling for sustaining growth and maturation. The space beneath the canopy is deceptively simple yet resolutely complex; the means to recover and sustain it are partly evident, mostly unseen.


Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. —Jonathan Swift

Observers have said, generally by way of praise, that our firm’s work looks somehow inevitable—that qualities one may see in a project seem to reflect a distilled, resonant fit with particular conditions of a site. As if there were no other plausible answer—or, that we just make it look easy. It’s not.

At the Beck House, reserved and understated qualities in our work are undeniable and fully intended. We usually aim for that: an edited, essential spatial order, which emphasizes characteristics—obvious or latent—a site may already possess, or which allows for the more palpable experience of selected and specific qualities that derive from the site’s geography, microclimate, orientation, or configuration. We pursue this result from a belief in the power of design to turn ordinary characteristics into extraordinary experiences. We also seek it through an unapologetic attachment to the observable phenomena of nature—light, shade, color, scent, moisture, warmth and energy, growth and decay, seasonal change, maturation, senescence—coupled with a drive to make those phenomena apparent by allowing certain characters to come forward.

We often operate in venerated and mature landscapes, but we also work on sites that undergo substantial turbulence—for instance, along the shore of the Hudson River (1), the site for Long Dock Park—or that have been under valued or degraded, as in former factory site (2) in Somerville, Edward Leathers Community Park.

I know I speak for my colleagues in the firm when I say that a good measure of our approach to design comes in response to the commotion and disarray of everyday built landscape—out of an explicit desire to bring order and clarity to the experience of the complex and vibrant world out there. Too often, we see a cluttered and chaotic landscape. For whatever reasons, many landscapes—whether shaped by property owners, managers, gardeners, architects, or landscape architects—seem to us overwrought, not adequately studied, and undisciplined. They often feel complicated or overdesigned, with too much stuff filling the space or troubling the view. Against this tendency toward either design absence or design excess, we strive for assiduously studied, unambiguous, and precisely framed intentions—clarity—when we give shape to a slope or plant trees on a street.

While much of what we do in landscape architecture is inherently abstract—our maps and drawings and digital technologies of course employ many levels of abstraction—in our practice we seek another, deeper kind of reduction in our plans for altering landscapes. We aim to conceptualize. We look for logics. We never decorate. Here it is useful to invoke Robert Motherwell’s reference to Abstract Expressionism as “an art stripped bare” whereby a “reduction of means brings emphasis” to spatial relationships and allows the intensification of selective characteristics to emerge . We try to narrow parameters and to find a reduced and particular essence in each project. This always involves a joining of reason and intuition: to understand what’s there, decide what should remain, imagine what can or must be made anew, and invest deliberately and with full force in a few—not many—aspects of appearance and function in the landscape. Though most of what we face in design commissions rises from complicated circumstances, we try to boil things down. We put great stock in Constantin Brancusi’s explicit modernist axiom: “Simplicity is complexity resolved.”

In the normal course of conceptualizing and developing projects of all kinds, we organize the obvious things—movement systems and corridors, building sites, earthwork, drainageways, plantations—with practical deliberateness. Sometimes, we purposefully differentiate the work through contrast against areas where we exert no control. Other times, our work more fully integrates with its context, to the degree that its limits or edges intentionally obscure distinctions and emphasize continuities with existing surroundings. Often, our intentions about the potentially expressive qualities of a place—whether sober or effusive—may be the focus of the work itself: You may not comprehend exactly what’s been done, but it appears as though things have been selectively exaggerated, or reduced to essentials, or refined to the point of economy and clarity. Is it important that you see the intention in the work? Has it moved beyond the visible?

Invisible Field

The inadequacy of prediction brings recurring perplexity to landscape architecture. Some of the more ephemeral characteristics of our medium conflict with the impulse to bring highly ordered experience to an irregular world. We work more or less by rearranging earthen matter and plants and moisture so that they can coexist productively with human occupation. The natural tendency of these media moves them toward entropy; dynamic processes, unmanaged, constantly build and erode matter and structure. The change we bring to a landscape is not a singular event; it’s perpetual. The photographs in this book are the only proof you need: the momentary status we capture in pictures establishes a record of great importance to us, but as a static representation the photograph reveals its own inability to capture the phenomena of growth or adaptation that define the medium.

