Walking the Duke campus and admiring its architecture is a natural thing to do. The buildings are, with a few obvious exceptions, pretty impressive. Duke's rich architectural history is well known on campus. But what about the landscape? We don't hear nearly as much about the contributions landscape architects have made to the campus. This is a good time to change that considering April is National Landscape Architecture Month.
When James B. Duke was envisioning the new university that would bear his family's name, he sought the help of the very best designers available. A lengthy list of potential architects was eventually whittled down to one: the Office of Horace Trumbauer. Choosing the landscape architect proved much easier. During the time the Duke campus was being designed, the Olmsted Brothers firm was head and shoulders above the rest. It was the second generation of the firm started by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, the landscape of the Biltmore House in Asheville and countless other campuses, parks and neighborhoods. It was the obvious choice.
The influence of the Olmsted Brothers firm extended across the country, with many famous works, including the Capitol Grounds and Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Audubon Park in New Orleans. The firm was hired to design the Duke landscape shortly after Olmsted Brothers completed designing the campus at the University of Chicago, another Collegiate Gothic campus. Similar to the University of Chicago, Duke's campus was influenced by the Beaux Arts design movement, which promoted monumental gestures such as long vistas and strict axial design - easily seen by the cross axes on the West Quad. East Quad took its design cues from the precedent set by the Thomas Jefferson-designed campus at the University of Virginia.
The firm worked with Trumbauer's office on the layout of the buildings. They also graded the land, established the patterns of canopy trees, detailed the walls and circulation system and designed all of the planting on both Duke Quads. Now, almost a century later, these historic spaces are showing their age. Wear and tear on the lawns, the continued loss of majestic willow oaks, and degraded planting areas clearly point to the need for major restoration.
Recognizing this need, the university hired Reed Hilberbrand Landscape Architects last year to help create landscape master plans for East and West Quads. The firm, based in Watertown, Mass., has also worked at Duke on the master plan for New Campus and the landscape around K4 Residence Hall. The plans for the Quads were presented to, and approved by, the Facilities and Environment Committee of the Board of Trustees at the February 2012 meeting. Plans propose major refurbishment of the lawns, reestablishment of the tree canopy, enhanced plantings, and improvements to the pedestrian circulation system. A phase one project to improve a portion of the lawn on West Quad is being discussed as a potential project for the fall of 2012.
Reed Hilderbrand is only one of several top landscape architecture firms that have helped to beautify the campus recently. Laurie Olin, who is often referred to as the "contemporary Olmsted" because of his importance to the profession, has been working at Duke off and on since 1983, when he designed the landscape at the Fuqua School of Business. His firm, OLIN, has since designed the French Family Science Center and the major landscapes currently under construction at the Medical Center. OLIN's well-known work includes the redesign of Columbus Circle and Bryant Park in the city of New York, the landscape surrounding the Washington Monument and Independence Mall in Philadelphia.
The West Campus Plaza was designed by Hargreaves Associates, an international landscape architecture firm famous for its work on the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the transformation of the campus at the University of Cincinnati and numerous public parks and waterfronts. A recently approved storm water pond at Duke is being designed as a major campus amenity by Nelson Bryd Woltz Landscape Architects, a firm that has been lauded recently for its work on the 911 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., and Citygarden in St. Louis, Mo.
Engaging these top landscape architects shows Duke's continued commitment to design excellence on the campus - a commitment that extends beyond just the buildings.