The definition of landscape urbanism

by Tom Turner @ 12:05 pm November 5, 2010 -- Filed under: context-sensitive design,landscape urbanism,Urban Design   

Landscape urbanism in Safavid Isfahan - with hills on the horizon and a recent water feature

A previous post considered landscape urbanism and led to this definition:
LANDSCAPE URBANISM is an approach to urban design in which the elements of cities (water, landform, vegetation, vertical structures and horizontal structures) are composed (visually, functionally and technically) with regard to human use and the landscape context.
I am content with this definition for the time being but would like to give a little more explanation.
(1) The idea of ‘compositional elements’ comes from the history of garden design. It is a field in which water, landform, vegetation, buildings and paving have been composed, for at least 5,000 years – and it has always been done with regard to exiting landscapes and specific human uses. This has often made garden design a crucible for urban design, with the famous examples of Late-Renaissance Rome, Safavid Isfahan, Yuan and Ming Beijing, Georgian London, Late-Baroque Paris, even-later Baroque Washington DC and the Garden Cities of the twentieth century.
(2) The classification of design objectives (functional, technical, visual) is based on Vitruvius: Commodity, Firmness and Delight.

Under landscape urbanist programming, the design of urban space begins with the design of urban space. Buildings are then arranged and designed to surround and contain the urban space. Designing the buildings before the space will almost always diminish the potential quality of the urban space: visually, socially and ecologically.

Above image courtesy François Bouchet

History of Isfahan urban landscape from maidan market to western park (photos 1737, c1930, c2000)

History of Isfahan urban landscape from maidan market to western park (photos 1737, c1930, c2000)


  1. It is an intriguing urban landscape and certainly meets the criteria of aesthetic delight (water, landform, vegetation, buildings and paving). I feel it is somewhere I would need to visit to understand how it functions – although it certainly looks promising with apartments, commercial, and religious uses and opportunities for cycling,walking and sitting.

    I am not sure what my climatic comfort parameters would be? Am I waiting for the vegetation to mature and provide shade? Do the cycles share the road/path with cars etc? Where am I walking and cycling to and from? What is in the foreground that I cannot see? What borders the left and the right of the picture?

    Comment by Christine — November 6, 2010 @ 3:17 am

  2. The Maidan in Isfahan was originally a multi-purpose space for markets, polo-games, parades etc and was surfaced in ‘dust’. It was French influence which led to its present semi-Baroque character. I have added 3 photos to the above post to show the evolution of landscape urbanism in Isfahan over the past three centuries.
    Remembering its history, what should the next stage be in the development of Isfahan’s landscape urbanism? Consideration should be given to keeping the water, to keeping the grass at the ends of the Maidan, and to returning the space around the water into something like its Safavid use and character. It could become a multi-purpose paved space for markets, games, public meetings, parades etc. The designers could think about the space in front of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, though they would also have to give deep thought to how the Islamic design tradition can carry into the twenty-first century. could hold a competition to generate ideas for the project – an Isfahan Landscape Urbanism Competition to follow the Tiananmen Square Landscape Architecture Competition.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 7, 2010 @ 5:54 am

  3. Great idea. I hven’t quite understood the relationship between the top photograph and the photographs at the bottom. Do you have a plan view or google map view so that it is possible to see the context?

    Comment by Christine — November 7, 2010 @ 8:13 am

  4. Here is a Wikimapia link to the Maidan in Isfahan and here is a link to the Safavid plan for Isfahan.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 7, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  5. Wow Tom. Quite a part from the climatic aspects this is a serious challenge to my experience of the urban, both spaces and architecture.

    Would love to fly over there to experience it. Have you been there? If so, do you think it resembles aspects of other urban compositions, spaces and architecture you have experienced?

    Is there anything available in 3D (walk-thru/fly-thru)?

    Comment by Christine — November 8, 2010 @ 5:10 am

  6. I was there about 5 years ago and very much wish I had ben there 40 years ago (when I was in Eastern Turkey) to see it before the ‘modernisation’ process began. The Architectural Review devoted an issue to Isfahan in 1976, calling for its preservation, but I suppose the people who live there care more for cars, concrete and steel than for the picturesque pleasures of living in a masterpiece. One can’t help wondering if things would have turned out differently if the modern movement pioneers had had more respect for the past instead of neglect + occasional sneers about ‘the way of the packhorse’ to describe medieval city planning.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 8, 2010 @ 6:05 am

  7. It seems the used to play polo in the square and the Sasavid Kings watch from the balconies of the Ali Ghapu Palace.

    [ ] and [ ]

