Visible | Invisible
Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, FAAR, Principal, Reed Hilderbrand Landscape Architecture
Professor of Practice, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
March 12, 2015 | Wheelock College

Lara Mehling, Master of Landscape Architecture ’15, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Recipient, Charles Eliot Traveling Fellowship 2015

To see the invisible landscape we must search before, beneath, below, beyond, and past what is there. As a landscape architect, Gary Hilderbrand guides the public by designing places that make visible specific landscape phenomena. Through design he aims to uncover the multiple “perspectives of place”.

As the theme for this year’s lecture series hosted by Friends of Fairsted, Hilderbrand reflected on the meaning of place in his work. Keith Morgan began the evening with a broad inquiry into the role of place in landscape history, then recalled Daniel Bluestone’s previous lecture, more of a historical analysis of place, and finally welcomed Hilderbrand’s perspective as a designer who creates places. While Morgan referenced Charles Eliot’s understanding of place as a backdrop for new spaces, what Hilderbrand shared with the audience that evening foregrounds place as the genesis of space, not its mere setting. But Morgan also recognized that Hilderbrand “deeply understands these reverberations in the land, in the places that he shapes and remakes.” What stands out is the central role that place plays in the practice of Reed Hilderbrand– the firm is determined to help people see and know where they are by revealing the landscape’s formation.


Not so different from the aims of Frederick Law Olmsted, as it turns out. Though it could be said that Olmsted’s designs were more allegorical, they also reflected deeply on local environments.

It is not, however, just ‘place’ that these two share as an entry for design; the lecture series’ topic “Perspectives on Place” hints at another aspect of design. Instead of understanding the sequence of speakers as forming multiple perspectives on the same theme, I would urge that Gary Hilderbrand’s designs highlight not only the shaping of land but also the formation of perspectives–and I say this not only as a former student of his. A perspective positions the viewer and directs a vision. I believe that this constructed visibility lies at the core of the firm’s design philosophy, notably appearing in the title of this evening’s lecture and their 2013 monograph: Visible | Invisible. Hilderbrand returns to this idea of finding a position, one that enables multiple, simultaneous perspectives, throughout the evening. In fact, the passage that he selected to read aloud from the monograph says it all:

“Our work in cultivated and urbanizing landscapes brings sharpness to things you can see, uncovers and reveals things you otherwise wouldn’t, obscures things we choose to suppress in favor of those we foreground, and refers to things you may know about but could never see from one perspective.”


The challenge is to set the conditions just right so that a sharper lens also casts a wider view. For Hilderbrand it is precisely this conundrum: “what you see, and by extension what you perceive as lived experience on a site, is the tangible, the built reality,” but the landscape architect’s task is to deepen this understanding of a place by achieving what he refers to as both a spatial and temporal double vision: seeing and seeing beyond. Seeing sites for what they are and for what they might become.” But the work of his firm, Reed Hilderbrand, is not just a promise, nor is it projective though it concerns the future; they make interventions with humility and an awareness that their work marks only a brief moment in time, connecting it to a much larger landscape and a longer time.

Gary Hilderbrand understands that his interaction with a particular site is more of a meander than a rift, whether for a year or ten–as was the case with Long Dock Beacon on the Hudson River, one of the four recent projects he highlighted that evening. I have often wondered how to express clearly the role of landscape history in contemporary landscape design. In the case of Long Dock Beacon, it becomes evident that a project may reinvigorate the site or influence its course, but the real work is marking these places as points of entry, making their distinguishing characteristics visible, allowing the client or visitor to see the landscape at hand, complete with all its stories.


This kind of work requires diligence, not only in implementation, but also in preparation. Site specificity exceeds the spatial qualities of a place. It also includes its history of use. Instead of a tabula rasa, Hilderbrand finds everywhere sets of stories that came before. Before diving into his own, he reminds the audience early in the evening that “the work of a landscape is never ended…” He pauses for a moment, then adds excitedly, “and in fact we never begin it!” Working with a live medium presents multiple time frames, but even beyond the life of a tree, what remains visible is the lasting health of the woodland. According to Hilderbrand, the firm’s work is to “provide clues as to what was there and formed this place.” When investigating place in this way, studying a landscape is studying history. Understanding a landscape’s geological predispositions and its alterations by natural events or human use requires research. In his essay written for the monograph, Robert Pogue Harrison recognizes the firm’s diligence in navigating both historical and contemporary contexts: “It is not often that overcoming takes the form of self-gathered serenity. It requires a special genius–or what I would call historical maturity–to infuse a landscape with the kind of tension one finds in the work of Reed Hilderbrand.” This is double vision.

A place is made up of what is seen and what is not seen, what is and what was, yet even this remains a part of that place. Approaching place through perspective as Gary Hilderbrand has done, grants a landscape its endurance through multiplicity: to see what’s before, beneath, below, beyond, and past means seeing the invisible also. It is easy to think of place as an objective and physical thing, visible to the naked eye and tangible, but Hilderbrand would tell us otherwise. Place is richer, more nuanced and layered. It is telescopic, demanding an equally keen device for viewing.

