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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

By Ronen Zilberman, Star-Bulletin
Tamarind Square was designed by Jim Hubbard.

History is part
of the landscape

Interest is growing in preserving
historic landscapes and gardens

By Burl Burlingame

Almost everyone understands the cultural value of historic buildings and neighborhoods. But these things don't exist in a vacuum. They're part of the landscape.

The land on which a structure is placed is like the gallery around a painting, both setting it off and complementing it.

This year's "Experts at the Palace" series of free historic-preservation lectures includes segments on historic landscapes and gardens. One of the speakers, landscape architect Loriann Gordon, explained the concept: "My practice is NOT about recreating the past," she says, "but to understand the context of what we have now, you have to know the history."

No one seems to know whether ancient Hawaiians grew gardens for any reason other than for food, and the missionaries planted New England-style foliage around their homes out of nostalgia. Public parks and gardens are a notion that arose only near the end of the 1800s. Previously, such grand spaces were private playgrounds of aristocracy.

By Ronen Zilberman, Star-Bulletin
Thomas Square, with its stately trees, is the work
of Hawaii's first landscape architect, Catherine Thompson.

"The treatment of the landscape is a byproduct of the values of the time," said Gordon. "Landscape in America represents our democratic values. For example, the invention of sidewalks, which didn't exist in Europe. They mean that anyone can walk anywhere they want, right across other people's property.

"And there's the notion that nature belongs to everybody, it's a common, shared responsibility. As the European countryside became more designed -- broken into farms and managed forests -- people longed for wilder, more natural forms. It's a matter of balance. Man needs to feel he's part of the landscape.

"In America, the attitude toward the landscape was religiously Puritan; that it was God's garden, not to be managed by man. To enjoy the aesthetic of the landscape was un-American. In fact, prior to 1894, you can find no reference to color or fragrance in writings about American gardens. That's not that long ago."

That changed as parks and gardens became part of the cultural commonwealth of a community, as cities and municipalities became more organized to support the infrastructure of modern urban life.

"Things changed, from the expectation of utility from the landscape, to statements of social authoritarianism," said Gordon. "But when people are surveyed about what they miss about the past, it's the sense of place and belonging, typified by basic things, like trees on the street."


Let's keep in mind that designed public landscapes, from the hedge around a water-pumping station to the vast spaces of Kapiolani Park to the fake wilderness of New York's Central Park, are artificial creations. They just use trees and and grass instead of bricks and mortar.

Gordon said there are only four real innovations in landscaping:

Bullet The Roman idea of confining the landscape to an enclosed space, of putting on boundaries.

Bullet Topiary, or shaping vegetation, which is French.

Bullet The English gardening tradition, as the craft became the passion of the middle class rather than aristocrats.

Bullet And from America, the lawn.

"Such lawns don't exist anywhere else in the world, even though they were invented in Tudor times in England," said Gordon. "Such a democratic ideal, uninterrupted lawns, flowing from house to house. Lawns are a community decision, and lawn upkeep is often a result of community pressure.

"America has 50,000 square miles of lawns, worth $30 billion, and these lawns use more herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than any industry. Environmentally, lawns are a disaster."

Inspired by examples of great municipal parks and gardens elsewhere, Hawaii's royalty -- and later, local government -- began creating managed spaces such as Kapiolani Park. Suddenly, there was a need for a new type of designer, the landscape architect.

"Landscape architecture is a discipline within a discipline," said Gordon. "Virtually everything in America is built by do-it-yourself "vernacular' architectural styles; only about 5 percent of the buildings are designed by professional architects, and that goes for public space too.

"It's not 'art.' Art answers to no one, but landscaping answers to everyone."

The lessons learned overseas had to be modified for Hawaii.

"The European style of landscape architecture doesn't translate well to the tropics. We are too coarse-textured, with bigger leaves, so we need bigger spaces," said Gordon. "And different ethnic groups affect the details of landscape design.

