The Beauty of Layers


Lake Erie, strip mining, and Dan Kiley lead to the birth of a landscape architect with a mandate for the future


In a recent World Landscape Architect profile, Cheryl Barton plumbs her origin story and traces her path to advocacy for conscientious intervention in a rapidly changing global environment. She tells how the death of Lake Erie by industrial pollution and the devastation caused by strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains impressed on her the downside of human impact; while happier childhood experiences in nature and on construction sites in western Pennsylvania, as well as the work of environmental artists of the 60s and 70s, shaped her conviction that a more thoughtful and productive relationship with the landscape was both achievable and necessary.

An example of her wrestling to reconcile the human vs. nature concept surfaces in her discussion of the running debate she and former boss and mentor, the renowned modernist landscape architect, Dan Kiley, had over the purpose of a landscape design. Whereas Kiley held that a site was a clean slate that passively received the designer’s vision, Barton believes that a design should be grounded in the site’s natural and cultural history. The purpose of a landscape intervention, in her view, is not to overwhelm or subvert a place, but to understand and honor its origins, while also reframing and revisioning it in a way that enhances it aesthetically, socially, and ecologically. Barton uses a geological term, “stratigraphy,” to describe how these layers enrich the final design.

In her current landscape architectural practice as Design Principal of O|CB, Barton lives by what she calls the “Theory of HERE” which emphasizes precisely that: from the micro-local to the planetary view, the elements and forces affecting a site are singularly its own and both constrain and inform the design outcome. What environmental influences are in play, both past and future? Who will use and need the site today and tomorrow? How will the design improve lives and habitats? By addressing such questions, the designer plays a critical role in shaping the earth’s lived environment far beyond the surface.