The Landscape Guide

Design Theory: a Pattern-Assisted-Knowledge-Intensive-Landscape-Design-Approach


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This article by Tom Turner, which has been amended, was published in the May 2001 edition of Landscape Design (#300 pp37-40). It followed a 1991 article on Pattern analysis

For two centuries the art of landscape design has failed to realize its potential, in Europe and America. A few glorious moments are dispersed in a wasteland of kitsch, slabs and grass (Trancik). To make this point, Peter Walker and Melanie Simo chose the title Invisible gardens for their survey of American landscape architecture in the twentieth century. With a wondrous natural environment, expert professionals, brilliant leadership and immense wealth, America junked its urban opportunities. We have a profession which needs to ask ‘What went wrong’ and then ‘How can it be put right?’ In short, my answer is that ‘Modernism caused the problem and a pattern-analysis-knowledge-intensive-approach (PAKILDA) can put it right’. This proposition will be addressed from the standpoints of art theory, landscape theory, design history and design methods. As John Dixon Hunt observes, the problem arose circa 1800.

Art Theory

Plato, with his Theory of Forms, argued that universals, like Beauty, Truth, Squareness and Roundness, exist in a world which is ontologically apart from our own world. Humans see imperfect copies of the perfect Forms after which our world was shaped .

The artist’s task, therefore, is to represent the ideal world, not the transitory scenes of everyday life. Encapsulated in the axiom ‘art should imitate nature’ this proposition dominates the history of Western art. It influenced Greek, Roman, Christian and Renaissance art. It led to formal gardens and to the representation of ideal figures and landscapes during the Neoclassical era. When the predominant understanding of ‘nature’ shifted from rationally perceived ideals to an empirically perceived everyday world, it led to genre painting, romanticism and impressionism. Abstract art, in the twentieth century was founded on a revived interest in the Platonic Forms and a desire to analyse nature. Cezanne saw his work as ‘doing Poussin entirely from nature’ and treating nature ‘by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone’. Cubism, Constructivism, Minimalism and Land Art grew from the same rich earth. Postmodernism, being pluralist, looks for many natures.

Landscape Theory

When nature was used to mean ‘essence’, the axiom ‘art should imitate nature’ led to the making of geometrical gardens. With the onset of rational and empirical methods in the first centuries of the modern era (c1400- c1700), ‘nature’ came to mean ‘the everyday world’. The ancient axiom of western art then led to the design of serpentine and irregular estate layouts. By 1800, under the influence of Repton, Price and Knight, a ‘landscape garden’ had become one with a transition from a geometrical area near the house, through a serpentine park to an irregular background. Hunt describes these regions as Three Natures.

Classical landscape theory lost its way when a ‘landscape’ became a geographical entity, rather than a goal for the design process. In 1996 I represented this state of affairs with three stakes driven into the heart of landscape theory (Fig 2).

We need to re-affirm that ‘landscape’, the profession’s keyword, refers to ‘a good outdoor place’. We do not use the word, like geographers, to mean ‘the end product of shaping processes or agents’. Semantic precision is crucial to the regeneration of landscape theory.

A design theory is a system of ideas explaining how to conduct a design procedure. Landscape theory is concerned with how to design with the five key elements of outdoor space: landform, buildings, water, vegetation and paving. Vitruvius and Alberti wrote on the subject. Repton became the pre-eminent landscape theorist writing in English and his most notable successors were Olmsted, Geddes, Jellicoe, McHarg, Spirn and Hough. Let us take an overview of their work.

Repton was mainly involved with country estates but his sons, working with John Nash, transmitted his ideas into what became known as picturesque town planning. The first great example (Fig 3)  was the ‘processional route’ from St James’s Park via Regent Street and Portland Place to Regent’s Park. At that time Regent’s Park was a green lung and green belt segment on the edge of London. The description of London’s parks as ‘lungs’ came from Repton’s patron, William Wyndham. William Light admired the plan and the idea was taken up by Ebenezeer Howard. The biographical links are tenuous but the development of the idea is well-documented.

Repton belonged to the eighteenth century, Olmsted to the nineteenth. Both were small-time farmers with liberal inclinations. Olmsted was an urban Repton. In conceptual terms, Central Park NY is not far removed from Woburn Abbey and Regent’s Park, though it forms the centerpiece of the most remarkable twentieth century city. Olmsted used serpentine boulevards (parkways) to link Prospect Park to the sea and went on to design the world-famous Emerald Necklace in Boston as a major example of picturesque town planning.

