Landscape Architect Left a Legacy of Design

Master’s student looks at impact of James Austin Floyd

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Mark Affum

Mark Affum

“Torn between two worlds.” That’s how Mark Affum describes the little-known subject of his recently completed master’s studies in landscape architecture.

That subject was James Austin Floyd, a Canadian landscape architect and a “complicated yet simple” character who straddled traditionalist and modernist periods.

Floyd’s career also tracked the development of landscape architecture as a design profession in this country, says Affum. He defended his thesis on Floyd’s contributions and legacy this spring.

Mention landscape architecture in the middle of the last century, and many people would have gotten the wrong idea.

“At the time when Floyd started to work as a landscape architect in the 1950s and the 1960s, people didn’t know what landscape architecture was,” he says.

Many people might have assumed that this nascent profession was another term for a landscaper or gardener. But, says Affum, “landscape architecture is a design profession as opposed to gardening.”

In designing public and private outdoor spaces, Floyd and others brought together art and science. Why place a tree here and not there? Why erect a gazebo in one location and not another?

In his 1950 book Landscape for Living, American landscape architect Garrett Eckbo laid out one of the key principles for the profession: form and function.

Take a zigzag retaining wall, a feature that appealed to the prevailing abstractionist sensibility.

“It was not just a decorative feature but to provide a particular function,” says Affum. “That wall would have built-in benches. It’s a work of art but it’s also a work of science. You’re trying to achieve some kind of goal using design.”

Emphasizing both form and function also helped to define the modernist style taking hold among mid-century architects and landscape architects. Gone was the idea that a garden should provide a purely decorative or “romantic” backdrop to buildings, he says. “It was designed for people.”

That new style also included the idea that a garden should be designed in three dimensions visible from grade. Earlier Beaux-Arts design based on axes and symmetry yielded two-dimensional spaces whose complete shape could be appreciated only from a higher elevation or viewing point.

Modernism also emphasized closer integration between buildings and gardens, and borrowed from “plastic” or abstract art, such as painter Wassily Kandinsky’s purely abstract works stressing lines and points.

Modernism succeeded the Beaux-Arts period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Affum says Floyd was among a few designers who learned traditionalist principles – he calls Floyd one of the “classical old guys” — but who made the leap to modernism in practice.

“I’ve always been interested in modernism,” says Affum. “It was a really exciting time, a time when a bunch of ideas were brewing.”

In architecture, the transition was led by the Bauhaus School founded by Walter Gropius; other proponents included Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, designer of the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto.

Born in New Brunswick in 1919, Floyd attended the University of Manitoba. He started in architecture but switched to horticulture. After working as a landscaper, he started grad studies at Harvard University.

Those studies were interrupted by the Second World War. Afterward, Floyd finished his degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and practiced landscape architecture for a couple of years.

He became deputy director of Toronto’s planning board in the late 1940s. By the mid-1950s, he joined the firm of Howard Dunington-Grubb, considered the father of landscape architecture in Canada. The firm later became Dunington-Grubb, Floyd and Stensson.

Floyd practiced and taught in Toronto for most of his working life. He designed some 2,000 home gardens and numerous public spaces.

Those included gardens at the former Inn on the Park in Toronto using curvilinear shapes in lawns and pools to soften more geometric designs. At the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, he designed raised planting beds and integrated walkways, trees and other materials to help direct visually-impaired patrons around the grounds.

He retired in 1980 and died a year later.

Floyd’s designs and writings influenced modern landscape architecture in Canada, says Affum, adding that no one had done a comprehensive study of his work. Affum decided to take on an overview of the designer, focusing on works during what he calls a “watershed period” for the profession between 1950 and 1970.

Before coming to Guelph, he studied history and political science at York University. Working with Prof. Lise Burcher, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, he pored through archives in Ottawa and Dunington-Grubb materials housed in the U of G Library archives.

He also interviewed Floyd’s son, who offered a portrait of a landscape architect caught between two worlds. Floyd spent time painting and enjoying social clubs: “In a way, he was very approachable and ordinary but also a very complicated character.”