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Visiting Scholar Joseph Disponzio

Garden and Landscape Studies
Visiting Scholar Joseph Disponzio

Jean-Marie Morel’s Parc du Chateau d’Arcelot, Arceau, France.

Joseph Disponzio, Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks during the month of April, is a landscape architect with the New York City Department of Parks of Recreation and a lecturer at Columbia University. Formerly associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Georgia, he has also taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Bryn Mawr College. He is a noted author and scholar of garden history, specializing in the picturesque garden tradition. His latest book is Territories: Contemporary European Landscape Design.

You are not a newcomer to Dumbarton Oaks: over the last 20 years, you have been Summer Fellow, Junior Fellow, and a Fellow. What did Dumbarton Oaks mean in your professional career?

I am an employee for the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation, with an appointment as lecturer at Columbia University. For Parks, I am a preservation landscape architect who writes cultural landscape reports. However, my work as an independent scholar has been facilitated by my time at Dumbarton Oaks. A residency at Dumbarton Oaks is that rarest of luxuries: an opportunity for intellectual pursuit of your own choosing. And you do this with reference material at your fingertips, food prepared for you, and Beatrix Farrand’s magnificent garden yours for the taking. But the price of living in heaven is the implied pressure to produce. One cannot be unaware of the storied history of the place and the purpose of being here.

Arriving—even for a fourth time—you confront the same predicament: the impossibility of too much choice. It’s very much the “child in a candy shop,” but the adult must learn to make choices, to decide what is relevant, how to budget time, prepare outlines, organize thoughts, and, most importantly, to think independently. One’s dissertation adviser or colleagues may be sounding boards, but in the end what you write and how you come to write it is done alone. Here, the solitary pursuit of scholarship takes place in a very nurturing and supportive environment. It is also an environment that allows for focused and undisturbed concentration, a cardinal point missed by no one who has ever tried to write a worthwhile book. Yet, the Dumbarton Oaks experience is more than being given the opportunity to grow as a scholar. The experience also allows one to develop the sheer joy of learning. In a career as a public servant and academic, the Dumbarton Oaks experience helped me become a researcher, a writer and scholar, and, most importantly, a lifelong learner.

Jean-Marie Morel has been the focus of your research for many years. What is his importance in the field of landscape architecture? How did your reading/understanding of his work change since you started to work on this subject as Summer Fellow in 1994?

When I first came to Dumbarton Oaks on a Summer Fellowship, the purpose was to test the viability of working on Morel. I had recently discovered him in a seminar on eighteenth-century French architectural theory taught by Robin Middleton at Columbia University. Professor Middleton had us read three garden theory texts, in French, in one week. I did it and thought Morel the superior of the three. When inquiring about Morel, Professor Middleton said we know nothing about him, and that there is probably nothing to know given the lack of archival records--or something like that. Well, that was it—the gauntlet thrown and I picked it up. That summer I indeed concluded that Morel was a viable dissertation topic, but still had no archives to work with. My thought at the time was that Morel’s book, Théorie des jardins, was itself worthy of study, but really didn’t have much context to make that determination.

By the time of my return to Dumbarton Oaks on a Junior Fellowship, I had spent almost three years in France in search of Morel. I did find enough archival records to begin to understand the man better, and put his landscape theory and practice into focus. I found extant gardens, all in private hands, as well as reports and other texts that he wrote. I also found drawings that suggested his proficiency as a garden designer. Upon my return to Dumbarton Oaks on a Junior Fellowship, I was able to digest my years of research and expand my reading around Morel. I practically lived in the Rare Books Reading Room, which has all the relevant material, and read through the primary literature of eighteenth-century France. This was crucial to put Morel in the context of Enlightenment events, especially the changing concept of Nature and the natural world. The extent to which Morel mastered the intellectual discourses and scientific discoveries of the era, and how he incorporated them into his garden theory, was a revelation. He had gone from being a little-known writer of an obscure picturesque garden theory book to being a major thinker of the genre. Added to this was a five-decade career in which he designed over fifty gardens. As witness to and participant in the transformation of garden design in the course of the eighteenth century, and with such a long and distinguished career, Morel was a pivotal player in the professionalization of garden design. To the extent that can be determined, he worked primarily for clients, not patrons, which is a major step in the rise of a profession. Indeed, Morel coined the term architecte-paysagiste (landscape architect), the professional designation for the designer of landscapes.

For me, Morel is a crucial figure in the emergence of the picturesque or natural (his preferred word) garden style. Morel was perhaps the most emphatic proponent in this rise of professionals. He had a lifelong preoccupation with professional designation, and finally settled on architecte-paysagiste. The term stuck, though not without decades of debate. But even if he were not implicated in the (still understudied) rise of the profession of landscape architecture, and even if he had never designed one garden, his Théorie des jardins stands as a work that reconceptualized how to think about and design gardens. Morel understood landscapes as systems dependent on natural processes, something which the garden designer who wishes to emulate nature must recognize. As such, designing picturesque gardens was not subject to normative art theories of mimesis or, more specifically, derivative of painting. Given the process-oriented approaches of contemporary landscape architecture, Morel’s prescience is all the more noteworthy. That is, to me, his achievement. I often think that Morel’s obscurity has to do with the modesty of the word “garden.” Had he named his book Théorie des paysages he would probably be better known today.

The translation of Morel’s text that you are editing will be published as part of Dumbarton Oaks’s new Ex Horto series. How do you see this publication promoting the historical study of gardens and designed landscapes?

Morel is still a little-known figure even among garden historians. Slowly, that is changing. An English Morel will go a long way toward upping his visibility if for nothing else than that an English language book will reach a much wider audience than a French book. A Dumbarton Oaks translation of Morel will be timely, inasmuch as Morel is now entering the literature and is cited in at least one of the major reference texts used in landscape history survey courses. Not only will the English Morel do justice to this important work, it will also be another positive step in making available to an English-speaking audience the major works of the French picturesque, rounding out a triumnirate that includes René de Girardin’s De la composition des paysages (1777), which was translated into English in 1783 as An Essay on Landscape, and Claude-Henri Watelet’s Essai sur les jardins (1774), translated only recently as Essay on Gardens (2003). Taken together, these works can be considered the intellectual and theoretical foundations of landscape architecture.

John Dixon Hunt has often lamented the shaky intellectual foundations of the profession of landscape architecture. Hunt is indeed right. But landscape architecture does not have the historic pedigree of architecture, and has not profited from centuries of theoretical debate over its aims, practices, or meaning. I jokingly refer to landscape architecture as the Rodney Dangerfield of professions—his tag line was “I get no respect.” If one follows the history of the profession, one can see the endless struggle with self-definition, partially fueled by a lack of a strong theoretical foundation. Morel’s Théorie des jardins is an important work in this theoretical foundation—indeed, it is perhaps the most relevant to landscape architecture.

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