Reviews of Landscape Design

New York Times Book Review

In this magnum opus, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy and a longtime administrator of that celebrated oasis, stakes out and cultivates a breathtakingly vast terrain: the history of man-made landscape from Neolithic times to the present. Though Rogers focuses on a number of well-known gardens and parks from Hadrian’s Villa of A.D. 118—38 outside Rome to Antonio Gaudi’s Park Güell of 1900—14 in Barcelona her subject is less horticulture than the social interaction of various cultures with their natural settings. Encompassing city planning as much as garden design, this panoramic study is impressive not only for its encyclopedic scope but also for the author’s authoritative command of so much diverse material and for her lucid writing.

It will become the standard survey for some years to come. The book, gloriously illustrated thanks to the intrepid photo research of John K. Crowley and Diana Gongora, is appropriately evenhanded in its emphases, with the exception of the classical gardens of Japan, which deserve more than the 15 pages allotted to them. Rogers is particularly strong on the modern era in America, giving due appreciation to the Garden City and New Town movements that flourished in the early 20th century and are approximated today by such efforts of the New Urbanism movement as the highly publicized town of Seaside, Fla.

Architecture in its broadest sense is the principle underlying Rogers’s approach, and her carefully plotted organization suits her vast topic ideally. Time and again she makes impassioned pleas for the preservation of the planet’s green heritage. “Our success in this endeavor will depend on many things,’’ she writes, “including an understanding of the rich psychological and mythopoeic relationship of human beings to landscape throughout history.’’ In those terms, it is impossible to think of a better synthesis than this magisterial overview.

— Martin Filler


The New Yorker

This sumptuously illustrated book expands the definition of landscaping from the usual suspects Versailles, Tivoli, and Central Park to include, on the one hand, Stonehenge and the Pyramids and, on the other, Disneyland. The result is a comprehensive history of human interaction with the land. Barlow Rogers, a landscape planner, considers that the main shift has been from a sacral idea of place to a conception of “value-neutral” space governed by mathematical principles of perspective. So, while ancient sites reflected pagan cosmologies and animistic beliefs, in Renaissance landscapes the experience of the individual viewer became central. When Petrarch, a keen gardener, explained why he had tried to climb Mont Ventoux, his words were quintessentially those of a Renaissance man: “My only motive was to see what so great an elevation had to offer.”

Library Journal

Perhaps best known as the founding director of New York’s Central Park Conservancy, which oversaw and funded the park’s revitalization, Rogers (The Forests and Wetlands of New York City) here presents a comprehensive survey of landscape design. Viewing her subject as the art that modifies and shapes nature, she explores the cultural values that shape, or are embodied in, cities, parks, and gardens. Embracing all cultures and ranging from prehistoric times to the present, this book covers the broadest range of subjects implied by the title, including city planning, landscape architecture, conservation, earthworks, and other uses of land in contemporary art. While this history is international in scope, it does narrow its primary focus to the United States when it reaches the late 20th century. The photographs and especially the plans are excellent and numerous. Single pages or double-page spreads devoted to specific topics add an encyclopedic element while allowing Rogers to provide even more information, illustrations, and plans without interrupting the flow of her very readable text. Accessible to lay readers but of interest to scholars, this book could serve as the text for a comprehensive course on the history of landscape design. Highly recommended.

— Daniel Star


Booklist Magazine

To prepare for her post as the first administrator of New York’s Central Park, distinguished art historian, expert city planner, and author Rogers sought to master the context in which the park was built and designed by taking an interdisciplinary approach to landscape architecture’s historical importance, cultural influence, and societal impact. The result is her magnum opus, an eloquent, erudite, and enjoyable treatment of a discipline that heretofore concentrated on technical methodologies while eschewing the philosophical deliberations that guide it. By tracing the global development of man’s relationship to the land from cave dwellers to urban developers, Rogers anthropological orientation examines diverse ancient to contemporary landscapes in microscopic detail, revealing how, as mankind inherently strives to control nature through landscape design, the results inevitably reflect the prevailing cultural milieu. Scrupulously researched, meticulously presented, Rogers’ towering achievement synthesizes the history of human culture with that of landscape design, culminating in a wondrous journey across time and place that will appeal to readers with a wide range of historical, aesthetic, gardening, and travel interests.

— Carol Haggas


Wellesley Magazine

Eiizabeth Barlow Rogers’ Landscape Design is a remarkable achievement. Its densely packed pages take the reader on an extensive journey through the cultural history of landscape design — from ancient Paleolithic cave dwellings to the earthworks community gardens, freeways, and golf courses of our modern landscapes. I am in awe of the scope, detail and erudition of this hook and amazed that one person could research this vast subject so completely Rogers has written a clear and concise survey that can serve as a landscape history reference book or college textbook, as well as an enjoyable read for the designer or gardener. Particularly impressive is the summation of her ideas in the introduction and her fascinating notes at the end of each chapter. The dense layout and small font size of the text are enriched by hundreds of illustrations throughout the book-color and black-and-white photographs, line drawings and plans.

