Between Nature and Culture

As part of a celebration of a century of the teaching of landscape architecture at Harvard, a large gathering at the School of Design considered how Holliston, Massachusetts, deals with its wastewater. Like most American towns, Holliston is engineered to regard rain water as waste and get it out of town as expeditiously as possible. But as we pave more and more of the countryside--interfering with the natural cycle of water evaporating from land and returning to it as rain--a town sewer system devised to dewater an entire region may be wrongheaded.

At a two-day symposium at the school on "water-sensitive ecological planning and design," Robert Zimmerman, director of the Charles River Watershed Association, described a study his organization had done for Holliston that predicted a marked improvement in the volume of available water if wastewater were piped to a certain part of town two to three miles away from the aquifer and put into the ground, instead of being given the bum's rush. Analysts determined which undeveloped parts of town had soils that would be good at getting water back into the aquifer, and thus were able to suggest which land the town should buy defensively and, conversely, where it could allow development. Another speaker mindful of water said that children should be taught their house address, their school address, and their watershed address. (There are 27 watersheds in Massachusetts.) Others suggested that towns and counties as political units are all very well, but much can be said for the watershed as an organizing principle because, for example, what happens in Holliston near the head of the Charles matters to Cambridge, at its mouth.

Consideration of such matters was perfectly appropriate as part of the centennial because landscape architecture is not some sort of elevated gardening, but a discipline that mediates between nature and culture, as John Beardsley '74, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture, puts it. "In several senses, landscape architecture lies at the frontiers of culture," he declares. "Combining elements of architecture and sculpture with the natural sciences, it struggles with the environmental, social, technological, and artistic challenges that increasingly characterize our era." Instead of planning the grounds of a Newport mansion, today's landscape architect may fashion a new use for an abandoned industrial site, rehabilitating toxic soils and foul water to recall a world uncorrupted by neglect and pollution.

The centenary began with the symposium on water in February, was followed by two special lectures in March, and concluded in April with a weekend of lectures, discussion sessions, and exhibitions looking backward and forward at the profession, and with the award of a medal to Hideo Sasaki, M.L.A. '48, chairman of the department from 1958 to 1968.

The history of landscape architecture at Harvard "cannot be categorized by a simple snapshot or a single encapsulating phrase," notes George Hargreaves, M.L.A. '79, the San Francisco-based chair of the department, for it requires "tracing the ebbs and flows of taste, ideology, economics, even global politics." That history involves some firsts. The course inaugurated by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., A.B. 1894, and Arthur S. Shurcliff in 1900 was the nation's first professional course in landscape architecture. In 1924 the faculty began to offer the degree of master of landscape architecture in city planning, the first U.S. program of its kind.

"Given the accelerated pace of environmental change, continued population growth, the chronic shortage of open space in urban areas, and the need to restore derelict environments, the physical and conceptual challenges to landscape architecture will only continue to mount," Beardsley observes. He hopes that in the century to come landscape architects will secure "an increasingly prominent role in the creation of symbolically significant public environments that aspire to be environmentally responsible and socially equitable."


You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

An Authentic Act

Basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith navigates players’ gender and sexual identity, mental health, and other challenging social issues.

Mass Audubon Ushers in the Spring

Exploring nature through Mass Audubon

Blindspot: A Novel

History professor Jill Lepore is the coauthor, with Jane Kamensky, of the historical novel Blindspot, set in colonial Boston.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults