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It’s Not Just the Buildings: Landscape in the Aesthetics of Mid Century Modernism

Lexington Historical Society August 16, 2015

Elmore Leonard, the late crime writer, strove for invisibility in his work. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he said. Modernist landscape architects can make a similar assertion: Excellent design is invisible.

When people look at the residential landscapes of midcentury Modernist homes built in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the 1940s and ’50s, they tend to think that nothing has been designed, said historian Pamela Hartford during her gallery talk. The truth is that the unabashed relationship of the house to its environment is fundamental to Six Moon Hill and Peacock Farm, among the notable midcentury communities included in the Lexington Historical Society’s Lextopia exhibit. The existing landscape was not cleared for house construction but rather used as a driver for the careful siting of the buildings. The houses were built with the minimum impact to the site, nestled in their woodland settings, often anchored to the ground by nothing more than a site wall or small terrace.

The integration of landscape and architecture at 24 Moon Hill Road in Lexington, Massachusetts. Photo: Pamela Hartford, 2015

The design is there, powerfully so, both as an aesthetic language that reflects the Modernist desire for simplicity and as a communal idea that establishes a respected, shared living environment. Design isn’t just an assertive and added-on operation; it is a set of decisions about what to keep and what not to do. The architects were trained in both building and landscape architecture, and designed the communities holistically. They understood that the design of what’s inside and outside can’t be separated. As a result, the developments’ sensitivity to their environments comes across as contemporary. The designs feel ecological without working hard to try to be ecological.

Lextopia reminds us that in the end, the invisibility of the landscape is an issue of legibility and representation. Whereas previous landscape designs relied on horticultural exuberance and elaborate ornamentation, the clean lines and understated materials approach was undervalued. Even today, midcentury imagery tends to focus on the exterior view of the architecture, which objectifies the work rather than expresses its intent: honesty and livability. The landscape is integral to that lived experience and deserves to be valued, managed, and seen.