National Building Museum Retraces the Works of Oehme, van Sweden

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Slifka Beach House/

There’s a small but beautiful photo exhibit currently on view at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum entitled The New American Garden: The Landscape Architecture of Oehme, van Sweden. It’s a fascinating look back at the careers and influence of revolutionary landscape architects Wolfgang Oehme (1930-2011) and James van Sweden (1935-2013), whose collaborative work challenged the American concept of the structured, well-manicured lawn.


A retrospective on Oehme, van Sweden’s work couldn’t be timelier in an era when persistent drought is threatening many parts of the country. With an uncanny prescience, the two business partners were spurning lawn-centric spaces as early as the 70’s. Breaking with prevailing traditions, their innovative designs combined native plants with low-maintenance perennials to create vivid, naturalistic gardens that ran contrary to the typical, highly-manicured patch of lawn.


Oehme, van Sweden’s style celebrated the seasonal beauty of the American meadow while promoting its environmentally friendly and sustainable characteristics. Their gardens blended broad swaths of grasses with large fields of perennials in a free-flowing mix of colors and textures. The approach met with some skepticism at first.

Well aware that the idea of abandoning the lawn was radical, van Sweden nonetheless characterized their new style as “vigorous and audacious.” In an interview with Washingtonian Magazine in 2008 he said,

“We did not feature lawn, but tapestry-like plantings and perennials and masses of the same plant – 3,000 Black-Eyed Susans instead of six.”

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(Photo of Kendale Farm, Chance, VA/

To simulate real meadows, the designers packed their gardens with visual effects that changed with the seasons. Founded primarily on grasses and foliage plants, they incorporated the influences of such diverse elements as the movement of light, lengthening of shadows and power of the wind on their exuberant compositions. As their signature style grew in popularity, they named it the New American Garden.


Composed of a series of color photos, the National Building Museum’s exhibit runs in chronological order, tracing the development of Oehme, van Sweden’s key projects over the past several decades. Drawings and artifacts accompany the photos, including original, hand-drawn plans that document the designers’ initial inspiration all the way through execution of the final project.


A highlight of the exhibit is a presentation of original paintings and sculptures that strongly influenced the duo. These include a privately owned 1967 bronze sculpture by Henry Moore as well as a 17th century Dutch painting on loan from the National Gallery of Art. Van Sweden, who grew up in a Dutch community in Grand Rapids, Michigan was inspired by the Dutch Masters. He studied their paintings assiduously to gain insights into paving and pattern as well as their use of diagonal lines to lead the eye deeper into the composition.

Italian landscape painting by Jan Both, 1650-52


The photos are divided into four sections:

Section 1, entitled Bold Romantic Gardens, features Oehme, van Sweden’s early projects such as the Rosenberg Residence, the Slifka Beach House and the Vollmer Garden pictured below. 

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Vollmer Residence/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Van Sweden referred to the Slifka Beach House (below) as a “compact of distinct places and connections.” The architects’ design for the large coastal property included masses of ornamental grasses and other foliage plants that varied in color and texture throughout the seasons. Today, a key feature is the large groupings of purple alliums that emerge by the hundreds atop low drifts of yellow tickseed.

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Slifka Beach House/Oehme Van Sweden


Section 2 showcases some of the designers’ most celebrated Residential Gardens from around the country including Halcyon, an 85-acre property located along the shores of the Tred Avon River in Easton, Maryland. To enliven the expansive landscape (which Oehme, van Sweden found ‘uninspiring’) the designers used massed perennials and grasses to add structure to the space, allowing glimpses through the plants to the water beyond.

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Section 3 showcases Civic and Commercial Gardens including Oehme, van Sweden’s first major installation at the Federal Reserve Board, for which they were tasked to design a public garden on top of a parking garage.

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Washington, DC’s Federal Reserve Garden

Other projects featured in this section include the National World War II Memorial, Chicago Botanic Garden, New York Botanical Garden, Forest Park (St. Louis, Missouri), and Americana Manhasset among others.


Section 4, entitled Legacy and Stewardship focuses on landscape architecture’s innate transience and the challenges posed by changes in ownership or inadequate maintenance to existing projects. During their lifetimes, Oehme and van Sweden came to know that their vision needed to be understood and valued in order to survive.


(Amagansett Garden designed by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates featuring outdoor table by UHURU)

I can attest as a designer that this might be the most important element of all.

The firm Oehme, van Sweden & Associates was founded in 1975 in Washington, D.C. to design projects ranging from urban townhouses to city parks and waterfront landscapes. Oehme and van Sweden are now deceased, but a new set of architects continues to design innovative landscapes drawing upon the founders’ unique vision.

The New American Garden: The Landscape Architecture of Oehme, van Sweden is on view at the National Building Museum until May 1, 2016. It is organized in cooperation with the Cultural Landscape Foundation. For more information on current exhibitions and collections, go to


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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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