Fletcher Steele (1885-1971) first became interested in landscape architecture because he needed something to do. After attending Williams College, he entered the new program in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University in 1907. While only mildly successful in the academic realm, his talents were recognized by Warren Manning, one of America's foremost landscape designers at the time. In 1908, Manning persuaded Steele to leave Harvard and come work for him at his Boston office. Never looking back, Steele embarked on a career that would make him one of the most prolific and successful designers of the 20th Century.
Under Manning's tutelage, Steele learned about the practice and business of landscape architecture, particularly the skills of dealing with clients, office organization and project construction supervision. Wishing to learn more about design, Steele went on a 4 month tour of Europe during the spring of 1913, absorbing all the details of classical design he could. Upon his return, he was ready to strike out on his own.
Because of his infectious personality, Steele quickly developed a large base of wealthy clients who shared his passion for adventure and fun, and supported his design ideas. Creating his first garden in 1915, his early career was marked by original ideas mixed with borrowings from classical design. Borrowing or copying ideas was not a creative issue for the young Steele, for he believed that a designer should use whatever it took to create his client's dreamscapes.
Through his professional development, he eventually abandoned the formulaic copying of details in favor of expressive, lyrical and original designs that were expressions of his own design aesthetic as well as the dreams of his clients. While many classical elements served as inspiration for his ideas, he customized them to fit the unique situations of his client's designs. This process tended to result in very idiosyncratic gardens. The clients ultimate pleasure of the garden came from the fact that it was exactly what they wanted, and more.
Steele had to continue to reconcile his client's wishes for gardens like those they saw in their travels with his own desires to elevate the practice of landscape architecture to a fine art. Often a point of contention between himself and fellow practitioners, Steele continually wrote (over 100 articles and 2 books) on a wide number of topics to emphasize his points. Topics ranged from historical design analysis and color standards to horticulture and public monument design. It was his articles on modern landscape design, particularly those influenced by his travels to France during the 1920's, that were to make the most important contribution to landscape architectural theory, and cause the most controversy.
Impressed with what French architects were doing with the landscape, Steele was convinced that the traditional methods of landscape architectural practice needed to change. But as his wealthy clients continued to demand those traditional forms, Steele had to compensate by using the details of his projects to integrate his new ideas.
These details took the forms of staircase layout, railing design, planting bed design and plant arrangement. Creating the impression of Italian or French gardens, Steele subtlety incorporated his own, modern ideas into his designs. He also experimented with materials, as evidenced in his famous blue steps. Made of concrete block and tube railings, the steps are indicative of many formal European genres yet have a style all their own.
Eventually styles and popular tastes again changed after World War II, and it took a long time for Steele to adjust. While his ideas on suburban lot design were very influential (his second book Design in the Little Garden was very popular), it took him longer to fit into the new mindset. His gardens were big and expressive, and necessitated a high level a construction expertise as well as maintenance. This was no longer found after the war, as instant and temporary no-maintenance landscapes were demanded by the populace. Also, his wealthy clients weren't as widespread as before, and tracts of land were becoming smaller. In spite of this, Steele's later designs can be said to be his most fulfilling, being those of an accomplished designer.
Most of Steele's gardens are now gone, replaced by subdivisions and parking lots. There are only two that are still open to the public, Naumkeag, his most ambitious garden whose creation spanned some 3 decades, and Mission House, both of which are in Stockbridge, MA. Steele was one of the last designers of his type, one who cared obsessively about the craftsmanship of his designs, and one who developed long term relationships with his clients. Many of his clients became life long friends.
What Fletcher Steele represents to the profession of landscape architecture is a bridge between two different design periods. He was trained in the ideas of Beaux Arts classicism, yet he had a yearning to abandon its formulaic methods in favor of art. His clients had particular demands, and Steele was forced to compromise between the classical and the modern. His designs mingle in both camps.
Through historical analysis, we can see that Steele's ability to look both forward and backward as well as being able to use the ideas and details of the past as inspiration to create the new, is what made him so successful then and so appealing now.