Founding president of the Central Park Conservancy and Cityscape in Manhattan, Rogers was trained in art history and city planning. From 1979 to 95, she served as administrator of New York’s Central Park. Her first book, The Forests and Wetlands of New York City, won the John Burroughs Medal, awarded every year to “distinguished books on natural history.” In Landscape Design, she draws on these experiences, noting, “A history of landscape design is one way of writing the history of the human mind.”

In her contextual approach to the history of landscape design, Rogers sees landscapes “as products of attitudes towards the cosmos, nature, and humanity and shows how they share elements of form and meaning with artifacts from the disciplines with which they are most intimately, and often inextricably allied-painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts.” Each of the 16 chapters roams through the history of an era, bringing together the arts as they relate to forms upon the landscape. Chapter titles suggest the variety: “Magic, Myth, and Nature: Landscapes of Prehistoric, Early Ancient, and Contemporary Living Peoples”; “Power and Glory: The Genius of Le Notre and the Grandeur of the Baroque”; “Nature as Muse: The Gardens of China and Japan.”

Rogers deftly weaves strands of history together into a coherent whole. This works less well in the final chapters, where the patterns of history are not so clearly identifiable, and her own interpretation is needed to pull disparate strands and influences into a unified theme for each chapter. But the themes she identifies are vital, and her concluding words are powerful: “It is important to realize that the making and erasure of place are continuous processes, as is the philosophical conceptualization of space. These transactional activities between human beings and landscape will continue as long as there are minds to inquire about the cosmological meaning of space and to confer collective and personal meaning on place, and as long as there are hands, assisted by machines to shape space in partnership with nature.”

— Julie Moir



The human shaping of the land is one of the first and most enduring of our collective cultural statements. This superbly conceived synthesis of the evolution of landscape design — the first comprehensive history in a generation — traces place-making from prehistoric land forms to postmodern earthworks and from the Far East to the far west and points in between. Rogers, an art historian who spearheaded the restoration of New York City’s Central Park and now directs a new program in garden history and landscape studies at the Bard Graduate Center, demonstrates a breathtaking mastery of the changing cultural meanings of landscape over place and time. Rogers’s emphatically highbrow approach emphasizes gardens and cityscapes as works of art inextricably shaped by contemporary intellectual, social, and economic developments. The text is strongly interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, written with sensitivity to design and attentive to continuities as well as change. A handsomely illustrated book for students of landscape architecture, preservation, and planning as well as for citizens who care deeply about the landscapes that surround us. Highly recommended. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals.

— D. Schuyler


Garden Design

Land Literacy As the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy and of Cityscape Institute, and with sixteen years as administrator of Central Park under her belt, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers is the right person to teach us how history’s landscape designs have served as an intentional and sometimes accidental allegory for cultural beliefs and incidents. Her enormous, contemplative sensibility for the meaning of place propels the narrative of Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History (Abrams, 2001, 544 pages, $75.00) just as it beckons the reader to trust Rogers’ interpretations.

Rogers helps us travel through time as she describes the mythic and intellectual elements of prehistoric caves and the classical values of Greek and Roman landscapes. At this point, she pause and asks us to consider the themes of paradise and afterlife. She challenges us to understand how our hopes for perfection shape human choices for landscapes.

Since the book’s plans, photographs and renderings are small. and the language is scholarly, it takes dedication to work through each chapter. Some may find it more of a reference than a book to curl up with. Once intrigued, though, I found myself immersed in the story, and anxious to understand it.

Although this book spends most of its pages looking backward, it motivates readers to think ahead, too. Rogers wants us to realize that as we continue to shape the land for our purposes, we must be self conscious about how and why we are doing so, so that we can feel our relationship with the land holist cally, and so we can know what the effects of our work will mean for future generations.

Rogers will lecture at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society Center at Elm Bank in Wellesley, MA on Wednesday, April 3. She will survey a number of historic and contemporary landscapes, attempting to explain their underlying meaning in relation to the patrons, designers and cultures that created them. For more information on this event contact Allyson Hayward, (781) 235-3307.

— Sarah Kinbar


The Garden

The prelude of six double-page illustrations of famous gardens in France, Italy, England and Japan might give the impression that Landscape Design is yet another beautiful coffee-table book of gardens, but this impression is soon dispelled. In more than 500 large pages of small type, the author presents a cultural and architectural history (the subtitle) of landscape design.

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers played a pivotal role in the regeneration of Olmsted’s Central Park in New York, and this book was a product of her desire to understand Olmsted’s work as a landscape architect in its broader historical context.

The result is astonishing; in its breadth: reminiscent of Gothein’s two-volume History of Garden Art (1928) Gideon’s Space, Time and Architecture (1960) and the Jellicoes’ Landscape of Man (1987) rolled into one, but also having the advantage of innumerable coloured illustrations. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, southern Europe and the Americas, through the gardens of Asia, Europe and the United States, with excursions into Russia. Poland. Hungary and other less well-documented countries, Landscape Design gives a well-balanced history of the garden as a cultural phenomenon.

