Joanna C. Diman (1901–91): A “Cantankerous” Landscape Architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill presents a biographical overview of Diman's career as a landscape architect. Using hitherto unpublished sources, Nicholas Adams traces Diman's progress from her training at the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for Women (from which she graduated in 1923) through her early work for individual practitioners. For a decade beginning in 1934, she worked for the New York City Department of Parks. In 1944, she joined the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where she worked until her retirement in 1967. Archival sources at SOM reveal that she was involved to differing degrees in nearly all projects that passed through the firm's New York office, from the relatively small garden at Lever House to the great works of “pastoral capitalism,” such as that at Connecticut General in Bloomfield, Connecticut (1957). Adams raises questions of stylistic individuality and places them alongside the larger issue of what influence an in-house landscape department had on design at SOM during these years.
Picking out the specific contribution of an individual within a large firm like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill presents formidable obstacles.1 Officially, credit is given to the firm; the signature of the individual is not recognized. In 1959, Gordon Bunshaft was censured by the partners at SOM after Newsweek published an interview in which he stated: “I'm in charge of design. The other partners also participate in designing, but by criticism.”2 Still, we can distinguish the work of the partners one from the other, and from time to time we can identify the work of their underlings. Typically, the people we can identify were the specialists. From the interiors department, Jack Dunbar (1924–2017), for example, invented the vertical blinds used to echo the flashing mullions at the Union Carbide headquarters in New York (1960); the structural techniques for the John Hancock Center (1965–70) and the Sears Tower (1968–74) in Chicago were devised under the direction of, if not the direct result of calculations by, Fazlur Khan (1929–82).3 Partly because SOM's landscape department was a relatively small unit in the New York office, and partly because it was subsumed into larger departments (like urban planning and engineering), its work has largely been overlooked. The department's contributions may have escaped attention in part because SOM often brought in high-profile consultants (Dan Kiley, Lawrence Halprin, and Hideo Sasaki, to name three) who have attracted the attention of scholars. The work may also have been neglected because the department's leader, Joanna C. Diman (1901–91), was a woman.
Joanna Diman—called “Jo” by her coworkers—was the key in-house landscape architect at SOM in New York, working on large and small projects from 1944 until 1967 (Figure 1). She was part of a small civil engineering department, working under A. Martin “Scoop” Funnell and alongside other landscape architects (C. O. Andersen, Carroll J. Donoghue), and she seems to have been the longest-serving and best-paid member of the staff landscape group. Her standing is revealed by the special praise she received from Bunshaft, SOM's prickly design leader. Little information about Diman or her work for SOM has been available until recently. However, thanks to materials supplied by her nephew, Ezra S. Diman, including a curriculum vitae that documents her work experience up to 1944, it is now possible to follow her early development, and with the help of archival records at SOM, we can sketch a picture of her career.4
Diman was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 31 March 1901. Her family was well-to-do but hardly wealthy. She attended public schools in New Bedford (1906–10), Acushnet (1910–14), and Fairhaven, Massachusetts (1914–15). She completed high school in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and in the fall of 1920 entered the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture for Women in Groton, Massachusetts, from which she graduated in 1923.5 The school's purpose was to open the field of landscape architecture to women and to provide upper-class women the background they needed to design and oversee their own gardens. Later absorbed into the Rhode Island School of Design, Lowthorpe had a number of notable alumnae, including the Atlanta landscape architect Edith Henderson (1911–2005) and Gertrude Kuh of Chicago (1893–1977). A photo album from Diman's school days documents her visits to sites around New England and the South (Figure 2).