Patrick Geddes has been strangely neglected by landscape theorists. He was: a park designer, the author of a brilliant comment on park planning, the first UK citizen to use ‘landscape architect’ as a professional title and the most influential planning author of the twentieth century. From a background in evolutionary biology Geddes developed an approach to landscape planning and design which is encapsulated in the adage ‘Place-Work-Folk’ (Fig 4).

 Familiar with the work of Repton and Olmsted, it was Geddes who introduced the full range of geographical considerations into landscape architecture and town planning. Geddes may also have been responsible, inadvertently, for the Survey-Analysis-Design (SAD) method which dominated landscape design in the second half of the twentieth century. The method was modernist and technocratic.

In the landscape profession, McHarg is the chief inheritor of Geddes. The Scots firebrands who dominate modern landscape theory were born on the Highland Line, 50 miles and 60 years apart. One was the child of a minister. Both were well-suited to the cloth. The origins of McHarg’s overlay method have been traced by Steinitz and include other landscape planners who, like Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, were inspired by Geddes. McHarg may have been less-imaginative than Geddes but he had greater logical clarity and better graphics. McHarg inspired Spirn and Hough to apply his environmental vision at the design scale. McHarg also has a key place in the development of the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) which are set to become the landscape profession’s primary software tool (Fig 5).

For landscape architects, the attraction of McHarg’s overlay procedure is the way it brings a wide range of scientific knowledge and design considerations into relationship with one another. The overlays are environmental pattern analysis diagrams. Lewis Mumford, a disciple of Geddes, wrote of McHarg that ‘It is in this mixture of scientific insight and constructive environmental design, that this book makes its unique contribution’. Jellicoe was interested in a different type of overlay, which he described as transparencies.

Garden design

For the four centuries after 1000 AD, gardens were predominantly the work of monks, nuns and high-born ladies (except in the South of Spain). Gardeners kept few records and seem to have been uninterested gardens as a works of art. It was an Age of Faith. From 1400 to 1700 renaissance ideals, traceable to Plato’s Theory of Forms, resulted in what are customarily described as ‘formal gardens’. Since all gardens have form, the term ‘formal’ makes sense only in relation to Plato’s conceptual theory. The enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) nestled behind protective walls. Baroque gardens reached out and took advantage of the natural landscape, long before Kent leaped his fence. Many formal gardens were great works of art. Between 1700 and 1800 the landscape movement produced one unchallenged work of art, many great estates and a profusion of pathetic layouts. Stourhead ranks with the Alhambra, the Villa d’Este, the Villa Lante, Vaux and Chantilly. Other designers, guided by Repton after 1800, it must be said, wasted their energy on eclectic re-creations in what Edward Kemp incisively named The Mixed Style. At best, the results were sentimental. European colonization of the Americas permitted, and may have induced, a break with sentiment. In the work of Burle Marx, Luis Barragan, Thomas Church and Dan Kiley we can savor the fresh spirit of abstract modernism. These men were artists, though Church is included in this group mainly for his work on the Dewey-Donnell garden at Sonoma with Lawrence Halprin.

Design methods

Relationships between design philosophy, design achievement and the types of people attracted to outdoor design can be further examined by considering design methods. They are reviewed chronologically but can be regarded as a set of postmodern alternatives, amongst which we can exercise our tastes and preferences.

Craft Design

Craft evolution was the predominant design method during the Middle Ages. Men and women looked on the work of their ancestors and considered what improvements might be effected. Mud huts evolved into brick dwellings. Flights of steps gained good proportions and adequate foundations. The craft of making steel evolved out of iron-making. Horse-drawn carts became horseless carriages and then automobiles.


From the Renaissance onwards there was a steady application of drawing and calculation to the design process. Designers with clean hands and school knowledge showed design skills distinct from those of craftsmen. By 1950 the drawing board reigned supreme and our new masters had university degrees. Craftspeople had become ‘blue collar’ wage-slaves. This was the heyday of mass production. Fordism ruled the world’s factories, building sites, horticultural nurseries and landscape design studios.

Post-Fordist Design

The Japanese dented Fordism with an approach to decision-making which is more consensual than hierarchical. Workers at each stage in the production line became involved in the design process. Those who fitted door-handles suggested improvements to their design and manufacture. More knowledge was brought into the design process. This effected great changes in the automotive industry – and much better cars. The construction industry is comparatively unaffected as yet. One lives in hope. The Egan Report tends in this direction.


Digital design methods will bring about change. But their use between 1980 and 2000 was disappointing and resembles the state of car design between 1880 and 1900 (when designers made motor vehicles resemble horse-drawn carriages). The failings of the first CAD age were caused, in part, by the dominance of AutoCad. It began as a draughtsman’s package and, though more used by designers, retains this characteristic. Image-editing, solid-modeling, terrain-modeling and animation programmes herald new opportunities. For pattern analysis, the most valuable computer programmes may be web-based Geographical Information Systems (GIS). They facilitate the complementation of design-by-drawing with design-by-database. Analysis of patterns can be linked to the analysis of attributes, revealing new patterns and surprising opportunities. A GIS can hold historical data, current data, ideas and future projections, helping designers to deal with the fourth and fifth dimensions (Fig 6) .


