Few major architects have centennial exhibitions highlighting how some of their works are “dying quiet deaths,” but that is part of the legacy of Dan Kiley. The landscape architect created over 1,000 modernist designs, often collaborating with some of the most iconic names of the 20th century, yet his influence is often unrecognized.
The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley opened earlier this month at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The traveling exhibition of photographs of 27 of Kiley’s projects debuted at the Boston Architectural College in November, and is organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) as part of their Landslide initiative focused on at-risk landscapes.
Kiley, who was born in 1912 and died in 2004, collaborated with 20th century icons like Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and I.M. Pei. Influenced by their modernism, he also took inspiration from the geometric planning of 17th-century landscape designer André Le Nôtre, best known for his orderly gardens for Louis XIV at Versailles. As TCLF Founder and President Charles Birnbaum writes in an essay about the exhibition, The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley opens at a time when there a resurgence of contemporary focus on landscape architecture through high-profile projects like the High Line in New York. Too frequently, as he quotes from landscape architect Thomas Church, it has been viewed as just “parsley around the roast.” Birnbaum writes:
“Surprisingly for a practitioner of this import — on a par with Eero Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — the recent centennial of [Kiley’s] birth came and went without much fanfare. This reflects more broadly the imbalance of values placed on landscape architecture vs. architecture, and also on the lack of understanding and awareness of the former. Hence this exhibition […] The goal is to promote informed stewardship of these sites.”
The exhibition itself is centered on 45 photographs of the sites as they look now, showing both the good and the bad, the preserved, the altered, and the deteriorating. To add to the dialogue, an online exhibition delves into 28 of Kiley’s projects, giving for each site a plan and description with its current condition, as well as how visible Kiley’s name is with the landscape. For example, the Dallas Museum of Art garden gets a B for its condition status — which is good but “needs some work” — but a C+ in visibility for a “casual mention of Kiley.”
There are significant challenges of preserving these modernist landscapes, especially at museums that are constantly in need of expansion (see the current debate over the alteration of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden designed by Kiley contemporary Philip Johnson), and in the materials of water, stone, and concrete that require conservation attention that often gets overlooked for the adjacent buildings. And perhaps sometimes Kiley’s architecture was too successful in creating these urban places of quiet, so that subtle geometry of balanced space is almost invisible as something designed.
As landscape architect Henry Arnold wrote in regards to the 1958 landscape at Rockefeller University in New York:
“The distinguishing feature of a Kiley landscape was the use of a limited palette of plant types and inert materials in bold geometric patterns to achieve a coherent restful landscape. The simplicity of such an approach created a kind of materialized poetry in a quiet precinct of a noisy turbulent city.”
You may have experienced a Kiley landscape without knowing it. There’s his 1962 grid-based Art Institute of Chicago South Garden that frames sculptures and trees with a rectangular pool as a sort of modernist grove, as well as the lush respite of the 1964 atrium garden at the Ford Foundation in New York. Then there are the more experimental projects like his “aerial gardens” at the Colorado Springs United States Air Force Academy from 1968, meant to be experienced as much from those soaring in the air as those on the ground. These projects in the exhibition only cut into a small part of Kiley’s career. However, this is not meant to be a total retrospective, but something to spark attention, to give those spaces where Kiley worked for a harmony between nature and the manmade a higher profile that mirrors the influence he had on our experience with architectural space.
The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley is at the National Building Museum (401 F St NW, Washington, DC) through May 18.