Forms can follow functions in garden design, landscape design and urban design

Dark brown is the river.
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand
(Robert Louis Stevenson Where Go the Boats?)
The form of the Dark Brown River derives from the function of conveying peaty water from the mountains to the sea. Its obvious, but the design maxim that ‘form follows function’ has had too little influence on garden and landscape design. The phrase was coined by Louis Sullivan in 1896 and his sometime partner, Frank Lloyd Wright, observed that ‘We see an airplane clean and light-winged – the lines expressing power and purpose; we see the ocean liner, streamlined, clean and swift – expressing power and purpose. The locomotive too – power and purpose. Some automobiles begin to look the part. Why are not buildings, too indicative of their special purpose? The forms of things that are perfectly adapted to their function, we now observe, seem to have a superior beauty of their own. We like to look at them. Then, as it begins to dawn on us that form follows function – why not so in architecture especially?’ Wright produced a brilliant project, appropriately called Falling Water and I wish he had found more time for garden and landscape design. One reason for functionalism having little affect on outdoor designers is an unimaginative appreciation of the ‘functions’ of outdoor space. Now that we have to make cities more sustainable, we can also make them more beautiful – by deriving forms from functions. The outdoor environment of cities can be arranged to protect buildings from solar gain, to make cities quieter, to manage surface water, to encourage non-motorised transport, to produce food, to produce firewood – and to serve many other functions. If we can make places which are as ‘perfectly adapted to their function’, as a darksome burn, they have an aesthetic of ‘power and purpose’. A functionalist approach, guided by zen perfectionism and what used to be called ‘the principles of art’, could result in great new city forms. Slurping greenery over every horizontal and vertical surfaces holds less promise, though I like greens better than brutalist concrete. My heart is with Hopkins. I hope we can keep the ‘wildness and wet’ and I hope we can make better cities by giving them more weeds, more wilderness – and more ecological functions.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins Inversnaid)

Much of the supposedly Functionalist architecture of the ’50s and ’60s was very non-functional: too much glare, too much solar gain, poor construction, bad microclimatic affects etc. So I hope landscape architecure and garden design will become one of the great success stories for the Form follows Function design approach.

28 thoughts on “Forms can follow functions in garden design, landscape design and urban design

  1. Christine

    Yes. As these photographs of Dubrovnik [ ] and Hangzhou [ ] demonstrate each city has its own unique beauty that needs to be discovered and enhanced both by architecture and landscape.

    I think there are many approaches to this task. Recognition of aesthetic principles is foundational.

    This photograph represents an arts approach in that the giant red pots are upscaled from the domestic to the public scale.
    [ ]

    Taking the same principle…but capturing the cleanness of ‘zen’ lines…
    [ ]

    How might a designer create a sense of an intimate private garden where structured and unstructured elements are in balance with views to an expansive city panorama?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    All interesting photographs, thank you (especially the red flower pots). They do not quite fit the image I have in mind but I have not found them either! The designer who comes to mind for his use of landscape functions to create landscape forms is Herbert Dreiseitl. I wonder if he fits the Chinese proverb that the wise love mountains and the kind love water.

  3. Christine

    It is really difficult to appreciate small urban spaces when you are used to nature like this…[ ]

    Australian native plants are incredibly sculptural, have great structural qualities and amazing colours. The have the potential to create stunning zen modernist designs in the right hands.
    [ ]

    Perhaps Dreisetti meets Japanese master landscape architect would create the right synergy and aesthetic?
    [ ]

  4. Lawrence

    I am never quite sure what Tom means by “modernism” (although I am sure he will now enlighten me in frighteningly scholarly detail) or why he blames it for so many different things, but here is an example of what I understand under the term [ ]. This is also a wonderful example of form following function coupled with a high degree of concentration on leaving out what is not absolutely essential. This city area was stuffed full of bits and pieces left over from the past and WES deservedly won the competition with this virtuoso display of German minimalism and their adherence to principles that are traceable back to the Bauhaus movement.