From 1923 she was employed by several firms, working first with the landscape architect Harold Hill Blossom in Boston (1923), then at the Charles R. Fish Nursery in Auburn, Massachusetts (1924), and thereafter for the New York–based landscape architects Ellen Biddle Shipman (1924–26), Annette Hoyt Flanders (1926–27), and Louise Payson (1927–32), the last a fellow Lowthorpe graduate. Diman's curriculum vitae documents her increasing responsibilities, from planting supervisor (for Shipman, who herself was known primarily for planting design) to assistant in charge of Payson's office, where she wrote contracts and specifications.6 She left Payson's employ in 1932 due to “lack of work” during the Great Depression; she was then unemployed until 1934. Her subsequent employment in the public sphere represented a significant shift in scale and reflected larger changes in women's practice in landscape architecture during those years—expanding from predominantly domestic work to corporate, urban, and public projects.7
In 1934, Diman joined the New York City Department of Parks as planning designer under Nelson Wells, working on the Zoological Gardens (probably in Central Park), the Tavern on the Green restaurant, golf courses, and small parks.8 In 1935 she became a landscape inspector under Kenneth Franklin, borough director for maintenance and construction at Manhattan's Parks Department. There she inspected landscape construction and works in progress. According to her account, her territory extended from 110th Street to the Battery, and among the works in her jurisdiction at this time were Carl Schurz Park, the Hamilton Fish Swimming Pool (now part of Hamilton Fish Park), Saint Gabriel's Park, Columbus Park, Stuyvesant Square, and Tompkins Square, as well as numerous playgrounds.
In 1936 Diman shifted to larger-scale works, which were part of the grand project tally of Robert Moses, the New York City parks commissioner (1934–60). She also worked at Flushing Meadows, and from 1936 to 1938 she helped develop planting plans for the Grand Central Parkway and for automobile parking at the World's Fair of 1939—parking that was converted to athletic facilities after the fair (Figure 3). In 1938–39 she worked in the office of C. C. Combs (then in partnership with the bridge engineer Othmar H. Ammann), preparing planting designs, construction drawings, and specifications for the Queensbridge Houses housing development, as well as master plans for Atlantic City and the highway approaches to New York City. In May 1939, she was back with the New York Department of Parks as supervisor of the Landscape Division, overseeing approximately fifteen draftsmen—a sign of trust and increased responsibility. In short, by the end of the 1930s, Diman had moved securely from the private to the public sphere, and from being one of several architects working in a drafting studio to a position of singular authority.
In 1939–40 Diman quit her job and traveled to the Far East, visiting the Philippines (where her brother was a missionary) as well as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Kobe, Japan. When she returned to New York, she worked again for the Department of Parks as leader of the Landscape Division, preparing “working drawings, landscape construction, grading, drainage and irrigation, and planting plans for playground[s], parks, and all other types of recreational developments.”9 At this point, at least, she may not have been designing the projects herself. Her salary dropped slightly—but whether that had to do with a change in responsibility or an enforced reduction due to changes in wage rates, we do not know. As she noted in her curriculum vitae, “These [projects] range in size from less than a city block to several hundred acres.” In 1943–44 she worked again for C. C. Combs.
The next step in Diman's career was momentous. She joined the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1944 and worked there, on and off, until her retirement around 1967. She joined SOM as the firm was beginning to grow.10 Lead designer Gordon Bunshaft was serving in the army at that time, and Diman was probably hired by Louis Skidmore, who was in the process of building up a civil engineering department in New York, of which landscape was a part.11 Diman was well paid. She recorded that her beginning salary was $5,200 a year, more than twice what she had earned at the Department of Parks.12 Skidmore's appointments were frequently speculative—he hired experts in one thing or another who, he hoped, would attract or keep clients. Diman's hiring may reflect a desire to provide landscape services in-house to meet the needs of Robert Moses, who was then passing along work to SOM (for example, Clearview Beach, 1945, and other recreation facilities) through the Department of Parks. A short time later, with the men still at war, Skidmore hired another woman, the architectural designer Natalie de Blois (1921–2013).
