“This Garden Changed My Life”

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Robust plantings define intimate outdoor rooms. 

The National Building Museum has a new exhibition important to all garden lovers and designers, “The New American Garden: The Landscape Architecture of Oehme, van Sweden.” Organized by the DC-based Cultural Landscape Foundation (www.tclf.org), the exhibition runs through May 1, 2016. Oehme Van Sweden & Associates (www.ovsla.com), a world renowned firm, was founded in 1975 as a partnership between German immigrant, landscape architect, and plantsman Wolfgang Oehme and Michigan-born architect and landscape architect James van Sweden. The firm’s studio has occupied the repurposed bank at the corner of Eighth and G streets SE since 1987. Although Oehme and van Sweden died in 2011 and 2013 respectively, the firm continues as OvS at the same location, with three partners who worked for decades with the founders, plus a staff of nearly 20.

Gardens and Landscapes on Display

The exhibition includes dozens of sumptuous largescale landscape images of the firm’s work by 18 notable photographers, including DC’s Roger Foley. Also on display are many design drawings, including some very early ones, showing a distinctly mid-century Modernist signature. This early work has an affinity to landscape architects and contemporaries Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx, and American Dan Kiley. Kiley worked locally on projects ranging from 100 Hollin Hills backyard designs in the 1940s to the 1963 Dulles Airport landscape. Both men are cited as early influences by Oehme and van Sweden.

Anyone who has designed a garden on paper will enjoy seeing these landscape plans, which will not travel with the photos when the show hits the road next spring. Some garden art, including a Henry Moore sculpture, outdoor furniture, and a line of organic formed oversized planters designed by van Sweden for Siebert & Rice, are included, plus video displays featuring interviews with the designers and others. A 66-page catalog available from the Cultural Landscape Foundation rounds out the exhibition, curated by Charles Birnbaum and Nord Wennerstrom of the foundation, in collaboration with the National Building Museum’s senior curator, G. Martin Moeller Jr.

Horticulture an Equal Partner

Together, Oehme (pronounced “ooma”) and van Sweden set off a horticultural revolution from their Capitol Hill studio. First they championed many North American native plants, and through collaboration with local wholesale growers like Kurt Bluemel (www.kurtbluemel.com) helped make some of them commercially available again or for the first time. Maryland’s state flower, the black-eyed Susan (Rudebekia fulgida), is one example of such an overlooked native. Next they made laborious planting plan studies in the studio to assure that their landscapes would have seasonal interest throughout the year. Says OvS partner Eric Groft, “They felt that all color was good, and they made horticulture an equal partner in all we do.”

Oehme and van Sweden can also be credited with popularizing mass plantings of native grasses. Says exhibit curator Birnbaum, “They used an enormous plant palette and planted in huge quantities.” Densely planted drifts of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) may seem common in our area today, but its popularity, commercial availability, and winter beauty (if not chopped down in November by over-eager maintenance crews) can be traced right to the doorstep of the OvS building at Eighth and G.

Oehme and van Sweden were also known for being a strong presence at job sites during planting, adjusting the layout, directing contractors, and bringing landscape architect staff outside and “getting our hands in the soil,” as Groft says.

The National Building Museum exhibit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the publication of “Bold Romantic Gardens: The New World Landscape of Oehme and van Sweden.” This book helped garner acceptance and popularization of a wilder, more expressive garden style. That van Sweden published his work and ideas in this and numerous other books, says Birnbaum, gave the work a platform that helped bring the firm to national prominence, and laid out the firm’s philosophy and aesthetic of horticultural exuberance.

Scalability and Longevity

In 1962, before partnering with van Sweden, Wolfgang Oehme designed a Baltimore backyard that flipped the customary spatial relationship of lawn and plant beds on its head, employing masses of perennials and hardly any lawn, to create intimate outdoor rooms. Amazingly this garden survives, true to its original design, under the loving care of its now 99-year-old original owner, Mrs. Vollmer. “This garden changed my life,” she says today.

A similar pattern of long-term relationships between designer and client is in evidence with Ovs’s work on Capitol Hill. Begun in 1995, another repurposed bank at Ninth and East Capitol Street also reverses the typical figure-ground relationship of lawn and plantings, employing masses of grasses (Panicum virgatum), astilbe, hosta, rudebekia, and more to provide privacy and create outdoor rooms for seating and sculpture. Jokes OvS partner Groft, “You’d better like us because we’re going to be together for a long time.”

A generation earlier, landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, designer of Dumbarton Oaks, maintained similar lifelong client relationships. As anyone who has lived somewhere a long time knows, gardens and landscapes mature slowly and benefit from ongoing design direction and refinement.

The design model developed by Oehme and van Sweden at the residential scale was successfully employed on larger projects, starting with the firm’s 1977 breakout project for the US Federal Reserve Board. This scalability is in evidence at the Hill Center on Pennsylvania Avenue and at the Townhomes on Capitol Hill, southwest of Seventh and G streets. According to Groft, “We love working at all scales – it keeps the work exciting.”

Legacy and Evolution

Oehme van Sweden and Associates, now OvS, is a successful design firm by many measures. It has thrived beyond the tenure of its founders. It has mentored many young landscape architects now reaching their own professional maturity. It maintains visibility and relevance with the help of numerous books written by its founders in collaboration with others, and with exhibitions such as the current show at the National Building Museum.

Several local landscape architects spent formative years at Oehme van Sweden and Associates, including Ryan Moody (www.moodyla.com/), Sandra Clinton (www.clinton-la.com/), and Thomas Ranier, whose recent book, “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” co-authored with another Oehme protegee, Claudia West, advances the planting paradigm to encourage naturally occurring plant communities (http://landscapeofmeaning.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-collaboration-teaming-with-claudia.html). In this way OvS’s work evolves and remains current.

But what about the landscapes themselves? More than a pretty picture, they are meant to be experienced, and for that they must survive. Nearly half of the 21 projects featured in “Bold Romantic Gardens: The New World Landscape of Oehme and van Sweden” have already been lost. Others, like Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue just east of the White House, whose planting plan was designed by the firm, face demolition by neglect. Unlike sculpture or paintings, landscape architects do not sign their work, nor does the public often realize that outdoor spaces were designed just as architects design buildings.

An undercurrent of warning of the need for recognition and preservation runs through the current Oehme van Sweden exhibition. The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s founder, Charles Birnbaum, a tireless landscape preservation advocate, has created the Landslide program (http://tclf.org/landslide/) to highlight at-risk designed landscapes across America. Promoting Oehme and van Sweden’s legacy beyond the local design community will hopefully be one outcome of the retrospective now on display at the National Building Museum.

Dense perennial plantings, such as those at this Capitol Hill residence, are a signature style developed by Oehme van Sweden.
Penstemon “Husker’s Red” thrives at the Hill Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. Landscape plan is by Oehme van Sweden and Associates.
In these Southeast townhouses continuity of perennial plantings, such as these salvia in bloom, help create an identity for the development.

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect in private practice serving Capitol Hill and beyond (www.cherylcorson.com). She learned a great deal about historic landscape preservation as an intern to Charles Birnbaum over 20 years ago.

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