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Garden History for Teachers and Learners

Please read this essay, by Tom Turner, in conjunction with the note on the history of landscape architecture for teachers and learners.

What is 'Landscape Architecture'?

The 'history of landscape architecture' can be a very wide subject. It might include
  • how the earth was formed (geology and geomorphology)
  • how human civilisation has changed the natural landscape (housing, industry, agriculture, forestry, transport)
  • how cities have been planned and design (architecture, town planning)
  • the history of the landscape architecture profession since Olmsted adopted the term as a professional title

To learn the history of all these subjects would leave little time for learning design skills.It is therefore necessary to answer the question'What is landscape architecture?'. Four  approaches will be attempted:

Historical Analysis

The question 'When was the term "landscape architecture" first used?' is easily answered, though the answer is not well known. It was first used in 1828 by a Scotsman, Gilbert Laing Meason, in the title of his book On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy (London 1828). He used the term to describe the relationship between architecture and landscape in the great landscape paintings. Only 150 copies of the book were published and it must be doubted whether more than 10 copies survive. It is however the key document in the history of landscape architecture - the nearest thing we have to a written Constitution. The British Library has a copy; Harvard University has two copies; the Library of Congress does not have a copy; neither the Universities of Pennsylvania or Berkley has a copy. It has therefore been scanned and is available for the first time since 1828, as a component of the Garden History Reference Encyclopedia. The scanned copy has a hand-written letter from Meason pasted inside the front cover: Garden History Reference Encyclopedia:

Mr Laing Meason requests Lord Granville will do him the honour of accepting a copy of a work which he has printed privately, and given only a hundred for sale to a bookseller, 'as the Landscape Architecture of the great painters of Italy'. Had Mr Meason had the opportunity of visiting Italy, and of comparing the remains of ancient country residences with the specimens to be found in the Italian pictures, the work might have been made more interesting, and more decisive on the artistry of those buildings. 28 May 1828.

There is a full account of how Meason's term came to be adopted by the landscape profession in the article by Tom Turner 'Scottish origins of landscape architecture' (originally printed in Landscape Architecture May 1982 pp 52-55 and reproduced on the CD)

Meason, it appears, had five reasons for taking an interest in his subject:

  • in the chapter of his book which shares a title with the book itself, Meason observes that: 'Our parks may be beautiful, our mansions faultless in design, but nothing is more rare than to see the two properly connected'

  • as an ardent admirer of Knight and Price, Meason believed there was much to be learned about the principles of composition from the great painters

  • Meason's interest in architecture was Vitruvian. It extended to the use, construction and appearance of buildings, though the latter interest was dominant

  • not having visited Italy, Meason used landscape paintings as a means of learning about Italian architecture

  • he also admired the compositional brilliance of the great landscape paintings

It is evident from the above points that Meason regarded landscape architecture as the art of creating unity between:

  • buildings
  • gardens
  • landscapes.

Conceptual Analysis

Had one no knowledge of the history or the profession of 'landscape architecture', what would one take the term to mean? I think it likely that an English reader would see it as a term formed on the model of 'naval architect' or 'golf course architect'. The word 'landscape', in modern English, is broadly equivalent to 'scenery' but was given an evolutionary cast by W G Hoskins in his book title The making of the English landscape.  The word architect derives from Greek roots meaning 'the head person with a knowledge of how to make things'. It would therefore follows that a 'landscape architect' is the co-ordinator of the techniques used to make landscape. This makes sense onlyif 'techniques' is restricted to 'techniques available to humans'. Otherwise, landscape architects would require godly powers to raise mountains, direct rivers, control climates and regulate the oceanic flows. Even with the proposed  restriction, the term carries little conviction. The Egyptians were ready to entrust all power to their pharaohs; modern societies have negative trust in absolutism - and even the most rigid dictatorships would not give such powers to as small a profession as landscape architecture.

Another possible interpretation of landscape architecture is 'the creation of landscapes around architecture'. But this makes sense only if one has some knowledge of the history of landscape gardening. Otherwise one must raise the objections detailed in the preceding paragraph.

Textual Analysis

Two leading textbooks, by N T Newton and G A and S Jellicoe, outline the scope of landscape architecture through their treatment of its history.