From this point on it is more difficult to document Diman's work. She left no summary vita for her later career, and SOM has no central record of staff activities from this period. As someone below the partner level, however, Diman filled out time cards, and project-by-project records (where such exist) construct a picture of her activities. Although she clearly contributed to the relatively mundane matters of siting and grading, she also served as a landscape designer under the direction of and in collaboration with either the senior designer or the design partner.13 In addition to well-known urban sites that demanded relatively modest but critical landscaping features—such as Manhattan House (1950) and Lever House (1952), both in New York City—Diman worked on noted campus projects, for example, two dormitories at Smith College, Cutter House and Ziskind House (1957), and Connecticut College's Cummings Arts Center (1957). At the latter, she probably designed the small lower-level garden adjacent to the center. She was also involved in larger-scale, better-known SOM projects, such as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1962), the multilevel Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas (1971), and the great suburban/rural corporate campuses for Connecticut General in Bloomfield, Connecticut (1957), and Union Carbide in Eastview, New York (1960). Diman made a greater or lesser contribution to nearly all projects that came through SOM's New York office between 1944 and her retirement in 1967. As Natalie de Blois acknowledged, Gordon Bunshaft was “very fond of Joanna.”14 It was a fondness based on respect.
That Bunshaft valued Diman is revealed in the length of her tenure with SOM and in his praise for her. In a published oral history recorded in 1989, the year before his death, Bunshaft provided a brief summary of Diman's importance and his impression of her character. Unfortunately for her reputation, he could not remember her name: “Connecticut General was done by a woman, an employee in our office. She was a good landscape designer. She was also cantankerous. The only one she'd listen to was me. I used to holler louder than her. I can't think of her name, but she was very good.”15 Ten years earlier, however, Bunshaft remembered Diman's name as well as her character. In a hitherto unpublished oral memoir recorded for private distribution and never released by SOM, he was more explicit about her skills:
In the early days of SOM we had our own landscape department then, not planning. Now, of course, we have planning and all sorts of things. But we had a small landscape group headed by—the only word to use—a cantankerous woman named Jo Diman. She knew her trees and bushes. She was marvelous, but also very difficult and always quitting or refusing to work on something. The word cantankerous is appropriate, and partly due, perhaps, to that she was never married. One of the fine jobs she did was the landscaping for Connecticut General. She was here a long time ago, and she worked on many other jobs, including the landscaping of Manhattan House, which she did. She was a wonderful person. I guess she also did the grading drawings for my house [Georgica Pond, Long Island, New York] in 1963, so she must have been here around then but I think she has been gone about 12 [originally given as 10 but crossed out and corrected] years now. She retired to California.16
Despite—or perhaps because of—Bunshaft's sexism, this description puts into relief the respect he had for Diman. She was, in fact, one of the very few people below the partner level about whom he spoke at length in oral histories or memoirs. He respected her expertise and her willingness to talk back (at volume) to the most powerful person at SOM's New York office (himself). Perhaps he respected her commitment: she was as hard on herself as he was on himself. She was, of course, almost ten years his senior, with a wide range of professional experience in both private and public sectors. Like another important landscape architect from the same period, Marjorie Cautley (known for her work with Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle in California and with Clarence Stein and Henry Wright at Radburn, New Jersey), Diman knew both Western and Asian landscapes. This made her a good fit (in terms of knowledge) with Isamu Noguchi, one of Bunshaft's favorite sculptors, with whom she worked at Connecticut General, most notably.17
In 1962 Progressive Architecture published an overview of the work of SOM's landscape architecture group. Typically, such a feature was a combined initiative of the magazine and one of the firm's partners, but in this case the article was initiated by the magazine, an indication of the editors' recognition of the work's importance. The writer began by noting “the handsome and remarkably urbane landscape architecture” produced by SOM's office staff. The focus then switched to the high-profile specialists SOM had hired for particular jobs, mostly at the firm's Chicago and San Francisco offices. These included some of the country's most important landscape architects, such as Dan Kiley at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Lawrence Halprin at the John Hancock Building in San Francisco, and Hideo Sasaki at the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. At the New York office, however, landscape was part of the firm's comprehensive-service practice, and as was typical in that period, the article made no mention of individual SOM staff.18 Those looking to this source for concrete evidence or specific recognition of Diman's work will be frustrated.
