For our purposes ‘modernism’ refers mostly to the time after WWI marked by the disillusionment of two wars and a reaction against traditional ideas about literature, the arts, religion, and social organization followed by the rapid growth of cities in the West, the new intellectual freedom absorbing the impacts of evolutionary theory, the disintegration of class and gender barriers, the rise of mass media, and distinctive new forms of art and architecture: it included the critical re-evaluation of the institutions of family, home, country, and tradition.
At the turn of the 20th century Britain was still the major world power. Americans were
unashamedly regarded as cultural philistines, and little notice was taken of this economic powerhouse. Places like Australia and New Zealand were antipodean colonial outposts of little consequence in the arena of art and politics although, economically they did supply wool and other products of the land to the mother country.
In America, tycoons, unfettered by the heavy taxes that had crippled Britain’s plutocracy, set about creating gardens in the European French, Italian and naturalistic styles but ‘..the late 19th and early 20th century did not … see any original work in design of gardens’.
Coastal Mediterranean gardens of the Italian and French Rivieras, with their agreeable climate, flourished with the palette of plants that had been newly introduced in the 19th century.
Landscape architecture was beginning and Britain, in 1929, followed American Frederick Law Olmsted in setting up an Institute of Landscape Architects. This was an early sign of a Britain, sitting astride the world of Western horticulture, being gradually drawn into the post-war global community. American landscape architect rebel Thomas Church (1902-1978) from Harvard university’s Graduate School of Design resisted his training in the Beaux Arts tradition, instead experimenting in the 1930s with new and creative designs that came directly to terms with modern living and the small residential garden, especially the outdoor living space in places like California that took account of the car, BBQ, decking and outdoor living in general. He and his students have left a legacy in Australia and, in Britain too as its climate shows signs of warming up.
These Americans like other designers of the Modern period were demonstrating something rather new, something that we now accept as the norm: they designed gardens for ‘everyman’ according to the needs of each individual. Church’s rebellion had symbolised a rejection of the monolithic design theories and practices that had come out of Europe, and he acknowledged the multiple design responses that can be used depending on the site, the materials available, financial constraints, and the different requirements of individual clients.
As in other arts, while there is a broad mainstream, some designers are pushing the logical boundaries: gardens without plants and soon.
In America Supermarkets arrived in the 1950s along with super-nurseries called Garden Centres and by the early 1960s they had opened in Britain. A new way of doing things, plants were mass-produced and bought from wholesalers rather than being grown on site. As leisure and income increased the stock in these centres ranged into outdoor life and later still coffee and cakes. As convenience shopping the garden centres were excellent as they went in across the Western world but the problems too were global. Lack of expert advice, similarity of stock.