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.

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.

The romantic style, prominent in England during the 18th century, was natural , avoiding straight lines, using sundials, bowling greens, arbors, topiary, and open landscaping instead of formal designs.

In America, Thomas Jefferson, who designed the University of Virginia and his own home, Monticello, integrated natural landscaping with structural formalism. From the 1850s on, the growth was toward natural landscapes, with buildings blending harmoniously with their settings.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who created New York City's Central Park and Boston's ''green necklace'' park system, among others, used romantic landscaping in an urban setting.

In 1855, 840 acres in the center of Manhattan were set aside for Central Park. Calvert Vaux and Olmsted collaborated on the design, which included four east-west crossings between 59th and 106th Streets; a parade ground, playground, concert hall, ornamental fountain, flower garden, ice pond for winter skating, and innovative transverse crossings sunken below park level with bridges over them at intervals - an idea that even today frees the park from cross-town tangles.

Central Park is laid out in rustic woods, gardens, and ponds, crisscrossed by a network of paths, roads, and bridges.

The term ''landscape architecture'' was first used by the Olmsted-Vaux team when commissioned to design the park. Olmsted and Vaux wanted to call themselves ''landscape gardeners,'' but the word ''gardeners'' gave the impression of men who simply decorated a landscape. ''Landscape artists'' was closer, but they were concerned with what was appropriate.

Without total satisfaction, they called themselves ''landscape architects.''

Olmsted went on to design the Capitol grounds in Washington, as well, combining open areas and approaches with shape and vistas on the east side of the building. He added a marble terrace surrounding the north, west, and south sides of the building, thus creating a more formal approach from the lower part of the hill.

In 1896, young George Vanderbilt, great-grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, hired architect R. M. Hunt and a thousand craftsmen to build the largest private home in the country. With 255 rooms, Biltmore is situated on a 2,000-acre tract near the Blue Ridge Parkway in western Virginia. The azalea garden alone comprises the largest and most complete collection in the world. Biltmore's gardens and grounds have gained international fame.

Nor has landscape architecture been overlooked in the design of highways. For example, the Blue Ridge Parkway, linking the Shenandoah region of Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, was a pioneer project and served as a proving ground for many concepts and principles that have been used on succeeding national parkways.

The old Natchez Trace, once a lost route to the modern world, runs along fields, lakes, hills, and wagon-rutted meadows where pioneers once trudged southwest.

Virtually no area is without the landscape architect's touch.

Courses in landscape architecture are offered by more than 40 major colleges and universities, and they can lead to both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Indeed, landscape architects are far more than plantsmen.

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