The Inventions of Reed Hilderbrand

An interview with Gary Hilderbrand and Douglas Reed.

By William S. Saunders

In the culture of landscape architecture, the work of Reed Hilderbrand of Watertown, Massachusetts, stands out by not calling attention to itself in any brash way. It is at once highly restrained and highly refined, sensitively attuned to its sites and devoted to enhancing given qualities that the designers find worth accentuating. It is the opposite of egocentric. It seeks to create knowledge of a specific place and also a highly benevolent experience in that place. It is extraordinarily attentive and kind.

Reed Hilderbrand LLC, a firm of about 35 people under the leadership of Douglas Reed, FASLA, and Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, won three ASLA awards last year for projects—the Central Wharf, the Half-Mile Line, and the Beck House—featured in this issue of LAM. Before that, they had been recognized with ASLA awards more than a dozen times. Reed is cochair of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Hilderbrand has taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design since 1990. I’ve known them both for many years. I interviewed them on a lovely spring evening in my garden in Auburndale, Massachusetts.

WILLIAM SAUNDERS: Can you generalize about the kinds of experiences you want to foster, about the ideas and goals of your work?

GARY HILDERBRAND: Every project is different, but all our projects are attempts to help people see and know where they are. We investigate the site thoroughly before designing in order to discover what we think should be drawn out and emphasized. We ask, “What is this place? How was it formed? How is it being formed now?”

SAUNDERS: You seek the genius loci?

HILDERBRAND: That’s a literary conceit. There is no one genius of any place. We bring certain things forward.

DOUGLAS REED: We like to say in the course of our work that we reveal certain attributes or qualities of a place, but we are making critical choices and judgments that reflect values that we believe in.

SAUNDERS: What are your preferences? What do you gravitate toward? What values do you consistently foreground? Peacefulness? Calmness? Solace? Order?

REED: I like solace because I seek it! Also clarity. We work with ideas that we then translate into qualities of experience. We want people to feel connected to a place. What are the lenses we use to see a landscape? Each is very specific to its project. One might be how to help a bird species to thrive. Another might be fostering an overall ecological fitness; a third, preserving culturally important artifacts; and a fourth, creating atmospheric qualities.

HILDERBRAND: [Paul] Cézanne could see the same landscape and paint it a hundred different ways. We have to go through deliberate, self-limiting choices to decide which one to emphasize. You decide how to foreground certain things and then how to get the other things to fall into place, so that you can deliver on the promise of the value of the central thing. In one case, for instance, our main goal was to make a culturally important mountain visible after its being hidden by forest. It’s a process of abstraction, one of the defining characteristics of modernism.

SAUNDERS: I want to disagree for a minute: Your work is not all different. You guys do have an aesthetic, just as Cézanne did; your work is recognizably yours. You may decide to promote certain aspects of a site’s ecology, but even then you are constantly making aesthetic choices. What drives this aesthetic?

REED: But I abhor really self-conscious work.

SAUNDERS: You are reminding me of Ben Lewis’s BBC series, Art Safari, on several contemporary artists. Every damn one refused to explain their work at all. “It’s just some red paint.”

HILDERBRAND: Richard Serra has crippled two generations of artists by saying, “I am not going to talk about sculptures.”

REED: OK, then. Our work is about order, discipline, and a sensual way of being in the world.

HILDERBRAND: But our work is not lush and certainly not always serene. We like order as a means of allowing something to come forward. Neither of us likes chaos. The goal is to attain an organized, recognizable condition. Serenity is not the goal of our Central Wharf project.

SAUNDERS: So you are more like Mondrian than you are an abstract expressionist?

HILDERBRAND: Actually, we both love abstract expressionists like Franz Kline.

SAUNDERS: But your landscapes are not Franz Klineian!

REED: Landscape architect Patricia O’Donnell [FASLA] got it right after she heard others commenting on the simplicity of our work: She refuted that there is anything simple about the work; what she saw was a clear desire for some primary thing to come forward as legible, and other components of our designs falling into a supporting role.

HILDERBRAND: We are very much like abstract expressionists: We make choices—abstractly, viscerally, intuitively, analytically. We don’t pursue order for order’s sake, but for the sake of coherence and clarity. People sometimes mistake Dan Kiley for being order obsessed in his landscapes, but what he most cared about was delivering powerfully on the qualities of the plants. Order helped him achieve that.

REED: And the shape of space to promote a visceral experience. Kiley would open his lectures describing his walk through ancient Greek columns and liken that experience to a walk through trees in the Vermont woods.