    So the most proximate conceptual typology would be stadia, perhaps the polo grounds at St Louis?
    [ ]

    Flickr has a great plan view and history. [ ]

    Perhaps the closest similar event in Medieval UK was the tournament.
    [ ]

    Apparently the Piazza Duomo Amalfi was used for tournaments
    [ ] although it looks very contained in this photograph!
    [ ]

    Comment by Christine — November 9, 2010 @ 4:00 am

  8. Games, festivals, masques and displays are one of the oldest uses of public urban squares and private palace courtyards. The only reason I can think of for their having been forgotten is that the people who have been designing public squares in modern times have not known enough about the history of the social use of outdoor space. The Mall in London is another example: it was made for the game of pell-mell, Joseph Strutt describes the way Pal Mall was played in England in 1611: “Pale-maille is a game wherein a round box ball is struck with a mallet through a high arch of iron, which he that can do at the fewest blows, or at the number agreed upon, wins”.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 9, 2010 @ 7:13 am

  9. I suppose there really isn’t anything similar in contemporary society that is played in the urban squares of cities and is attended by city governors in a festival atmosphere. Perhaps the Spring racing season and the Melbourne Cup comes closest.

    As for urban passtimes I suppose beach volleyball would be the closest to a popular social use of outdoor space, climate permitting.
    [ ]

    Comment by Christine — November 10, 2010 @ 4:23 am

  10. Good examples, but I would like to see urban squares PLANNED for specific games and events, as well as for all the other roles they have.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 10, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  11. When you say this at what stage in the planning process are you thinking? At the level of the strategic or the masterplan?

    Comment by Christine — November 12, 2010 @ 2:42 am

  12. Preferably at the strategic level of the city plan, if not the regional plan. Then the plan should be re-considered and revised at earliest possible stage in the making of any new urban spaces.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 12, 2010 @ 6:05 am

  13. When Shah Abbas Safavi moved his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan in 1597, the city experienced several decades of development and became the centre of Shiite intellectual and cultural life. I think that designers in Isfahan had a special attention for spaces and they found that by the precise calculations planning. In fact, the architectural genius was the result of the Sassani era (not Muslims!) and competition for the Maidan caused by an unaware ingenuity of Muslims architect. This ingenuity is based on Iranian architecture. However, we have good attention for urban spaces in Isfahan now.

    Comment by Ali Reza — November 12, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

  14. Ali Reza, thank you for the information. Do you mean that the design idea for planning Safavid Isfahan came directly from Sassanian sites (like Firouzabad and Bishapur) or do you mean that these places influenced Islamic design and therefore that the influence was indirect?
    My concern about the present design of the Maidan in Isfahan is that it is not Safavid and not Sassanian: it is European Baroque. Do you think this should be re-considered?

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 13, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  15. Dear Tom, Thanks. I think that primal design of the Safavid Isfahan came indirectly from
    Sassanian. We know that Iranian architecture has three styles
    (shortly certainly!): achaemenian, Sassanid and Islamic (Safavid). In fact
    Islamic style is an era of Iranian architecture. Therefore, we don’t
    have any Islamic style that include apart of Iranian architecture.

    About the present design of the Maidan in Isfahan; unfortunately,
    Iranian Architecture and Garden design has been impressed from
    European styles until last 300 years. It is not far that present
    designers of Maidan, using the principles of European Baroque for

    Comment by Ali Reza Feiznejad — November 16, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  16. Dear Ali Reza, thank you for your comments. I agree with your view that, since Sassanid architecture was the major influence on Islamic architecture, it would be reasonable to categorize the resulting architectural and landscape forms as Persian.

    With regard to the Maidan in Isfahan, do you think it would be interesting to have a competition for the re-design of Maidan (and perhaps the stretch of the Chahar Bagh between the Maidan and the Zayandeh River)? We held an urban landscape architecture competition for Tiananman Square in Beijing which produced interesting results.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 16, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

  17. Tom, I’m sorry for deferment in my comment. I don’t have enough time for analyse my maps from Isfahan.

    As a prologue, The Islamic architecture (Safavid era) has sketchy perception of Iranian architecture from Sassanid era, Since the Arabian aggressor in ultimate years of Sassanid empire ruining the art of architecture in Iran and Shah Abbas relief a lot of that in Isfahan (also Qazvin, Kashan and Ashraf). Therefore we need to re-consider in our view in 21 century for re-design Maidan. In fact Isfahan should better to originally design with a foreground by Sassanid architecture. I think that we most made antique design as a crucible for present design of Maidan. Unlike Iranian paradise, Iranian architecture has very changes in lapse of time. We need a new style that caused by last styles now. Charbagh (Chahar Bagh) is an antique style of garden design that we can re-consider this style for urban space and make a new Landscape that consonant with 21 century.