The approach throughout is decidedly politico-aesthetic. Plants and gardening receive only passing attention not because they are unimportant but because space is limited. The book is about much more than gardens, however. The author quarries an extensive literature of place makings on a wide scale, from Stonehenge through urban planning to both public and national parks; from the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets to Disneyland, shopping mall and retro housing developments in Florida.

British readers may find both useful and interesting the detailed accounts of planning, design and conservation in the US, with many instances of the two-way flow of ideas across the Atlantic.

In her closing chapters the author explores ideas of cultural geography and place making, and the balance between human movement through, and settlement in, the landscape. The book itself echoes these processes, careering through history before settling on a particular place, person or idea to examine in detail.

Perhaps because of the pervasive Olmsted influence one can detect within the narrative a powerful struggle between the land ethic and short-term consumerism — and the author’s hope or belief that, one day, the former might prevail.

Landscape Design is a wonderful source for landscape students. It others a broad history of gardens for the gardener/garden historian and will fascinate anyone with a serious interest in their surroundings.

— Richard Bisgrove


East Hampton Star

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous,” said Aristotle in “Parts of Animals,” one of his books of natural history. When this translation appeared, “marvelous” really meant “miraculous.” Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’s extraordinary and accessible history of landscape examines the complicated word “nature,” the meaning of which has also changed over time.

For this reason, and for many others, every gardener should read Landscape Design or at least, at this busiest season of the year for a gardener, every gardener should have this encyclopedia-sized compendium (544 pages) and read in it, meaning, as always, to read it all the way through someday.

Ms. Rogers, who lives in East Hampton and New York City, was the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy and the administrator of that park from 1979 to 1995, bringing it back from the neglect of the ’60s and ’70s to the worldwide renown it enjoys today as a place of beauty and a model for public-private partnership.

The author says what she means by “nature” several times. Her best go at it is on page 499, where she discusses the sculptor Maya Lin.

“Lin is interested in giving landscape expression to the new concepts of the universe that are emerging through advanced science and technology. By coincidence, she was born and grew up in Athens, Ohio, near the Hopewell Mounds (gigantic Native American earthworks c. 100 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.) and while these ancient monuments probably hold the same fascination for her as for archaeologists and other cosmologically oriented artists of Earthworks, her primary objective is to discern and express what we are here suggesting as “fourth nature,” a state that integrates the three preexisting categories of nature wilderness, cultivated land, and the garden with science and technology. This dimension of her work derives inspiration from the optical and photographic instruments microscopes, telescopes, and satellite cameras that make us perceive the world and universe in new ways.”

There you have it: “fourth nature” described with a depth of contemporary understanding of landscape design.

This is at a remove from the spring flowerbeds (and few remaining fields and wild salt marshes) that most East End gardeners are gazing at now. It is a comprehensive view of nature, one that includes not only a description of what humankind has made of the natural world, but also a description of the role of human perception. What is seen and felt and measured about place is what we hold to be the truth of nature, and that truth changes all the time.

The carefully worded title indicates the scope of the book. Ms. Rogers, who trained in art history and city planning, also looks at landscape through the lenses of anthropology, psychology, geology, biology, cultural geography, and historical ethnography. However, these “ologies” should not frighten the reader away. Ms. Rogers peoples the places and systems she describes with an engaging cast of characters.

In “Conserving Nature: Landscape Design as Environmental Science and Art,” she sketches one of the first ecologists, the Vermonter George Perkins Marsh, “a farmer, industrial investor, and diplomatic traveler.” A few paragraphs and one long well-chosen quote will make any reader run for Marsh’s book, “Man and Nature,” published in 1864, to find out about the beginnings of environmental consciousness, not always a subject at the top of the list as a good read.

Ms. Rogers’s most striking accomplishment is that, while she deftly retells the standard story of how design progressed from neolithic times to today so that even someone who has never read a word about landscape can clearly follow, she also takes a lot of side trips. Stonehenge, of course, but the caves of Lascaux as “landscape design”; She makes it clear why.

Though the 630 illustrations are for the most part small, they are clear and often beautiful in this well-published book. Ms. Rogers understands the value of plans and frequently couples them with photographs of the sites she describes. A lapidary 17th-century bird’s-eye view print by Johannes Kip of the palace complex at Hampton Court is twinned with an aerial photograph of the layout today.

In the caption, Ms. Rogers leads the reader directly into the space by noting that the immense old yews seen in the photograph arc also visible in the print as youthful shrubs flyspeck-sized dots at the edges of the parterres de broderie This ability to bridge the gap of centuries, something that Ms. Rogers often does with just a few words, is time travel at its very best through an unscrolling landscape of ideas and places.

— Mac Griswold

Back to top