Elevate Difference

Unbounded Practice: Women and Landscape Architecture in the Early Twentieth Century

Female hands are all over America's landscape; you just need to know where to look for them. In Unbounded Practice, author Thaisa Way can direct your eye.

Look to the Memorial Quadrangle at Yale, the grounds of Princeton, or a number of botanical gardens and astronomical observatories to see the legacy of Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959). Recall a youthful American pilgrimage to Disneyland—if you are among the number who has made one—to know the work of Ruth Shellhorn (1909-2005). Stroll past any working or middle-class apartment complex designed with a central, neatly-gardened courtyard to see the lasting influence of Marjorie Sewell Cautley (1891-1954), who designed such courtyards with the needs of family members—particularly mothers—in mind; not only can natural beauty be observed from every dwelling, but so can children at play.

Way's concern in Unbounded Practice is not just that significant contributions to landscape architecture have been made by women, but that these contributions have been largely forgotten by current practitioners and require a restorative historical account. An irony that emerges in Way's recounting of women's contribution to the formation of the discipline—critical in its early stages—is that the public conceptions of womanhood were both an inlet for women to practice the discipline and an impetus for them to be disassociated from it. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, pursuits associated with horticulture, such as gardening and botany, were considered appropriate for the sex viewed as intrinsically closer to the earth than its masculine counterpart. This allowed women to enter the discipline with minimal, or no public rebuke, pursuing architectural approaches to design as well as employing acquired botanical knowledge often superior to that of their male peers. As landscape architecture moved towards an alignment with architecture at the expense of being associated with the "craft" of gardening, women were marginalized in the discipline.

Way's history is both a history of women and a history of the formation of a discipline—the key of the book's strength—and her passion as a scholar is evident in the pains she takes in detailing both. A lay reader, or perhaps even a beginning student, may benefit from reading Way's conclusion before embarking on the book proper. There, Way's passion is evident in tone as well as content, and the relatively brief reflection on a hefty scholarly endeavor reads as an accessible orientation to the modern challenges the discipline has faced.

Ten color plates are featured in the book, as well as a wealth of illuminating photographs of work by women pioneering practitioners, slides from lectures delivered by women, period advertisements, and—thrillingly—meticulous plans and client sketches drafted by the women Way profiles. While Unbounded Practice could easily be sourced for perspective on American history, women's history, class structure, ecology, urban studies, fine arts, architecture, and education, one can't help but imagine Way writing this book thinking of the reader who would crack the spine at one such architectural-botanical plan, magnifying glass in hand, connecting back to one of the women who would draft herself a practice.

Written by: Kaja Katamay, July 9th 2010