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Unified Composition


April 06, 2021

From the GCA Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Many gardens included in The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens hold a proud distinction: they embody design principles developed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903). In addition to establishing a firm that had a hand in the design of more than 6,000 landscapes and gardens for over a century, Olmsted published influential theories about landscape design that transformed how people organized and maintained the outdoor space around them. Olmsted scholars have distilled Olmsted’s ideas down to a list of six design principles. Here is Principle Two.

While many other landscape gardeners in Olmsted’s day arranged gardens to showcase exotic flowers or novel plant species, Olmsted felt people should get to appreciate the “elegance of design” of landscapes. According to this theory, no one garden feature should stand out. People should not consider “turf, water, rocks, bridges, as things of beauty in themselves." For this reason, Olmsted seldom incorporated decorative plantings or ostentatious structures into his designs since those would be distracting. 

Instead, he wrote, each feature should be “subordinate” to an overall effect. A feature should be like one of many threads making up a piece of cloth. Olmsted hoped that unified landscapes would have a “soothing and refreshing sanitary influence” on people without their awareness. His faith in unified composition and the unconscious influence of scenery drove many of the Olmsted firm’s projects, including designs of the driveway for House in the Woods in Lake Geneva and for Casa Alejandro in Palm Beach.

Anyone can create a unified composition. A landscape does not require exotic plants or ornate garden structures, so long as its coherence settles its audience. For instance, a demonstration garden coordinator in Philadelphia promoted this overall effect by using corn, peanut, and tobacco plants on his plot in Glenwood Green Acres, an urban community garden on the site of a demolished warehouse. Olmsted’s second design principle recognizes that anyone who wants to nourish souls through harmonious green spaces makes a contribution to the landscape. 

 “Design Principles,”, National Association of Olmsted Parks, undated. 

Images from The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. By Alanna Natanson, GCA Garden History & Design Intern at AAG. June 2020.


WI027, House in the Woods, Lake Geneva, WI. Robin Carlson, photog.

   FL003, Casa Alejandro, Palm Beach, FL. c. 1920s-1930s.

PA353, Glenwood Green Acres, Philadelphia, PA. Ira Beckoff


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