Dan Kiley, America’s Premier Landscape Architect, Comes Into Focus

A retrospective spotlighting the most distinguished projects from the “Le Corbusier of landscapes” echoes calls for better stewardship of his work.

Dan Kiley at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs. Photography courtesy Aaron Kiley and The Cultural Landscape Foundation

It seems impossible to fully document the output of the late Dan Kiley, one of the 20th century’s most influential Modernist landscape architects who worked with Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, and I.M. Pei over a prolific six-decade career. His peers can attest: landscape architect Laurie Olin observed the enigmatic Kiley’s “thoughts are like rabbits—they just keep leaping out,” while architect Jacquelin Robertson quipped that he “looked like a cross between a leprechaun and a Tyrolean ski instructor.” Though he completed an array of rigorous, grid-like landscapes that have drawn comparisons to Le Corbusier and persist as Modernist icons, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (home to Saarinen’s Gateway Arch), the Ford Foundation in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden, many of his achievements have been erased, owing mostly to the ephemerality of nature.

When the centennial of Kiley’s birth went unsung in 2012, the Cultural Landscape Foundation sprung to action and pieced together a traveling photographic retrospective to celebrate his life and career. “The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley” landed at the National Building Museum and the New York Center for Architecture a decade ago, but returned twice as large to Brooklyn’s ABC Stone last week. Photographs by Marion Brenner, Todd Eberle, and Alan Ward not only document the current state of 27 of Kiley’s more than 1,000 landscapes, but shed light on how he created intricately textured gardens that brought out the best in Modernist architecture. Credit his biggest influences, including French classicist André Le Nôtre, the sweeping allées of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, and Walter Gropius, who revolutionized Harvard’s architecture curriculum while Kiley studied there in the 1930s.

Dallas Museum of Art Sculpture Garden. Photography by Alan Ward, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Art Institute Of Chicago, South Garden. Photography by by Tom Harris, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Beyond serving as a showpiece for Kiley’s talents, the retrospective is a clarion call for greater preservation and stewardship of his work. His landscape at Lincoln Center underwent major alterations as part of a controversial revamp by Diller Scofidio + Renfro while new buildings buried his gardens at Dulles Airport, causing some of Kiley’s spiritual successors to protect his legacy. Landscape architect Raymond Jungles, for example, was tasked with maintaining the overgrown gardens in the Ford Foundation’s soaring atrium during its 2019 renovation by Gensler. Instead of outright replacing the plantings, which never reached their full potential due to pests and tough site constraints, Jungles opted for a scientific approach to restore Kiley’s vision that involved planting 40 trees that thrive in low-light conditions. Photography of the Ford Foundation atrium post-rehabilitation stars in the show—a far more pleasing result than paving things over.

“The legacy of Dan Kiley is that his work demonstrates how place informs life and how in turn life gives meaning and value to place,” landscape architect Peter Ker Walker said in the exhibition guide. “That he has done with art, grace, and good humor to the lasting benefit of all.”

Ford Foundation Atrium, New York. Photography by Barrett Doherty, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Kenjockety (Shapiro Phelan Residence), Westport, NY. Photography by Todd Eberle, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation

“The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley” will be on view at ABC Stone (189 Banker St, Brooklyn) until April 30. 

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