Observations of (and from) Contemporary Landscape (1986)

© Peter Boxer, Main entrance to André Perry studios, Morin Heights, Quebec, spring 1985
Graham, Robert. (1986). Observations of (and from) Contemporary Landscape. Parachute, 44, pp. 42-44. Retrieved from https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3645274

As a professional group, landscape architects and designers are among the most conser­vative and least expected to display in their work that potential for critical thought which aids the negotiation of history. An archaic in­terest in gardening or non-agricultural cultiva­tion represents a quietist or reclusive urge — “tending to your own garden” is the very motto of a retiring privatism, while Nietzche identified and posited the garden as a social space antinomous to the flux and chaos of the market­ place.

Actual landscaping requires the possession or control of an area of cultivable land not needed for food production or otherwise assigned clear purpose, which is removed from direct utility or neglect and transformed into a recreational ter­rain in which the elements of nature are arrang­ed and composed to provide visual delight, educational uplift and leisurely activity.

The dominance of the governing horticultural traditions, usually delineated along national historical lines and showing the most languid evolutionary pace, makes for a perception of landscaping as an irrelevant and anachronistic public discourse. Occasional threats to limited urban green spaces sometimes pro­vokes a spirited defence of trees, but the pro­ test is often based more on the desire to preserve a present “quality of life,” which the trees serve, than a concern for the fate of some vital, but anonymous bush. 1 The individual amateur’s cultivation of plants and flowers is a fine and harmless thing, but is not normally regarded, outside the circle of participants, as especially serious.

Yet landscaping occurs at a major boundary position. As a cultural activity in which natural elements and forces are employed and directed in concert with human intentions, landscaping should, in its historical expression, indicate the changing terms of that primal division between ourselves and the earth we inhabit.

Both residents of those ancient mountains north of Montreal, the Laurentians (a natural address), Tom Shively and Peter Boxer are two contemporary landscapers whose works have been shaped and informed by modernist history and postmodernist developments. Though their practices differ, they do share an approach resembling that of the artist, as socio- psychological type, and which rests on the foundation of descriptive and taxonomic sciences combined with the insights of ecological process. Even when grounded in scientific observation and explanation, the pur­ pose of landscaping is to interfere with and enhance the terrain. The inauguration of a garden, as a patch of controlled growth, is an act of intervention which joins the ongoing con­flicts within the site. Shively and Boxer demonstrate ways in which a landscape can be designed and enjoyed as a multi-faceted com­munity of competing or collaborative elements.

The first stage and primary lesson of their method is the initial close and attentive reading given to the site. As Shively (following Ian McHarg) once wrote,

Each area of the earth (viewed at any scale) possesses its own distinctive qualities (in the Eighteenth century landscape tradition this was called Genius Loci), and that these qualities can be identified by combining the information available from various scientific disciplines: geology, climate, soils, vegetation, topography, hydrology, and zoology; as well as demographic information: aboriginal use, historic events, transportation routes, services, structures, etc.

For Shively, the organizing cross-discipline of all these disciplines is an horticulture as “ap­plied ecology” drawn up along the lines of Pierre Dansereau’s 1957 definition of bio­geography: a comprehensive ensemble of dis­ciplines which studies the “origin, distribution, adaptation, and association of plants and ani­mals.” 2 (Among the animals, of course, are humans.)

One of the basic implications of this framework for Shively’s work is a strong tendency to rely on indigenous plants, often scavenged locally. “Nurseries frequently say they’ve never heard of the plants I want; I just as frequently dig them up in the abandoned field next door.” By itself, the use of native growth is not radical — Jens Jensen, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, was renowned for his parks and gardens with their native flora in the American Midwest more than sixty years ago. Also, for practical reasons, native plants are often indicated as their demonstrated adaptation to local condi­tions suggests a proven hardiness and sur­vivability. Yet the choice marks a greater dif­ference than merely an expanded and more varied source of inventory. In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a report on the trees re­quired for his Central Park design:

A considerable importation of evergreens will probably be found inevitable. Our nurseries have extremely small stocks of a very great variety of evergreens, which some of the European nurseries keep on hand in much larger quantity, because they are required on precisely such oc­casions as this, in the planting of a garden or park of the first class, an undertaking much more common there than here, as well as by a class of wealthy amateurs, not yet found in the United States, who form collections of evergreens, or wintergardens in their private grounds. . .

