What does ‘architecture’ mean in the term ‘landscape architecture’? Q&A

What does the word ‘architecture’ refer to in the term ‘landscape architecture’?

Question 9. How should the term ‘architecture’ be understood in the phrase ‘landscape architecture’?

Short answer It should be understood in the broad sense, outlined by Vitruvius, rather than in the narrow post-Renaissance sense of designing buildings for human occupancy. Vitruvius’ used the word to describe the activity of coordinating the skills of other experts and other disciplines. The narrower sense, in which it’s now used by building architects, makes “architecture” a subset of “landscape architecture”.


Longer answer: The Oxford English Dictionary entry for architecture traces the derivation of the word. It came into English in the sixteenth century, via France and Italy, from Greece.
In Greek, the prefix ‘archi’ meant ‘chief’ and the noun ‘tecton’ meant craftsman, or wood-worker (often in contrast to the skills of the metal-worker and the stone-worker). So, etymologically, the archi-tect was the chief carpenter. Jesus’ father was described as a ‘tecton’ in New Testament Greek and this is translated into English as a carpenter.

  • The OED has 1563 as the earliest use of ‘architect’ in English (by John Shute in the title of his book on the First and chief grounds of architecture).
  • The OED gives its first meaning as ‘The art or science of building or constructing edifices of any kind for human use’. Shute described himself as a ‘painter and architect’ and his approach to architecture was ‘painterly’, rather than technological.

Gilbert Laing Meason, who coined the term ‘landscape architect’ in 1828, quotes Vitruvius and shared his interest in technology.
It’s notable that what seems to have attracted Vitruvius to the term ‘architect’ (rather than ‘carpenter’ or ‘stone-worker’ or ‘metal-worker’, which he might have used) is his belief in the necessity for the work of specialists to be coordinated by a ‘CHIEF technician’.
As well as buildings, Vitruvius included under the heading ‘architecture’ advice on site planning, harbours, clocks, aqueducts, pumps and siege engines. He knew well, that different areas of work require different skills and different leaders. And he believed that, though the chief technician must understand them, he cannot have the expertise of a true expert. So Vitruvius wrote that the architect:

  • cannot be such a philologian as was Aristarchus although not illiterate;
  • nor a musician like Aristoxenus, though not absolutely ignorant of music;
  • nor a painter like Apelles, though not unskilful in drawing;
  • nor a sculptor such as was Myron or Polyclitus, though not unacquainted with the plastic art;
  • nor again a physician like Hippocrates, though not ignorant of medicine;
  • nor in the other sciences need he excel in each, though he should not be unskilful in them. For, in the midst of all this great variety of subjects, an individual cannot attain to perfection in each.

Vitruvius’ point about areas of expertise applies with great force to landscape architecture – and one of the specialisms we need a friendly acquaintance with is, of course, the architecture of buildings.  But on large-scale Landscape Urbanism projects, an equal acquaintance is needed with: ecology, hydrology, climatology, sociology – and many other ‘ologies’. Each should be the foundation for one of the layers in a ‘design-by-layers’ procedure. Landscape Urbanism is a Vitruvian design process