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Sorry Lawrence, I can’t give a good definition of Modernist and am not very keen on the word. It is obviously past its use-by date and I look forward to an agreed alternative. If people understood what I meant I would use the word ‘Abstract’ instead of ‘Modern’. I know it is only a part of ‘Modernism’ but I think it is a the key part.
    The above post is about Functionalism, not Modernism, and if pushed far enough I would classify this as the abstraction of function from a potentially wide range of design considerations (symbolism, ornament, religion, structure, ecology, stories etc) and making it the key aspect of the design. Is the Hamburg scheme by WES ‘abstract but not functionalist’ or is it both of them? Those seats-without-backrests do not fit the function of supporting one’s back. But if they are for stretching-out to catch the sun, then OK.

  6. Lawrence

    These seats don’t have backrests either [ ]. The function of WES’ Jungfernstieg scheme is firstly to solve a spatial problem: how can we bridge the level change between the street and the water? The provision of edges that one also happens to be able to sit on was then part of the answer to the problem. Wren probably manipulated the level changes around St Pauls to increase the dominance of his building. The flights of steps are uncomfortable to climb and they don’t have handrails, but their function as steps is again secondary to their primary design function which is quite simply to be daunting. Is it abstract to place a human function secondary to a design function? I don’t think so. We expect handrails and backrests in our living rooms, not necessarily in the city. Good architecture and urban fabric is different: it is art with a function.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    Lawrence, fair comment on the Jungfernstieg design, which I like, but how would you classifiy the design: Modernist? Abstract? Functionalist? Minimialist? One could say ‘all of them or none of them’ but I think landscape architecture and urban design suffer from the lack of a critical vocabulary.
    Re St Paul’s, I think the steps were built mainly because there is a fall on the land from east to west. I doubt if Sir Christopher wanted people to sit on the steps – though I am always pleased to see them there, because the municipal authorities locate so much supposedly comfortable street furniture in places where it is never used, because the seats get no sun and there is nothing to look at and no sense of personal security.

  8. Christine

    OK. The landscape work of Turenscape IS ecological ABSTRACT.
    [ ]

    HERE is the seed of ecological FUNCTIONALISM.
    [ ]

    And for sheer beauty and poetry here is MODERNISM: ‘A Modernist Landscape’ by Samuel Williamson. [ ]

    Hmmm. MINIMALISM by Andrea Cochrane Landscape [ ] and another [ ].

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    Turenscape are a very interesting firm and the Grassy Green showroom in Beijing is an appealing design. How did you find them! Given the pace of work in China, and the fact that so much backward-looking and derivative work is being done, I am delighted to see these examples of good projects.
    I also think your brave classification could form the basis for a book, and that it needs many more examples to establish the differences between the categories. For example (1) don’t you think they could all be categorized as both Abstract and Modernist? (2) I remain sceptical about whether high-maintenance green walls are ‘Functionalist’ (3) I agree that Andrea Cochrane’s example is Minimalist (and also Abstract), but do not see nearly as much of this in the Turenscape project (4) nor do I see the Turenscape FLOATING GARDENS-YONGNING RIVER PARK project as Ecological – its strength is as a landscape design example of Abstract Art.

  10. Kendra

    Re: form follows function. I am struggling with the idea of how this should be applied to public parks. Tony Kirkland, director of trees at Kew has said that no one is prepared to pay to visit a park/botanical garden just for the plants any more…that time has passed. Other attractions are needed.

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    I think UK public parks have become too generalised. They are conceived, like bathrooms and kitchens, as things which can be large or small but with both having similar functions. Skateboards have been a new use in the past 30 years. Some of them are bought from catalogues. Others, particularly if they are made by kids who know what is fun, have better forms and, I assume, are more functional. There could be a London park for swimming and sunbathing, with the pool offering many kinds of aquatic experience and the sun terraces many kinds of climatic experience – and the form deriving from the functionality. Or there could be a park for outdoor performances with sculptured grass terraces to contain the noise and seat the audience.

  12. Christine

    Yes. It is exciting to see work coming out of China to inspire us all!

    I tried to choose examples which were as representationally pure as possible.

    So here is an attempt at giving the classifications defintion:

    Abstract: “Works of art that reframe nature for expressive effect.”

    I used the term ecological to describe Turenscapes work because the take a naturalistic view. (ie. imitating or producing the effect or appearance of nature.)

    Functionalism: “Theory rooted in Greek philosophy that beauty should be identified with functional efficiency.”

    The landscape/architecture work by Vector Architects creates a unitary work without collapsing either landscape or architecture into each other.

    Minimalism: “describes where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features.”