It may be true that many of the varieties named in the European catalogues have no especially valuable qualities and that many of them are un­suited to our climate (though in most cases, this remains to be tested), but it is also true that with the addition of those which cannot be got here, the gardening artist has it in his power to pro­duce landscape effects with a degree of preci­sion and delicacy which without them it would be hopeless for him to attempt. 3

What this passage reveals is a number of at­titudes and pre-conceptions which continue to dominate landscape gardening. Among them is the identification of the garden as a collection of specimen varieties, in which the exotic (and often foreign) growth is given prominence in an hierarchy of desirability. The cachet of rarity and the skilful extraordinary measures needed to foster plants unfit for their surrounding come to define the garden as a combination of museum and laboratory. The “gardening artist” is described as someone overwhelmingly concerned with creating a visual, scenic result.

Trees and grounds are entirely subsumed as material for organized human sight, which, Duchamp, in painting, called the “retinal.” The reference to the evergreen wintergardens again points to the dominant visual bias in seeking a permanent appearance of fulness in the land­scaped scene.

Against this, consider one of Shively’s projects in which he had an empty field plowed under and then scattered upon it the seeds of wildflowers that he had gathered from assorted locations. The result was a concentrated collection of local wild varieties which changed throughout the summer. Besides inverting the hierarchy and celebrating common weeds, he was also organizing and demonstrating a sam­ple of that pioneer growth which illustrates the first of Dansereau’s Laws of Community Ad­justment (see box), the Law of Ecesis (the establishment of disseminules on an unoccupied site).

© Tom Shiveley, Thyme lawn for residence garden, St-Sauveur-des-Monts, Quebec, 1981


1. Law of Ecesis – The resources of an unoccupied environment will first be exploited by organisms with high tolerance and generally with low requirements.

2. Law of Succession – The same site will not be indefinitely held by the same plant community, because the physiographic agents and the plants themselves induce changes in the whole environ­ ment, and these allow other plants heretofore unable to invade to displace the present occupants.

3. Law of Persistence – Many plants, especially dominants of a community, are capable of surviving and maintaining their spatial position after their habitat and even the climate itself have ceased to favor full vitality.

4. Law of Climax – The processes of succession are not indefinite, for they tend to an equilibrium which is attained through a relay of controls.

5. Law of Differential Control – The climatic-topographic-edaphic-biological balance of forces results in an ultimate control which shifts from region to region.

Source: Pierre Dansereau, Biogeography: An Ecological Perspective (New York, 1957), p. 203.

The tendency to value evergreens for their winter foliage is not only visually biased, but shows an inability to appreciate the natural pro­cesses at work. The necessity of dormancy is not a condition to be resisted and overcome in the landscape plan, but to be acknowledged as contributing to the whole dynamic of seasonal change and the cyclical vitality of the site. The shed leaves and needles provide a ready mulch to suppress unwanted growth and the snow cover gives natural benefits and aesthetic ap­peal as landscape material. Shively’s gardens usually require low maintenance. This is partly because his plans retain the natural controls of competing species, but also his gardens in­clude the expectation of succession and un­ controlled development and a receptivity to that which a garden-in-being will bring forth. A domineering horticulture will be in constant struggle. For Shively, the knowledge of his science provides for a collaboration with natural partners against the forces of degrada­tion.

