Jens Jensen (landscape architect)

Jens Jensen (landscape architect)

Jens Jensen (September 13, 1860 - October 1, 1951) was a Danish born American landscape architect.

Early life

Jens Jensen was born near Dybbøl in Slesvig, Denmark in 1860, to a wealthy farming family. For the first nineteen years of his life he lived on his family's farm, which cultivated his love for the natural environment. When he was four years old, during the second war of Schleswig in 1864, Jensen watched the Prussians invade his town, and burn his family's farm buildings. This invasion, which annexed the land into Prussia, left a deep influence on how Jensen viewed the world of man. He attended the Tune Agricultural School in Jutland, afterwards undertaking mandatory service in the Prussian Army. During these three years he sketched parks in the English and French character in Berlin and other German cities. By 1884, his military service over, Jensen was engaged to Anne Marie Hansen. Coupled with his wish to escape the family farm, this led to his decision to immigrate to the United States that year.

In the United States

Initially Jensen worked in Florida, and then at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, before moving to Chicago and taking a job as a laborer for the West Park Commission. He was soon promoted to a foreman. During this time he was allowed to design and plant a garden of exotic flowers. When the garden withered and died, he traveled into the surrounding prairie and transplanted native wildflowers. Jensen transplanted the wildflowers into a corner of Union Park, creating what became the American Garden in 1888.

Working his way through the park system, Jensen was appointed superintendent of the 200 acre (800,000 m²) Humboldt Park in 1895. By the late 1890s, the West Park Commission was entrenched in corruption. After refusing to participate in political graft, Jensen was ousted by a dishonest park board in 1900. He was eventually reinstated and by 1905 he was general superintendent of the entire West Park System in Chicago. His design work for the city can be seen at Lincoln Park, Douglas Park, and Columbus Park.

In his maturity, Jensen designed Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Springfield, Illinois. This plan was completed in 1935 and planted in 1936-1939.

Private practice

In 1920 he retired from the park system and started his own landscape architecture practice. He worked on private estates and municipal parks throughout the US including four homes for Edsel Ford and projects for the Dearborn Inn, Henry Ford Hospital, Henry Ford Museum, and the Ford pavilion at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress. In 1923 he designed Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on a 19 acre area on Lake Michigan. In 1935 Jensen moved to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin where he established "The Clearing", which he called a "school of the soil" to train future landscape architects. In the course of his long career he worked with many well known architects including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Albert Kahn. Jens died at his home in "The Clearing" on October 1 1951, aged 91.

Design Philosophy

Jensen is known for his "prairie style" design work. This would often consist of open spaces and pathways, which allowed one to stay in the shade while viewing the light. Not only did he use native plants, but also materials too. Most of his water features use slabs of limestone stacked up to recreate the natural river systems of the Mid West. Much of his designs focused around views from certain places where he would leave openings in the dense under stories he was known for planting. Jens never created paths going in straight lines to their destinations; he disliked inorganic lines that connected places like they were nodes. He said of the vast formal gardens of France that "men with little intellect and plenty of money who, for the sake of popularity, will turn their gardens into museums of freaks where even the stalwart moonshiner would hesitate to pass through at the midnight hour."

At the Henry Ford Estate, instead of going straight to the house, the entrance route leads visitors through a densely wooded area. Bends in the road, planted on the inside with large trees to give a feeling of a natural reason for the turn, obscure the view. Suddenly, the driver is propelled out of the forest and in the open space where the residence is in front of them. This idea of wandering was one which Jens put forth in almost all of his designs.

Today his gardens are being restored due to resurrections of his plans. Jens Jensen was one of the most influential designers to popularise native gardens. He showed that not only could beautiful gardens have native species, but could have native species in their respective places as they would be without human integration or involvement. He taught us that beauty does not have to come from a Tulip from Holland or a Maple from Japan; it can come from the wild reaches of our backyards or state parks. He summed up his philosophy by saying: "Every Plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out its full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping".

Controversy Surrounding Native Plants

For some scholars, the advocacy of native plants by Jensen and others has troublesome implications. They assert that the native plant movement, under the guise of environmental responsibility, is in fact motivated by cultural biases. At the forefront of such criticism is “Some Notes on the Mania for Native Plants in Germany,” a paper written by German scholars Gert Groening and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. First appearing in Landscape Journal in the fall of 1992, it suggests that ecology, a term used “as if it conferred moral authority,” is often a weak justification for less desirable motives. The idea that “exotic plants from other continents threaten our home nature,” they say, is nothing short of xenophobia.

Groening and Wolschke-Bulmahn begin by challenging the very concept of native species. They provide as examples the sweet cherry and the potato, plants that, while now an integral part of German culture, came from places like Asia Minor and Peru hundreds of years ago; the fact that many would consider these species native underlies the degree of subjectivity in such a classification. The authors also look to the writings of Darwin and Haeckel, 19th century biologists that challenged an anthropocentric view of the world. The “laws of nature” which they espoused would later influence early 20th century German garden architects. Willy Lange was perhaps the first such designer interested in establishing a scientific basis for plant selection. For Lange, it was only logical that “those who support the laws of nature are the better people.” His design concept revolved around science, art, and race; the garden became “the racial expression of the understanding of nature of ‘Nordic’ or ‘Germanic’ people.” Later designers, particularly Alwin Seifert, more directly applied the concept of nativeness to landscape architecture. Taking up the mantra “blood and soil,” Seifert was appointed State Attorney for the Landscape in the National Socialist party. The intent of the Nazis was to “cleanse the German landscape of unharmonious foreign substance;” for Groening and Wolschke-Bulmahn, this was directly related to Hitler’s statement that “the German volk has to be cleansed.”