Recently uncovered documents, however, allow us to begin cataloguing Diman's projects and evaluating their formal characteristics. An important early work was the landscape for the Ford Motor Company Administrative Center in Dearborn, Michigan (begun in 1949 but not completed until 1957, by which time the building had lost some of its novelty). A significant test of Diman's abilities, the site featured entry to the parking facilities from all four sides and aimed to establish (or reestablish) a rural environment for the massive office block (Figure 4).19 Soon after, Diman was responsible for the brilliant, multilevel rus in urbe at New York's Manhattan House, where the private driveway down into the lobby recalls the parkway ramps around New York on which Diman worked in the 1930s, or a Roman cryptoporticus (Figure 5).20 She also developed the plantings that gave life to Lever House after Noguchi's sculptural program there was canceled; her collaborator on that occasion was C. O. Andersen, later active in his own firm in Connecticut.
The contract files and time-card summaries at SOM's New York office confirm that Diman worked on projects large and small and in a variety of capacities. For example, she was involved from beginning to end in expansive undertakings such as the Creole Housing Project at Amuay Bay, Venezuela (1947). She also worked on what must have been adaptations of projects by others, such as the Reynolds Metal Company International Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia (1957), where there was already a landscape architect (Charles F. Gillette) with whom Bunshaft seems to have been less than fully satisfied.21 She worked on the landscape at the H. J. Heinz Research and Administrative Offices in suburban London (1965), but records do not specify if she was responsible for planning that site's notable and much-praised ha-ha, the complex entry berms on either side of the entry, or the underground cut into the lowest level at the back (Figure 6).22 She probably also worked on a number of other projects for which time-card summaries do not survive—the landscape setting for Colgate University's Chapel House in Hamilton, New York (1959), for example. There, the landscape cushioned the building, while sprays of birch became meditative icons, like vases of flowers on a kitchen table in a painting by Giorgio Morandi (Figure 7). A planting plan confirms the designer's devotion to native plantings, but whether that was a guiding principle of Diman's landscape architecture or mere happenstance we cannot know.23 In fact, despite the planting plan, no time sheets are available that allow us to say with certainty that this was Diman's work. Meanwhile, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Diman's role probably consisted in setting the new building into the park created by Frederick Law Olmsted and designing the sculpture courtyard in the new Knox section. Plantings around the courtyard, revealed in Ezra Stoller's summertime photographs, give an idea of what she likely planned (Figure 8). This was a difficult assignment, as blending the efforts of Olmsted and Bunshaft required some delicacy. Diman received an invitation to the opening from the museum, a mark of her importance to the project, an invitation she declined.24
Some of Diman's largest-scale work involved the design and development of corporate campuses—the landscapes of “pastoral capitalism,” in the phrase of landscape architect and historian Louise Mozingo.25 For instance, Diman worked with Noguchi and Bunshaft at Connecticut General in Bloomfield, where the gently graded site and carefully placed trees highlighted Noguchi's sculpture and the geometry of Bunshaft's building (Figure 9). The balance among the open lawn, buildings, sculpture, and artificial pond created a sense of calm that drew attention to the buildings and the sculpture. It was this balanced combination that so powerfully affected the project's developer, James Rouse (1914–96). At the site's inauguration, Rouse asked the audience to compare the new building and site with the company's old urban office in Hartford:
The magnificent mechanical efficiency and smooth flow of this building is economically important, but the lake, the swans in the lake, the green grass, the trees, and just plain space, lift the souls of the people who work here and the company for which they work. … Compare it with the steel and concrete, the grim, impersonal jam which represents the city. Which is closer to the best that's in us? From which can we expect the best to emerge? Which is closer to God?26
Clearly, both client and architect had high aspirations for this building and its setting.
