Landscape Institute LI: history and future vision

Landscape Institute video (transcript)

What is the purpose of the Landscape Institute LI?

An institute is “an organisational body created for a certain purpose”. So, for the Landscape Institute, what is that purpose? My preferred answer comes from our best known and longest serving president: Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. On the cover of his book on The Landscape of Man he wrote that… ‘The world is moving into a phase when landscape design may well be recognized as the most comprehensive of the arts. Man creates around him an environment that is a projection into nature of his abstract ideas. It is only in the present century that the collective landscape has emerged as a social necessity. We are promoting a landscape art on a scale never conceived of in history.‘
It’s an inspiring proclamation – and I love it. But to whom, does the “we” refer, in the phrase “We are promoting a landscape art”? It could be Geoffrey and Susan, but I don’t think so: he was 74 when the book appeared and, though he had no wish to retire, he wasn’t planning a promotional tour. So I think we can take it that the ‘we’ on the book jacket referred to the landscape profession and that the Jellicoes were contributing to its promotion by outlining the history of the art of designing “landscapes” for human use and enjoyment. Jellicoe was president of the Institute for ten years and could have secured a change in its original constitution if he had thought it necessary. So I think we can take it that he was as happy as we should be with Clause 2 of the ILA’s original Constitution. It states that: ‘The Institute shall be formed to promote the study and general advancement of the Art of Landscape Architecture in all its branches’ (the word ‘branches’ was well chosen!). Jellicoe founded the International Federation of Landscape Architects in 1948, and its Mission Statement begins with the words ‘IFLA will promote the landscape architecture profession”. Jellicoe was never happy with the profession’s name and with IFLA having done so much to win acceptance for the term ’landscape architecture’ this raises an issue: should the profession continue using this term – or does it need a new name? I’ll conclude this video by recommending a solution which might have satisfied Jellicoe.

Landscape Institute UK logos (as assembled by Google)

Origin of the terms ‘landscape architecture’ and ‘landscape architect

The famous American landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, is often described as ‘the father of landscape architecture’. But this, is wrong. He was the father of the landscape profession but he was born about 30,000 years too late, by Jellicoe’s reckoning, to be the father of the art of designing landscapes for human use and enjoyment. Jellicoe begins his history of landscape art with the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, in southern France, begun 30,000 years ago. When a student, in 1969, I was taught that Olmsted had also invented the English term ‘landscape architect’. This too, is wrong. It was introduced by Gilbert Laing Meason about 30 years before Olmsted began using it. Meason was born in the Orkney Islands and used the term in the title of a book about ‘The Landscape architecture of the great painters of Italy’. Meason’s interest was in the aesthetic relationship between buildings and their contexts.
There’s also a possibility that Olmsted got the title ‘landscape architect’ from Jean-Marie Morel’s use of architecte paysagiste, but I’m doubtful about this. My view is that the term ‘landscape architect’ probably reached Olmsted from Meason, via John Claudius Loudon, Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux.
Vaux, who persuaded Olmsted to use the term ‘landscape architect’, was brought to America by Downing to help with the design of villas, and gardens. Downing was a great admirer of Loudon and must have known the Principles for Designing Villas in Book III of Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Cottage Farm and Villa Architecture. Loudon wrote that:
The Principal Defect of English Villas is in the want of a sufficient union between the house and the grounds ; or, in other words, of cooperation between the Architect and the landscape-gardener in fixing on situations, and in laying them out, ” Our parks may be beautiful,” Laing Meason observes, “our mansions faultless in design; but nothing is more rare than to see the two properly connected…. Two classes of circumstances require to be taken into consideration… The permanent considerations include climate, elevation, surface, aspect, soil, water, and the sea;” the temporary considerations “are chiefly its locality, present state, prospective improvement, and the personal peculiarities of the intended possessor. “
As set out in another video, Loudon also worked on urban planning. So, if Meason had not left for Italy and if Loudon had not devoted himself to the Arboretum Britannicum, which ruined him financially, this text could have grown into the Meason-Loudon Principles of Landscape Architecture and I wish they had.
Inspired by the English Landscape Gardens of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Olmsted used the term ‘landscape architecture’ to describe an approach to designing URBAN park systems, cities and gardens in relation to architecture. His design style included what, in the nineteenth century, were called ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ elements. The ‘formal’ elements related to architecture and the ‘informal’ elements to natural scenery. Jellicoe was thinking on these lines when he wrote about the ‘projection into nature’ of ‘abstract ideas’.
The fame of Olmsted’s great projects in New York and Boston, including Central Park and the Emerald necklace, spread to Europe, and in the UK,as in America, influenced the development of the Town and Country Planning profession.