Hilderbrand leaves the audience with a passage from Reed Hilderbrand’s new monograph that does well to explain the work’s dualistic title:

“What you don’t see in a landscape relates to a telescoping interest that takes in many realms and scales that conspire to lend meaning to the work. It consists, in varied proportions, of what came before, what’s beneath the surface, and what’s behind the shapes or patterns, below the horizon, past the view, beyond our capacity to see. It relates to conditions and habits of mind that may be objective, subjective, rational, poetic, or just practical and obvious.”


The term tele-scope (“far” + “watcher”) describes the instrument’s very function but its alternative definition also refers to its structure: “to force together one inside the other,” to nest a series of items into suitable position. Many layers make up a telescoping interest. They fit together to create a larger image, a closer picture, or a farther view, that frames not only the visible but also what was previously invisible. Hilderbrand uses the term carefully, both in describing his own work as well as Olmsted’s career, which he considers far-reaching and multifaceted. “The career of Olmsted was absolutely telescopic,” he told the audience. Olmsted’s careers saw many tenuous but relevant connections between various fields, anecdotes, projects, and obsessions. With admiration, Hilderbrand recognizes his voice clearly in all of his pursuits, whether in exploring the possibilities of cities, health, forestry, or preservation. But what stuck with me the most is what Hilderbrand noted as both a blessing and a burden: “Olmsted provided the opportunity to think of landscape as a protagonist.” Taking the burden on rather willingly, Hilderbrand does his reading, carefully, and lends the landscape its very own provocative power: the right design decisions reveal a place by setting up an appropriate perspective and at the same time disclosing its process of construction.

Robert Smithson sought in the landscape ”a place curators could not control,” as Hilderbrand writes in his own essay. Smithson “forged an art whose visible, temporal characteristics were inseparable from experience–exactly as he had seen Olmsted’s work to be.” It seems that Smithson’s work, in turn, taught Hilderbrand to curate landscapes under a shared rubric: “to make the constructed world more visible.” Here visibility can also be understood as legibility: to what degree can the many stories be read in the current condition?

Hilderbrand related that when Doug Reed and he first arrived at Philip Johnson’s Beck House in Dallas, Texas, he wondered, “Can we really do this?” Confronted with a neglected, overgrown property, their new aim was to make legible an illegible landscape. In his essay he writes, “the space beneath the canopy already existed here, though it wasn’t easy to see” and “the means to recover and sustain it are partly evident, mostly unseen.” The hidden qualities of the place, what Harrison refers to as the “world-affirming potential of the sites,” are as enigmatic as the techniques that may reveal them. In the end, Hilderbrand’s lecture proved to me that the firm’s built work achieves precisely what I set out to do as a student of landscape architecture: to create both the spaces for inspiring experiences and the language with which to allow others to read or see the enduring beauty of place, in the telescopic sense.


Curating place is a fickle thing; it means tip-toeing the fine line between underscoring what is already there, visible or as of yet invisible, and humbly but nevertheless resolutely inserting a few words of one’s own. With any luck, the resulting landscape narrates itself. Perhaps it is precisely this that makes the commentary on Reed Hilderbrand’s projects so effusive. It is as if the work is pre-scribed, inscribed in the ground from the moment of construction, and writing about any particular project would be risking redundancy. Their landscapes speak for themselves, with clarity and deliberation. It is no surprise, then, that the firm’s monograph contains more stunning black and white photographs of completed projects than it does pages of text. Hilderbrand admits that communicating the effect of these designed spaces takes precedence. “An atmosphere worth capturing” makes the editorial cut. By excluding documentary photography to show the building process, Hilderbrand reveals his faith in the firm’s ability to make legible landscapes that narrate the site’s ongoing formation in clear and spatial terms.

Gary Hilderbrand flips to a slide displaying George Inness’ “A Pastoral”: a cowherd drives his livestock through a field. “If you don’t have a shepherd, you don’t have the pastoral,” he remarks. He tells the audience that during the firm’s fourteen years of work on the Clark Art Institute in the Berkshires, Hilderbrand became familiar with its collections. He showed several pastoral scenes in order to speak about working landscapes. Many of the scenes are named for the characters that inhabit the pictures: the shepherd, the gleaners, the farmer. It is they who make these working landscapes, these places. In memory of the Clark’s agrarian past, Hilderbrand admits, “We like to think of the Clark as a Common.” Here he not only affirms his goal of creating spaces that consider “the historicized nature of the sites in question,” as Harrison observed, but also the idea that a place’s stories are written through human action. In the case of a working landscape, the inscription is ongoing. A communal and natural effort writes and rewrites the land’s use, giving it its shape directly. These landscapes do not need interpretation, for their stories remain active. Other landscapes, such as those marked out for the work of landscape architects do require an added telling. Reed Hilderbrand resolves this task by composing visibility.


The shepherd makes his marks on that field to create the pastoral image. Gary Hilderbrand designs to unveil invisible landscapes. I have always considered a teacher someone who can show you something you cannot see on your own. It is as if all teaching is, in fact, teaching to see. If this is true, then what makes for a great designer also makes for a good teacher. I understand now that the built works of Reed Hilderbrand are as much a point of entry as is the monograph: they guide the visitor to formulate his or her own perspective on place.

Lara Mehling
Master of Landscape Architecture ’15, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Recipient, Charles Eliot Traveling Fellowship 2015