    It is not available now that restore oldest uses of private palace courtyards (like Choogan (or polo), Ghapoon Andazi (a game), festivals and displays); because nowadays the social use of Maidan suppress this.

    Gardens as a texture of urban landscapes in Isfahan, since Charbagh Street has a linkage with Gardens.

    I seem the good urban landscape is available if we provide gardens around the Maidan.

    As such streets linked these gardens and perforce we have way on Charbagh Abbasi Street!

    Comment by Ali Reza Feiznejad — November 25, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  18. I’m SO sorry!




    Comment by Ali Reza Feiznejad — November 26, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  19. Thank you for the links. The Maidan and Chahar Bagh present difficult problems and I agree with principles you suggest, because (1) the past character was of very high quality and unique to Isfahan (2) much information about the old character is available (3) the present character is not too bad but nor is it good enough.
    Still, I do not think a full-scale restoration is the best solution. My inclination would be to accept the principles of the old design but to adapt them for the circumstances of the twenty-first century. I think the Charhar Bagh should be pedestrianised and that it should be lined with water channels. So I then wonder if part of it should be as-accurate-as-possible restoration and the majority should be a fresh design using the old principles.

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 27, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  20. Further to this (Tom’s) good topic, and Christine’s kind link to my flickr Set (Isfahan 1968) in 7 above:
    I’ve just got back (NZ) from a wonderful trip in Iran. And of course Isfahan’s Maidan Square — now greatest urban picnic ground anywhere. Hundreds of new Iran photos. I’ll get several Sets onto flickr by end of year hopefully. One intended is “Isfahan to Tehran”.
    Two quick details meanwhile: My 1968 photo of Ali Qapu portal-palace shows its reflection in the central pool. Today there are the graceful water-jets showing in Tom’s photo above, and several new of mine — including light-catching just after sunrise. But the attractive water play prevents the reflections. Perhaps they could alternate??
    Second detail is the Bazaar connection north. Modern traffic development cut right through the historic link from Safavid Maidan Square to the ancient Friday Mosque Old Town to the north. Criticized for decades. But now to my surprise and delight, I found arched framing under construction to re-form this link with traffic pushed below!
    Is there a method to upload photos here?

    Comment by Peter Sheppard — November 30, 2010 @ 12:31 am

  21. Peter, thank you for the comment and for the invitation, which I will take up, to use your recent photographs and your information too. You can’t upload pics yourself but I can do it for you. Tom

    Comment by Tom Turner — November 30, 2010 @ 7:58 am

  22. Thanks Tom. I sent three photos following the comment. Incidentally, I’ve now looked at other photos taken on the trip and see several showing the pool calmly reflecting, so they already alternate, must have heard my suggestion :-)
    The three photos were Ali Qapu with reflection (a Persian tradition) in 1968.
    Early breakfast in the Square with water-jets beyond. (Late 2010)
    The under-construction link to reconnect the Bazaar.
    P :-)

    Comment by Peter Sheppard — December 1, 2010 @ 5:14 am

  23. Christine
    In your 5 above you ask about 3D/fly through.
    Well, on my last page of old set on flickr I put links to a selection of 360deg and similar interactive views if you scroll down. You want a good broadband connection however.

    P :-)

    Comment by Peter Sheppard — December 1, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  24. Esfahan is my favourite city. I was born there and it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has very many famous tourist attractions and places for public sightseeing.

    Comment by hossein talakoub — February 25, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

  25. Thanks Hossein!
    Here are some of my photos from just a few weeks ago:

    P :-)

    Comment by Peter Sheppard — February 25, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

  26. The Persian or rather the Islamic garden traveled quite a distance, but local sensibilities and the lay of land added features that are maybe even missing in a traditional Iranian garden in its home settings…Here in Kashmir we still retain around 6 Mughal gardens that to a certain degree are based on the traditional concept of “char bagh” but the end results are something quite unique to the land and its climate. Unfortunately these gardens have de-evolved from royal gardens to a character more in keeping with municipal parks!Hope the maidan does not face a similar fate…in any possible re-engagement with the present.

    Comment by sameer — December 29, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  27. Thank you for the comment. I was in Kashmir this summer. There were far more visitors than on my previous visit, six years ago, but I was surprised to see the trees rotting in the water bodies.

    Comment by Tom Turner — December 29, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

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