The American Lawn

A smooth, closely shaven surface of green is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.

– Frank J. Scott, The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, 1870

North America now has more than 32 million acres of lawn under cultivation, occupying more land than any single crop, including wheat, corn, or tobacco. Americans spend $750 million a year on grass seed alone and more than $25 billion on do-it-yourself lawn and garden care, making the lawn and landscape industry a booming sector of the economy. These statistics attest to the North American obsession with the lawn. As Michael Pollan noted: "Like the interstate highway system," like fast food chains, like telephone, television and cable, "the lawn has served to unify the American landscape."

The American lawn, the product of seeds imported for agricultural purposes during colonization, developed as a garden feature in the eighteenth century. Recent research has revealed ample evidence of the lawn as common to all the North American colonies and well established by the early national period. It did not enter the theoretical literature on landscape and architecture until the mid-nineteenth century with Andrew Jackson Downing, and was codified in the 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s designs at Riverside near Chicago. The history of the lawn unrolls as if two currents, two genealogies, met and fused into a hybrid: from one side, the "vernacular," descended from the little colonial garden; from the other, the nineteenth-century "aristocratic" tradition that Downing imported from English theorists.

Between 1870 and 1890 the barriers between these two tendencies disappeared, leaving only an "imaginary line" around which played the scenes of daily life and the spectacle of suburban pastoralism. Devoid of fences, hedges, and walls, Riverside’s unified lawns formed a single apparently public visual landscape, yet their invisible property lines remained inviolate. This typical American suburban landscape is neither city nor country, neither public nor private: it is both the pastoral dream of the "cabin in the clearing" and a technological surface carved out of the wilderness.

Indeed, the lawn was soon to spread over the whole continent as a vast platform for the performance of democracy. Mowing, for example, turns into an important civic duty. Like more private civilizing measures such as vacuuming and shaving, it must be performed regularly to domesticate tenacious, unwanted natural encroachments. The preservation of a two-inch-high verdant pile is at once the common ground between happy neighbours, conforming to an unwritten and unspoken social contract, and a battlefield, a competitive surface on which individual rivalries are displayed side by side.

Prologue

In "The Museum of the Lawn," a corridor of display cases suggest a system of classification in which the lawn functions as outdoor parlour, art gallery, playground, work area, private domain, and final resting place. By tracing its historical antecedents in popular culture such as nineteenth-century artifacts, miniature lawn furniture, garden ornaments, and illustrations from popular magazines, a taxonomy of the lawn comes into being.

The Democratic Surface

Andrew Jackson Downing equated a badly kept lawn with a "rude and barbarous people," evoking an opposition of civility and barbarism that would continue to define the American suburb, distinguishing it both from "barbarous" agricultural life and from the "uncivil" city. Appearing at the turn of the century, Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class argued that the suburb marked a retreat from labour to leisure, and contended that the lawn had became an index of social standing and a register of civility. To Veblen, membership in the leisure class could be measured by the extent of wasteful suburban lawn. The lawn itself represented a cultural shift from production values to those of luxury, and thus reflected and procured privilege. It indicated one’s isolation from neighbours and provided a refuge from the chaos and contamination of the urban masses.

At the same time, lawns were conceived as a continuous and undisturbed space of community participation, the symbol not only of individual improvement but of social betterment, even the betterment of the nation. As one commentator suggests, "We are a better country for our lawns, and we need more – not less – grass." Such notions of improvement and class distinction invested the lawn with moral as well as aesthetic values, made caring for it a virtue, and saw in it the national ideal of a continuous, democratic surface that would serve to bond a community bent on beautification.

As suburban developments gained in popularity, the size of the lawn diminished and cheaper lots became prevalent. The lawn was transformed from a surface of luxury and leisure into a site of intense labour. Ironically, Veblen’s argument was turned on its head as the lawn moved from a sign of inutility to one of laborious maintenance. Yet as expansive lawns gave way to more restrictive ones they still maintained their connotations of "civilization," social standing, and community. On one level, lawn maintenance effected a coherent community of suburban dwellers all belonging to the same class of lawn labourers. On another, the conformity of this homogenous community continued to operate through fears of the encroachment of barbarism. Just as Homeowner’s Associations and Neighbourhood groups regulated the lawn’s appearance, the pre-war suburb was often governed by regulations that specified income and race uniformity. In 1938 the Federal Housing Administration asserted, "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes." (In the last fifty years, more subtle means of exclusion have been in operation, and the "democratic" lawn can still symbolize society’s most undemocratic practices.)

Decoding the Lawn

The American lawn has become a strategic battleground between the collective image of democracy and the property rights of the individual. The utilization of "borrowed views," in which one neighbour’s vista is another’s property, evolved into a standard for suburban design unique to North America. The goal of making private properties park-like, and thereby communal, led to the development of "no-fence" agreements with the lawn itself as a fenceless barrier. Yet the omission of enclosures around suburban gardens jeopardized the privacy afforded by fence or wall. This ambiguity of the lawn as a threshold between the public space of the street and private domestic space has remained a constant of the American landscape from the moment of its colonization.