Norman T Newton undertook a careful analysis of the development of landscape architecture as a profession in Design on the land. In a footnote he wrote that 'It is often incorrectly assumed that Humphry Repton and J. C. Loudon, in England, had earlier used the title "landscape architect"; both men styled themselves "landscape gardeners'? (a title that Olmsted rejected), whereas by their infrequently used term "landscape architecture" they referred only to buildings in the landscape'. Repton did not in fact use the term landscape architect, though Loudon used of in producing a posthumous edition of his collected works. As noted above, it was Meason who invented the term and his remark that 'Our parks may be beautiful,our mansions faultless in design, but nothing is more rare than to see the two properly connected' expresses a widely-held belief amongst landscape landscape architects.  Meason also wrote that 'the beauty and picturesque effect, which we wish to create, must be founded on common sense. The arrangement of the domestic landscape is a portion of that art which determines the form and position of the house, and should be made subservient to our comforts and convenience; hence we may include all gardens in this space.'  The art outlined by Meason in these quotations is very close to the modern conception of landscape architecture. Using his text as a guide, we could define landscape architecture as 'The art of arranging buildings, gardens, parks and scenery for beauty and convenience'.

Extrapolating these ideas, I would like to offer an account of landscape architecture in terms of  aims and means:

  • the aim of landscape architecture is to achieve the Vitruvian objectives of firmitas, utilitas and venustas, interpreted for the early twenty-first century as sustainability, utility and aesthetic satisfaction.
  • the means of achieving the aims is through the composition of six prime elements:  landform, vegetation, water, climate, vertical structures (eg buildings and bridges) and  horizontal structures (eg paths and roads),

The profession also requires design methods. This has changed through history and we must expect that it will continue changing. A method for our own time is recommended in an article on PAKILDA: A Pattern-Assisted Knowledge-Intensive Landscape Design Approach.

Geoffrey Jellicoe was less concerned than Newton with the profession of landscape architecture and more with the art, despite having founded the International Federation of Landscape Architects. The title of his best-known book was The landscape of man. This suggests a primary concern with the actions taken by man to change the natural landscape, which is not quite the book's subject: he does not include histories of roads, railways, canals, agriculture, forestry or mineral extraction.There is some discussion of city planning but only where the artistic aspect of city planning has been significant.

Twelve Individuals

The links, below, take you to references and resources concerning the histories of 12 individuals who have shaped the modern conception of  landscape architecture:

  1. Senenmut: designer of the first great work of what we would now call Landscape Architecture c1470BC
  2. Publius Aelius Hadrianus designed a garden, at Tivoli, which achieved a full integration of architecture, gardens and landscape, 118AD
  3. Leon Battista Alberti argued for the integration of  architecture, gardens and landscape, in 1452
  4. Andre le Notre, in his brilliant compositions of gardens with buildings, was engaged in the same art as Senenmut c1660
  5. William Kent realised the usefulness of landscape paintings in composing buildings with scenery c1720
  6. Gilbert Laing Meason: initiator of the term Landscape Architecture, in 1828
  7. John Claudius Loudon: supported the term Landscape Architecture,in 1829
  8. Andrew Jackson Downing: importer of the term Landscape Architecture to North America, in 1850
  9. Frederick Law Olmsted: the first man to adopt Landscape Architect as a professional title, in 1858
  10. Patrick Geddes: the first UK citizen to use Landscape Architect as a professional title. in 1903
  11. Ian McHarg: by far the most influential landscape architect of the twentieth century, published Design with Nature in 1969
  12. Geoffrey Jellicoe: author of a British history of Landscape Architecture, published in 1975

Four Scots 

It is significant that four of the leading landscape architectural theorists, Meason, Loudon, Geddes and McHarg, all born near Scotland's 'Highland Line'.

  • Geologically, this line was formed by the collision of the two tectonic plates which formed the British Isles.
  • Topographically, it is a boundary between lowland and upland Scotland. Historically, it marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and, a thousand years later, of Norman penetration into Scotland.
  • Culturally, it marks a boundary between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon populations of the British Isles, though the Saxon influence spread well to the north of this line up the East Coast.
  • Agriculturally, the Highland Line formed a boundary between the settled arable lands to the south and the more traditional grazing and crofting communities to the north.
  • Industrially, the Line was the northern limit of  industrialisation in the Scotland.

This gave each a deep concern for the relationship between buildings, peoples and landscapes - which is the heartland of landscape architecture.

Many Styles

Meason, a great admirer of both Price and Knight, followed the latter in his belief that design styles could be mixed for picturesque effect. We can thus detect an eclectic approach in the intellectual founders of the landscape architecture profession.

Conclusion

Gilbert Laing Meason's conception is sufficiently close to that of the modern  landscape architecture profession for him to be remembered as the profession's founding father. His belief in applying Vitruvian ideas to the relationship between buildings, parks and landscapes gives the profession the secure intellectual foundation which it has often lacked.