“100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs” Makes You Look, and Think

“100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs” Makes You Look, and Think

How under-appreciated is landscape design? One of the landscapes highlighted by John Hill in 100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs is in my home state of Minnesota, yet I’d never even heard of it — despite the fact that I’ve even written a travel guide to the Twin Cities.

I’ll take whatever knocks are due to me for missing Ellsworth Rock Gardens in my research, but I’m clearly not the only one to miss the genius that’s underfoot. Hill’s new book is an enjoyable browse, and a reminder that we move through a world of considered decisions about how we’ll interface with our environments.

Amidst climate change and devastating storms, a version of that reminder is hitting our news feeds — and maybe our faces, or our homes — seemingly every day. The problem of Houston, pavement run amok, is a tragedy of landscape architecture writ large. In the wake of Harvey, it seems almost quaint to focus on rock gardens and parklets.

Still, Hill might argue, it’s landscape architects who might hold the key to reorienting our relationship to the earth, if we can find the will (and the time) to do so. If there’s a narrative to this chronological compilation, it’s the story of sustainability. Landscape architects are still struggling to carve spaces of distinction in both urban and rural environments, but the need for low-impact solutions and creative infrastructure reuse is increasingly acute.

It’s for this reason that, uncontroversially, Hill calls New York’s High Line “easily the most influential piece of landscape architecture of the twenty-first century.” One of the virtues of the new book — as with its companion piece 100 Years, 100 Buildings — is that Hill surveys the most recent hundred years, hardly less arbitrary a choice than to pick a single calendar century. That allows him to peek into our current century, with triumphs including Chicago’s Millennium Park and Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

Hill also ventures far afield, to the point where few mortals will ever manage to set foot on all hundred of these designs — from Australia’s Royal Botanic Gardens to Portugal’s Piscina das Marés. Nonetheless, you theoretically could, as the author has restricted his selection to designs that remain publicly accessible.

If 100 Landscape Designs shares the virtues of 100 Buildings, it also shares its flaws. Each design gets a two-page spread with a fixed block of text facing a page containing one or two photographs of the site being highlighted as having been completed (or, in some cases, begun) during the year in sequence.

That format makes for an orderly procession, but its restrictiveness can make it challenging to appreciate the diversity of these designs. In most cases we don’t get comprehensive overhead views or plans, meaning that we have to rely heavily on Hill’s text to explain precisely how what we see fits into the broader scope of each project. That text is solid and informative, but the didactic flavor doesn’t exactly pull you forward through the pages.

Still, the wonders on display here make 100 Landscapes an illuminating addition to your coffee table or library. You’ll close the book ready to pay renewed attention to the marvels, and foibles, that we’ve wrought upon our planet.

Jay Gabler