Architects of the Outdoors

The sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens

Always Greener
Whitney E. Adair

The sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens.

Wandering the grounds of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum is, for the casual visitor, a primarily aesthetic experience. On a crisp September morning the Arboretum’s sprawling landscape is all gently swaying shrubs and trees, ripe berries, and flowers in full bloom.

At the southern edge of the park stands Peters Hill, the Arboretum’s highest point, from the top of which one can see the Greater Boston area spread out at one’s feet, the still woody flatland framing the distant skyscrapers that rise over the sea. It presents the onlooker with a jarringly unexpected perspective; it at once overwhelms and calms. It is landscape experienced as sublime art.

The landscape of Harvard’s campus may not itself be one of vaulting canopies and scenic overlooks, but a brief stroll across the Yard’s cropped grass or past the Faculty Club’s manicured shrubbery is enough to prove that campus landscaping comes with aesthetic considerations of its own.

Wayne P. Carbone, Manager of Harvard’s Landscape Services, lists the three major concerns of his department as environmental sensitivity, beauty, and safety. It is telling that the latter focus on the observer of the environment; after all, Landscape Services exists not to serve the landscape but to serve Harvard.

This drive to balance the functional and sustainable with the aesthetically appealing lies at the heart of Harvard’s many recent green initiatives, from the Yard Restoration Project that gave the Yard an organic face-lift in 2007 to the Community Garden that made the small plot of land outside Lowell House a home for lettuce plants and golden sunburst tomatoes earlier this year. It is the drive not just to preserve and restore our environment but ultimately to enjoy it. It is the drive to make land into art.

A NATURAL BEAUTY

That the Arboretum’s landscape feels like art would be no surprise to the expert observer. The 265-acre landscape in South Boston is actually—save the general shape of the land—complete artifice. The Arboretum was designed in 1872 as a park by botanist Charles Sprague Sargent and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the man responsible for such American landmarks as Central Park and the Niagara Reservation. The Arboretum also conducts extensive horticultural and botanical research for the university.

Despite its naturalistic feel, the Arboretum’s collection of nearly 15,000 plants is carefully arranged, grouped by type, and especially rich in both native and exotic woody plants.

Julie A. Warsowe, Manager of Visitor Education, knows well the power of its naturalistic illusion: “it is, in some ways, a trick.”

“The idea,” she says, “was to create something that felt so natural that people could get lost in the environment. You have the experience of meandering down a country road, but a scientific design is behind everything you see.”

Warsowe says this careful design owes much to the parks movement, a movement based on the feeling that “people need open space to be complete people,” which was peaking at the time of the Arboretum’s opening in the late nineteenth century.

Michael Van Valkenburgh, the Landscape Architect responsible for projects from the renovation of Pennsylvania Avenue to the renovation of Harvard Yard itself, has noted the recent groundswell of Harvard initiatives meant to make campus a more attractive, open space. According to him, it is a phenomenon not unique to Harvard but still bolstered by Harvard’s uniquely historic landscape.

“It’s little exaggeration to say that the Harvard community worships its great old trees,” Van Valkenburgh writes via e-mail. But, he adds, “In the last decade, the hunger for a connection to a nurturing landscape on campuses and in cities has dramatically increased.”

Van Valkenburgh, has also taught for 28 years as a Professor of Practice at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in the Department of Landscape Architecture. In the future, he says, “I don’t want the department to lose sight of design in its aesthetic and experiential dimensions—beauty and sublimity and depth of feeling will never be unneeded.”

The beauty Van Valkenburgh cites as a key component of design can be immediately felt in Harvard’s most famous landscape: the Yard.

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