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Garrett Eckbo / MATRIX 172

Modern Landscapes for Living

January 15, 1997 - March 9, 1997

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Garret Eckbo: Small Park for the Farm Securities Administration, Winters, California, 1939.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living
surveys an essential period in the five-decade long professional career of this celebrated landscape architect. Born in 1910, Garrett Eckbo received his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1935. He then headed south to work for Armstrong Nurseries in Ontario, California, completing almost a hundred designs before undertaking advanced study at Harvard University. A man of social principle, Eckbo joined the New Deal Farm Security Administration (FSA) in 1939 soon after graduation. A man of esthetic principle, he applied his developing formal ideas to the design of all spaces, whether private gardens, cooperative developments, or social housing for agricultural laborers. In the office and the field, Eckbo developed a sophisticated landscape system to complement the housing experiments by FSA architects, despite limited budgets, stringent time constraints, and inauspicious sites.

For the most part, innovation in modern American landscape architecture took place in the private garden - witnessed in the extensive production of Thomas Church - and thereafter, in the corporate realm. Eckbo, most unusually, succeeded in not only implementing original ideas in the public arena, but basing his theory and design research on the pursuit of a better living environment - one premised on optimum, rather than minimum, standards. His was a lifelong engagement with social improvement. The landscapes he created for the migrant workers under the Farm Security Administration stood as high-design expressions of honest intentions. Layered spaces articulated by planted geometries of varying heights and textures ultimately fulfilled very basic functions protection from the wind and sun, perpetual enclosure, and psychological protection from harassment for the worker coming "home" after a day in the sun-baked fields. So successful was the FSA in devising a rural housing system - efficient, inexpensive, for a great number of users - that when millions of Americans joined the war effort and migrated to support it industry, this administration was commissioned to carry out numerous war housing projects. Eckbo himself recalls working on fifty of these emergency landscapes, where once again, design gestures on a baroque scale served modest yet essential purposes.

With the return of peace, and the building boom that ensued, Eckbo proposed practical yet idealistic ideas for communities that favored pedestrian over automobile circulation, a hierarchy of open spaces for various age groups, and a number of social services destined to free the housewife from the drudgery of domestic chores. With architect Gregory Ain, he planned and designed a series of cooperative developments in the greater Los Angeles area, only parts of which were ever realized. Community Homes in Reseda offered a variety of home and garden configurations; plantings structured space through scale, shape and transparency, and provided neighborhood identity. Park Planned Homes in Altadena, and Modernique Homes in Mar Vista (both from the late 1940s), used layerings of plantings with gradient heights and volumes to define the collective streetscape.

Eckbo quickly rose to international prominence. His 1937 project for 26 typical gardens on an urban block (begun as a student project but soon published in one of the leading architectural magazines) laid out a complex vocabulary that the landscape architect exploited for the remainder of his long career. Eckbo was a key player in advancing a design idiom that addressed the conditions of modern (usually California) living - for example, outdoor activities, reduced lot sizes, limited time or interest in gardening and maintenance - while transforming ideas from painting, sculpture, and architecture. The shapes that activated the composition of his plans were never left two-dimensional: each became the footprint for a series of spaces interlocked and highly charged. Because Eckbo held that defining space was basic to creating habitable landscapes, and used contemporary aesthetic ideas to create such spaces, his design work closely paralleled similar quests in architecture and the plastic arts. The extreme example of Eckbo's curiosity, perhaps, was the so-called ALCOA Forest Garden (1959) which he designed for his own family in Los Angeles. Here, the fascination with the new garden material, aluminum - propelled yet another rethinking of outdoor living in suburbia. Eckbo produced literally thousands of gardens in northern California and the Los Angeles Basic, and collaborated with numerous architects including Gregory Ain, Quincy Jones, Raphael Soriano, Robert Alexander and Richard Neutra. These projects were published in popular and professional journals and books around the world and contributed significantly to what became in time the modern California garden.

In 1950, Eckbo published his first book, Landscapes for Living, which became - like Christopher Tunnard's 1938 Gardens in the Modern Landscape - a poignant for new thinking about landscape design. To a degree greater than Tunnard, however, Eckbo tempered his formal interests with a social vision, joining an understanding of natural landscape with ideas for accommodating human use. In the succeeding years, he published The Landscape We See, The Art of Home Landscaping, and Urban Landscape Design, each the record of realizations and theory derived from daily practice and personal experience.

During the post-war years, the practice - reformed in various partnerships, including one with Robert Royston and Edward Williams - continued to grow in size, undertaking projects all over the country and abroad. Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams, later known as EDAW, became one of the most prominent landscape offices in the world. Eckbo left the firm in 1973 as its involvement in planning projects, rather than more focused landscape design, continued to burgeon. In 1963 Eckbo returned to Berkeley to accept the chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, where he taught until his retirement in 1978. Since that time he has continued to write and undertake design projects.

Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living exhibits, for the first time, a representative selection of drawings in Eckbo's student and professional designs, drawn from the College of Environmental Design's Documents Collection. Photographs, including a selection by noted architectural photographer (and Eckbo client) Julius Shulman, and models prepared for the exhibition complement the drawings, providing a rich review of this master's work.

Dorothée Imber
Marc Treib
Guest Curators

Garrett Eckbo: Modern Landscapes for Living is supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Additional funding has been provided by EDAW; Hellmuth, Obata & Kassambaum, Inc.; Hubbard Educational Trust; Interior Architects, Inc.; Roger Montgomery; Robinson, Mills, & Williams; SWA Group; Sandy & Babcock; Peter Walker; William Wilson & Associates; Beatrice and Irving Zeigler; and former students of Professor Eckbo.

The Berkeley Art Museum's MATRIX Program is supported in part by Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Ann Hatch, the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment Fund, the LEF Foundation, and an anonymous donor.