HILDERBRAND: We are not interested in irony, for instance, or decoration, in our work. Our work always entails artifice, but not for its own sake, or as a way to cover something up. The artifice comes from careful workmanship.

REED: Our work is sometimes likened to that of Steve Stimson [FASLA] and Nelson Byrd Woltz—but there are clear differences in our work. For example, NBW often focuses on narrative representations of ecology.

HILDERBRAND: Both tend to literally translate stories or concepts. In contrast, we seek qualities and what they elicit in response.

SAUNDERS: There is an exceptional amount of flexible give and take between you and the environment—an organic working out of things, not an imposing.


SAUNDERS: What post-1945 work do you most admire? Kiley’s?

HILDERBRAND: Yes, for his love of plants and use of order. We admire the late Dieter Kienast, and Gunter Vogt, who was Kienast’s partner, for their love of the expressive possibilities of horticulture and for how their work amplifies very particular aspects of nature. Kongjian Yu’s work at the large scale, for his powerful rhetoric of environmental rescue and for the work itself. Yu has been very convincing about nature being endangered by the forces of capitalism and about the need for massive recuperation of the environment in China. What we do on small or large sites needs to accelerate nature’s positive effects and reduce all kinds of deleterious effects on the world’s biophysical regimes.

SAUNDERS: It’s hard for any landscape architect to guarantee the survival of his or her work for very long. It must be the case that only a very small percentage of landscape architecture that deserves to survive actually does. Stourheads are rare. Architecture is more durable, and poetry, having no physical body, lasts “forever.” In landscape there is the huge issue of maintenance: Some of your works include strips mown through meadows. If the mowing is neglected for a month, that part of your work disappears. Have you had nasty surprises from poor maintenance?

REED: Yes, this generates constant anxiety. In the worst case, of course, the work is destroyed. Our Children’s Therapeutic Garden in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was torn down by a developer to put up five McMansions.

SAUNDERS: Argh! I love that project! I was just going to try to go see it!

REED: There is a hierarchy of components in our work, some more important, like landforms and space and relationships to context. Secondary elements like specific plants may change. We do the best we can by telling those caring for the landscape what our intentions are.

HILDERBRAND: Yes, the big moves last. The nuances, less so. Even six months later we can be disappointed: Things don’t always go as expected. (Sometimes the surprises are delightful, though.) We return to our sites as much as we can, and often we revise, or keep going. We go to the Beck House in Dallas at least once a year, and we are back at Brandeis University and Bennington College a lot. Stewardship takes commitment and resources. It’s essential.

REED: Even world-famous landscapes are unstable. The Stowe landscape outside London has had many different realizations.

HILDERBRAND: Yes, John Vanbrugh, William Kent, Charles Bridgeman, Capability Brown, Robert Adam, all had overlays there. And those are just the headliners.

Although ecological managers might describe a singular narrative of how to keep a landscape going, they tend to get their way a lot; their arguments for ecological function have the appearance of science but have also at times been ideological. But this is changing, and scientists have become less rigid in their nature ideology in recent years. Some ecologists are also urbanists who recognize that ecology in the modern world unavoidably involves disturbance, inhabitation, and management. (Even remote forests are affected by industrialization.) We don’t just unleash nature and let it organize itself.

It’s common today to talk about projects in which “the featured ecology is going to be this.” We can anticipate certain patterns if we accelerate or excite certain variables, and we think other factors will fall into place. The firm has a project in which we are trying to improve a meadow habitat for the annual nesting of bobolinks in northeastern Ohio. If the bobolinks keep coming, a whole bunch of other beneficial relationships will also endure. If we leave the meadow to self-organize, it won’t be a meadow for long and the bobolinks won’t nest there. In this case, mowing at the right time creates a beneficial disturbance. Any landscape intervention, even mowing, alters the system.

If you mow the meadow or the lawn in your backyard, you are changing seed development and dispersal. You are adding to or subtracting from the nutrient cycling going on in the top eight inches of soil. Walk across the grass and you change things. The idea of a self-regulating forest landscape regenerating from acorns is not viable anymore. To make it seem that way, you have to keep the badgers out. When Olmsted wrote to Charles Sargent for advice on how to regenerate a tide marsh in the Fens in Boston, he was looking for grasses that would outcompete the undesirable ones that would otherwise be there and was trying to restart a system that could provide the resources for the marsh to succeed. Partly self-regulating, but mostly human effort.

