Monthly Archives: October 2010

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.

Museum Quality Gardens

A interesting garden typology which seems to be given more attention in recent times is the museum garden, such as the garden at Giverny ‘The Museum of Impressions’. The garden museum was conceived to give visitors an experience of the Seine valley on the impressionists trail and to complement the art gallery experience of viewing impressionist paintings. The museum building is described as “topped by roofs landscaped in heather…inscribed into the natural slope of the land, allowing the minimum of opague walls.”

For the garden traditionalist there is the Musee Rodin in Paris which captures something of the atmosphere of the outdoors indoors and has a an inspiring sculpture garden.

Perhaps an even more interesting possibility with this trend is the potential for the museum-in-the-garden. The museum of life and science in North Carolina demonstrates the potential of the museum outdoors.

Where better to experience and learn about art, physics and the natural world?

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and renaissance garden design history

An original copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna (1499) is available on the web. It is a fabulous book and has been translated into English by Joscelyn Godwin. Colonna’s dreaming imagination embraces architecture, landscapes and gardens in a tale of passionate love – and eroticism.

'comely and beautiful maidens, taking their ease on the flowery grass and in the cool pleasant shade'

Polyphili meets a group of ‘friendly nymphs’ who invite him to join their bath – in a scene which might have inspired the much smuttier Hugh Hefner Playboy grotto: ‘Now that we had happily entered into such fragrance as could never have grown in Arabia, they spread out their silken garments neatly on the stone seats that served as dressing room… and unconcernedly let their shapely and delicious bodies be seen naked in every particular… I certainly could not prevent the ardent fires from leaping up to assault me in my furnace of a heart… but the nymphs, noticing it, found girlish amusement in laughing at my bashful demeanour’. Colonna was a Dominican monk but, as Godwin observes ‘we can surmise that Brother Francesco’s experience of women’s love was not limited to his dreams’.
The design dreams of the Hypnerotomachia are so rich that some scholars have attributed its authorship to Alberti. The word Hypnerotomachia is a compound of hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and mache (strife). Godwin, whom design historians must thank for his translation, renders this as The Strife of Love in a Dream and one wonders if the visions, both erotic and architectural, came to Colonna in a dream. I have not experienced such a combination but the best landscape design ideas I have had have all been when asleep. They have all been forgotten but Colonna may have put his dreams in words and images.

The graphic design of the Hypnerotomachia is admired as a masterwork from the printer, Aldus Pius Manutius (1450-1515), who devised the italic type and established the semicolon. This is the only illustrated book Aldus published and it is a brilliant example of the way in which words and images can be combined. I think garden design works best as a ‘word and image’ discipline (and regret that architecture seems to have lost much of this interest). Colonna had a far-reaching influence on gardens with his detailed descriptions of images, planting and construction ideas. He must be telling us something about the gardens he knew and he had a profound influence on the imagery used in renaissance, baroque and romantic gardens. Colonna influenced the Villa d’Este, Bomarzo, Versailles and Chiswick House. He also drew the earliest known image of what is called a knot garden in English. In Italian they were called compartmenti (compartments).

Cities in their landscape setting

The landscape setting of cities is a vital component of their character which can often be overlooked. This is particularly so for designers when they are considering contributions to the design of the skyline. Hong Kong with its harbour and mountainous surrounds benefits from the scenic amenity of its setting. And because of the physical and visual strength of these geographic characteristics the setting is able to support a dense tall city.

The relationship between building and landscape is worthy of considerable design attention. The name Hong Kong literally means ‘fragrant harbour’. Victoria harbour is one of the deepest natural maritime ports in the world. Reclamation projects dating from the late 1842 (1890, 1930, 1960, 1980 and 1990) have progressively advanced Hong Kong’s shoreline.

In Hong Kong they recognise some of the benefits of landscape saying that the landscape is an asset which contributes to well-being, helps define the identity of the city, provides habitats for wildlife and is part of their culture and heritage.

Social and Sustainable Streets

Model Streetscape

Perhaps the designers of this streetscape had already absorbed Robert’s message. Not only the shade trees (Cinnamomum camphora), but lots of heat-island reducing planters too. Not so many parked cars as in Bermondsey, but of course loads of bicycles and mopeds. The great majority of the mopeds in the picture are electric. So far, so sustainable. But, this is also a social streetscape. Behind the arcade on the left are the lunchtime restaurants, the vegetables are prepared on the pavement under the arcade and the customers enjoy a cigarette after their meal on the benches and raised walls in the balmy, late autumn sun. The large, evergreen shrubs – Osmanthus fragrens – fill the air with their light scent. Residents dry their washing on the clothes racks outside their apartment windows without the use of machines. One of many such streets in the Pudong New District of Shanghai, all not much older than 15-20 years.

What can landscape and urban designers to to limit climate change and global warming?

