January 2019

Professor Emerita Achva Benzinberg Stein is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Distinguished Alumna of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Winner of the Community Service Award by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Outstanding Teaching Award from the City College of New York, she has taught and practiced in the US and abroad for non-profit organizations and governmental agencies. 

You write that our assumptions about nature, landscape and gardens have dire consequences on the environment and ecosystems. What are those assumptions, exactly?

Well, let's start with nature. The assumption is that rather than understand nature, we can fight it and control it by using nature’s forces and processes for our benefit. Hundreds of years ago, nature could have ignored our assumptions, but there’s no way it can disregard them now. We are seven billion people and growing. If we want the world to stay the way it is, even remotely, we have to understand how to adapt our lives to accommodate it.

How do you define landscape and gardens?

Landscape basically mirrors what we do in life. It is how we eat and how we treat each other, and how we treat all living creatures on the land. What makes a landscape beautiful is when it works with the force of nature. The story is that agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry — all the stuff that we do on the land — is landscape. It gives us a way to live and is a mirror of our society. It has the biggest impact on us because it reflects how we think about society and one another. It is not a matter of design like a garden. It’s a matter of organization and structure and political decision-making.

A garden, on the other hand, is neither landscape nor nature. There is nature at force in it if you pay attention, but it is basically outdoor architecture. There are structures and spaces designed specifically to do what we want. And that's perfectly fine. You can have gardens exactly like a building, or a garden that looks to imitate ideas in nature. Gardens are the only places that we design fully, and we should design, though it should be limited.

What you’re describing is so visual.

It is, it is! That’s why I use so many slides in my course. They express so much of what I’m explaining. We’ll explore how in the Mediterranean, for example, gardens beautifully reflect the landscape that’s shaped in response to nature. We'll also examine what's happening in places like China and India.

You mentioned the need to reframe the way in which we observe what we see. Can you can explain that further?

Let's take the concept of art. The concept of art in Greece was functional. You just do what you need to do, and, if you do it well, it will become art. And that is a different framing — a different way of looking at things — than starting out saying we will create something to be beautiful. In Greece, when something works, it's beautiful. When you create something for art — for what you call an artistic expression — then you actually destroy a lot of things because you force it to look a certain way. Now that's very good if you want to create art on a very small scale, but not good if you're trying to shape landscape for art's sake because you ultimately end up harming it.

What would you like OLLI members to learn from your course?

I would like them to know that not every open space should be a garden, not every garden is nature and that we have to live with the forces of nature rather than pretend that we can control everything by placing economy in the center of our universe.