This dynamic comes to the fore in publications on lawn aesthetics. Frank J. Scott’s The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds, for example, stated that responsibility for the beauty of the lawn as a publicly viewed surface falls under the owner’s civic responsibility. In the same year, Weidenmann’s Beautifying Country Homes described the proper composition of suburban residences as one that opened the front yards to view, a continuity and transparency that forms one of the chief pleasures of the suburban landscape. The lawn, it seems, acts as a great communal house, a vast universal yard. But while the absence or erasure of overt partitions and barriers produces a sense of apparent democratic openness, an array of laws, codes, and restrictive covenants regulates the use and appearance of privately owned lawns, thereby ensuring the visual conformity of these communities. A defining mark of suburban life, the "visibility principle" describes a visual arena that permits residents to observe each other’s behaviour and lifestyles with an unprecedented ease. Civic duty is thus linked to the aesthetic of the landscape ultimately as a moral law: inhabitants must maintain their lawns as a community place. In this environment the subtle yet unmistakable frontier, where the manicured lawn brushes against the unkempt one, is enough to disturb the peace of the neighbourhood. The popular social sciences now consider "over-commitment in gardening" a disorder. Thus the competitive aspect of lawn culture becomes intrinsic to the suburban way of life. As House Beautiful once headlined: "Is Your Lawn Getting You Down? We know just how you feel. The grass is always greener in your neighbor’s yard."

The Competitive Lawn

People do not only compete for the best lawn, they also compete on it. The subtle tactics of suburban lawn conflicts are mirrored in the more overt treatment of sporting lawns as surfaces of combat. In America, the introduction of European lawn games coincided with the championing of a domestic aesthetic of closely mown grass. The distinction between the home lawn and the sports field blurred as games such as badminton, croquet, and lawn bowling that used domestic turf as a playing surface grew popular. This phenomenon has produced a doubling of lawn and sports culture that has assigned the domestic lawn a topography inscribed by rules, regulation, conflict, and gamesmanship.

Golf courses were the earliest instigators of lawn competition. With the development of public courses in the late 1800s, many homeowners found that keeping their lawns up to the exacting standards of the fairway was time-consuming and expensive. Poorly kept lawns provided a breeding ground for weeds, insects, and undesirable grasses that might spread to the fairways, and course-side homeowners felt a great deal of pressure to conform. Since then, sports have been the driving force behind the multi-billion dollar industry in research and development of turf grass: a better lawn for a better game. Agricultural departments of state colleges and universities study turf grass technologies with subsidies from the Golf Association of America. Not only golf, but baseball, football, and soccer each demand lawns that satisfy particular requirements of durability, bounce, and speed. As sports shoes have also become part of this complex technology, the interface between athlete and lawn is engineered to accommodate specific movements – torque, traction, skidding, or twisting – on a variety of grass surfaces.

Colour sports broadcasts motivated the discovery of grass that would remain green year round, so that even colour consistency and intensity are bred into sports lawns to make them more "telegenic." In some fields, overseeding turf with perennial ryegrass seed produces a temporary illusion of the regulation velvety green carpet. Winterlawn, a grass dye widely marketed to golf courses, sports fields, and cemeteries throughout the 1950s, concealed disease spots and dormant winter grasses. Such artifice goes even further in places like Phoenix, Arizona, where the extensive irrigation of golf courses is transforming local weather patterns and producing unnatural environmental consequences.

Engineering the Lawn

Thoroughly engineered and subject to the laws of industry, horticulture, genetic science, and applied botany, the lawn is anything but natural. Hundreds of grass cultivars are currently being bred for colour, texture, density, and longevity. Scientists study lawn diseases and their patterns of behaviour in order to breed preternaturally healthy, disease-resistant grasses. A primary objective of turf grass research and engineering is to develop a super species that thrives in all conditions. In 1988 USA Today promised new types of grass seed that would stay green year round, resist disease, provide smooth and even growth, and tolerate both cold and heat. People magazine featured a geneticist who developed ten new strains of grass that grew only two to six inches each summer and needed neither watering nor fertilizing. But like other well-designed artifacts, many grasses are produced for niche markets to respond to specific requirements of site, application, function, and appearance. Within this field of fertile invention, patents establish the originality and specificity of each new grass type. Meanwhile, the lawn industry, driven by consumer desire to achieve the deepest, richest colour, classifies green, the "colour of nature," into precise shades according to the Royal Horticultural Society colour charts and the Munsell system.

"Natural" grass has obvious drawbacks, however, and the search for a synthetic replica may date to a 1950s Ford Foundation study that recommended the use of artificial turf, concluding that the lack of grass playing surfaces rendered urban children less fit. When the absence of direct sunlight killed the natural grass at the Houston Astrodome in 1966, Astroturf was installed as a last-minute solution. Artificial turf was transplanted to high schools, colleges, and professional stadia to be used year round, inside and out. Like natural grass, artificial turf is engineered to precise performance specifications that determine weave, density, texture, fibre strength, blade length, and shape. But artificial turf has its own disadvantages: the Poly Turf field at the Orange Bowl turned pale blue and its fibres melted in the hot Florida sun; a football field in Tennessee turned black. And artificial turf is not as forgiving as real grass; athletes have suffered burns and blisters on exposed skin, citing everything from turftoe and infected abrasions to serious head injuries. The NFL Players Association asked for a moratorium on synthetic turf installations and demanded that synthetic fields be declared hazardous. Many players and fans now want to return to natural grass.