Origin of the UK Institute of Landscape Architects ILA

Patrick Geddes, Thomas Mawson, Thomas Adams and others argued for Olmsted-type open space planning and for the formation of a new professional institute in the UK. Mawson published a paper in 1911, which supported these ideas. Its title was ‘The Position and Prospects for Landscape Architecture in England’ and he wrote that: ‘The proposal for the formation of a Society of Landscape Architects for Great Britain, which has been much discussed in private circles lately has now been publicly mooted in an article by Mr. Abercrombie’ . Patrick Abercrombie favoured the name ‘town planning’ for the new body. Mawson thought it better to use the American terminology and explained that ‘I would draw a clear distinction be­tween garden design, whether called” Garden Architecture” or” Land­scape Gardening,” and Landscape Architecture as practised in America. The first relates, for the most part, to the creation of those private gardens of which Englishmen have every reason to be proud; while the latter, though it certainly includes the design of gardens, is more concerned with works of a public nature, including, as Mr. Adams says, the planning of cities”.

Criticism of the term ‘landscape architecture’

Mawson was however troubled that in Britain, ‘the term “Landscape Architecture,”… suggests to most people either unwarranted interference with Nature or a childish attempt to introduce her grandeurs into our towns by little patches of futile gardening.’ Olmsted and Jellicoe were also troubled by the term ‘landscape architect’. Olmsted wrote that ‘”I am all the time bothered with the miserable nomenclature” of landscape architecture. “Landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not – Gardening is worse”. Jellicoe declared that “The landscape architect, who was first called a landscape gardener, is still surely wrongly named.” Not to be left out, the London Times declared in 1948 that ‘The term “landscape architecture” is perhaps not altogether apt. It suggests classical temples and triumphal arches, nobly laid out and “improved” by landscape gardeners in the tradition of William Kent, Capability Brown or Humphry Repton.’ Not to be outdone, I wrote, in 1997, that if misconstrued, the term ‘landscape architecture’ is ‘as tyrannical as it is sacrilegious as it is preposterous’.
So what should we do?

Formation of the UK Landscape Institute

In 1914, with Thomas Adams as first president, and with T Mawson and P Geddes as founder members, a new professional institute was established. Mawson had lost the argument so, instead of it being called the Institute, or Society, of Landscape Architects, a much newer term was selected. It became the Town Planning Institute and is now the Royal Town Planning Institute. Mawson became its president in 1923 and the Institute helped promote the art of Civic Design, on which, in 1911, Mawson had written a lavishly illustrated book. My guess is that Mawson and Adams were disappointed by the Town Planning Institute’s relative neglect of the art of planning parks, gardens, streets and other open spaces.
In 1927 Mawson had written, in an autobiography called The life & work of an English landscape architect, that ‘if I were asked which of my dreams I would like to see realised I would unhesitatingly place the school of landscape architecture first’ adding that ‘it ought to be located at either Oxford or Cambridge’, because they had botanic gardens.
In 1929, the garden designer, Stanley Hart, convened a meeting, in a tent at the Chelsea Flower Show, which decided to create a Society of Garden Designers. Then, in 1930 (according to Brenda Colvin) Thomas Adams persuaded the founders to change its name to the Institute of Landscape Architects and Thomas Mawson, ailing with Parkinson’s disease, was invited to become its first President.