"One of the innovations in planning Hawaii's landscape was the introduction of stately trees. The endemic landscape of Hawaii, prior to Westernization, didn't have many trees."

Like it did so many things, the war changed everything, even the way we approach the landscape.

"Large municipal projects, prior to World War II, were placed into the hands of stewards of vision, whose job it was to balance all the elements, built and natural," said Gordon. "But since the war, planning has been in the hands of engineers, who focus on the construction and efficiency of the infrastructure, not on a broad-brush vision. The whole of the landscape was at the bottom of the priority list.

"Streets got wider, to move cars. Trees got smaller, as older trees disappeared. Gardens vanished, as people stopped growing their own food. The front yard, the lawn, became a social calling card. The back yard became a tiny, highly private space."

Not much has been done in Hawaii since the war, except maintenance and tweaking. The parks we have now were created a century or more ago.

"All great cities have great parks, a natural place, like Central Park or Golden Gate Park," points out Gordon. "Honolulu needs a great park on that scale, and the ideal place to put it is the Ala Wai Golf course."


While you're mulling over that grand vision, you can check out the public portfolios of Hawaii's other landscape architects, who have influenced the way we interact with the environment:

Bullet Catherine Thompson, Hawaii's first licensed landscape architect. Her work features large specimen trees, moon gardens -- plants that bloom white at night -- indigenous plants and Asian motifs. Her work lives on today in Thomas Square, Punchbowl, the Academy of Arts, Washington Place, the Pacific Club, Irwin Park and Board of Water Supply pumping stations, which, sadly, aren't kept up as well as they used to be.

Bullet Richard Tongg is responsible for the "aesthetic for hotels that has become the standard worldwide," said Gordon. "He'd contrast the formal lines of the hotel against lush, colorful plant massings in organic forms. He was the first guy to transplant coconut palms. He moved a bunch of palms overnight and planted them by the A&B Building and just floored everyone. ... (He) studied in China and Japan and examined zen gardens, and was keen on the placement of stones." You can see his work at Honolulu Hale; Honolulu Airport; and the Doris Duke, Kaiser and Booth estates.

Bullet George Walters, who grew up in lighthouses, embraced the California style -- very clear, geometric and architectural. "His stuff looks like the '60s. He only worked at it for 18 years before passing away." He did many city properties, the Queen Emma Gardens and the Kona Airport.

Bullet Jim Hubbard's work is also "architectural in character, but softer, unstated and elegant. A lot of earth tones." His work includes Tamarind Square, the Queen Emma Summer Palace and the Contemporary Art Museum garden.

Bullet Paul Weissich was a park planner for the City and County of Honolulu, responsible for the original tree inventory, and establishing botanical gardens that cover the range species in the islands, such as at Foster, Wahiawa and Koko Crater botanical gardens. "He was a profound educator," said Gordon.

Experts at the Palace

A free lecture series on historic preservation takes place at noon Thursdays at the Old Archives Building on the grounds of Iolani Palace. Call 956-8570. The topics:

Bullet Thursday: "Life in Chinese Gardens -- Impressions of a Honolulu Journalist," Mike Leideman, Honolulu Advertiser
Bullet Feb. 8: "Digging Through Sugar's History in Hawai'i -- Stories from the Archives," Carol MacLennan, Michigan Technical University
Bullet Feb. 15: "Submerged Cultural Resources -- More Than Rust and Rotting Wood," Han Van Tilburg, UH Marine Archaeology instructor
Bullet March 8: "Historic Gardens and Landscapes in Hawai'i -- A Look at Significant Designers of the Past," Loriann Gordon, landscape architect
Bullet March 15: "Worshipping Our Ancestors -- Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawaii," Lorraine Minotoishi-Palumbo, Mason Architects
Bullet March 22: "Imagining Shangri-La -- Doris Duke's Estate at Ka'alawai," Deborah Pope, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art
Bullet March 29: "Purveyors of Illusion -- Hawai'i's Historic Theatres," Lowell Angell, Theatre Historical Society of America

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