Monthly Archives: March 2009

The landscape architecture of bicycling in China

526297738_e8cf7e2b9f_bThe BBC broadcast a programme on the Fall and Rise of the Bicycle in China which was actually about the Rise and Fall of the Bicycle in China. The main point was that the world’s greatest cycling country aims to become the world’s greatest motoring country. In Beijing the cycle lanes are being narrowed and cars are being allowed to obstruct them. I don’t know if the presenter has experience of cycling in Beijing but I can tell him about another problem: many of the cycle lanes are full of near-silent electric motor bikes. To people like me, who are in the habit of using their ears to discover when a motorbike is about to overtake, this can be very dangerous. I would not want any westerners to be in the position of appearing to say ‘you can’t live as we live’. But I am happy to pronounce that ‘most western countries made a terrible mistake when they switched from bikes to cars (eg from 1920-1960) so please think a thousand times before you make the same mistake. Beijing still has some of  the best cycle paths in any capital city (photo courtesy Rich & Cheryl)

A Chinese contributor to the programme explained that riding a bicycle is a working class and driving  a car shows that you are an important person. That is why the Chinese landscape architecture profession needs to become involved. Landscape architects can design such safe and beautiful cycle lanes that using them becomes a mark of what used to be the distinghishing characteristic of China’s scholar-officials: GOOD TASTE. Come my Chinese friends and colleagues: show the world what you can do and we should do.  Cycle planning should be incorporated with greenway planning and design, in China and everywhere.

Sustainable urban design and landscape architecture – definitions


The Bruntland Commission may have set back sustainable urban design by half a century with an idiotic definition: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” It gives anyone who wants it an excuse for doing nothing and claiming they are acting sustainability. What are my ‘needs’: one bicycle or two cars? And what are ‘needs’ of future generations: no bicycles and three cars?

The reason for Bruntland’s blunder is that sustainability is a relative concept, like ‘near’ and ‘far’, incapable of absolute definition. Is the moon near or far from the earth? It is very near for space travelers but very far for cyclists.   We should boast an inability to design ‘sustainable cities’ but assert a competence in making cities ‘more sustainable’. As urban designers and landscape architects we do this by planning for  fewer inputs and fewer outputs than the International Modern Cities which too many architects and engineers have designed, are designing and will design. Here are some examples:

1.  Cities will require less input of water because we are expert in sustainable urban drainage systems – and they will have less output of waste water because we know how to detain and infiltrate water within urban areas.

2. Cities will require less import of construction materials from distant lands because we believe in respecting the Genius Loci and using the local materials which he provides for our use.

3. City building will involve less transport of excavated subsoil to dumps because we will use it design new landforms.

4. Less energy will be required for heating and cooling because we will orientate buildings correctly and design with microclimate.
5. Planting schemes will require less irrigation, less maintenance and less input of chemicals because we  will make more use of native plant materials and will make lawns only when they have a social use.

6. People will walk more and cycle more because we will design beautiful and convenient paths – and we will do this before any roads or buildings are planned.

7. When people get more exercise they will have better health, so that the resource inputs for healthcare will also be reduced and we will have less medical waste to dispose of.

8. Buildings will be better insulated, because almost all of them will have vegetated roofs, and will therefore require less heating in winter and less cooling in summer.

9. Cities will be more compact because there will be less roadscape, fewer parking lots and  less need for greenspace at street level – because we are going to make such wonderful skyparks and skygardens.

The inputs and outputs exemplified above are all measureable, just as the distance from the earth to the moon is measurable.

See also: Eco-city plans and sustainable design

Landscape architecture as stewardship of the land

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) states that “Landscape architecture encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments.” For me, there are two problems with this as a definition of landscape architecture: (1) ‘encompasses’ is a weak term – I would prefer a definition of landscape architecture (2) I feel uneasy with the term ‘stewardship’, possibly because my peasant ancestors suffered at the hands of harsh stewards employed by bullying barons.

In an interesting article on Steward Leadership in the Public Sector, Marilyn J. Smith writes that “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stewardship as, “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something: Especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” (Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1999). For Christians, stewardship began when God gave Adam dominion over the Garden of Eden. Even prior to the Bible, the ancient Greeks, Buddha, and Lao Tqu articulated the same concept (Spears, 1998: pp. 162-3).”   Her comment is well-intentioned but deepens my uneasiness (1) I do not see landscape architecture as an essentially public sector activity (2) I can’t help remembering Ian McHarg’s  comment on the Book of Genesis that ‘If you want to find one text which if believed and employed literally, or simply accepted implicitly, without the theological origins being known, will explain all of the destruction and all of the despoliation accomplished by Western man for at least these 2,000 years, then you do not have to look any further than this ghastly, calamitous text.’