From private gardens to public landscape architecture

Mawson saw the market for designing country house gardens as being in terminal design and thought the new body should focus on public projects as well as private gardens. The work of its members was promoted in a glossy magazine edited by Richard Sudell and called Landscape and Garden – and in the institute’s first decade most of the work was private gardens. By the end of the 1930s, under Thomas Adams’ presidency, the ILA began to shift its centre of gravity from private gardens to public projects.
The outbreak of the second world war in 1939 accelerated this trend. Geoffrey Jellicoe, who had also been lucky not to be called up in 1918, at the age of 18, managed to keep the young institute alive while most of its members went to join the war effort.
Jellicoe visited America in 1942, sent by the British government, and, greatly impressed by the wide range of work being done by members of the ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects, sought to emulate their achievement. This broadened the focus of the ILA to take on the range of projects with which the landscape profession is now involved. Jellicoe did this in several ways
(1) by writing articles for what he and Susan re-launched as the Journal of the Institute of Landscape Architects
(2) by publishing policy documents on future areas of work, such as roads, forestry and new towns
(3) by inviting well-known designers and other famous people to join the Council of the Institute
(4) by holding meetings with secretaries of state, civil servants and other public figures.
In later life Jellicoe recalled a meeting at which he had been telling a cabinet minister about the many good things members of the ILA could do for society at large. Then, travelling in a taxi back to his office in Gower Street, he realised that one hand would pretty well suffice to count the number of British landscape architects then available to do the work.

The success of Jellicoe’s meetings with ministers left him convinced that the Institute should have an office near the Houses of Parliament. The ILA left his 12 Gower Street office and, after several moves, settled in 12 Carlton House Terrace. It was a great location overlooking two of the most important landscape design projects in Britain (for St James’s Park and for the ‘Processional Route’ which runs via Regent’s Street to Regent’s Park). Their designer, John Nash didn’t call himself a landscape architect but, with help from the Reptons, did design landscapes.
In the 1970s Jellicoe was saddened when the ILA moved its HQ to a less central location. So was I. It would have been better if the Institute had moved its ‘back office’ to a peripheral location and kept its ‘front office’ in St James’s . This principle was supported by the Reform Group, which was formed after the LI’s 2009 financial crisis, and was set out in its response to the LI President’s consultation on Future Visions for the Landscape Institute.
One of Jellicoe’s last acts as president, in 1948, had been to found IFLA, the International Federation of Landscape Architects, and it is entirely right that its highest honour is called The Jellicoe Prize. With 77 of the world’s 195 countries now having IFLA member associations, the future of the term ‘landscape architecture’ is secure but also in need of more clarity.
In 1949, Thomas Sharp took over as President of the ILA, four years after being President of the Town Planning Institute. Sharp loved what he called the ‘townscape’ of historic towns, just as he loved English villages and the man-made landscapes in which they were set.
Sylvia Crowe and Brenda Colvin, who became presidents of the ILA in their turn, were great friends with the Jellicoes and did much to take his vision forward with the books they wrote, including Land and Landscape, The Landscape of Power and The Landscape of Roads.

Frank Clark’s lament

The first ILA president I met was Frank Clark. He interviewed me when I applied for a place on the landscape architecture course at Edinburgh University and at the end of the interview he said ‘Well, if you’d like to join the course, we’d love to have you’. Frank was full of great stories but what I most often think of is these two recommendations:
Frank told us that ‘Landscape architecture is a wonderful profession. But “nobody understands us”. So it needs a new name – and if someone asks, at a party ‘what line are you in?’ tell them you’re a garden designer. You’ll see a happy glow appear on their faces, as they think of sunny afternoons, roses, tea and cucumber sandwiches.’
My dad was of the same view and advised ‘Don’t call yourself a landscape architect, Tom, – it’ll make people think you’re one of those awful people who put up tower blocks in grassy fields’. This reminds me of Auberon Waugh’s advice that ‘if you meet anyone in a pub, or at a party, who says he’s an architect, punch him in the face.’
The other recommendation of Frank Clark’s I have in mind, was that the ILA should not run examinations and should invite distinguished people to join – even if they had not even studied landscape architecture. He was surely thinking of the men Jellicoe had invited to join, including Lord Reith, Lord Holford and Sir Patrick Abercrombie. He knew how much they had done much to help the new Institute find its way.
Frank thought the Institute should leave exams to the universities, so that it could concentrate on promoting and developing landscape architecture. The Institute, at that time, ran a four-part examination covering planting, construction, design and professional practice. Today, it only examines professional practice and this too could be done by the universities. The landscape course Frank ran had a module on professional studies and I remember being told that the ILA was ‘half trade union and half learned society’. I don’t think this was correct but its quite a nice idea.
Frank died in 1971 and in the mid-70s concerns about the small size of the ILA led to a change of name, to the Landscape Institute, and to the formation of ‘divisions’ for landscape designers, managers and scientists – not garden designers, not landscape planners and not urban designers.