    Andrea Cochrane’s design demonstrates the deft touch that underlies the zen aesthetic approach.
    What more could you remove?

    Modernism: “search for truth or essence in art.”

    Sameul Williamson’s work could be described as ecological modernism because it reveals poetically the essential geomorphology of gully formation in forests.

    As for Kew garden’s perhaps, Kew might be the perfect place to re-present these contemporary landscape movements in a way that makes the comprehenisble to a lay audience?

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Well done, and thank you. Herewith some comments in []. Abstract: “Works of art that reframe nature for expressive effect.” [this is very useful] Functionalism: “Theory rooted in Greek philosophy that beauty should be identified with functional efficiency.” [can you give me a source for this?] Minimalism: “describes where the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features.” + Modernism: “search for truth or essence in art.” [I think the definitions of Minimalism and Modernism both derive from Plato’s Theory of Forms, though this does not mean they should be conflated].

  14. Lawrence

    Christine, I’m intrigued that you generally reference so few contemporary Australian works. How do you classify Federation Square? [ ] [ ]

    I loved it when I was there but I suspect it strongly of being post-modern which I am predisposed to reject on intellectual grounds. Also a reason why a project of this type would be difficult to realise in northern Europe. Or perhaps anywhere else except Australia?

  15. Christine

    Federation Square is not post-modernist. Postmodernism uses historicist references.
    [ ]


    “is effectively a pluralistic approach in which colorful, decorative, sometimes whimsical buildings mark a return to historicism. Vocabulary from the past, however, is abstracted in personal, expressive ways.”

    Federation Square (Melbourne 2002) and Storey Hall (Melbourne 1995) [ ] are both examples of Fractal Architecture.

    Fractal Architecture:
    “uses fractal principles and fractal features such as iteration, fractal dimension, self-similarity, complexity and fluidity of hue transition.”

    Yannick Joye in her article ‘Fractal Architecture could be good for you’, argues that these buildings are ‘soft’ Fractal examples because they both operate through tiling, primarily at the one scale and mostly using decorative devices. (See Nexus Network Journal Vol 2 No 2, 311-320)

    I am perhaps more interested in the interior spaces than the exteriors created. Federation Square is good architecture in that it is better than what it replaced, however it is a bad neighbour to the adjacent Cathedral and Chapter House, borrowing amenity and giving nothing back, in terms of creating and maintaining view corridors etc.

    These fractal examples were created during a particular period of architecture in Melbourne when Jeff Kennett was Premier. (Kennett prior to entering politics had a career in advertising and this background was reflected in his administration which was characterized by flamboyance.)
    So perhaps you are correct that they would not have been realised in northern Europe or elsewhere in Australia.

    Why do I reference so few Australian examples, I suppose I reference what I feel is relevant to the conversation. Sometimes Australian architect is relevant – at other times it isn’t.

  16. Tom Turner Post author

    Maybe not the design of the open space but I would classify the striking buildings which contain Federation Square as post-Modern because they come after Modernism and do not share the aesthetic of Modernism. I also accept the categorization Fractal Architecture – as a subset of the post-Modern. Is it a Fractal Jacket on a Modernist structure?

  17. Christine

    Sorry Tom, I should have clarified more succinctly. Fractal Architecture can be considered part of the Post-modern movement (in a temporal sense) rather than Post-modern in style. And despite my criticisms the urban space around the Federation Square buildings can also be considered belonging to Fractal aesthetic theory and Post-modern philosophy (which is the foundation for the postmodern movement).

    Postmodernity and the postmodern:

    “When people talk about postmodernism, the problem is that they are referring to something very elusive and slippery. In the academic world, it is best understood as a new Weltanschaung – a new organizing principle in thought, action, and reflection, connected to many changing factors in modern society. The term postmodern was first applied, around 1971, to a new architectural style which combined old, classical forms with modern pragmatism and scientific engineering. Since then, the postmodernist advocates have used the term to describe their movement as a reaction to the wholesale failure of modernity – the betrayals of the modernist movement in the arts, primarily, but also modernity understood as a social process – industrialization, urbanization, centralization, and ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ as those terms are often used popularly. This movement is not called ‘antimodernism’ because it is not a rejection of modernity in toto , but as its advocates claim, an effort to combine the best of the modern world with the best elements of the traditions of the past, in an organic way that eliminates the worst parts of both.”

