The story of landscape architecture – podcasts
You can subscribe to the series on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic (+ other hosts) though the frequency podcasting is sure to be variable. The first podcast in the series tells the history of landscape architecture as a story (with the same soundtrack as the above video).
The landscape of nomadic pastoralists
Once upon a time all our ancestors were nomads. They had neither houses nor gardens. But they had a keen understanding of landscapes. They knew where to hunt, where to gather and where to hide.
The first buildings they made were tombs and temples. They needed to keep moving, to find food, so they couldn’t build settlements. But in the landscapes through which they roamed, certain places became significant. Stonehenge, in southern England is a great example. There’s evidence of the site having been in use 10,000 years ago and the first stone circle dates from 5,000 years ago. It was a a place where people gathered on ceremonial occasions, including cremations and burials.
The beliefs of the time, described as animist, centered on features in the landscape, including objects, animals and places associated with spiritual qualities and unseen powers, including hilltops, riversides, forest edges and crossings. It’s probable that these landscapes were culturally significant long before they became sites for building temples.
Gobekli Tepe, a hill in the south of Turkey is ,thought to have the world’s oldest surviving temples, begun about 12,000 years ago. They are inside mounds on top of a hill. There are expansive views in every direction, to the south over what is now a rich agricultural plain. Gobekli Tepe doesn’t count as a work of architecture, because it wasn’t built for human habitation. But it is a work of landscape architecture.
The world’s oldest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, contains what reads as an account of landscape architectural composition. It is a story about a Mesopotamian king who lived about 4,000 years ago. Its authors invite the reader to: “Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around. Examine its foundation. Inspect its brickwork thoroughly. Did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans? One league city, one league palm gardens, one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple, three leagues, and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.” A league was about two and a half thousand metres.
The landscape of cities
Uruk, which may have given its name to Iraq, was one of the earliest cities. At later dates, the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and North Europeans learned from West Asia how to make cities with palace gardens and temple gardens. These cities became centres for civilization. The words civilization and city derive from the Latin root civitas meaning a community which had learned how to build cities and live in cities and enjoy what we call the arts.
Cities and gardens probably developed independently in several parts of the world, as did agriculture. There were surely currents of influence but their histories are separate and I won’t try to deal with them in this podcast.
In Europe, the many arts involved in making cities, gardens and landscapes declined and fell, when the Roman Empire declined and fell. But they were revived during the Renaissance and spread to northern Europe the Americas and elsewhere. For the creation of public goods, municipal authorities took over the leadership role from princes and bishops. This fostered the development of specialised professions, including surveyors, engineers, architects and landscape architects.
The term ‘landscape architect’
The English term ‘landscape architect’ first appeared in the title of a book, published in 1828. It was then used by an English garden designer, William Andrews Nesfield, and by an American gardening author, and designer, Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing much admired John Claudius Loudon, who had used the term ‘landscape architect’ but not with its present meaning.
Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of the landscape architecture profession
Frederick Law Olmsted was the man who gave ‘landscape architect’ a fresh meaning. In the 1860s he used for the work of creating a really great public good: Central Park in New York City. The fame of this project, and of the ‘Emerald Necklace’ of parks and greenways, he planned for Boston, led to the creation of what is now a worldwide profession.
The landscape profession specialises in the planning and design of municipal public goods, including greenways, parks and other public open spaces. They’re great projects. But specialising in them led to landscape architects being thought of, primarily, as greenspace people. Even today, the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of landscape architecture opens by stating that ‘Landscape architecture’ is ‘the development and decorative planting of gardens, yards, grounds, parks, and other planned green outdoor spaces’. This is a limited and restricted view. It makes no mention of urban design, city planning, forestry, ecological planning, hydrological planning or garden design (see blog post on definitions of landscape architecture).
Geoffrey Jellicoe, founder of the International Federation of Landscape Architects IFLA
Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, who founded the International Federation of Landscape Architects, in Cambridge, in 1948 had a broader view. Both a historian and an imaginative designer, Jellicoe exemplifies Winston Churchill’s belief that ‘the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see’. Jellicoe wrote:
“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.”
Definition of landscape architecture
My own definition of the art is that ‘Landscape architects compose buildings and pavings with landform, water and vegetation to create places which satisfy the three Vitruvian objectives’.
In Classical Latin, the three objectives were utilitas, firmitas and venustas. Henry Wotton translated them into English as Commodity, Firmness and Delight.
They derive from the ancient world and have guided all the design professions since then. For their use by landscape architects, Ian Thompson has suggested the terms Ecology, Community and Delight. They are design objectives for good outdoor space. It should be useful, beautiful and sustainable.
A longer, but still short, history of landscape architecture may be found in this eBook.