The Francis Scott Key Memorial in Washington. Photos courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Wolfgang Oehme (left) and James van Sweden.
A Baltimore resdential landscape designed by Oehme and van Sweden.
DC's World War II Memorial.
A Baltimore resdential landscape designed by Oehme and van Sweden.
DC's World War II Memorial.

Lush + Exuberant

A National Building Museum exhibit spotlights local landscape visionaries

Opening on October 17 at the National Building Museum, an exhibit titled “The New American Garden” will highlight the work of Wolfgang Oehme (1930-2011) and James van Sweden (1935-2013), two pioneers of modern landscape architecture. Oehme and van Sweden transformed the industry by rejecting the traditional, overly manicured gardens of the 20th century in favor of natural, sustainable alternatives using broad swaths of low-maintenance perennials and ornamental plants.

“Oehme and van Sweden revolutionized the principles and techniques that underpin the creation of lush, exuberant landscapes,” said Charles Birnbaum, founder, and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which partnered with the museum in mounting the exhibit. “They ushered in a design vocabulary that relied on the skillful integration and juxtaposition of form, color, texture, massing, and scale of plant materials to provide a landscape narrative that was dynamic and responsive to all four seasons.”

The partners founded Oehme van Sweden and Associates in Washington, DC, in 1977, and the firm continues to design award-winning gardens across the country. Among its credits are the Federal Reserve Bank in DC, the New York Botanical Garden and the landscapes of embassies, universities and private residences, including Oprah Winfrey’s country estate in Indiana.

The exhibit will contain extensive photographs of Oehme and van Sweden’s designs, along with related drawings and artifacts from their practice. Paintings and sculptures that influenced their artistic outlook will also be on display, including works by Henry Moore and others.

Considering the transient nature of the partners’  legacy—at least nine of their projects no longer exist—the retrospective offers a rare glimpse into Oehme van Sweden’s body of work. As Birnbaum says, “Viewers will see how each of Jim and Wolfgang’s projects could be appreciated in their totality.” For more information, visit nbm.org.