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Women and Modernism in Landscape Architecture

Harvard Graduate School of Design
Cambridge, Massachusetts February 17–18, 2011

Why convene a symposium devoted to female landscape architects? The goal, according to Charles Waldheim, chair of Harvard’s landscape architecture department, was to “reinvest” in landscape. Keynote speaker Thaisa Way, author of a recent book on the subject, set the stage by profiling an impressive 85 female practitioners in one hour. Arguing that neglectful historians have obscured the proliferation of women in Modern landscape architecture practices, Way challenged historians to move beyond monographic biographies to study constellations, or collective histories. Yet singular women were very much on display the following day.

Friday’s biographical morning focused on scholarship pertaining to six women and their practices, and provided context for a compelling autobiographical afternoon, when Rosa Grena Kliass, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, and Carol R. Johnson presented their own work. John Beardsley, a landscape historian and author, joined the three stars for a concluding panel discussion during which differences in ideology and methodology eclipsed the predetermined common ground of gender and Modernism. For instance, in addressing public-sector design, Kliass works on the premise that she knows what the client needs, Johnson solicits community participation when appropriate, and Oberlander advocates, “Be a good neighbor at every scale.” Each is greater than the sum of her projects by virtue of her contributions to reforms or revolutions in education, professional organizations, and ecological design. The values are worthy, the achievements laudable.

Occasions such as this can contribute to the landscape canon, historiography of the landscape architecture profession, and landscape studies if they are well attended, which this one was not. (About 45 people were present at any given time.) If the Harvard Graduate School of Design is to challenge the canon, emphasize landscape history, and elevate landscape architecture — all of which were mentioned throughout the course of the symposium — then it also needs to underscore the obvious triple jeopardy of the words “women,” “Modernism,” and “landscape” that undermined this event. But is it helpful to profile women to mostly women? Perhaps the profession would be better served by generational and gender inclusivity and interdisciplinary points of view.