Landscape design is an odd corner of the visual arts. Designers have artistic skills, but they must understand botany, soils, hydrology, building -- and society too, because they create many public facilities. Unlike painting or sculpture, landscape design is a collaborative activity that involves architects, gardeners, and government officials.
Created the "Prairie Style"
Jens Jensen (1860-1951), one of America's great landscape designers, created the "Prairie Style" of landscape design that married the garden to surrounding nature. Instead of cultivating exotic vegetation in tightly ordered patterns, he employed native plant species in outdoor environments with long views, curving paths and roads, sun-openings and meadows, rivers and waterfalls, and stonework.
Jensen was also an urban visionary, a social reformer and a conservationist who knew Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Cowles, the father of ecology. He was far ahead of his time and often ignored. We still have much to learn from him.
"A Force of Nature: The Life and Work of Jens Jensen" is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, Mar. 9-July 28, 2002. This, the first major Jensen retrospective, features original landscape design drawings, historic and contemporary photographs of Jensen landscapes, and memorabilia and audio-visual presentations.
Emigrating from Denmark to Chicago in 1884, Jensen started working for the city parks two years later and eventually rose to a position of importance. On weekend walks in the countryside, he developed a feel for the flatness of the Illinois landscape, discovered that the prairie is a mosaic of wet and dry areas, and learned indigenous plants.
The Prairie School landscape designs that grew from these experiences are a civilized, somewhat romanticized version of the Illinois tall-grass prairie and oak savanna. Jensen designed curving paths and roads because there are few straight lines in nature and created grass-lined artificial streams that he called prairie rivers.
Jensen designed structures for his landscapes that suggest limestone outcroppings. He built these from broad flat stones with weathered edges and held them together with deeply recessed mortar. In parks, he provided circular stone benches, often with a flat hearthstone at the center, for small gatherings, story telling, campfires and communing with nature. The ring, which represents democracy, is "one of the great symbols of mankind," he said.
Friendship with Wright
If Jensen's notions of landscape design sound familiar, it is because they were advanced in somewhat different form by Frank Lloyd Wright and other members of the Prairie School of architecture. These men believed that building designs should follow the long, flat lines of the Midwestern landscape -- and they favored natural stone. Jensen and Wright collaborated on five residential projects between 1908 and 1936, including the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Jensen developed a landscape design for Coonley's estate in 1913, but the work may not have been completed as planned.
Both Jensen and Wright dreamed of founding their own schools. In 1932, Wright started an architectural apprenticeship program at Taliesin, his estate in Spring Green, Wisc. In 1934, Jensen opened the Clearings, his own school, in Ellison Bay, Wisc. Like Wright, Jensen believed that students should learn by doing instead of from books. Jensen usually forgot to collect tuition from his students. When money was short, as it often was, he fed them oatmeal.
Chicago grew from a population of less than 300,000 in 1870 to nearly two million by 1900. Middle and upper class people had recreational facilities and could always escape the city, but there was nothing for the immigrant poor, who were jammed into filthy slums. "There are multitudes who rarely get beyond the city limits," Jensen declared. "They need the quietude of the pastoral meadow and the soothing green of grove and woodland in contrast with the noise and glare of the great city."
In 1911, Jensen proposed to create new parks and playgrounds in Chicago's worst areas and to open schools in the evenings for recreation and community meetings. He expanded these ideas in his Plan for a Greater West Park System (1920), which envisioned a greenbelt of new boulevards, parks, playgrounds, municipal gardens, and community farms for Chicago and the surrounding region. He also wanted council rings in the parks, open meadows for games, and a special canal for canoeing.
Jensen's effectiveness varied with his political fortunes, which rose and fell during his career. After becoming a park superintendent, he was fired because he would not cooperate with corrupt politicians. Later, he was invited back to a reformed park system, only to lose his influence again due to politics.
The politicians are forgotten today, but not Jens Jensen. He designed some of Chicago's most beautiful parks, created public and private landscapes all over the Midwest, and persuaded Chicago to create the forest preserve system that it has today. We owe him a great deal. This retrospective is long overdue.