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He was born in Cooperstown, New York to Axel Eckbo, a businessman, and Theodora Munn Eckbo. In 1912, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois. After Eckbo’s parents divorced, he and his mother relocated to Alameda, California where they struggled financially while he grew up. After Eckbo graduated from high school in 1929, he felt a lack of ambition and direction and went to stay with a wealthy paternal uncle, Eivind Eckbo, in Norway. It was during his stay in Norway that he began to focus on his future. Once he returned to the U.S., he worked for several years at various jobs saving money so that he could attend college.
While Eckbo was at Berkeley he was influenced by two of the programs faculty members, H. Leland Vaughan and Thomas Church, who inspired him to move beyond the formalized beaux-arts style that was popular at the time. The Beaux Arts-movement is defined as being carefully planned, richly decorated and being influenced by classical art and architecture. Eckbo graduated with a B.S. in landscape architecture in 1935 and subsequently worked at Armstrong Nurseries in Ontario near Los Angeles where he designed about a hundred gardens in less than a year. After working at the Nurseries, he was restless to expand his creative horizons and entered Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design by way of a scholarship competition, which he won.
Beginning his studies at Harvard, Eckbo found that the curriculum followed the Beaux-Arts method and was similar to the one at Berkeley but more rigidly entrenched. Eckbo, along with fellow students Dan Kiley and James Rose resisted and began to "explore science, architecture, and art as sources for a modern landscape design." Eckbo began to take architecture classes with the former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius, who was then head of the architecture department while continuing to take classes in the landscape architecture department. Gropius and Marcel Breuer introduced Eckbo to the idea of the social role in architecture, the link between society and spatial design.
Eckbo was also influenced by the works of several abstract painters, including Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy and Kasimir Malevich. Eckbo would convey a sense of movement in his designs by the layering and massing of plants as inspired by the artists’ paintings.
After receiving his MLA degree from Harvard in 1938, Eckbo returned to California where he worked for the Farm Security Administration. He designed camps for the migrant agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley. He applied his modernist ideas to these camps attempting to improve the workers living environments.
In 1940 Eckbo joined with his brother–in-law, Edward Williams to form the firm Eckbo and Williams. Five years later Robert Royston joined the firm. The very successful firm of Eckbo, Royston and Williams designed hundreds of projects including residential gardens, planned community developments, urban plazas, churches and college campuses. He would eventually form the highly successful firm Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams, (EDAW) in 1964. Leaving the firm in 1979, he first formed the firm Garrett Eckbo and Associates and finally Eckbo Kay Associates with Kenneth Kay.
Throughout Eckbo's career he maintained his vision of the interaction of art and science to create environments that were functional and livable, while maintaining the social, ecological and cultural approach to design.
In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
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