See also: definitions of landscape architecture

French Impressionist painting and English planting design

monet_artist_gardenChristine’s question about the influence of French Impressionist painting on the art of garden design has set me thinking. Since writing an essay about Gertrude Jekyll, at college in 1969, I have argued that the painter who most influenced Gertrude Jekyll’s style of planting design was J M W Turner. I still think this is correct but the following comment from Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden has been extremely influential. Jekyll wrote that planting design  is ‘like having a box of paints from the best colourman, or, to go one step further, it is like having portions of these paints set out upon a palette.’ Once you start thinking about plants as ‘a palette’ of colours, you are on the high road to English Impressionist Planting Design. Monet’s own garden at Giverny was not planted impressionistically but his paintings of the garden are in an impressionist style and, curiously, photographs of the Water Lily Pond at Giverny also have an impressionist character.

Definition of a sustainable urban landscape

I  came across this definition today, from a large UK landscape practice: “a sustainable urban landscape achieves the correct balance between environmental, economic and social needs” and regret that it is not helpful. It does not tell us how to find a ‘balance’ and it implies that landscape architects, assuming they are to be involved, have some kind of knowledge, skill or training which lets them decide what is ‘correct’.  A much better definition is required if we are to have better designs for sustainable landscapes.

Sissinghurst garden farm news

As guessed, the rumpus was a publicity stunt exercise in TV dramatics. The BBC and the National Trust knew when they were planning the TV series on Sissinghurst that  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven’s ideas were going to be accepted.  So in Episode 8 of the longest-running docudrama in the first 5,000 years of garden history, we saw some of the farm land being used to grow vegetables and Sly Steve in the kitchen admitting that Sarah’s Moroccan Lamb had been popular with the guests. Adam shoehorned in a final attempt to make Sissinghurst into the World’s Lesbian Capital or, at least, the World’s Sexiest Garden (with the line “Harold Nicholson loved Morocco more than any place on earth. He often had an affair there”). Adam Nicholson also remarked that “Writing is the family business. Butchers chop up pigs. We write books.” Nicely put, but was he laying a foundation for a new family business: TV? Watch this space.

PS Why does the National Trust want publicity for Sissinghurst? To attract more visitors and to have more money to spend. But to conserve the garden’s character it needs less publicity and fewer visitors.

Asian landscape architecture and garden design in the twentieth century

Singapore skyline by Gyver Chang

Singapore skyline by Gyver Chang

Why were Asian garden design and landscape architecture such a disappointment in the twentieth century? There is much work which looks anti-ecological, anti-contextual, almost anti-human – and far too American or far too European (see note on Chinese context theory). Luckily, there are some exceptions, including the twenty-first century landscape designs for  King Abdullah International Gardens and the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Instead of writing an essay (which is is in fact what I have done for the final chapter of Asian gardens) I offer the short statement that the problems with Asian garden and landscape design in the 20th century resulted from a poor understanding of design history and theory. There were lacks of appreciation:

  1. by many landscape architects that their profession’s design theory was at least 4000 years old on 14  May 1863 ( Norman T Newton gives this day as ‘the first official use of the title Landscape Architect’ – he knew the art was older but his perception of the theory was post-1863)
  2. by the Asian clients and designers who believed Asia should be ‘modernized’ by being ‘westernized’
  3. by the World Bank and associated development agencies which were certain that western is better, because it is based on science , and because science is the ultimate criterion of truth
  4. by a host of architects, engineers and planners who believed too fervently in ‘master planning’ and therefore fostered the tragedy of feminine design
  5. by bankers and property developers who believed that calculation of short term profit was the way to distinguish good projects from bad projects
  6. by the abstract and anti-contextual nature of international modern design theory
  7. by an inadequate knowledge of Asian design history and theory

The corrective to these Seven Deadly Design Sins should be gulping that wonderful Asian virtue – HARMONY.  History matters, theory matters, science matters, beliefs matter, profit matters,  ecology matters, design matters, people matter -we all matter!