This is not news: You can set up a landscape, but if you walk away, in 20 years it won’t be there. Think of Norway maples in Central Park and throughout our northeastern urban forest, or the giant trees that colonized Angkor Wat—nature will suppress all we do, if we let it, and the most adaptable things will be the ones that survive.

SAUNDERS: Despite all this instability, the vocabulary of landscape architecture is very consistent over time compared to that of art: Outdoor occupied spaces need certain basic things like paths; the genetic makeup of plants doesn’t change much over time. It is interesting to me that the rectilinear gridded bosque or at least putting trees in parallel lines keeps reappearing. Kiley used it a lot; Peter Walker [FASLA] used it at Ground Zero; Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. used it on the Mall in Washington; you used it at the Phoenix Art Museum. Somehow it remains fresh.

HILDERBRAND: The grid is natural. It stems from the efficiency of the orchard, which maximizes production, distributes air and sunlight, delivers water, and allows you to reach the fruit. I think trees are happier in a grid.

SAUNDERS: Once more, unlike other arts, landscape architecture does not allow anything near full control of its “products.” In a way, the challenge is to integrate lack of control into your thinking and strategies.

HILDERBRAND: I’d rather say integrate a degree of managed control, a range of predictability, and natural cycles.

SAUNDERS: So to what extent in your projects do you invite nature to go its own way, to just turn it loose?

HILDERBRAND: Almost never; it just becomes uninhabitable.

SAUNDERS: For the book being prepared on your work, there are some great black-and-white photos of details. Is this raw nature that you just framed?

REED: Only in part: That area was covered with poison ivy, and the boulder was engulfed in a thicket. We didn’t know it was there until we started removing the obvious invasive and undesirable plants.

SAUNDERS: This could be called “editing.” It seems that unmanaged things often look pretty [terrible]: At your Old Quarry residence, you have arranged the rocks to go from appearing very controlled to appearing uncontrolled, but in fact it’s all controlled. Nature left alone in the “before” picture looks like a chaotic mess. I guess it would need decades to look coherent.

HILDERBRAND: I wouldn’t say “chaos” at Old Quarry; it’s the refuse of extraction, and colonizing plants getting along pretty well with very limited resources. We just reordered the quarry and improved the balance of resources in the soil. But these examples show something we value: nature at work. We reorganize, and the plants compete with each other, reaching for the light, in some kind of balance.

REED: It will not look quite that way in two years.

SAUNDERS: One of your projects is a meadow, some woods, a mowed seating area, and paths.

Where is nature in charge and where are you in charge? You have humanized some areas but seem to be gradually yielding to the nonhuman. In East Hampton, you created a meadow and cut a path through it to a house.

In this case you seem to be tipping your hats to a fair amount of wildness, to be setting up the less controlled: grasses that tickle you as you walk.

HILDERBRAND: We automatically think about growth, and annual plant cycles, and cycles beyond that. We are anticipating varying appearances.

REED: In East Hampton we chose a meadow to relate more to the agricultural past and adjacent context of the property—this used to be a potato field. The meadow is a garden with very particular grasses—if new species intrude that distract from the idea and the chosen texture, we remove them.

HILDERBRAND: There’s a modernist thing going on here: an inversion of the lawn. The lawn path has here become a figure, not a background. The field is an abstraction of fields.

SAUNDERS: “Fieldness”?

HILDERBRAND: Sure, you could say that. This carries through our work a lot, and we always saw this in Kiley’s work. It’s a modernist trait: Turn convention on its head. Turn it toward invention.

SAUNDERS: Are there things that bug you in landscape architecture now? Has landscape urbanism been bad for aesthetics?

HILDERBRAND: The conversation around landscape urbanism has been great in that it has forced the world to take better account of natural systems in processes of urbanization: We no longer bury the rivers. This is a gigantic game changer, but whatever the rhetoric, at bottom, it’s landscape architecture as we’ve known it for 150 years. The biggest urban landscape effort going on right now is the Brooklyn waterfront, and it’s landscape architecture. Landscape issues have reached a much broader audience: Look at the fact that New York City residents are supporting waterfront parks with hundreds of millions in investment.

REED: Landscape architecture is receiving increased recognition for the breadth, complexity, and comprehensive nature of its services—and for how transformative the work can be.

William S. Saunders, LAM’s new book review editor, is the recently retired editor of Harvard Design Magazine, author of books on architecture and poetry, and editor of books including ones on landscape architects Kongjian Yu, ASLA; Richard Haag, FASLA; and Dan Kiley.

One thought on “The Inventions of Reed Hilderbrand”

Leave a Reply