The problems with post-1800 landscape design may be summarised as follows:

The classical design axiom ran aground (c 1800) when ‘imitating nature’ came to mean no more than the design of gardens along the lines of empirically interpreted natural forms. Art became artifact. Nature became irregularity. Gardens became concrete.

Without idealism, garden and landscape design lost their appeal to artists and craftsmen of the first rank. This is a sociological point.

When landscape theory began to revive, at the end of the nineteenth century, it attracted reformers (eg Geddes) concerned with social functions and ecological processes. This separated landscape planning and design from the fine arts.

After 1945, landscape designers allied themselves, ruinously, with the functional aspect of dogmatized architectural modernism. Trying to make ‘form follow function’ they were blocked by a poor appreciation of landscape functions.

Design-by-Drawing, like the Survey-Analysis-Design method itself, encouraged designers to view landscapes in two dimensions and from too few standpoints.

During the twentieth century, the social, ecological, political, literary and artistic concerns of landscape design remained in separate compartments. Planting became known as ‘landscaping’. Designers lost their integrative role with regard to the five key elements of outdoor design: Landform, Habitat, Building, Paving, Water.

The public, our clients, have been without professional designers able to create places which look good, meet social demands and have desirable ecological characteristics.

How can we resolve these problems? By looking to our history, drawing more knowledge into the design process and utilizing pattern analysis and hyperlinking as design tools. This approach can be described as the design of HyperLandscapes.

Go to article on HyperLandscapes

  1. Turner, T. 'Pattern analysis' Landscape Design No 204 October 1991
  2. The point is eloquently made by the cover photograph and introductory text of: Trancik, Roger Finding lost space New York; Wokingham : Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986
  3. Walker, P., Simo, M., Invisible gardens: the search for modernism in the American landscape MIT Press 1994
  4. It would be an onerous task to supply full references for this article but many of the ideas can be pursued through hyperlinks from the LIH Landscape Information Hub (at
  5. Hunt, J.D Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture MIT Press 1992
  6. There is a diagram of this idea at p. 91 Turner, T., Landscape planning and environmental impact design.
  7. Hunt, J.D Greater perfections: the practice of garden theory Thames & Hudson 2000
  8. I have discussed these points at greater length in the first chapter of English garden design (1986), re-published at, and in an essay on ‘The blood of philosopher-kings’, City as landscape (1996)
  9. Geddes comment on parks is reproduced at
  10. This is my assessment of Geddes – one might award top place to Howard, Unwin or Mumford. The assessment of McHarg comes from a recent survey of American town planners.
  11. Steinitz, C. et al ‘Hand-drawn overlays: their history and prospective uses’ Landscape Architecture September 1976 pp 444-455
  12. See
  13. Mumford, L, Introduction to McHarg, I.L., Design with nature
  14. Turner, T., ‘Jellicoe and the subconscious’ In Harvey, S (ed) Geoffrey Jellicoe: a monograph Landscape Design Trust, 1998 (text of ‘Jellicoe and the subsconscious’ also available at )
  15. Turner, T., Watson, D., ‘Dead masterplans and digital creativity’ Paper delivered at the Greenwich 2000 Digital Creativity Symposium, published in the conference proceedings and also on the LIH website at
  16. There is an example of a GIS application to park planning in Public Open Space: planning and management with GIS (Greenwich University Press, 1998) ISBN 1 86166 100 2


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Fig 1 Plato believed the primary geometrical forms give shape give to the visible world, and that knowledge of the forms is necessary for a good society.

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Fig 2 Three stakes (Empiricism, Geography and Functionalism) driven into the heart of landscape theory (p 144, Turner, T. City as landscape)

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Fig 3 Waterloo Steps. The start of John Nash’s picturesque route from St James’s Park to Regent’s Park, in London.

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Fig 4 Patrick Geddes used his Place-Work-Folk diagram to show that knowledge of these inter-relationships s necessary for the re-creation of city-regions. (reproduced from p. 161 of Kitchen, P, A most unsettling person (Golanz, London, 1975)

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Fig 5 GIS can help to answer What? Where? and What If? questions (p. 106 Turner, T., Landscape planning and environmental impact design).

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Fig 6 GIS allows information and ideas about the past, the present and the future to be inter-related. (p. 25 Turner, T., Landscape planning and environmental impact design).