Arguments that the field itself is invisible—and refutations—are plentiful. These and other anxieties have troubled landscape architecture, in part because of nature’s reluctance to be managed or controlled by any single (or even concerted) force, and in part because it’s not easy to identify dependable boundaries prescribing authority or expertise. This familiar discussion provokes recurring questions about the medium’s dynamic (ecological) material existence and the breadth of its expressive potential; the work’s unseen technical or tectonic sophistication; and the world of motivations behind the ideas in the work. These days it seems everyone works on the landscape, and enormous and ultimately productive overlaps exist among professionals in urbanism, architecture, environmental planning, infrastructure, ecosystem restoration, garden making, sculptural or media installation, and other modes of practice. These allied disciplines see the opportunities in landscape with comparable interest and authority, and the territory is there for the taking. Landscape architects may find themselves everywhere and nowhere: plenty of varied and diverse commissions on every conceivable scale, with no consensus about theories of practice or ethical frameworks or values that lend cultural authority or relevance to landscape work. But this may be changing.

Robert Smithson, Non-site (Palisades-Edgewater, NJ), 1968 enamel on aluminum with stones, 56 x 26 x 36 inches, and map and description of site, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchased with funds from Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc. Art © Estate of Robert Smithson / Licensed ny VAGA, New York.
We often operate in venerated and mature landscapes, but we also work on sites that undergo substantial turbulence—for instance, along the shore of the Hudson RIver (1), the site for Long Dock Park—or that have been under valued or degraded, as in former factory site (2) in Somerville, Edward Leathers Community Park.

Today, we work in an expanded field where the economic and social questions on sustainability—quite familiar for landscape architecture—are inescapable in all corners of life. The kinds of commissions and collaborations we pursue today—recovering a poisoned riverfront wasteland, reconstituting a viable public realm in a changing urban neighborhood, devising methods for improved performance and sustainability of the tree canopy in a city—bring with them familiar kinds of problems amid overlapping professional territories.

In truth, I relish the varied intellectual traditions that shape an evolving if ambiguous space for landscape architecture. In our practice, we see benefits in the lack of clear boundaries. Today’s discourse on the importance of ecology and sustainability in remaking our world at every scale amplifies concerns we have held for a long time. This broadening conversation leads to vastly diverse kinds of assignments and programs—gardens and sanctuaries, redevelopment sites, parking and transit facilities, artworks, botanical and agricultural plots, rivers and ditches, boardwalks and busy streets, toxic spoils, healthy forests, waterfronts, homes, schools. Landscape architecture’s disciplinary frame has been described as chronically vague and somewhat beyond the view of art historians and cultural critics. And again, it seems up for grabs. For us, that is no burden. Rather, it gives us entrée to the broadest range of commissions and moves us to constantly reconfirm our foundations.

Robert Smithson’s Non-site projects brought nature’s evidence into the gallery. Later, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Near Rozel Point, Utah, 1970, made the actions of natural phenomena become more completely the subject of a work.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park anticipated dramatic contrasts between the built fabric of the city and the natural forces of the park.

Made Visible

No words cut through the predicament of landscape architecture’s invisibility more succinctly than Robert Smithson’s contention that the landscape is “already there.” Smithson recognized that landscape is commonly, perhaps inescapably, seen as a background condition and a thing already made. His brilliant artistic practice pushed him to think otherwise. Having awakened to the striking reality of the constructed landscape of New York’s Central Park, he turned for answers to an historical authority—the park’s manager, designer, and vociferous advocate, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Smithson’s eventual recognition of the awesome power of the landscape as a medium, and his eloquent paean to Olmsted’s record of intentions and struggles, drove him to foreground the landscape in his own work. In this he formulated a kind of postmodern artist’s zealous polemic: make content visible.

