Design theory in architecture and landscape

The softness of lime mortar has allowed the doorway in an old garden wall to  be filled with respect to the bond pattern.

An email arrived today with the comment that ‘My primary interest is in design excellence (aesthetics) & I have been writing about how architecture is an art, and unlike other fine arts it is a practical art: a public art.’ But that ‘… because of the demands of sustainability there needs to be a way of re-thinking how we do architecture, privileging design. Central to this idea is that architecture is functional (modernist programme), sceniographic (post-modernist) and meaningful (post-postmodernist agenda)!?’

I agree that architecture and landscape architecture are applied arts. But in this, they do not differ from garment design, furniture design, etc. All should be functional and are best when they have high aesthetic quality. Sustainability considerations apply to each of these arts: if the world is running out of resources then we need to be more economical. This is, amongst other things, an argument for using lime mortar instead of cement mortar. Lime bonded brickwork and stonework can be disassembled, allowing design changes the the reuse of materials.

The public aspect of some applied arts raises other issues. The furniture in my home would seem to be entirely my own concern. But if I want to build a tall modern building in a medieval village then this becomes a matter of legitimate public concern. Ditto for the Martha Schwarz post-modern amhphitheatre in Castleford, especially because a bunch of idiots dipped their hands into the public purse to fund the park.

‘Meaning’ is another issue. A modernist approach to the Castleford Park would have been to discover what people wanted for the space and then make provision for their activities. The postmodern approach, as used by Schwarz, was to give the space a ‘meaning’. I do not know what words she used – could it have been to ‘echo a Roman approach to open space design, as exemplified by the Colisseum’ – but they must have been something inappropriate. A post-Postmodern approach to the Castleford park would have involved recognition of the multifarious interests of local people combined with intelligent design leadership. Beliefs shared between the public and the designer would have facilitated their combination. Flying in a US Design Queen might have worked in the context of shared beliefs.

7 thoughts on “Design theory in architecture and landscape

  1. Christine

    In the context of art the idea of meaning has always been contested. The artist can particualr intentions, the public perceives another and the history of art recognises yet other attributes. These dichotomous relationships do not make a nonsense of art. Yet in the first instance how we proceed when we create something remains the fundamental question of design. The issues raised here go to the problem of procurement or the commissioning of works. If we are considering public art,for instance landscape or architecture – just what form should public involvement take?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree about the commissioning issue. The tried and trusted relationship is that of patron:designer. Decisions are taken by patrons but, if they have any sense, they trust and encourage the designers they employ. Public bodies, both elected and commercial, have upset this relationship by making the ‘client’ a shifting and nebulous entity. This has encouraged designers to develop a mistaken belief that they are independent artists, entitled to express their artistic ideas at their clients’ expense.

    The final programme in Kevin McCloud’s Castleford series, shown last night (see was very good in this respect. Kevin and the designers wanted to see ‘cutting edge design’. The client, including elected members and community representatives, wanted a ‘traditional’ design. This prompted Kevin to explain the problem as ‘wrong architects – wrong clients’. I suppose he meant that the clients and designers did were out of sympathy with each other – or was he thinking that the existing community should be replaced with lovers of stainless steel and jagged lines? My sympathies were entirely with the community: if they know what they want then the designers’ job is to provide what they want.

  3. Christine

    Not sure I can work out what happened at Castleford. The promo seems to suggest it was a success and everyone is happy! I will also have to plead ignorance of mining towns in general…so I find it difficult to understand the context. However as a general comment….there is definitely a relationship of ‘fit’ between a designer and a location (including the landcape and the community). This is essential if the design is to be context sensitive, based on an understanding of place and people. Perhaps a simile could be made with the art market. Not all collectors of art buy the same pieces, display the same pieces, house the same pieces in the same environment and are patronised by the same people (either privately or publicly)? Perhaps this suggests something of the limitations of the universal international style?

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes indeed. Context-sensitive design is such an important issue, relating to both clients and to places, that it requires a complete revision of the International Style – and a new name. A style cannot be ‘International’ if it is also to be context-sensitive.

  5. stefan

    in landscape design, i don’t think one style or approach can be applied across the board. every place is unique and requires a unique solution. the International Style might work in cities, which are international places, but can’t serve the needs of a small community like New Fryston. like a lot of places that were built to serve a vanished industry, this is somewhere that has had its context removed and needs to have its sense of identity re established.

  6. Christine

    7. Sorry, almost correct. It was a collaborative design with David Nelson. []


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