Alma Grove is a survivor of the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey street beautification policies of the 1920s and 1930s. Then such street beautification was seen as part of public health provision, along with backgardens for tuberculosis sufferers, window box competitions, public parks and gardens, municipal bakeries (to combat adulteration of flour) and medical provision under the mayorality of Dr Alfred Salter

Wikipedia has good entries on Global Warming and  the Greenhouse Effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizes the arguments, details the scientific data and provides a Summary for Policy Makers. The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).   The greenhouse effect is fundamental to climate change theory. It is the process by which radiation (light and heat) reflected by the surface of the earth is absorbed by atmospheric gases. Greenhouse gases include water vapour and carbon dioxide. They transfer this reflected radiation to other components of the atmosphere and it is re-radiated in all directions, including back down towards the surface. This transfers energy to the surface, so the temperature there is higher than it would be if direct heating by solar radiation were the only warming mechanism.  Nicholas Stern made an authoritative review of the economic arguments for dealing with global warming in 2006: The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and concluded that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change considerably outweigh the costs, so that 1% of global gross domestic product (GDP) per annum should be invested to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Otherwise we risk global GDP falling by 20%.

So what does this mean for urban designers and landscape architects? Here is an unranked list:

  • plan ecological corridors to promote migration of flora and fauna,
  • conserve water,  use drought-tolerant plants and change methods of cultivation,
  • use shade structures (e.g. roadside trees) to promote human comfort,
  • design high albedo (= light reflective) surfaces to combat heat island effects
  • plan landscapes for coastal retreat,
  • install sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS)
  • restructure agricultural and other landscapes as the tree line moves upwards,
  • plan high density settlements to reduce energy consumption,
  • promote the use of  renewable energy,
  • design afforestation schemes,
  • include for recycling and composting in designed landscapes
  • manage river basins to avoid flooding
  • design green roofs
  • use soil conservation and soil carbon sink policies
  • use good design to promote cycling and walking
  • use low embodied carbon materials, (e.g. use flexible paving not paving with a concrete base course)
  • minimizing the area of paving, and built form,
  • use  low thermal conductivity materials e.g. avoid metal paving with a high thermal conductivity, and prefer timber paving with a low thermal conductivity;
  • avoid smooth surfaces with a high thermal conductivity and prefer rough surfaces such as gravel or small unit paving (eg prefer riven stone setts to sawn stone setts)
  • change the form of urban development (eg to avoid high rise and urban canyon effects),
  • avoid thick pavements with a higher thermal storage capacity: e.g. avoid concrete bases to stone paving,
  • increase the vegetation including parks and gardens, street trees and roof gardens,
  • reduce waste heat emissions from buildings.

This list constitutes either ways to limit the increase in global warming by reduction of use and production of greenhouse gases or by ways to ameliorate the effects of such warming such as planning for river flooding in response to the extreme weather events, which are a characteristic of the warming process. For the discussion of the heat island effect refer to London’s Urban Heat Island: A Summary for Decision Makers Greater London Authority October 2006:  “When a land cover of buildings and roads replaces green space, the thermal, radiative, moisture and aerodynamic properties of the surface and the atmosphere are altered. This is because urban construction materials have different thermal (heat capacity and thermal conductivity) and radiative (reflectivity and emissivity) properties compared to surrounding rural areas, which results in more of the sun’s energy being absorbed and stored in urban compared to rural surfaces. In addition, the height of buildings and the way in which they are arranged affects the rate of escape at night of the sun’s energy absorbed during the day by building materials. The result is that urban areas cool at a much slower rate than rural areas at night, thus maintaining comparatively higher air temperatures. Urban areas also tend to be drier than their rural counterparts because of the lack of green space, a predominance of impervious surfaces and urban drainage systems, which quickly remove water from the urban surface.  This combination of effects alters the energy balance of the urban environment. Consequently in urban compared to rural areas, more of the sun’s energy absorbed at the surface goes into heating the atmosphere and thus raising the air temperature than into evapotranspiration (water uptake and loss by plants), which is a cooling process.” The heat island effect contributes to increased mortality rates for the old and the young such as in the hot summers of 2003 and 2006. See the list of GLA publications on the environment and in particular the GLA report on  Living Roofs and walls, technical report: supporting London’s Plan Policy (2008).  Also  the US Environmental Protection Agency website. (e.g. and see

In summary

  • minimize inputs,
  • minimize outputs


  • promote energy efficiency= densification, transport, sustainable production
  • promote waste efficiency= re-cycling and re-use
  • promote food efficiency= local production.

Further references: (1) the Dutch National Waterplan is an excellent example of landscape architects being effective at a national scale is (2009) (2) Michael D. King, Parkinson Claire L., Partington Kim C. and Williams, Robin G. Our Changing Planet, the View from Space. Cambridge University Press:2007 (3) Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees Our Ecological Footprint Gabriola Island, New Society Publishers: 2007 (4) Robert Kunzig and Wallace Broecker Fixing Climate The story of climate science and How to stop global warming London Profile Books Ltd.:2008 (5) Centre for Alternative Technology Zerocarbonbritain2030 Machynlleth, Centre for Alternative Technology Publication: 2010