See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Chinese landscape architecture competition for Tiananman Square

Tripper54 put this on Flickr with the caption 'me at tiananmen square'

Tripper54 put this on Flickr with the caption 'me at tiananmen square'

The landscape architecture profession in China has grown rapidly but now faces a supreme challenge: how to re-design  Tiananmen Square.  Though understandable, Tiananmen Square was a blunder and this should be recognized. Only then can it become the brilliant centre of world culture which Beijing deserves. Its current design is understandable for three reasons:

  1. China had no tradition of creating public open space in towns  at the time it was designed and nor did it have a  landscape architecture profession
  2. The design inspiration for Tiananmen Square came from Soviet Russia, which could just as well have taught lessons in running fair trials
  3. As the capital of the world’s most populous country, the Beijing authorities wanted to have the world’s largest and greatest urban square

The present landscape design of Tiananmen Square is regrettable  for three reasons:

  1. the section of the Ming capital it replaced should most certainly have been conserved
  2. the landscape design of the new square was horrific: it has scarcely any use, scarcely any beauty, and is totally unsuited to Beijing’s climate. People just stand around with nothing to do but take ‘I was there’ photographs of each other.
  3. the tragic events of  1989 are, one assumes, as much regretted in Beijing as they are in the rest of the world

So what should be done? It is loved as the heart of the nation and I can’t say – but finding an answer is a great challenge for the landscape architecture profession, hence the  Web 2.0 Landscape Competition announced today. + more information on the Tiananmen landscape architecture competition (and a October 2009  blog post about the competition)

The grey slabbed area is the famous Tiananmen Square in Beijing

The grey slabbed area is the famous Tiananmen Square in Beijing

See also:  Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Indian water gardens history and restoration

Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

Ruchir75 put this photo on Flickr with the caption 'The watering system in Ram Bagh gardens'

On the evidence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (see quotes below), Ancient India had the most fabulous gardens. But they were lost and the Indian gardens we know today were made by, or influenced by,  Islam. Various acts of violence have made Muslims unpopular in India and this may have contributed to the comparative neglect of India’s gardens – despite India having the world’s finest examples of Islamic gardens. So what can be done to revive and restore this wonderful heritage? One of the great tasks is to get the water back into the canals, as in the gardens of the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb. But how can this be done? The task requires local enterprise. Garden managers should be informed that pools, baolies, canals and plants require water.  An Indian Decade of Water Gardens should be declared during  which local garden curators and their malis can raise entrance fees on days when the water systems are working and share the increased revenue with staff. The present system of charging foreign visitors 10 times as much as Indian visitors should be replaced with a system of charging higher entrance fees to all non-local visitors. India now has as a middle class equal in size and wealth to a large European country, providing a resource which should be ‘tapped’ to fund the restoration of India’s water gardens. When things start getting better they are likely to continue getting better.  The Ram Bagh Gardens were made by Babur, the first Mughal Emperor,  but are now named after Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana (image courtesy ruchir75). [Notes (1) a mali is a gardener (2) it costs more to enter Versailles when the fountains are working]

Ramayana on gardens

Beyond the sea my Lanka stands
Filled with fierce forms and giant bands,
A glorious city fair to see
As Indra’s Amaravati.
A towering height of solid wall,
Flashing afar, surrounds it all,
Its golden courts enchant the sight,
And gates aglow with lazulite.
Steeds, elephants, and cars are there,
And drums’ loud music fills the air,
Fair trees in lovely gardens grow
Whose boughs with varied fruitage glow.

Mahabharata on gardens

Within that palace Maya placed a peerless tank, and in that tank were lotuses with leaves of dark-coloured gems and stalks of bright jewels, and other flowers also of golden leaves. And aquatic fowls of various species sported on its bosom. Itself variegated with full-blown lotuses and stocked with fishes and tortoises of golden hue, its bottom was without mud and its water transparent. There was a flight of crystal stairs leading from the banks to the edge of the water. The gentle breezes that swept along its bosom softly shook the flowers that studded it. The banks of that tank were overlaid with slabs of costly marble set with pearls. And beholding that tank thus adorned all around with jewels and precious stones, many kings that came there mistook it for land and fell into it with eyes open. Many tall trees of various kinds were planted all around the palace. Of green foliage and cool shade, and ever blossoming, they were all very charming to behold. Artificial woods were laid around, always emitting a delicious fragrance. And there were many tanks also that were adorned with swans and Karandavas and Chakravakas (Brahminy ducks) in the grounds lying about the mansion. And the breeze bearing the fragrance of lotuses growing in water and (of those growing on land) ministered unto the pleasure and happiness of the Pandavas. And Maya having constructed such a palatial hall within fourteen months, reported its completion unto Yudhishthira.

See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes

Re-creation of the world's oldest garden design in Egypt

The plan is Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the oldest accurate plan of a garden

The plan of Sennufer's Garden is the most famous illustration of an Egyptian garden, and the world's oldest accurate plan of a garden

I heard a rumor that  Sennufer’s Garden is to be re-created. This is a project I have dreamed of  (see note at foot of page on The Domain of Amun) and I believe it is the best tourism investment Egypt could make.

