Landscape Maven: Ruth Shellhorn
Author Kelly Comras takes readers behind the scenes of this influential movement of landscape architecture in her book Ruth Shellhorn, and shows us a woman who, in her 60 years of working as a landscape architect, helped shape some of Southern California’s midcentury landmarks.
A glimpse into the life of one of California’s most influential landscape architects.
The aesthetic of 20th-century Southern California is not only iconic,
but it also set a precedent for modernist landscape design around the country.
Between 1933 and 1990, Ruth Shellhorn created close to 400 landscape designs, including award-winning landscape designs for Bullock’s department stores and Fashion Square shopping centers, collaboration on the original plan for Disneyland, a multiyear landscape master plan for the University of California at Riverside, a major Los Angeles County coastal planning project, city and regional park designs, and more than two hundred residential estates and gardens. In noting her influence within the field, her work truly speaks for itself.
The book delves into Ruth’s beginnings within the industry and moves through years where she honed her design aesthetic. She had many realizations that helped focus her designs, such as the critical importance of including features that enhanced outdoor living, spaciousness within outdoor retail spaces, accessibility for pedestrians and automobiles, and “a little more humility and a reverence for natural beauty.”
Though she did not fully dismiss modernist ideals, Ruth firmly believed that the primary purpose of landscape architecture was to instill a sense of well-being.“Her work was, in part, a response to both the rapid urbanization of the era and the egoism characterizing much of modern design,” Kelly writes. Ruth pushed against designs that were “too full of ideas,” and instead focused on balancing modern conveniences with natural beauty, with both client and nature in mind.
Kelly shares projects that Ruth led in her career, but also comments on her direct influence on each task she undertook. We learn through her extensive body of work that Ruth had distinct visions for what she intended to build. She conducted much of her own surveying, designed and drafted her own plans, and supervised all construction details in a predominately male work environment.
“I have never thought of myself as a woman in competition with men,” Ruth once stated, “but rather as a landscape architect trying to do the best job I can.”
Ruth Shellhorn is regarded as one of the leaders in developing California’s regional landscape design aesthetic. “Although she went on to experiment with many elements of modernist landscape design, she never identified with any particular stylistic camp, a reflection, perhaps, on her inner authority,” writes Kelly. The author encourages readers to remember Ruth for her achievements in design, as well as her personal and professional dedication to enhancing and protecting the landscape.
PENCIL SKETCH OF THE FINE ARTS BUILDING AT THE SOUTH PASADENA HIGH SCHOOL, 1936. THE PLANTING SCHEME RUTH SETTLED ON WAS THE BEGINNING OF HER EXPERIMENTATION WITH EVERGREENS AND SUGGESTS THE REGIONAL AESTHETIC SHE WOULD DEVELOP LATER IN HER CAREER.
SOUTH ENTRANCE OF FASHION SQUARE SANTA ANA, 1969. FASHION SQUARE SANTA ANA WAS THE EARLIEST INTEGRATED,
SPECIALTY-SHOPPING COMPLEX IN THE COUNTRY TO EMPLOY A PEDESTRIAN MALL AS A UNIFYING FEATURE.
“In the cou rse of a c areer lasting nearly 60 years, Ruth Shellhorn helped shape SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S ICONIC 20TH-CENTURY DESIGN AESTHETIC.”
RUTH SUPERVISES THE INSTALLATION OF AN OAK TREE IN THE GROUT GARDEN, 1939. SHE WAS KNOWN FOR HER “HANDSON” APPROACH TO LANDSCAPE DESIGN, AND SUPERVISED AND SURVEYED MOST JOBS ON HER OWN.
BY KELLY COMRAS, PUBLISHED BY THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA PRESS, © 2016; WWW.UGAPRESS.ORG.