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REVIEWS: Making a Landscape a Continuity: The Practice of Innocenti and Webel

Making a Landscape of Continuity: The Practice of Innocenti and Webel presents an image of a firm which, for more than sixty years, has predicated its success upon adapting a pre-modern landscape tradition. Derived from an exhibition of the same name, it is a gracious and intelligent appreciation of its subject which should be useful to designers and informative to the general audience. While uncritical in its treatment of Innocenti and Webel, it is through their story that the book raises important critical issues addressed by landscape architects throughout this century. Paramount among these are the persistent formal v. natural intellectual framework; the nature of pictorialism in spatial design; the dialectic of history and innovation; and, especially, the meaning and value of continuity itself.

Evelyn Marshall Field residence Samuel Gottscho
View of forecourt, Evelyn Marshall Field residence, Syosset, East Norwich, Long Island, 1932-34

Consider Richard K. Webel, chief protagonist of the book and the perfect "modern" landscape architect — according to the precepts of Hubbard and Kimball's An Introduction to the Study of Landscape Design (1917). Hubbard and Kimball's work was the "bible" for aspiring landscape architects when Webel was a student at Harvard in the mid-twenties, and a book burned by modern landscape rebels in the thirties. It divided all landscape history into formal (humanized) and informal (naturalized) styles. It preached "adaptation" of European historic precedent and the utility of classical formulae, emphasizing a pictorial and typological approach as the basis for contemporary design. Webel learned its method well and, on graduating, became a fellow at the American Academy in Rome where he experienced great historical landscapes directly. Here he produced beautiful representational watercolor plans and cross sections, some of which are reproduced in the book. Having thus internalized a relationship between pictorialism and real space, Webel returned to the States three years later. With such academic training, supplemented by practical experience in the offices of Warren Manning, Bremmer Pond and especially Vitale and Geiffert, Webel began a decade of teaching at Harvard in 1930, during which he saw his own design foundation severely challenged and ultimately rejected. He opened his practice with Umberto Innocenti in 1931.

Umberto Innocenti is presented as the perfect complement to Webel. Although he too had academic training as a landscape architect, it was Innocenti's practical horticultural background and field experience at Vitale and Geiffert which best equipped him to manage their jobs on the site. In the earlier years of the firm (Innocenti died in 1968) he was at the sites almost continually, challenging the crews, talking to the clients, making the necessary adjustments to Webel's plans when conditions warranted it. It was Innocenti who supervised the planting of extremely large trees which helped to instantly create the impression of a landscape which had always been there. Innocenti's considerable skills, and to a minor extent those of Janet Darling Webel, are revealed in a very favorable, if less brilliant, light than those of RKW, as he is referred to by his son Richard C. Webel. It is the younger Webel, we are told, now the managing partner of Innocenti and Webel, who provided much of the material and insight for the book and whose own account of his father's practices — an annotated assemblage of RKW's recollections — provides an insightful and affectionate contribution, complementing Gary Hilderbrand's thoughtful, well-crafted essay.

Of course, the centerpiece of the book is the of work itself — fourteen projects of several types executed between 1931 and the present — a small (perhaps too small) sampling from the hundreds of the firm's commissions. Selected projects range from great estates on Long Island to large-scale corporate and public works and include the Evelyn Marshall Field Residence (1932 — 34), Reader's Digest Headquarters (1952 — 68), Rector Park (1984 — 86) and Furman University (1952 — present). Although project types vary and span several decades, the work presented is remarkably consistent in many ways, underscoring the book's theme of continuity. In almost all these projects we find orthogonal, pictorial compositions on large sites; single species of trees planted regularly on center in straight rows, forming powerful spatial allées; and a clear appreciation for craftsmanship in design. Many of these projects (the earlier ones) are well-represented through the meticulously composed, space-depicting, black and white photographs of Samuel Gottscho, and all benefit from Hilderbrand's equally meticulous, lucid and thought-provoking descriptions. Unfortunately only half include plans and/or sections, some of which are too small or illegible to be of much use. Various appendices, including a well-illustrated chronology, complete this story of a firm which, for the most part, has adhered to the principles of design and methods of practice from which it sprung in the twenties, despite tremendous change throughout the 20th century.

Contemporary designers stand to benefit much from this particular work and from revisiting pre-modern design principles, generally. The author cites our penchant for mathematical ordering and, especially, our affinity for using trees to make physical space as the main constants in landscape design, connecting us even beyond the two ends of this century. In the work of Innocenti and Webel this often results in an inspiring spatial clarity, when perfect scenes "painted" from a single privileged vantage point are transmuted into continuous, spatial landscape experiences. One important caveat: from a contemporary perspective it should be clear that continuity in spatial design depends upon responding to the realities of one's own time, as well as coming to terms with the "tried and true" lessons of history.

The author, generously, suggests that Innocenti and Webel would do things differently now, but there is little evidence in the to support this in any meaningful way. And it must be noted that profound, evolving spatial ideas reflecting breakthroughs in science, art and culture extant from the beginning of the 20th century find little expression in this work. As such, it is a landscape continuous with some things, but severed from others.

For students of design, this should take nothing away from the work, and certainly not from its excellent, affirming presentation in this book. In our pre-millennium reevaluation of the relevance of history to design, as we look for continuity with our heritage and fluency with our world, we will benefit from this book's appreciation of the centrality of space in these designs. Look for it especially among some wonderful old gardens out on Long Island, just past Jay Gatsby's place on a perfect summer afternoon. There, at the other end of a long blue allée of those "mature and well-bred leafy aristocrats" are Innocenti and Webel staring back at the rolling clouds and occasional flashes over the Atlantic, looking almost as if they had always been there.

Dean Cardasis is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; director of the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design in Ridgewood, NJ, and a practicing landscape architect.

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