Theory in landscape architecture

I use the word theory, in one of the senses defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, to mean ‘A conception of something to be done, or the method of doing it’. Landscape architecture theory is therefore concerned with what to do and how to do it. Landscape Urbanism is a theory of how to undertake urban design projects – by starting the design process with the landscape. The landscape profession has one aim, three objectives and five sets of techniques. ‘Landscape architecture is a 1-3-5 profession‘.
• the primary aim is to create a good public realm
• the three objectives are to create places which are useful, beautiful and well-made (following Vitruvius statement of design aims as Commodity, Delight, and Firmness)
• the five compositional elements are land, water, vegetation, buildings and pavements

Each of these points raises additional theoretical issues and involves the older disciplines of garden design and town design.
When landscape architecture was evolving, in the late nineteenth century, practitioners wanted to distinguish themselves from garden designers and to become more involved with public projects.
Thomas Mawson, who became first President of the UK Institute of Landscape Architects (now the Landscape Institute) wrote separate books on The Art and Craft of Garden Making and on Civic Art. He saw both subjects as part of landscape architecture but by treating them separately he widened the gulf between the new profession and its ancient theory and practice.

Landscape and garden design remain excellent places to develop spatial concepts and many of the best urban designs derive from parks and gardens. History provides many examples:

  • Amarna, in Ancient Egypt, was as much a garden plan as it was town plan
  • Beijing was based on the traditional planning of China’s royal estates, which integrated dwellings with gardens and parks
  • Isfahan was based on the classical planning of Persian gardens, dating from a thousand years before the birth of Islam
  • Baroque Rome was planned on the model of Sixtus V’s own garden in Montalto
  • Georgian London’s parks, squares and streets were based on Renaissance and Neoclassical garden plans, as was Edinburgh’s New Town
  • Nineteenth century Paris and Washington DC were based again on Baroque garden plans with focal points and radial avenues

Modernist cities, regrettably, were not based on spatial ideas which had been tested at the scale of landscape and garden design. So they’re dead dull.

Tom Turner

Posted in landscape urbanism

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