The challenge of any exhibition about the built environment — landscape, engineering, architecture, interiors — is that you are always showing representations of a thing that exists with greater richness and dimension elsewhere.
The New American Garden, a show of work by landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden at the 937 Gallery, rises to this challenge with a series of richly envisioned and elegantly framed photographic prints of projects including gardens for governmental entities, often in Washington, D.C. (though the Native Plant and Azalea Garden at the New York Botanical Garden is a pivotal work), as well as lavish residences further afield.
In an era when American landscape architecture typically included precisely manicured plantings, Oehme, van Sweden designed freer swaths of species grouped in broader swaths, with more indigenous plants and perennials. Their work spurred the New American Garden movement, with reduced maintenance and reliance on herbicides as added advantages.
The work was more meaningful, not just more relaxed. Oehme, van Sweden’s redesign of gardens for the Federal Reserve Building in Washington D.C., puts wavy prairie grasses and a few lush indigenous species where European ornamentals had once been. It becomes “a reflection of the United States and its egalitarian heritage,” said former Governor of the Federal Reserve Board David Lilly in published comments.
A similar sense of identity and place marked large residential landscape projects, making them seem suitable rather than grand. An unnamed Nantucket residence, in low but sprawling shingled architecture, is cosseted by local grasses in suitably shallow waves, weaving the house and grounds to the beach and sea along a picturesque horizon.
For Pittsburgh, the connection is Parks Conservancy curator Susan Rademacher, who worked with the Cultural Landscape Foundation and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to bring the show here, and participated in an opening presentation with Oehme, van Sweden principal Eric Groft. (Both Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden passed away in recent years.) The former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, Rademacher co-wrote Bold American Gardens in collaboration with the firm’s founding partners. This show has precious little text, but getting the book lets you benefit from Rademacher’s encyclopedic knowledge and truly superlative design writing.
The photos and projects are beautiful on their own, but also as an exhortation to examine the work in its various real and documentary manifestations.