Landscape architecture is a very much under-appreciated art.
Yet, great landscapes have all the same power as great buildings do to sway the feelings of people who view them, enter them and move through them.
You can see that through the end of this month in an exhibit at the 937 Gallery, Downtown, of some of the awesomely creative and rigorously disciplined designs of Dan Kiley (1912-2004) — who was among the two or three most influential landscape architects of the last half of the 20th century.
That you probably don’t recognize Kiley’s name is exactly the point.
Among knowledgeable designers, he is easily as important as some of the architects he worked with — like Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn and I.M. Pei, all names well-known to many. But this traveling exhibit was put together by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., last year because there has been too little public recognition of Kiley’s accomplishments.
Significantly, you may well have walked — unaware — through several of Kiley’s designs. There are two Kiley works in Pittsburgh — the Katz Plaza adjacent to Pittsburgh Public Theater and the sculpture garden at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.
His most frequently seen design, though, is probably the landscaping of the 91-acre park around the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Another is his campus design for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He also did the original landscaping for Lincoln Center in New York City and for Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., although these latter two designs have been altered over the years.
Kiley was a “modernist,” and that’s as important a distinction in landscape design as it is in architecture. He dropped out of the landscape architecture program at Harvard in the 1930s because it was too hidebound at the time.
Then, while in the Army Corps of Engineers in Europe from 1943 to ’45, he had the chance to see many of the most famous landscapes in Europe. He was particularly impressed by the work of Andre Le Notre, the 17th-century Frenchman who was most noted for the Palace of Versailles, where he produced a large-scale and rationally ordered landscape out of what had been wild hunting grounds.
This appreciation of rational order in landscape design never left Kiley, and that became obvious in his works. In a sense, he used modern material and forms to create compositions that were almost classical in their rationality. In this sense, he was like Mies van der Rohe, one of the leading architects of the past century.
At Katz Plaza, for example, closely clipped linden trees create a very dense U-shape frame around the half-acre public space, with low, clipped hedges defining the other spaces. This rigorously rectilinear design is then relieved by the amazing sculptures of Louise Bourgeois — including “eyeball” benches and an impressive free-form fountain. Bourgeois and Kiley worked together to develop their complementary designs.
It is particularly hard to define a space on an urban corner, as at Katz Plaza. There’s too much chance that the visual space will, in effect, leak out to the street. Kiley’s dense lindens, with the “U” opening to Penn Avenue, were exactly the right solution for this site.
At the sculpture garden at the Carnegie, Kiley again used all straight lines, but he angled them as if to give perspective to the sculptures displayed there. Each angled section steps down to negotiate the change in elevation between the first floor of the museum and the parking area at the lower level. He used lines of light gravel to emphasize his angles within dark stone paving.
One of the issues the exhibit raises with its beautiful color photographs of Kiley’s work concerns the impermanence of landscapes. They change considerably over time as plantings mature and grow old, and, perhaps because of that ephemerality, they are not as well protected as landmark buildings.
Yet, they need to be.
They may be living works of art, but they are still works of art. Careful maintenance, and above all, the sensitive and informed replacement of overly mature plantings is important.
Kiley did lots of private gardens along with public spaces. Fortunately, his most notable private garden, for the Irwin Miller estate in Columbus, Ind., is in the hands of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and is open to the public for tours. This 13-acre garden surrounds a house designed by Eero Saarinen for Miller, who was the head of Cummins Engine — the big diesel-engine maker headquartered in that city. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect melding of a modern house and modern garden than Saarinen and Kiley accomplished there.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.