– the project will attract worldwide publicity
– the re-created garden will remind the world that Egypt may well be the country in which the world’s first pleasure garden was made (see blog post Where is the world’s oldest garden?)
– garden visiting is an extremely popular tourist activity, with the Alhambra said to be the most visited garden in Europe
– a new tourist attraction on the East bank in Luxor will take some of the pressure off the ancient monuments on the West bank of the Nile
– a re-created historic garden will fit well with the ambience of the resort hotels being developed on the East bank
I do not know if it has been arranged but the re-created garden is the type of project which could easily attract funding from a hotel chain, an Arab billionaire or from the Aga Khan Historic Cities Support Programme (HCSP) . Since the garden structures would be of mud brick, the cost would not be exorbitant.

The new Sennufer’s garden will  be an invaluable contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. If he has a hand in the project, congratulations to Dr. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General, The Supreme Council of Antiquities). A re-creation of the world’s oldest garden would be a wonderful event.

Other Egyptian garden plans survive but Sennufer’s Garden Plan is by far the most sophisticated and in some respects astonishingly modern. See Marie-Luise Gothein’s explanation of the plan of Sennefer’s garden.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

Where was the world's first garden made?

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

The garden of the House of Venus at Pompeii is one of the oldest surviving gardens in the world (image courtesy John Keogh)

Cultivation and the domestication of plants began in the Levantine Corridor, which runs from Dead Sea to the Damascus Basin, and quite probably outside Jericho. This is known because the earliest domesticated plants are all native to this region and radio-carbon dating reveals that horticultural activity began c9,000 BCE. Plants were cultivated by hand and with digging sticks, not with the plough, but the plants cultivated were all cereals and pulses, making ‘farming’ a better description of the activity than ‘gardening’ or ‘horticulture’ in the modern sense of ‘not ploughed’.

The first literary evidence of gardening comes from Sumer in Lower Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh mentions that his city (Uruk) was ‘one third gardens’ – but the gardens were were palm orchards. Some flowers may have been grown but the main purpose was growing food and the gardens are unlikely to have been beside houses. People lived on dry mounds (tells) and required irrigation to grow fruit and vegetables. The Garden of Eden was ‘located’ in Sumer but its status is mythological rather than historical.

China is another candidate for having made the first gardens but the only places we know of were more like National Parks than anything we would call a garden. Chinese imperial parks were fast tracts of wild landscape set aside for hunting, as at Changan. There were altars in the parks, and pavilions at a later date, and crops were cultivated but they are better described as parks than as ‘gardens’.

The next candidate country for having had the ‘world’s first garden’ is Egypt and since the Egyptians had gardens in the exact sense in which the word is now used,  ‘Egypt’ is the best answer to the question ‘Where was the world’s first garden made?’ Some temple gardens (sanctuaries, like Karnak) survive in Egypt but the only representations of domestic gardens are paintings and models. The oldest garden layout known to archaeology may be at Passargadae in Iran.

So where was Europe’s first garden made? The possibilities are Crete, mainland Greece, Sicily and mainland Italy. The inhabitants of Greece (who did not speak Greek) were cultivators by 7000 BCE, which is 2000 years before the Egyptians, and practiced ornamental horticulture in classical times (500 BCE). But Europe’s first gardens in the modern sense of enclosed and planted spaces designed in conjunction with dwellings were probably in Italy – and the oldest surviving examples are certainly in Pompeii (above image courtesy John Keogh) with some of them made by Greek-speaking people.

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

The world's first historic gardening experiment


Shukallituda is the first gardener known to history, because the world’s oldest literary texts come from Sumer. It is recorded that the raging winds smote his face with the dust of mountains and all the plants he had tended turned desolate. Shukallituda therefore lifted his eyes to the heavens, studied the omens, observed and learned the divine laws of nature. Having acquired new wisdom, he planted the Sarbatu tree in his garden. It gives a broad shade which lasts from sunrise to sunset. As a result of this horticultural experiment, Shukallituda’s garden blossomed forth with all kinds of green plants. The Illustration (Microsoft® Encarta®) shows a ziggurat seen across the Euphrates. The trees look like date palms, which were probably the most widely grown trees in Mesopotamian gardens. The area beneath the palms  conveys something of  the character of a Sumerian garden in the time of Gilgamesh. He was the fifth king of Uruk, ruling c2700 BCE, and boasted that his city was ‘one third gardens’ – by which he probably meant date and orchard gardens within the city wall. This part of Iraq is now completely arid, which is a blessing for archaeologists….  ‘ a landscape from which came some of the earliest and most important impulses leading to Mesopotamian civilization, a landscape dotted with urban ruins testifying to past intensive settlement, prosperity, and even greatness, today is virtually empty and wholly neglected’ (The Uruk Countryside Univ Chicago  1972, p.1)

