Feb 28, 2010

Manitoga and the 20th Century Picturesque

Following last month’s
introduction to Russel Wright’s Manitoga, this month’s blog entry is a brief consideration of Manitoga in the context of the picturesque tradition in architecture and landscape architecture. While Wright’s project is certainly modern, this entry is an outline of a possible historic precedent for the relationship between nature and culture that Wright developed at Manitoga. Apart from any formal affinity between earlier iterations of the picturesque and his project at Manitoga, Wright inherited the picturesque tradition’s ambiguous attitude towards progress, acknowledging the ongoing loss of both wilderness and our connection to the natural environment brought about by modernization and industrialization.

Wright's house, Dragon Rock, perched over the Quarry Pond

The picturesque tradition developed in eighteenth century England as both a reaction against formal gardens based on geometric principles as well as a revitalization of ancient pastoral traditions. The English picturesque was an aesthetic outlook that encompassed not only landscape design and architecture but also poetry and painting too. In the early eighteenth century, poet Alexander Pope urged designers to follow nature in his “Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington”:

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terras, or to sink the grot;
In all, let nature never be forgot…

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps th’ambitious hill the heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades;
Now breaks, or now directs, th'intending lines,
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs.

Pope’s “consult the genius of the place” was picked up by later designers who based their designs on the specific topography of a site (also known as the “genius loci”). For landscape designers in the early eighteenth century, picturesque effects were first borrowed from landscape painting, and included the use of irregularity, asymmetry, and perspective, as well as painterly contrasts of color, shade and form. Designers William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown, for example, broke with formal symmetry and geometry in garden design through their use of serpentine paths, clumps of trees in studied irregularity, meandering artificial water features, and architectural follies. In New Principles of Gardening (1728), designer and theorist Batty Langley urged designers “to copy, or imitate Nature”, while the later theorist Uvedale Price, in Essays on the Picturesque (1794), argued that designers like Kent and Brown had not gone far enough in following nature, insisting that nature was more diverse and random than irregularly placed tree groupings and meandering paths.

In the United States, architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing popularized the picturesque in the nineteenth century. Both were closely associated with the Hudson River School painters (such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand) and writers (such as William Cullen Bryant) who developed an American landscape tradition that was similarly linked to English aesthetic ideals. From the late 1830s, Davis was designing and promoting picturesque rural cottages and gardens in the Hudson River Valley, while Downing’s influential A Treatise of Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) adapted English models to American topography, climate, and vegetation. Downing urged Americans to take inspiration from their local region, use local plants rather than imported ones, and integrate their houses into the landscape through color and form. For Downing, the rural house and garden had higher moral purpose – life in a picturesque rural setting might offset the inherent dangers of modern city life – and, despite its English aristocratic origins, a fundamentally democratic character through its continuation of the American pastoral tradition established by Thomas Jefferson.

Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmstead's Central Park, New York

Downing’s partner Calvert Vaux continued these ideals both in practice and in print after Downing’s untimely death in 1852, but more importantly, Vaux went on to design New York’s Central Park in partnership with Fredrick Law Olmstead (see image above). Completed in 1876, Central Park was both a product of human intervention and a paradoxical protest against modernization and the urban condition: a picturesque landscape in the middle of a modern metropolis. The Park was a carefully managed series of scenes – from the wildness of the Ramble to the pastoral meadow of the Great Lawn to the informal water features such as the meandering Lake – all artificial recreations of various topographies that provided a connection to nature (however contrived) for the city’s urban inhabitants. Olmstead and Vaux also designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and Olmstead went on to found what was perhaps the first professional landscape architecture firm in America in 1883, subsequently designing dozens of parks around the country. But if the impact of the picturesque tradition was significant in nineteenth century America, it seems to have dissipated by the early twentieth century. Certainly modernist designers, enamoured with progress, new technologies and urban living, returned to geometry and order. Following nature and consulting the “genius of the place” receded in importance as progress became almost synonymous with the scientific and technological domination of nature.

Revitalizing the Picturesque

Russel Wright’s Manitoga revives aspects of earlier picturesque traditions, and his designer landscape challenges the clear nature/culture division that was reinstated into American consciousness by the mid-twentieth century. In 1942, Wright and his wife purchased the steeply sloped seventy-five acre property in the Hudson River Valley as a retreat from urban life (Manitoga is approximately fifty miles from Manhattan). While in some ways Wright’s Manitoga seems to be a direct descendant of Downing and Davis’ Hudson River Valley picturesque ideals, the site he chose was already scarred by industrialization through extensive quarrying and logging. His regeneration of the landscape follows the picturesque principle of following nature, but instead of trying to recreate a pre-industrial wilderness, Wright’s inclusion of human history and technological intervention into his landscape design goes further than his picturesque descendants.