Olmsted appropriated the rock and soil of Manhattan as his medium—a working material we can describe as encompassing both nature and city. Though he embedded it, perhaps invisibly, in a constructed, sometimes pastoral scenography, he believed the physical landscape of the park to be central to a radically conceived mechanism of urban political and social reform. For Olmsted and a handful of other nineteenth-century reformers, parks became organic infrastructures for improving public health in the face of substandard living conditions. In his view, the scale and the corrective potential of these reforms were limited only by a lack of political will or ambition. He pushed against institutional inertia with all his force. Sometimes he succeeded. No less pointedly, the artist Smithson flailed against an entrenched patronage system that exploited by commodifying artistic production and privileging gallery owners and traders over its producers. Smithson determined to take his work to a place curators could not control: the landscape. In doing so he forged an art whose visible, temporal characteristics were inseparable from experience—exactly as he had seen Olmsted’s work to be. While these two men were separated by a gulf of one hundred years, we discern shared motives: by working explicitly with landscape, both asked the world to rethink the foundations of nature and art and to make the constructed world more visible.

Robert Smithson published a photograph of the Central Park steps carved in Manhattan schist in his essay on Olmsted’s relevance to his own work. © Smudge Studio
The Half-Mile Line boardwalk, in western Massachusetts, objectifies a fixed linear trace against an irregular and fluctuating dendritic drainage pattern

Like Olmsted, Smithson sought an audience for his larger agenda. He cleverly yoked his exposure machine—art journals and catalogues—to the scholarly rehabilitation of Olmsted’s career that was emerging in the 1960s and that gained in prominence during the 1970s. By embedding detailed observations on the landscape of New York’s Central Park in a body of descriptions of his own art, and by chronicling adaptations he could see layered on top of the park’s original constructions, Smithson broadened his reach and earned the attention of cultural critics, urban theorists, and landscape architects. He opened the door for apprehension once again—landscape architects, it seems, had almost forgotten—of the possibilities of using landscape as a medium of meaningful expression and an instrument of cultural relevance. In doing so, he increased our awareness of the physical and cultural forces that Olmsted had grasped. He demonstrated ever more clearly the forces of geomorphology, hydrology, weather, and decay. Smithson conceptualized the landscape and made concrete its phenomenological possibilities. Landscape architecture would reclaim this territory soon after, and a revitalized discourse would emerge from overlaps between his work and that of others who argued for the landscape’s primacy.

If we accept Smithson’s assertion that a landscape work, to be meaningful, must be situated in a wider geography (or history, or spatiality, or ecology), the problem becomes how to contextualize it, and whether, or how, to differentiate it from its background. How can we recognize the work? The answer may differ each time we pose the question. With landscape, and within a landscape discipline, one never lays eyes on a tabula rasa; what we do as designers at every scale is seen against, or potentially absorbed by, something larger, something already under way. Whether one objectifies a living work against its dynamic (even ephemeral) context, as Smithson did with his Spiral Jetty, may be a matter of circumstance, but is always a matter of conviction. It inevitably involves choice.

Paul Cezanne, Still Life (Nature morte), 1892-1894, oil on canvas, 24 3/4x36 3/8 inches, image © 2012 The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.

Cezanne’s still life paintings and landscapes explored innumerable ways of seeing a subject

The work of our firm embraces this visible/invisible duality and enlarges upon it. Like Smithson, we formulate a nuanced and particularized reading of a site’s circumstance, from among many possible readings, and then make plans to act on what is already there—partly visible, portions not. Our actions range from subtle renovation and editing to more ambitious exaggeration of the living forces or particular characteristics we choose to foreground. Over time, and throughout our work, we are conscious of preoccupations that focus our attention and bring satisfaction and constant challenge. These include a recognizably modernist compulsion toward abstracted, open, and flexible spatial organization; a fascination with grading and the affective range that comes with altering and exaggerating the shape of the ground; a drive for orders, logics, patterns, and occasionally frictions that make our ways of shaping space and experience legible; a love of the plant kingdom and its vast expressive potential; a commitment to the stewardship of cultural patrimony and the conservation of the biophysical resources significant in the landscapes we inherit; and a passion for mining those particular qualities we see and feel in a given site. In this, we’ve evolved a kind of practice that produces both coherence and invention: constant obsessions, changing circumstances.