    As a post-post Modernist in style (aesthetic) and/or/both movement (thought) you are somewhat in the avant garde?

    Oh, and yes, maybe a purist fractalist would see Federation Square as a Fractal Jacket on a Modernist structure!

  18. Tom Turner Post author

    I like the idea of being avant-garde (!) and I like the above definition.
    At the broadest level my argument is that Modernism was based on the premiss that Reason could supply the best answers to most of the most important questions. I think this was always false and that Beliefs are, at least, as important. This does not make me a religious person in the western sense but I also think there is a need for belief systems which are put together with help from reason, constantly re-considered and handed down the generations.
    So post-post-modernism is, in the shell of a nut, is an amalgam of Reason+Beliefs.

  19. Christine

    It seem like Post post modernism is an emerging way of thinking and doing based on reason and belief (in the possible) which has not quite crystalised into a discernible aesthetic. My take on it is that it has less to do with chaos and complexity (The Post modern) and more to do with responding to wicked problems: order and complexity (The Post post modern).
    [ ]

    I suppose the Post post modern responds to the Post modern view of the world and the peculiarly postmodern problems that postmodernity exposed with an optimism rather than a pessimism.

  20. Tom Turner Post author

    But if we are talking about belief systems then it should be aesthetics – not ‘an aesthetic’. As for the nicely named ‘wicked problems’, I don’t they are much more wicked than the problems faced by our predecessors (eg 7 plagues).

  21. Christine

    In which case a new entry will be necessary under post post modernism. [ ]

    Well I suppose ‘natural’ disasters are more the contemporary concern than plagues. Although the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on the elimination of malaria through the distribution of mosquito nets. [ ] Installing flywire screens can also assist with eliminating mosquitoes from buildings.

    “….they are ubiquitous in the French and Italian parts of the mediterranean. During warm weather they are shut, to keep the flat in cool shade, and parts of them are like small insect shutters that you can open separately, for air and light.”
    [ ]

  22. Tom Turner Post author

    I am worried that the Wikipedia Barons (3,000 bossy boots who delete posts for unknown reasons) are discouraging enthusiasts from updating the content. The sections I keep an eye on were growing rapidly at one time and now seem to have stagnated. I used to work on the Garden History section at one time but have given up on it for this reason. With Postmodernism now almost 40 (on Charles Jencks’ definition) it is time to think about the post-Postmodern.

  23. Christine

    Well I would definitely say post post modernism is post new urbanism. New urbanism is a social movement.

    Post post modernism is inherently green centred (eco-centred), afterall why would a landscape architect be concerned with it otherwise?

    In some ways Post post modern consciousness could date to the Brundtland Report of 1987. It is interesting to reflect on this statement by Charles Caccia:

    “How long can we go on and safely pretend that the environment is not the economy, is not health, is not the prerequisite to development, is not recreation? Is it realistic to see ourselves as managers of an entity out there called the environment, extraneous to us, an alternative to the economy, too expensive a value to protect in difficult economic times? When we organize ourselves starting from this premise, we do so with dangerous consequences to our economy, health, and industrial growth.
    We are now just beginning to realize that we must find an alternative to our ingrained behaviour of burdening future generations resulting from our misplaced belief that there is a choice between economy and the environment. That choice, in the long term, turns out to be an illusion with awesome consequences for humanity.”

    Charles Caccia
    Member of Parliament, House of Commons
    WCED Public Hearing
    Ottawa, 26-27 May 1986

    Post post modern thinking is inherently thinking ‘beyond’ humanity and ‘beyond’ right now.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Ustryalov likened Soviet Russia to a radish – red outside and white inside. This has been followed by the remark that middle class blacks are are coconuts or potatoes ( brown outside and white inside) and the rising generation of civic and industrial leades are watermelons (green outside and red inside). So perhaps we need an environmental equivalent of Human Rights Watch, monitoring our leaders to measure the relationship between what they say and what they do.
      BP sent out the following Christmas Newsletter in December 2009: Christmas is not the easiest time of year to be green. So while there’s plenty we can still do better in the ways we choose to celebrate the season, it’s a particularly good time to think about neutralising the carbon we’ll inevitably generate. That’s why our focus in this issue is on carbon offsetting – the “neutralise” part of the BP Target Neutral programme.

      raddish is red outside and white inside


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