[See also: Previous post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

History of Asian garden and landscape design book

Himalayas by Ilker Ender

Himalayas by Ilker Ender


My ‘Tomfool Project’ to write a history of Asian gardens and landscape architecture is done: I have just posted the CS (computer-script) to the publisher. The main subjects are Ancient Garden Design,  Islamic Garden Design, Indian Garden Design, Chinese Garden Design,  Japanese Garden Design and modern landscape architecture across Asia.  The text files, drawings and photographs fit on one DVD, so all I have done is re-arrange some binary code, unless you count taking over 100,000 photographs. The easier-to-write chapters drew on other work but the difficult chapters took a year each for research and travel. The sensible alternatives would have been not to have begun the project or to have started 40 years earlier by learning half a dozen Asian languages. But I enjoyed the work and will be a lucky man if the ‘royalties’ pay for the travel – so you could say the books will be sold at ‘cost price minus’. It reminds me of the advice I received from Arnold Weddle about 30 years ago. We were making use of adjoining urinals at the time and I think the conversation went like this:

‘Hi Tom, how are you and what are you doing’. Ignoring the obvious, I replied ‘Fine – I’m writing a book, actually it’s about Landscape planning‘. Arnold, who had recently founded the journal Urban and landscape planning, replied: ‘Hmmm. Don’t expect to make any money by writing books’

Weddle was a wise man and I often quote another of his remarks. In Techniques of landscape architecture he wrote that the landscape profession is distinguished from its related professions by looking beyond their ‘closely drawn technical limits’ and ‘narrowly drawn territorial boundaries’. Though not quite what he had in mind, I have taken his advice in Asian gardens by relating garden design to the religions, mountains,  forests, deserts, social customs, art and architecture of Asia. As you can imagine, this has involved a number of topics in which I might wish to have more expertise.  Ananda  Coomaraswamy would have been a good man for the job, helped by one of his photographer wives and his ability to think in English, Hindi, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, Persian and Chinese.

[See also: next post on Asian gardens and landscapes]

The world’s top ten gardens

With Top Ten lists becoming img_9392popular, we thought should have a list of the world’s ten best gardens.  But how should it be compiled? Democracy or autocracy? Here are the democratic results: top ten gardens  generated from our garden reviews and rating system. But Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” ( 11. 11, 1947)

So let’s try autocracy: here is Tom Turner’s Top Ten Gardens List, which you can think of a list of the gardens which should be, like the Temple of Abu Simbel, if rising waters were going to flood all the world’s best gardens, by which I mean those which would disappear when the Vale of Kashmir, and Shalimar Bagh, were submerged by global warming. The gardens are in no particular order:

If I had been to Columbus Indiana I think I would include the garden of the Miller house, though I do not know what I would delete from the list. So which is best: democracy or autocracy? – and would readers like to suggest changes to the list?

Sissinghurst Garden Design and Management

Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

BBC4 is showing a series of programmes about Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Here is a link to the first episode on the iPlayer – the link will not be active for long and there is a link to a BBC Sissinghurst webpage.  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven live in the family house, because Adam is Vita’s grandson, but Adam’s father (Nigel Nicholson) gave the property to the National Trust. The programme presents Adam and Sarah as enlightened visionaries able to understand the past and present. But the National Trust staff are presented as obstinate blockheads able to say little more than ‘This is the way we do it because this is the way we have always done it and this it the way we will continue to do it’.  Since the series runs to 8 episodes one can’t help wondering it the editing has been done for dramatic effect. Unless the National Trust  Blockheads are going to be seduced by sweet reason, the series is going to end up portraying the Trust as a disorganised rabble which leaves decisions to junior staff.

Sissinghurst gives me the impression of being too commercial and of having too many visitors. It this is what the National Trust wants, they should avoid the cowpats Adam wants to bring back as an aspect of traditional farming. The BBC slipped in the titbit that Vita had over 50 lesbian lovers and the Independent (28.2.09) refers to ‘the site’s fascination for today’s educated lesbians’. Adam predicts that ‘By Easter, there will be rivers of lesbians coming through the gates’.  It would be useful to know whether the return of traditional farming practices (‘cowpats’) would attract or repel the lesbians, and where Adam stands on the lesbian issue.  I look forward to Sissinghurst holding its first Gay Pride day. As they say, ‘history repeats itself as farce’.