If we consider Tom Shively the classical moder­nist in the stringent rigour of his doctrine, then Peter Boxer is the post-modernist. Educated in the visual arts and music, Boxer was particular­ ly drawn to the aleatory aesthetic of John Cage, whose receptivity to the determinations of chance in shaping the results of his work is easily carried over to the landscaper’s accep­tance of natural caprice. Cage’s wandering mushroom hunts provide a model for experi­encing the forest as the source of all kinds of unanticipated delights. Surrounded by the Laurentian woods, both Shively and Boxer regularly invoke the wild growth of the local forest, especially in the use of assorted ferns as groundcover. Yet while Shively’s interest in the native and local is scientific and ecological, Boxer is addressing the matter more as a cultural exploration of people’s habits-of-mind concerning cultivated vegetation. Drawing attention to the plants at their feet, he provokes an awareness of the immediate surrounding and contests some thoughtlessly held horticultural preconceptions.

Like most architecture, landscaping is a com­mercial occupation which requires negotiation with a client who is providing as many limita­tions and restraints upon the designer as resources and opportunities. The discussion over the plan, the discourse of the plan, will be an admixture of the familiar and the novel. The cultural equivalent of the indigenous is the ver­nacular 4, and it is Boxer’s playful evocation of the recognizable and the received that particularly marks his post-modernism.

Boxer is quite willing to use the exotic, or­namental and formal, and to adopt the artificial hard edge shapes of circle or square. For a large rural project, a segment of the plan includ­ed a broad area of grass, flat and rectangular, with maintenance instructions that it be cut four times a week5. The short cropped result “quotes” a lawn bowling or putting green, without actually providing a playable surface for either, thus simultaneously invoking and negating an established grass treatment. (Shively also appropriates the received, but his references to sixteenth century Japanese or early twentieth century American gardens are respectful and emulative rather than manipulative.)

Among 900 acres of isolated Laurentian forest sits a very sophisticated sound recording studio. Asked to provide landscaping for it, Boxer, like a bricoleur, scavenged the area for plants and rocks. The boulders found (some are two metres across) are droppings from the last glacier which passed over and shaped the region. The ironic citation of geological history serves to comment on the location and its past. One of the characteristics of any landscaping activity is the sense of long duration of time in which participants become involved. The presence of geological time is constantly evi­dent. The vast English landscape gardens might only mature in two generations. Plants and trees may take years to develop full growth. The stability and patience required for such pro­jects are not always available.

However questioning or innovative, Shively and Boxer are sustaining the landscape tradition. The basic materials of space, land, vegetation, time, rock, water, the site and its surrounding remain essential to their designs. The goal to please the senses remains. But included among the senses is the chtonic, the knowledge of the place each dwells in. Global­ ly, it intimates what J.E. Lovelock called, “ Gaia,” … [that] model, in which the Earth’s living mat­ter, air, oceans, and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.6

The additional contribution Shively and Boxer make (perhaps present in all great gardens of the past) is to indicate the web of historical and ecological interconnections which meet at any cultivated place.


1. In other words, the debate is organized as an urban issue and not a landscaping one. I would not suggest that the city should be subservient to the garden, but that an urbanism which operates with a simplistic sense of the landscape which surrounds and penetrates the city is impoverished and incomplete.

2. Pierre Dansereau, Biogeography: An Ecological Perspective (New York, 1957), p. 3. Dansereau is a seminal figure for Shively, and a man whose career is checkered with honour and neglect. Considered a founder of ecological science and an early multi­ disciplinarian, his originality and refusal to stay within certain boundaries have caused him to be considered a maverick and a mystery to the several universities he has been associated with — they just don’t appear to have known what to do with him.

3. Frederick Law Olmsted, Forty Years of Landscape Ar­chitecture: Central Park (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 334-335.

4. “ . . . the vernacular is governed by circumstances,” not, “ruled by universally accepted laws.” J.B. Jackson, “Ur­ ban Circumstances,” in Design Quarterly, No. 128, pp. 9-12.

5. Shively, on the other hand, hates a mowed lawn, yet his own yard is kept as closely cropped as any suburban’s. That it is the grazing sheep which do it makes all the dif­ference.

6. J.E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford, 1979), p. vii.

Robert Graham is an art critic living in Montreal.