James Rose: Part 1

The following text is part of a series on my studies of James Rose. This work won an honor award from the Washington ASLA.

Meandering through the field;The Structure of Feeling in James Rose’s Landscape Models. 


James Rose was one of the founders of Modern Landscape Architecture. His membership in a core group of young landscape architects attending Harvard University placed him in at the center of the field just as it was beginning to open up to modernist ideas already influencing art and architecture. In the late 1930s Rose wrote a series of short, provocative articles which set forth the essential values of landscape modernism and rejected the historical styles of Beaux-Arts and Romanticism. Written in clear and impactful language, these texts constitute a Manifesto which called for new forms of expression, and for a revolution in the process of landscape design in the modern era.

In addition to his writings on landscape theory, Rose built landscape models that took the form of modern sculpture. These models were, similar to those of other architects’, representations of specific site designs. They were also pieces of art in and of themselves. Rose took the landscape garden to be living sculpture and integrated his life and practice with the landscapes he designed.1 This paper examines the idea that Rose’s models, taken with his writings, represent a design process, and may be understood as a form of landscape language which was often undifferentiated from the sites they represented. This sculptural quality, keenly influenced by Kurt Schwitters’s Merz sculptures, enabled Rose to find new ways to express meaning in the landscape at a human scale, befitting the zeitgeist of America in the Modern Age.

In his youth, James Rose did not spend much time in the classroom, prefiguring his life work as a landscape designer in the field. He did not finish high school, reportedly due to the simple fact that he refused to take required music and mechanical drafting courses. When he was offered admission to Harvard University to study architecture in 1937 he had previously attended college only briefly. It wasn’t long before Rose found himself in conflict with his instructors in the Harvard studios. The school taught a deterministic approach to interpreting and designing landscapes—and to defining meaning in the landscape—based on the historical traditions of Beaux-Arts and Romanticism. Rose objected to the idea that form and space in the built landscape were to be programed with meaning by the aloof designer. Instead, Rose was in search of a new approach which spoke to the actual ways that people experienced the everyday world. “Architects have made no attempt to express any human experience outside the walls of a building.” He believed that “the intrinsic beauty and meaning of a landscape design come from the organic relationship between materials and the division of space in volume to express and satisfy the use for which it is intended.”