Farrand and Sears: Spirit of Site

From what we at arslocii have witnessed, great landscape architecture can create placeness – a feeling and unique spirit of a site. There are two particular, noteworthy practitioners, sadly gone from this Earth who, based on visual supporting evidence, had a most rare ability of creating site-specific placeness. As amazing as it is, they were contemporaries, and both attended Harvard for their studies. They might even have been rivals for commissions – but, no matter which of the two was chosen to design an estate, garden, or public park, it was a win-win for the person doing the hiring. Both have left remarkable memorials of their prowess.

The two notables are Beatrix Jones Farrand and Thomas Warren Sears, designers of the highest order who are remembered by some, but not enough. Landscape architects, even currently, don’t get the kind of status that architects do, and back in the founding days of the profession the praise and honor was probably more scarce. Lucky for us, there is some scattered evidence of the genius of these two in sites along the East Coast, showing their different approaches but their shared sensibility to place and place-making. (There is also a third practitioner of note, who left his marks on the western landscape, Thomas Dolliver Church, but we will discuss him another time.)

So, what is it that these luminaries were able to do to rise above mere garden design? And why do their designs remain, largely intact, as places worth protecting? They were, both of them, skilled in combining materials with the landscape and creating something greater than the two parts, forming a living, breathing combination that has an inevitability. A bit of artfulness and science, alchemical and nearly godlike. And we believe that it comes from an extraordinary sensitivity – to seeing what is there, to knowing what is possible, and sensing how far is far enough, of allowing the materials and the site to be as one, of being craftsmanlike but knowing when nature does it better – a fine balancing of ego and egolessness. And that’s just the starting point.

It is hard to speak in generalizations about their works because each effort is unique and, alas, we have not seen all examples. However, we have seen enough to be awestruck. The works that we have had the privilege to behold have been jaw-dropping, holy places – places that might appear at first to have just sprung from the ground, although logically that could not have happened, but they have that kind of impact and presence and integration. Places that, when you leave them, have left you changed. A mentor of Ms. Farrand’s told her that the plan should fit the ground, and that one should never attempt to change the ground for the plan. Good advice. Mr. Sears must have had a similar concept, considering that he was also a landscape photographer.

So what have we seen by these two artists? From the mind and desk of Ms. Farrand: Bellefield, Princeton’s Wyman House, the long driveway at The Mount and Dumbarton Oaks. We have also, unknowingly, enjoyed the benefit of her work at Yale and the University of Chicago, and other sections of the Princeton campus. As for Mr. Sears’ contributions: the back terrace and fountain at Chanticleer, the swimming pool at Chanticleer, original designs for Mt. Cuba and the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater at Swarthmore College. Any one of these projects could be a candidate for a lifetime-achievement award, but the lists go on.

Using a common palette of materials, the designs are uncommon. The references to classicism are present but with a modern swagger. The work is of a time and yet timeless in its effect. Sometimes it is the simplicity and, in other situations, it is the details that bring it all to life. Enhancement, decoration, interpretation, visionary splendor, harmony, seduction, arslocii.

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