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Review

Landscape Architecture in Canada

By Ron Williams

February 13, 2015

Review By Larry McCann

Landscape Architecture in Canada is Ron Williams’ magnum opus, the likely capstone of a distinguished career as researcher, teacher, and practitioner. It is a fine scholarly effort, more than fifteen years in the making. Until its publication, there was no in-depth treatment of landscape architecture in Canada. Now we have an expertly conceived study that examines the subject from various perspectives: historical, regional and most importantly, from a thematic point of view. The book’s seminal importance is reminiscent of Harold Kalman’s path-breaking architectural synthesis, A History of Canadian Architecture (1994), and of the team-authored, multi-disciplinary volumes of the Historical Atlas of Canada (1987-93).

According to Williams, “landscape architecture involves the design, planning, management, and conservation of exterior spaces. It is . . . a social art, focusing on the creation of places for people to circulate, to relax, to develop, and to undertake various activities both workaday and recreational. It is also an environmental art  . . . The ultimate goal of landscape architects . . . is to help integrate people into their environment” [3; my italics]. Artistry and practicality are central to the practice of landscape architecture. Williams returns time and again to the duality of these overarching design and planning principles when discussing the evolutionary trajectory of his subject matter.

The book’s principal objective is quite general, simply: “ . . . to provide the Canadian landscape architect, members of related professions, and the public with an overview of the development of “designed landscapes” in Canada” [3; my italics]. It achieves this goal, and yes, the book will appeal to many people, not least specialists in related fields. Gardeners, surveyors, horticulturalists, engineers and architects, amongst other professionals, have contributed significantly to the development of landscape architecture, most notably before the mid-twentieth century. Appropriately, contributions from these related fields are given proper due, especially in early chapters. But throughout the book, it is evident that Williams, a professeur honoraire d’architecture de paysage at the Université de Montréal, has been greatly influenced by the cultural geographer J. B. Jackson’s approach to landscape analysis. The vernacular landscape receives a great deal of attention from Williams’ searching eye, despite some puzzling omissions, like a serious discussion of commonplace gridiron street platting and subdivisions. Surely these landscape elements are tied to the landscape architect’s oeuvre, if not in the past, then now through the medium of the New Urbanism?

To achieve the book’s broad, sweeping objective, different research strategies are employed. The practice of “going to the ground” — as all landscape specialists must do — is just as important for Williams as digging deeply into the scholarly literature. Archival source materials are pragmatically avoided. Instead, Williams has crisscrossed Canada multiple times to observe, interpret, and photograph the landscapes about which he writes with insight and in such a pleasing way. Equally reassuring is Williams’ recourse to a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary literature: he values the specialized writings and knowledge of others who have researched and written about particular Canadian landscapes. The reference bibliography is very deep indeed. Williams’ photography embellishes the book; his son has drawn valuable contextual maps. McGill-Queen’s University Press, supported by grants from many outside sources under the umbrella of the Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation, has done an admirable job of producing Landscape Architecture in Canada.

Recognizing the value of collaboration, Williams consulted widely with colleagues to develop a multi-disciplinary framework of analysis that would satisfy a diverse audience and do justice to the subject matter. The resultant, paradoxically straightforward yet sophisticated framework is broadly evolutionary and thoroughly supported by thematic and regional analysis. Williams aspired to examine basic patterns of historical change for specific types of landscape elements — gardens, parks, university campuses, cemeteries, suburbs, shopping malls, town centres, and many more — which is sensible and realistic, given the book’s central purpose. Contemporary practices of the landscape architect, for example sustainable design and conservation, are also examined. Throughout the book, the historical analysis and discussion of various historic landscapes remains richly nuanced; we are well served by Williams’ framework.

Landscape Architecture in Canada comprises four major historically-fashioned sections, including “the nineteenth century: challenges of an urban and industrial landscape” and “birth of the modern landscape, from 1945 to the present day.” Within each section, major themes are brought to the fore, for example, “public and private gardens” and “new ideals in urban design: garden city and city beautiful.” These themes are the basic components of Canada’s designed and vernacular landscapes. Within a theme, important sub-themes and regional examples are discussed. Some of the sub-themes are singled out for detailed examination as case studies. Several will be of particular interest to readers of BC Studies. For instance, Williams’ “Japanese gardens of reconciliation” is a well-conceived historical and thematic synopsis, an important contribution to current research interests directed towards the Japanese experience in western Canada.

We learn much about these essential elements and types of landscapes, of the forces that shaped them, and of the key practitioners who have defined the practice of landscape architecture in Canada — Frederick Todd, Rickson Outhet, the Olmsteds of Boston, Thomas Mawson and Sons of England, Lorrie and Howard Dunington-Grubb, Cornelia Oberlander, and others. What is distinctive of Williams’s approach, however, is that he so successfully charts the threads and trajectories of landscape types or elements over time and space, that is, through their various and successive stages of development and regional expression, viz. from picturesque villas to the cottage orné and large country estates of eastern Canada, and on to the modernist house and garden of the West Coast; from colonial townscapes to the garden city and beyond, including Canada’s resource towns; from rural cemeteries to their most recent urban counterparts; and so on. Regrettably, the book’s index fails to record these threads, leaving the task of stitching together and synthesizing the trajectory of a “thread” to the reader. But to his credit, and this is a major accomplishment, Williams has successfully achieved a regional balance in bringing forth thematic and elemental examples, proof that “going to the ground” remains all-important for researchers and students of Canadian landscape architecture.

In sum, Landscape Architecture in Canada is a book that should inspire current and future students of landscape architecture to add depth to our understanding of landscape studies in Canada. It will definitely give great pleasure to professional landscape practitioners and to the general public who are curious to know more about the designed and vernacular elements that define the Canadian landscape.

Landscape Architecture in Canada
Ron Williams
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014, 664 pp. $65.00 cloth