The work at the Beck House on Upper Bachmann Creek carries on today, long after construction, in the form of stewardship. Several times each year, we review growing conditions and make adjustments to canopy, understory, ground plane, soil, and moisture, as the landscape settles in. Assumptions we made on the acclimation of new plants and the renewed vigor of elms and pecans hold up, for the most part, but challenges abound in a landscape of this scale. Though it is not often acknowledged, all constructed and managed landscapes require adjustment. The evidence of stress is often but not always visible; the work of adjusting and adapting takes place on many levels—including, increasingly, on the hidden level of managing microorganism activity in the soil. A landscape grows, and we continue to shape its development toward something resembling that spatial and ecological outcome we imagined a few years ago. Or close to it.

So we approach our work with a kind of double vision: seeing and seeing beyond. Seeing sites for what they are and for what they might become. Imagining growth and time unfolding ahead of us. Our work in cultivated and urbanizing landscapes brings sharpness to things you can see, uncovers and reveals things you otherwise wouldn’t, obscures things we choose to suppress in favor of those we foreground, and refers to things you may know about but could never see from one perspective. What you can see, and by extension what you perceive as lived experience on a site, is the tangible, reduced, edited, straightforward reality we build, a kind of baseline of seeing and knowing. But it’s never that easy, despite common observations to the contrary. What you don’t see in a landscape relates to a telescoping interest that takes in many realms and scales that conspire to lend meaning to the work. It consists, in varied proportions, of what came before, what’s beneath the surface, and what’s behind the shapes or patterns, below the horizon, past the view, beyond our capacity to see. It relates to conditions and habits of mind that may be objective, subjective, rational, poetic, or just practical and obvious. And it is subject to adaptations that will unfold in time in a partly managed, partly random future. It extends to and embraces the invisible.

Let me return to the most provoking and potent aspect of the invisible in our work: the indeterminate; the future. I want to see all the work we’ve completed until now—the situations, processes, alterations, errors, and successes—as a kind of foundation or platform from which to operate that anticipates where we might go and prepares us for new things. Because every landscape intervention creates a kind of disturbance of biological forces and relationships, we take risks in reshaping or restarting landscapes; yet we can only operate from a place where speculation and conjecture evolve from the certainty of conviction. Much about a landscape’s future is unknown, and we can only guide so much. Here I’m reminded of what has been described as Paul Cezanne’s “anxiety of realization,” something that plagued him interminably: the knowledge that the final executed work—for him, the painting—could realize but one possibility, perhaps an unjustifiably privileged one amid countless possible answers and limitless scenarios . How many ways could I paint this? The difficulty of settling on a color or shape or a perspective angle in the two-dimensional representation of nature became Cezanne’s paralyzing struggle. But this same affliction led to the accumulation of a great treasure for humanity. Ultimately it provoked the early twentieth century’s most substantive inquiries into the formal, optical, and phenomenal characteristics of our contemporary world. It provided many of the defining motives for generations of artists who followed Cezanne, perhaps in skeptical admiration, embracing the same probing inquiry and comparably challenging experimental ambition.

I identify with Cezanne’s anxiety, to be sure: how to frame the questions, how to pursue the work? How to grab hold of the landscape? Which conditions to foreground, which to suppress? These are the questions we ask ourselves in project reviews in the office or in meetings with collaborators. But I know we can use our techniques and beliefs to turn problems of use or condition or ecological imbalance, or the need for correctives (which is where projects generally originate) into healthy living works that can prosper and endure. Approaching new and more complex sets of problems with familiar obsessions and anxieties—that entails a degree of emotional or professional security, rooted in knowledge, coupled with doubt, unpredictability, and risk. And at times, a dose of Cezanne’s personal terror. The landscape is bigger than us. We alter its substance and its processes, and it grows back at us with force. We can’t see exactly how, but we know it will. We come to embrace a certain image. Is it right?

What is essential is invisible to the eye.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The subjectivity of the landscape, the unseen and unrealized, remains a potent motivation for us. It requires of us, in the formulation of the philosopher John Dewey, that our preparation, our outlook, our habit of mind, is “not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation” through study and iteration, reflection, experimentation, and action. Never static. Never entirely in view. As often as not, invisible.

This essay was originally published in Visible | Invisible: The Landscape Works of Reed Hilderbrand (Metropolis Books, 2012).

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October 2014