When asked the familiar question, “What do you do?” many landscape architects will attest to the need for further explanation beyond the simple “I’m a landscape architect.” Personally, my response is typically qualified with an explanation of park, trail and open space design, working with local municipalities, and a description of the role of a project manager in construction administration. Although I don’t always feel the need to expand this definition, I can’t help but be envious of those complex fields of work whose titles, at least at a broad level, are unquestionably clear. Doctors treat the sick. Lawyers uphold the rule of law. Teachers teach the unlettered. In these jobs, simply saying one’s profession can be enough explanation in and of itself.
As landscape architects, we wear many hats. Our understanding of principals of engineering and hydrology inform our grading plans. Our understanding of biological processes inform our selection of plant material. Our understanding of design principals and our general artistic nature inform our aesthetic directions. To be sure, it is a broad yet refined skillset required of those designated as Landscape Architects. But this designation was not always so.
Indeed, many attribute the phrase Landscape Architect with the father of Landscape Architecture, Fredrick Law Olmstead. But it was actually an 18th Century Frenchman name Jean-Marie Morel who captured the essence of our field in the professional identity he coined: architecte-paysagiste.
Working during the height of the Enlightenment, Morel wrote the seminal text La Théorie des Jardins outlining a methodology for the developing landscape style of the Picturesque. This style, exemplified by naturalistic landforms, asymmetry, and rougher terrain sharply contrasted the French formal styles of his predecessors. The Enlightenment was influencing all aspects of scientific and artistic inquiry of the day, with new fields such as Biology and other life sciences emerging from this new paradigm of investigation. It’s no coincidence then that he looked to natural world for design rules, reading and understanding the landscape and shedding the ridged geometric guidelines of the Formal, à la Le Nôtre.
It was apparent to Morel that a clear professional designation was needed for this emerging design paradigm. Much like his predecessors, he was a trained surveyor and architect yet he realized artistic sensibility and understanding of the landscape’s inherent “nature” was equally as important for the designs of this new style. But [the English] “gardener” or ‘jardiner’ just wouldn’t fit, as this new philosophy expanded the boundaries of the garden to encompass the boundless nature.
In France, the picturesque painters of the era were aptly named paysagistes. These were fine artists who, in practice, painted vast and sweeping landscapes, sublime natural settings, and beautiful bucolic imagery. It was here that Morel found the piece he what he was looking for. Architecte-paysagiste, or quite literally, architect-painter of landscapes.
When Morel died in 1810, his widely-circulated obituary started out simply with:
Jean-Marie Morel, ‘architecte-paysagiste.’
In his death, a new professional idiom was born.
In 1854, Louis-Sulpice Varé stamped construction drawings of the Bois de Boulogne with a modified seal that read “Service de l’architecte-paysagiste” or Office of the Landscape Architect. A few years later when Fredrick Law Olmstead, then the architect-in-chief for the Central Park Board of Commissioners, visited Paris on a tour of European park precedents to model Central Park after, he no doubt would have seen this new seal and discussed its implications. This is especially evident because he visited the Bois de Boulogne more frequently than any other park on that tour. But most significantly, Olmstead would have witnessed how the architecte-paysagiste scope in this instance encompassed not only landscape design but also urban planning and infrastructure considerations that come with a public works project of this magnitude.
Upon his return to the U.S., Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux adopted the designation Landscape Architect and kept the title for all subsequent commissions, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the urban planning efforts of Northern Manhattan. Championed now by Olmstead and others, our professional titles had started to pivot away from that of a subset of architecture, synonymous with gardening to landscape as architecture, but in a whole new class of its own engaged in aspects of planning, art, science and engineering.
There is still some distance to go until our professional identities become as clear and concise as a doctor or lawyer’s. But understanding the roots of our professional identity in the phrase landscape-paysagiste, may help on the path to the greater public understanding our professional designation much more succinctly.
Or perhaps it will just give us more fodder to talk about when asked “What do you do?”
Much of the information here comes from the exhaustive and definitive research on Jean-Marie Morel & and the origins of landscape architecture’s professional identity by a former graduate professor of mine, Dr. Joseph Disponzio. For primary literature and reference on the topic, please refer to his 2014 paper “From Garden to Landscape: Jean-Marie Morel and the Transformation of Garden Design.”
Cover image by PMRMaeyaert, used under the Creative Commons License
Portrait of Jean-Marie Morel: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.
Château de la Malmaison image by Moonik, used under the Creative Commons License