One of Diman's most significant late-career achievements was the grading and development (and probable selection) of the plantings at Bunshaft's house at Georgica Pond in East Hampton, New York (1963, demolished in 2004)—Bunshaft's only residential design. Here Diman created a background visible through the building's windows in which trees seemed isolated against the horizon—like the lone human figures sculpted by Alberto Giacometti—and in that setting an outdoor sculpture (not visible in the photo here) seemed like a natural formation (Figure 10). This symbiosis was an essential part of Bunshaft's vision: architecture, sculpture, and nature played clearly defined roles.27 Finally, one of the last projects on which Diman worked was the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, a complicated and difficult site requiring extensive excavation (Figure 11). Her time sheets from that project run from September 1966 until June 1967, when she disappears from the records. (The project was not completed until later.) The latter date may represent her retirement.28
Does this accounting of Diman's efforts enable us to define an individual landscape style attributable to her? Indeed, we might recognize some characteristics of SOM's landscapes as attributable to Diman, as features of her style: the careful placement of trees as accents, topography used to cradle buildings within soft lines, the frequent reliance on native plants. Diman, working with Bunshaft, seems to have known what to do for maximum effect and when it was better to do nothing. But can we distinguish these contributions as Diman's? “She knew her trees and bushes,” said Bunshaft, implying that he knew the effect he wanted but he needed her to identify the plant material to express it best. Was there more to her work than that?
The search for individuality within SOM may be a vain one, reflecting a desire left over from our romantic heritage. Moreover, in postwar America, the need to express individuality was not universal, as William Whyte and others have explained.29 SOM was formed with the idea that subordinating the individual to the greater good of the team was best practice: it was the principle of the symphony orchestra, the virtue that had won the war, and the ideal of every high school and college sports team.30 Bunshaft's assertion of authorship in Newsweek, quoted at the beginning of this essay, was, thus, tantamount to rebellion.
For Jo Diman, as for the many who worked alongside her—as designers, production specialists, job captains, structural engineers—the goal was to realize the intentions of the design partner. Neither public recognition nor personal distinction was expected. We must assume that Diman's skill was in interpreting the intentions expressed by Bunshaft and the other senior designers. At times, her contribution may have been limited to surveying the site or planning the grading for a building's siting. At other times, she must have managed the plantings and the design of spaces, as Bunshaft's striking and uncharacteristically generous acknowledgment makes clear. (He was lavish with scorn but not notably profligate with praise—as cantankerous as Diman, if not more so.) She was obviously an essential contributor at SOM, part of a team of talented specialists. Their best work created well-integrated ensembles to be enjoyed by clients and visitors, places to be captured by the photography of Stoller, who found ways to make narratives of the sites, bringing together landscapes, buildings, and users to create seductive invitations to new clients.31
Having identified a key figure in the design process at SOM, we can now ask a broader question: Was the particular intimacy of building and landscape in SOM's projects of this period the result of a design process that intentionally and structurally integrated landscape from the beginning, or was landscape an afterthought? Without a landscape team in-house, did landscape and building become less intimately related in succeeding decades? In 1973, only a few years after Diman's retirement, Ada Louise Huxtable, architectural critic at the New York Times, lamented the creeping scalelessness of SOM's designs as “anti-street, anti-people … a monumental form of environmental abuse.”32 Did the presence of a gifted and outspoken landscape architect on staff at SOM offer a beneficial restraint on the firm's designers?
Over the centuries, the history of women's work in private gardens and on the occasional civic project has been largely effaced, but in recent years this history has been resuscitated and examined afresh. Joanna Diman's step into the corporate world of SOM represented a significant professional advance, both for the position she achieved and for the range of her work. Lifting the veil on SOM's corporate anonymity, even slightly, reveals a compelling figure of notable accomplishment.