Making a Landscape of Continuity: The Practice of Innocenti & Webel
Author: Gary Hilderbrand Princeton Architectural Press/Harvard Graduate School of Design, 1997
The landscape architectural firm of Innocenti & Webel was founded in 1931 in a moment of both crisis and opportunity. When the firm they both worked for, Vitale & Geiffert, suddenly closed due to the effects of the Depression, Richard Webel and Umberto Innocenti formed a partnership of convenience and continued to work with clients who kept on building. Within a short time, the combination of their considerable and diverse skills led to numerous commissions for the design of private Long Island estates. Within a few more years, institutional and corporate clients would seek them out for larger commissions. But as the clients and projects changed over the course of decades, Innocenti and Webel held on to the essential practices and ways of working that brought them success in making landscapes. Until well past the time of Innocenti's death in 1968, Webel retained the same essential business structure, location, office practices, and personal relationships that had worked so well for hundreds of public and private commissions. Indeed, Webel continued to work on projects up until 1995, when he turned ninety-five years old. This extraordinary continuity is the legacy of the firm and is the subject of this exhibition of their work.
Although recent scholarship on American landscape architecture has given us rich accounts of a few well-known practitioners and their milieux, practitioners like Webel and Innocenti are less well known. We know far more now about the radical edge of modernism in landscape architecture, but we may also be inclined, for want of a fuller picture, to look closely at the normative center of practice. It is here that we find Innocenti & Webel: virtuoso practitioners of a high art of landscape architecture in the twentieth century. Innocenti & Webel's work shows extraordinary accomplishment, durability, visual beauty, and technical superiority; it is work that reflects the transformative engines of emerging project types and changing lifestyles of the twentieth century. It is work founded not on a desire for formal invention or new design languages, but on the diligent habits of tried and perfected ways. The firm sought value not from novelty but from predictability and permanence. The evidence of this value is apparent in the way these landscapes appear now, some thirty to sixty years later. The value is also borne out in the relationships with clients, many of which have continued for over fifty years.
There is much to say about Innocenti & Webel's place at the center of landscape practice, but much of it has to do with Webel's own accomplishment as a model student, teacher, and professional. Webel studied under an early generation of Harvard teachers in landscape architecture, including James Sturgis Pray, Henry Vincent Hubbard, and Bremer Pond. Upon finishing at the head of his class in 1926, he was awarded Harvard's Sheldon Traveling Fellowship. He also won the coveted Rome Prize in Landscape Architecture. Webel was in residence at the American Academy in Rome for three years, from 1926 through 1929. As was the practice at the time, he was preoccupied with the measuring and drawing of Italian gardens, and he also engaged in collaborative design projects with architects and sculptors at the Academy. Webel's travels to villas throughout Italy gave him sufficient knowledge to publish a guide to Italian sites. His four surviving watercolor plans of gardens are brilliant examples of their genre.
After working briefly for landscape architect Warren Manning, and then for Vitale & Geiffert, Webel began his partnership with Innocenti, a man of forceful and complementary strengths. Innocenti was a consummate gardener and plantsman. His Tuscan farming heritage gave him command not only of plants and their culture, but also of the organization and supervision of work crews in the field toward the making of landscapes that could survive and thrive. Innocenti's manner in the field, while thoroughgoing and tough with the workers, was genteel with clients; he helped to establish the amicable relationships necessary for the long periods of time that design and construction might take. While Webel maintains that Innocenti had little interest in the abstraction of the plan, the finished landscapes unquestionably showed his strong hand and seasoned expertise. But through this complementarity of personality and skill, the partners made landscapes of great range—from gardens for privileged families, to race courses and airports, to the new campus of Furman University, and on to the national and international facilities of Milliken & Company—where we find a fusion of planning, building, horticulture and landscape architecture in constant focus.
This exhibition contains only a handful of the projects executed over a sixty-five year period. The economic, technological, and social changes across that time are obviously extraordinary. The projects may be seen as bridging from a period when traditions of craft and hand labor continued or were revived—when the landscape architect was closer to the matters of making and fabricating—to the more recent days of increased specialization, international manufacturing and distribution, fast-tracking and construction management—where the landscape architect is somewhat further insulated from fabrication and construction. But as the contemporary photographs of Samuel Gottscho and the more recent ones by Frank Kluber show, the landscapes of Innocenti & Webel survive with great clarity and fullness. Ultimately, they are worlds well made: built on respected traditions, envisioned by well-trained eyes, shaped by sure hands, and crafted through studied, disciplined practices of production and maintenance. These are landscapes of continuity.