The change from ILA to Landscape Institute LI UK

I was at the meeting when this decision was taken and wrote a note, for myself, to record that there seemed to be three main motives for the expansion, which I associated with three of its protagonists:
1. to increase the size of the ILA, which Bill Gillespie wanted,
2. to increase the influence of the ILA, which appealed to Cliff Tandy,
3. to bring in landscape managers, which appealed to Brenda Colvin.
Her concern was that people who learned about horticulture without learning about design, would not be able interpret design intentions. She recalled that a garden she’d designed in Poland had been fought over by the Germans and the Russians during the war. And this was, she said, the sort of thing that happened to a garden design without good managers.
My own concern about the decision to expand the ILA was that the concentration on landscape architecture as a design discipline would be diluted, as indeed it has been. I don’t think I voiced this concern, but I do remember making a point about Gilbert Laing Meason and the importance of the term that was about to be de-emphasised.
Remembering Frank Clark’s complaint, and that of and many others, that ‘nobody understands us’, I spent several years trying to think of an alternative to ‘landscape architecture’ as a name for the profession. Eventually, I concluded that it’s too late for a change but that we need to be very precise in our use of the key terms. With clarity on this point we will be able to understand our own aims and able to explain them to others, including fellow-professionals, those who commission work and the general public. So here’s my 3-point summary:
First. Landscape architects use the word ‘landscape’ in a specialised sense which developed in the eighteenth century. So we don’t use it in the senses given to it by painters, geographers, printers or poets. We use it, in a designer’s sense, to mean a place where landform, water and plants have been composed with buildings and pavings to make ‘good places’ for human use and enjoyment.
We therefore compose five primary elements to make designed landscapes much as architects compose walls, floors, roofs, openings and stairs to make buildings.
Second. We use the word ‘architecture’, in the same sense as Vitruvius, to mean the activity of bringing various technologies together to making places which have ‘Commodity, Firmness and Delight’. In today’s terminology, we want them to have good functional, ecological and visual qualities.
Third. Like Gilbert Laing Meason and Frederick Law Olmsted, we use the phrase ‘landscape architecture’ to express a special concern with public goods and with the relationship between our designs and the environmental contexts in which they are built.

Future vision for the Landscape Institute UK

So what about the LI’s future? Well, most institutions are in need of reform and few more so than those approaching their 100th anniversary – which is where the Landscape Institute will be in 20-29. So I’ll end this video with some thoughts about what our Institute could do to get ready for a fresh start in our second century. Here are my suggestions.
One way or another, we need to resolve the ‘terminological’ problem identified by Olmsted, Mawson and Jellicoe – and summarised in Frank Clark’s Lament – that ‘nobody understands us’
Second, We need to learn as much as we can from Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe – particularly about the great antiquity of the art we practice, about the need for it to be promoted, and about the centrality of what he called the Collective Landscape. It can extend across the inter-related spheres of beliefs, art and action.
Third, and at the level of practicalities, I recommend more discussion of the points raised by the Reform Group, in our 2013 article on a ‘Future Vision for the Landscape Institute’. It included recommendations:

  1. for Electoral Reform, Participation and Devolution
  2. for the Institute’s Committee Structure and Administration,
  3. for Resource Allocation to institutional objectives,
  4. for information and publishing policies
  5. and for a vigorous programme of Jellicoe-style Policy Initiatives.

There’s much to do. So we can look forward to eight busy years before our 2029 Anniversary.