Exhibit focuses on renowned landscape architecture firm

The Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden is one of Oehme, van Sweden’s numerous high-profile projects. Photo: Robert BensonThe Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden is one of Oehme, van Sweden’s numerous high-profile projects.
Photo: Robert Benson

The landscape architecture of Wolfgang Oehme (1930-2011) and James van Sweden (1935-2013), along with colleagues at the firm they founded in Washington 40 years ago, will be the subject of a special exhibit opening this month at the National Building Museum.

Organized in cooperation with the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the exhibit – titled “The New American Garden: The Landscape Architecture of Oehme, van Sweden” – opens Oct. 17 and runs through May 2016. The National Building Museum is located about four blocks from the National Mall, in the heart of Washington.

Oehme, van Sweden, or OvS, has designed a wide variety of landscapes for clients across the country. The exhibit will include original plans as well as renderings, photographs and fine art that illustrate the landscape design process – “from early inspirations to project execution and landscape maturation,” an OvS news release says.

In addition to Oehme and van Sweden’s designs, work completed under the firm’s current generation of leaders will be featured.

OvS’ reach has been broad. The firm notes in its release on the museum show: “The exhibit features expansive waterfront estates, urban townhouse gardens and commercial and institutional spaces, including the gardens of a federal agency, Chicago Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden. Detailed drawings of intimate spaces, large meadow-like landscapes and restorative civic parks are accompanied by large-scale photography, showing the drama and naturalism that brought worldwide recognition to the firm.”

In its introduction to the exhibit, the National Building Museum says Oehme and van Sweden revolutionized modern American landscape architecture. “Rejecting the well-manicured but perpetually thirsty lawns that had become icons of 20th-century suburban neighborhoods and corporate campuses, Oehme and van Sweden instead used ornamental grasses and perennials to create living tapestries requiring relatively little maintenance,” the introduction says. “These self-sustaining, meadow-like landscapes exemplified what came to be known as the New American Garden.”

The firm’s commitment to self-sustaining garden design continues. “OvS produces designs that contribute to the site’s ecological systems,” said Sheila Brady, a landscape architect and principal at OvS. “It’s about distilling the institution’s objectives into an aesthetic composition.”

Last year, OvS was awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects’ 2014 Landscape Architecture Firm Award, the highest honor ASLA bestows on a firm.

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