Elsewhere, a desire to return to "real" grass is expressed by advocates of the Freedom Lawn, who fight against chemically controlled and eugenically bred turf grasses. They choose rather to grow wild grasses, which, for them, retain a more familiar notion of naturalness and challenge the demand for perfection and homogeneity. Similarly, xeriscaping promotes indigenous grasses that sustain themselves in dry environments without the extensive irrigation that can damage local ecosystems and deplete resources. Such lawns are generating debates about artificiality and naturalness, environmental health and sickness, and the place of the lawn as an image of cultivation and uniformity within the national imagination.

The Power Lawn

The status of the American lawn as an emblem of power was established in the nineteenth century through its pervasive use in landscaping government, religious, and cultural buildings. The lawn has come to symbolize both collective solidarity and institutional power, and more recently, has been appropriated by corporate culture to represent distance, authority, and control. As a device for framing public and private institutions, it has played as great a role as the domestic landscape in promulgating an ideal of the American lawn.

In Washington, institutional power and domesticity are joined in the White House lawn, which has come to serve as the home lawn for the entire country. The lawn’s ability to communicate federal power is exploited for photo opportunities and news conferences, peace accords, treaty signings, and celebrations of nationhood. What once framed the building now frames an array of presidential activities and civic ceremonies. But the greatest power of the lawn as a representational device, as well as within representations of power, lies in its ability to evoke notions of collectivity and unity. The ideal of a continuous surface uniting the nation gained an icon in Downing’s 1851 redesign of the Washington Mall, in which a vast public lawn connects the White House to the Capitol. Yet when activated by popular protest and political agitation, the Mall effects its most powerful representational force; sites of legislation become confluent with sites of contention, and the lawn appears as the surface of democracy, a tolerant ground that can absorb dissent and civic unrest. As an organic expanse uniting America, the lawn achieves its own "organic" completion through these moments of protest that portray a governance responsive to discord. In this context, the lawn is a strategic symbol of unity that is indispensable to representations of American democracy.

Similar notions of unity motivated early corporate campus designs in which large, park-like lawns were used to suggest an environment of accord and cooperation. By the post-war era the use of lawns to mime civic accountability gave way to a more economic function as symbols of technocratic success. A contemporary critic described them as "the introduction of precision into the pastoral." The intensely controlled, minimalist treatment of such landscapes exploded the well-mown suburban lawn to a monumental scale, clearly perceptible at sixty miles per hour. Unlike the Mall or the White House lawn, these industrial campuses are remarkable for their absence of activity. Unpopulated and protected, they function as clean aesthetic frames and perimeter zones of surveillance. Here the lawn serves not only to represent corporate power, but also to enforce it.

Idyll and Anxiety

In popular television and film, it seems that nothing is more human than grass. Standard images of idyllic lawns appear countless times to symbolize the idealized lifestyle of the viewer, a lifestyle meant to be as generic and predictable as the lawn in front of each house. More than the frame of suburban life, the threshold of domesticity, the lawn is the frame of human life, the threshold of the planet. Aliens land spacecraft on the lawn, and the fate of the planet can be decided only on grass. Likewise, when humans land on foreign planets, they quickly construct a lawn, even in the most inhospitable environments.

In the early 1950s, when television started to construct a generic image of suburban life, the lawn acted as a crucial frame, appearing at the beginning and end of every situation comedy episode. The viewer was assumed to be someone walking down a familiar street, a neighbour invited in to witness what is happening behind the façades on the other side of the lawn. By the end of the decade, the drama began to venture out of the house onto the grass, which became a kind of stage for acting out the clichés of contemporary life. No longer the generic frame for action that occurs beyond it, the lawn became a protagonist in its own right, and often the subject of the stories themselves.

Throughout the early history of the televisual lawn, the dark side of life was suppressed in order to provide a comforting image. The lawn, equated with domestic harmony, acted as the public image of private life. To threaten that image is to endanger the normative view of domesticity and unleash a wide range of anxieties. In the mid-eighties, movies did exactly that, exposing the underside of the generic imagery by turning the lawn against itself. In films like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet of 1986, the camera goes into the lawn to locate dark secrets; everything is seen from the lawn’s point of view. Turmoil within the grass hints at the disorder infiltrating a whole community, the well-mown environment invaded by forbidden fantasies. In film after film the carefully tended layer of turf represents both the suburban ideal and its latent nightmare, the menace lurking behind idyllic surfaces. While the lawn is the public image of private life, serious doubts arise when the dissimulating perfection of its manicured green surface is challenged.

Epilogue

The symbolic richness of the lawn persists as a subject for photographers. Through the lawn, their works construct the spectacle of modern American life, which becomes a mirror reflecting the margins and meaning of leisure, the domestic landscape as fabrication and frontier, and the inevitable cycles of progress, maturity, and decline.