Predictably, “Mania for Native Plants” generated impassioned and immediate controversy. The subsequent issue of Landscape Journal contained a rebuttal by University of New Mexico professor Kim Sorvig, who disputed the Germans’ argument on several grounds. In “Natives and Nazis: An Imaginary Conspiracy in Ecological Design,” Sorvig identifies the paper’s three major “fallacies.” The first fallacy, he suggests, is that the “cultural landscape is equated with its ecological components.” In reality, the social potency of the landscape lies not in its particular species but in the associations people derive from its forms. He uses the example of Poland, a country invaded by the Nazis. The Nazis sought to expropriate the land, seeing the open agricultural landscape as inferior to the orderly woodlots, fields, and gardens which characterized Germany. Their concern was not with the biology but the culture, as both countries already possessed similar flora. The second fallacy is in “ignoring the rational basis for ecological planting design.” Xenophobia aside, there are undeniably higher resource costs associated with non-native planting. And finally, Sorvig considers equating “the removal of non-native plants from a landscape to the extermination of ‘foreign’ human beings” to be particularly egregious and insensitive. He suggests that the leap Groening and Wolschke-Buhlman make from native to Nazi is largely a sensational one.

While Jensen is not specifically mentioned in “Mania for Native Plants,” his “complicity” in the matter is implied. And in a follow-up article, Groening and Wolschke-Buhlman put him at the forefront of the discussion. He is not called a Nazi, but he is unfavorably compared to one; the authors suggest that “Jensen was more militant in his ideas about natural garden design that even his German colleague Alwin Seifert.” They cite his 1939 work Siftings, in which Jensen provides plenty of fodder to illustrate their point. Referring to non-natives in the garden, he says, “Freaks are freaks and often bastards– who wants a bastard in the garden, the out of door shrine of our home?” Other passages, while perhaps less incendiary, also promote a landscape that reinforces racial and cultural differences.

Since the original accusations, many more scholars have weighed in on the controversy. Some critics of Groening and Wolschke-Bulmahn have defended the use of native plants in general, while others have come to the specific defense of Jensen. Of those in the latter camp, a paper by Dave Egan and William Tischler entitled “Jens Jensen, Native Plants, and the Concept of Nordic Superiority,” is of particular interest. Published in Landscape Journal in 1999, it confronts some of Jensen’s more discomforting quotes head-on. For instance, the article contains a letter by Jensen in which he expresses the idea that “Latin” and “Oriental” cultures are inferior to “our [America’s] Germanic character.” Egan and Tischler do not defend such ideas, but they do contextualize them. They describe an America that was increasingly isolationist and xenophobic following World War I. Himself an immigrant, Jensen’s views were shaped by the political climate in America as well as the experiences of his youth. Educated in Danish folk schools and affected by the occupation of Prussian troops in Denmark, Jensen developed an appreciation for one’s homeland early in life. For him, there was a special bond between culture and nature, one he believed should be strengthened. And while his opinion of other cultures is unenlightened by today’s standards, Jensen publicly rejected the idea that America should put racial quotas on immigration. In his private letters, too, he denounced Hitlerism and expressed a hope for democracy and peace. Jensen’s nativist views were less about asserting cultural superiority than they were about reconnecting people to their landscape in the face of rapid modernization and homogenization. Other scholars, such as University of Michigan’s Robert Grese, describe projects like the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate, in which Jensen granted the clients’ request for non-native species. Jensen was willing to use them around the home and in “special gardens,” a fact that runs counter to claims of garden “militarism.”

Today the debate over natives continues. Most ecological designers would suggest that exotics should be reserved for specimen plantings. They would argue that in doing so, they are not imposing the values of a dominant culture; to the contrary, they are protecting a place’s biodiversity, particularly from overly aggressive invasive species. They are also trying to limit the amount of fertilizer, water, and other resources used on non-natives. Yet, in the face of these environmental truths, Groening and Wolschke-Bulmahn’s paper raises valid concerns about using science as a justification for cultural biases.


*Egan, Dave, and William H. Tishler. "Jens Jensen, Native Plants, and the Concept of Nordic Superiority." Landscape Journal 18.1 (1999): 11-29.
*Grese, Robert E., "Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens", Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998
*Groening, Gert and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. "Response: If the Shoe Fits, Wear it!" Landscape Journal 13.1 (1994): 62-3.
*Groening, Gert, and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. "Some Notes on the Mania for Native Plants in Germany." Landscape Journal 11.2 (1992): 116-26.
* Sorvig, Kim. "Natives and Nazis: An Imaginary Conspiracy in Ecological Design, Commentary on G. Groening and J. Wolschke-Bulmahn's "Some Notes on the Mania for Native Plants in Germany"." Landscape Journal 13.1 (1994): 58-61.
*Telfer, Sid, "The Jens Jensen I Knew"

External links

* [ Jens Jensen Project]
* [ Chicago Wilderness Magazine: Jens Jensen]
* [ Forest Preserve District: Jens Jensen]
* [ The Clearing]
* [ Landscape drawings in the Suzette Morton Davidson Special Collections of the Sterling Morton Library]
* [ "Chicago's Columbus Park:The Prairie Idealized"," a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan]

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