The fine art and history of landscape architecture
''We landscape architects are somewhat touchy about being cast solely in the role of plantsmen,'' complains John W. Bright, head of the Office of Quality Control in Denver.Skip to next paragraph
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Donald Parker, director of landscape architecture for Colonial Williamsburg, Va., considers it a fine art, the ''reshaping of man's natural environment for human use and enjoyment.''
The value of a new house is greatly increased if the land is shaped so as to set the house off to its best advantage.
Landscape architecture can be traced to ancient Egypt, where the austere outlines of monuments were softened by rows of trees and flowering shrubs. Tomb paintings and reliefs show early Egyptians relaxing in landscaped gardens.
As early as the fifth dynasty (2494 B.C.), areas were enclosed with sycamores , palms, papyrus, cornflowers, and thick mandrake bushes growing around rectangular pools. Garden and house were treated as one unit.
In later dynasties, landscaped areas became more formal, with gardens situated outside the house. Architects elevated centuries of tradition to a new height in art and living quarters during the New Kingdom (1570 B.C.).
Much later, the Romans used landscaping on a grand scale, with terraced gardens as focal points for lavish villas perched high on the hills.
Mastery of landscape architecture passed from Italy to France about the 17th century, when the ''grand manner'' became vogue. Distinctive features of this style - such as classical statues, clipped hedges, fine gravel corridors through woods, fountains, pavilions, and boulevards - were found in crowded cities such as Paris.
But city life soon demanded organization of city commons, and ''landscape design'' was born.
One of the early landscape architects was Andre Le Notre, whose patron was King Louis XIV of France. Le Notre, progenitor of the unified-design system for municipal parks and recreational areas, believed landscapes should be the setting for elaborate architecture, but that statues shouldn't be the focal points, but only enhancements of an area.
Paris exemplifies Le Notre's system with broad, green, arbored boulevards with generous pedestrian walks, interspersed with fountains and statuary.
The first American gardens continued the English formality, peaking about the time Williamsburg became the capital of Colonial Virginia. From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg was a social, cultural, and political center for Virginia, which then stretched beyond the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.
All of the royal governors, beginning with William Nicholson, arranged for gardens around the palace. These gardens, modeled after the period of William and Mary (1689-1702), have year-round flowerings: knottes, small hedges of close-growing thyme or dwarf box; parterres, elaborate geometric knottes among stretches of fine, level turf; compartments, borders of flowers set among grass or herb gardens; and pruned tree arbors over enclosed walks.
The palace grounds alone comprise 10 acres; designs for the ballroom garden were patterned after a historical document called the ''Bodleian Plate,'' a copper engraving located in a library at Oxford, England.
Colonial Williamsburg offers an in-depth look at aspects of 18th-century Williamsburg which includes everything from architecture to music and crafts. Its gardens include more than 500 kinds of plants and more than 3,000 trees.