Landscape Architect Dan Kiley Is the Modernist Hero You’ve Never Heard Of
Although 2012 marked the centennial of the birth of an American icon, no one threw a party in his honor. There were no front-page headlines about him, no major books published, no retrospective exhibitions staged. Millions of people have visited his creations, but only a small fraction know his name.
That forgotten icon is Dan Kiley, one of the nation’s most prolific landscape architects and the designer of more than 1,000 public and private landscapes nationwide, including such notable sites as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (better known as the St. Louis Gateway Arch), the US Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden, and Fountain Place in Dallas.
Kiley was an early practitioner of modernist landscape architecture who celebrated orderly geometries, particularly the use of boxy grid patterns, in his designs. He is often considered in design circles as one of the most influential landscape architects of the 20th century. He is second only to Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., the 19th-century designer of Central Park among many other works, in terms of the number of his landscapes designated as national historic landmarks.
And yet in 2012, only eight years after his death, Kiley had been largely overlooked outside of his own profession, overshadowed by the famous architects he worked with (including Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, and I.M. Pei), or by the historic significance of the places themselves. To correct this oversight, in 2013, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TLCF) staged a photographic exhibition of 28 of Kiley’s designs. To date, the exhibit has traveled around the country to 15 cultural and architectural institutions, including the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.
“Very often, the hand of the landscape architect is invisible,” says Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president and CEO of the Foundation. “Our work at The Cultural Landscape Foundation is to make the landscape visible, instill value, and engage. And that’s what we’ve done with Kiley.”
Growing up in New York City, Birnbaum was obviously aware of Lincoln Center, but not (at first) of Kiley’s involvement in its urban landscape (a design that was never well executed to Kiley’s vision and has sadly since been completely lost). Birnbaum more distinctly remembers his first visit in the 1990s to one of Kiley’s most-revered works, the Miller Garden in Columbus, Indiana, with its namesake owners.
Designed and constructed between 1953 and 1957 for the family of Irwin and Xenia Miller, the garden was the result of a collaboration between Kiley and Saarinen, who was designing the house with Kevin Roche and interior designer Alexander Girard. With its formal geometry, the garden acts as an extension of the house before moving into a transitional lawn space, and finally, a wooded area. Its most striking feature is its spare, elegant allée of honey locust trees that define the property’s edge and give it form and drama.
“People talk about bucket lists,” Birnbaum says. “For a landscape architect, or for anyone who loves modernism or design, going to a place like the Miller Garden is a life-changing experience. There’s such a high level of restraint and authority in his work.”
Unlike some other Kiley landscapes, the garden has enjoyed a high level of stewardship, according to Birnbaum. “It’s not just a love of the garden, but it’s a deep and personal love of the design intent,” he says. “And yet Mrs. Miller still put her personal touches in there after Dan was gone. It’s all part of that shared relationship between the landscape architecture that Kiley created and the people who live there.”
A Modernist Emerges
Born in Massachusetts, Kiley began his formal landscape architecture training at the age of 20 as an apprentice in the office of Warren Manning, one of the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects. (Manning worked with Olmsted, Sr. in the late nineteenth century.) He then studied at Harvard, where he met Garrett Eckbo and James Rose, who also became notable landscape architects. Kiley’s early career involved work with the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Housing Authority, establishing his interest in public practice.
He became known as an early modernist landscape architect, and his meeting and subsequent partnering with Saarinen led to winning the commission to design the Gateway Arch, the first major work of Kiley’s career. Where other Kiley landscapes were rectilinear, the Arch landscape featured curving walkways that mirror that catenary arch itself, as well as a monoculture of Rosehill ash trees. Saarinen wrote afterward that he and Kiley had “related all the major elements of the park to each other in a more unified way.”
Hugh Miller, FAIA, was a historical architect working with the NPS when he first read about Kiley’s work in the late 1960s. By the late 1970s, he was the agency’s chief historical architect, and he met and worked with Kiley on a redevelopment plan for the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) in downtown Washington, DC. “Kiley was really keen on the details,” Miller says. “He was always interested in developing a good partnership between architects and landscape architects.”
He was also open and gregarious, Miller says. “He enjoyed having fun. One of the landscape architects in Kiley’s office told a story about Kiley coming into the drafting room on a beautiful day and saying, ‘We can work tonight. Let’s go sailing!’ There’s a guy who had his priorities straight.”
Writer and educator Jane Amidon, who collaborated with Kiley on the book Dan Kiley: The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect, says that the designer had a keen sense of what he wanted to say about each of his projects, while still giving his young coauthor space and authority. “He was pretty easy to work with as long as his philosophy was respected,” Amidon says. “He was truly an intuitive designer. There was a wonderful process where I would access the project files and spend days looking at them, and then interview him and go home and write.”
An Enduring Legacy
Kiley received the National Medal of Arts in 1997 and the Lifetime Achievement award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in 2002. Two years later, he died at the age of 91 in the Charlotte, Vermont, home he had shared with his wife, Anne, and their children. Since then, Birnbaum says that he has witnessed an increased awareness of Kiley—from the exhibit’s attendance and visits to its online companion site, as well as recent rehabilitations of Kiley landscapes from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to the Ford Foundation in New York.
Kiley continues to enthrall students, says Amidon, who is now a professor of landscape architecture and director of the Urban Landscape Program in the Northeastern University School of Architecture. “Modernism continues to have this allure for students,” she says. “A lot of students don’t know what it is coming in, versus ‘modernization’ or ‘the modern era.’ Once they understand modernism, Dan Kiley becomes a magical figure to them. He’s still held up as one of the greatest designers of landscapes we’ve ever known.”