Looking out over the Quarry Pond, Manitoga

Rather than begin by designing a house, Wright began studying the topography, native vegetation and seasonal rhythms of the site – in short, he began by consulting the genius of the place. In a 1970 lecture, he reflected on the project’s beginnings:

“I began designing the land almost immediately, cutting down trees, leaving only the larger ones, leaving groups of hemlock to contrast with groups of birch or making paths – learning the shape of the land – gradually cutting vistas and views… Mary wanted a field so I cut down hundreds of trees to make this field, leaving only the young dogwood. In making vistas like this, I would sometimes take photographs and paint out certain trees before definitely cutting them down. I built a dam across the old quarry pit and changed the course of the small brook to run into the old quarry … thus making a waterfall.”

In keeping with earlier picturesque ideals, Wright’s “garden of woodland paths” was designed using mostly native plants, particularly in his fields of white flowering mountain laurel and deep green hemlock woods. Picturesque features Wright designed include: Mary’s Meadow (described by him above), ponds from the abandoned quarry sites (the Quarry Pond and Lost Pond), a fern glen, boulder groupings, wildflower fields, vistas through openings in the hemlock canopy, and distinct outdoor “rooms”. One of the main water features, the Quarry Pond, was created by diverting a stream at the top of the site to create a thirty-foot waterfall into the quarry. A particular highlight of Wright’s garden “rooms” was the Moss Room, situated on the quarry’s outer rim. These various features and rooms were designed to be experienced in sequential narratives via walking trails that extended from the house into the landscape. Wright’s early training as a theater set designer resurfaced in his creation of landscape “scenes” designed to be experienced by visitors walking the trails.

Part of the fern glen, Manitoga

The Moss Room

While Wright’s design conforms to picturesque design conventions, Manitoga embodies a more complex dialogue with nature than either the eighteenth century English or the nineteenth century American precedents. If the imitation of nature and the suppression of modernization was the aim of earlier designers, Wright challenges picturesque ideals by following nature while also consciously evoking the site’s industrial history through reminders of quarrying in the form of metal hooks embedded in granite boulders, as well as blasting marks left prominently visible on boulders. Even the earlier human habitation of the Hudson River Valley by Native Americans is evoked in Wright’s use of the Algonquin word, Manitoga, meaning “place of great spirit”. He also used the word Osio, a Native American term for a beautiful view, to refer to places on his trails with an opening in the hemlock canopy, designed as a framed view of the distant Hudson River.

An "osio", or framed view of the Hudson River

Blast marks from the former quarrying operation left visible on a granite boulder

As an ongoing dialogue with nature, a design project such as Manitoga could never be truly “finished”, though Wright had completed his house/studio and much of the designer landscape by 1960. In his rehabilitation of the landscape at Manitoga during the 1940s and 50s, Wright was far in advance of later notions of “ecological consciousness’ that were to become widespread in the late 1960s and 1970s when another reaction against modernization and industrialization surfaced in American consciousness. But Manitoga was more than simply an illustration of either picturesque or ecological design principles. Wright’s project was not an attempt to return the landscape to some kind of primeval wilderness, nor was it simply a series of visual scenes to be passively consumed by visitors, but a living embodiment of the tension between nature and culture in the twentieth century. For Wright, Manitoga was designed to be traversed on foot rather than experienced at a distance, and visitors were encouraged to engage with the particularity of its environment through hiking the trails and experiencing the site via all of their senses. It is in this spirit that Wright began an environmental education program at Manitoga the year before his death in 1976, a program that continues today. Perhaps Wright ultimately came to see design as a means to narrate the genius of the place not through informational signage, visual images, or scientific data, but through a complete sensual engagement with the landscape. This aspect of Manitoga I will explore further in my next entry.


Downing, Alexander Jackson, A Treatise of Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841). Online (25MB).

Kowsky, Francis R., Country, Park and City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Mallgrave, Harry, Modern Architectural Theory: A Historical Survey, 1673-1968, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Pope, Alexander, “An Epistle to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington”, 1731, from Pat Rogers, ed., Alexander Pope: The Major Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Price, Uvedale, Essays on the Picturesque (1810 edition). Online (16MB).

Wright, Russel, “Building a Dream House: The Story of Dragon Rock”, unpaginated transcription of a lecture, 1970. Copy at Russel Wright archives, Syracuse University, New York.

All photographs by D.J. Huppatz. More photographs of Manitoga on my Flickr page (access My Pics on column to the right above).