TCLF Spotlights Dan Kiley’s Endangered Landscape Architecture Legacy

TCLF Spotlights Dan Kiley’s Endangered Landscape Architecture Legacy

Dan Kiley is one of the most significant and influential landscape architects of our time but his work is in danger of slipping away. On Kiley’s prolific and impressive designs, landscape architect Laurie Olin once quipped: “Dan’s thoughts are like rabbits–they just keep leaping out.” To celebrate his work and bring attention to the ongoing threats to Kiley’s legacy, The Cultural Landscape Foundation collaborated with landscape architects and firms across the U.S. to create a national traveling exhibition dedicated to the modern landscape architect’s work. The exhibit debuted last year at the annual ASLA meeting in Boston.

Dallas Museum of Art Sculpture Garden | Dallas, TX

Recently, I visited the exhibition’s new location at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The small compendium showcases 27 of Kiley’s most celebrated modernist works, each carefully selected to show the wide breadth of his design talents from Pittsburgh’s quirky Agnes Katz Plaza to the “Modernist Mecca” Miller House and Garden. Influenced by French landscape architect André Le Nôtre’s 17th century gardens, Kiley weaved together hundreds of modernist landscapes with his signature grid and geometric planting plans that reinforce the notion of landscapes as outdoor rooms, rather than mere window dressing.

A lack of public support and awareness, however, threatens to destroy Kiley’s landscape legacy with “quiet deaths” from outright destruction to careless alterations. “All of this raises the issue of ephemerality of Kiley’s work, and designed landscapes writ large,” writes Charles Birnbaum, President and Founder of TCLF. “This exhibition is meant to prompt questions and discussions about responsible stewardship, which is central to TCLF’s mission.”

Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden | Chicago, IL

Visiting the exhibit was a personally rewarding experience that brought back vivid memories from my trans-America landscape architecture trip. The exhibit displays each of Kiley’s works with one or two photographs of the landscape project accompanied by a brief history of the site, a plan view, and a quote by one of Kiley’s landscape architect colleagues. I was pleased to see many of my favorite landscapes featured in the exhibition, including the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden, which according to Peter L. Schaudt, Principal of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, is “Chicago’s finest outdoor space.”

Fountain Place | Dallas, TX

Though I enjoyed the exhibit, I worry about efficacy of the compendium on non-landscape architects and those who haven’t visited Kiley’s work in person. Photographs are a poor substitute for the multi-sensory experience of Kiley’s landscapes, particularly the designs that highlight the sights and sounds of water. TCLF’s biannual What’s Out There Weekends, on the other hand, bring people on narrated tours of significant, sometimes threatened, landscape architecture works across the nation. I suspect that these tours have a longer lasting effect on both professionals and non-landscape architects. Hopefully, however, this exhibit will spur landscape architecture professionals and students into similar outreach efforts and encourage more dialogue and debate on how best to preserve threatened landscape architecture projects.

Agnes Katz Plaza | Pittsburgh, PA

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial | St. Louis, MO

If the TCLF’s Dan Kiley exhibit makes an appearance in your city, I highly recommend visiting the compendium and supporting the preservationist efforts. The loss of these historic landscape architecture works is a disservice to the discipline and future generations who lose the joy and opportunity of exploring these landscapes in person.

Guide to the National Traveling Exhibition

“The legacy of Dan Kiley is that his work demonstrates how place informs life and how in turn life gives meaning and value to place,” said landscape architect and former colleague Peter Ker Walker. “That he has done with art, grace and good humor to the lasting benefit of all.” 

You can view the TCLF Dan Kiley Exhibition Tour List here. You can also view the Landslide 2013: Online Exhibit here.

Lead image of TCLF exhibit card. All other images copyright to author,

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