Christopher Alexander and Humphry Repton as landscape design theorists – UDG lecture

Christopher Alexander and Humphry Repton as landscape architecture theorists

Who is the most important landscape architecture theorist of the nineteenth century? Humphry Repton, through his influence on John Ruskin, Frederick Law Olmsted, Patrick Geddes – and most other landscape planners and garden designers in the century after his death.
Who is the most important design theorist of the twentieth century? Christopher Alexander, through his influence on urban design, architecture, computer programming and, through Ian Mcharg, on landscape planning and the develoment of Georgraphical Information Systems?
Are there any similarities between between the design theories of Repton and Alexander? Yes.
The photographs on the left, above, were taken at last night’s Kevin Lynch Memorial lecture, organised by the Urban Design Group. The lower left photograph shows Alexander and his opening slide. It was on display for a good while, because Alexander likes to show slides in rapid-fire (2.5 seconds each) and with no talking [unluckily for me, my tummy chose to rumble while the audience listened in silence]. The photgraph made me think he was going to talk about the fact that a City is no a Tree. But no. He wished to argue, as in his forthcoming book [The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle between Two World-Systems by Christopher Alexander, Hans Joachim Neis and Maggie Moore (OUP Jul 2012) – on the Eishin Campus in Japan] that (1) a design should be done on the spot (2) buildings should be positioned in the landscape with the aid of flags (3) the design process must be continuous and should constantly aim for ‘wholeness’ (4) the current system of producing a full set of working drawings before work starts on site is disastrous.
The first two points are 100% Repton. Repton argued that ‘The plan should be made not only to fit the spot, it ought actually to be made upon the spot’. The Repton drawings, on the right above, show the use of ranging poles to set out tree positions at Bristol – and he used the same system for positioning buildings. Alexander’s third point is also Reptonian, though he would have used the word ‘harmony’ instead of ‘wholeness’. As for the fourth point, Repton was a gentleman and never produced working drawings, so there is every likeliehood he would have agreed.
It was disappointing that Alexander spoke to slowly (though I have no expectation of being any faster when I am 75) but it is great that he still has the energy to work as a ‘building contractor and architect’. We must hope he lives long enough, like another great design theorist sill working (Charles Jencks), to give his full attention to landscape architecture and garden design. Let us pray.

Repton's design for Bayham Abbey and, right, his use of ranging poles to position the building: THIS is landscape architecture

One thought on “Christopher Alexander and Humphry Repton as landscape design theorists – UDG lecture

  1. Christine

    ‘In a Chinese garden: the art & architecture of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden’ the authors (Jencks and Keswick) say that there were distinct differences between gardens north and south of the Yangtze.

    In the north gardens “tended to be laid out in more formal patterns” whereas in the south gardens “were based on illusion and what must be captured is the effect of infinitude” which tended to endow the gardens of the south with a certain irregularity.

    Differences of perception in garden design manifested when Eastern and Western garden ideas met in a cultural exchange during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911):

    “When the Jesuit fathers in Peking devised a western maze for the Qinglong Emperor, it was regarded as a barbarian novelty, and soon fell into disrepair after the Emperors death.”


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