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Design methods for landscape architecture and garden design

[Note: the content of this page is adapted from the paper on 'Dead masterplans and digital creativity' prepared by Tom Turner and David Watson (University of Greenwich, School of Architecture and Landscape) for a conference on Digital Creativity] Design methods Pre-1800 1800-1900 1900-1972  post-1972 3-D design 4-D design Information-rich design Value-rich design  Layered design (&GIS) Environmental Assessment/Design Pattern-Assisted Design]

Design methods Top

Technology affects most aspects of our lives, including birth, death, marriage and design methodology. Some of the influences are welcome and others, like pollution, are not. Onthe influence of digital techniques on design methods, and we are optimists. The paper will attempt to set current methods in a broad-brush historical perspective.

  1. Pre-1800 design methods Before the industrial revolution, most production was the result of craft evolution. Designers, who were also builders and manufacturers, commonly worked by making an endless series of evolutionary adaptations. The etymology of manufacture ('made by hand') reminds us of this history. It was a 'dirty hands' approach and craftsmen did not have an academic training. Le Notre was unusual in that he attended an art school in Paris. Capability Brown, like most pre-1800, garden designers learned their trade as apprentices in gardens. They learned to dig and plant before they learned to design and draw.

  2. 1800-1900 design methods As a consequence of post-renaissance scientific modernism, there was a shift to the use of drawing boards, calculation and a 'clean hands'methodology. James Watt employed this method in the design of steam engines and was excluded from the craft guild, despite his great manual skill. His peers did not see that a man with clean hands could be a 'master' of his trade. At a later date it became accepted that the producers of 'master' plans required clean hands, and that their drawings would be sent for fabrication by less educated people with dirty hands. We still speak of 'master bakers' and 'master brewers' and most professions require a 'masters degree', conferred by universities on clean-handed scholars. In the built environment professions this led to the production of 'master plans'. In engineering terms, a master plan is an assembly drawing which explains how components are put together. In the landscape, planning and architecture professions it is a long term development plan, perhaps for a university campus or a new town. Many architects, and some garden designers, served apprenticeships in design offices - not on construction sites.

  3. 1900-1972 design methods Modernists used to say that 'form follows function'. It was a partial truth. Form is also consequent upon beliefs, technology, social structures and design methods. In the last century, when architecture began to extend its concern beyond 'churches and mansions', modernist designers sought to learn from industrial techniques. They hoped to find a new social relevance, to become masters of the built environment and to produce 'machines for living'. Their drawing-board based design method contributed to the blankness of totalitarian modernism. Jane Jacobs, Charles Jencks and Prince Charles have criticized the results of this approach with regard to planning and architecture. Its consequences for landscape design and planning have received less attention but are even more disturbing. Ugly buildings affect the eye of the beholder. Badly planned and designed landscapes affect the sustainability of urban life. The twentieth century produced too many landscapes with no regard for history, craftsmanship, ecology or the ways in which humans interact with outdoor space. Each decade of the second half of the twentieth century produced blank 'concrete deserts' which can be espied from Greenwich Park: the South Bank (1950s), the Barbican (1960s), South Thamesmead (1970s), the Isle of Dogs (1980s) and the Greenwich Peninsula (1990s). All these places have been 'master planned', admittedly with diminishing enthusiasm, and no one who visits them can wish the procedure to be repeated. Historic Greenwich is an island of pre-1800 quality in a mudgy sea of urban sprawl. It is no coincidence that these projects were the result of a pseudo-scientific, clean-hands, drawing-board-rooted design method. For landscape architects it was the Survey-Analysis-Design (or SAD) Method. One conducted a semi-scientific Survey; one analysed the results (usually on drawings with jagged lines and arrows); then one performed a creative leap and produced a design. More often than not the design had little relationship to the survey and analysis. The method was not a success.

  4. Post-1972 design methods According to Charles Jencks' joke-date, the post-modern era began at 3.32pm on 15 July 1972. Pruitt-Igoe, which might have been detonated at that moment, was an award-winning example of totalitarian modernism. New architectural styles have developed since then. But there have been few related developments in master planning or landscape architecture. Unaware of being dressed in the concrete jacket of modernism, practitioners have been unable to move forward. The 1990s business parks, retail parks and housing estates within sight of Greenwich Park show post-modern architecture in a modernist structure of geometrical roads, lawns, shrub beds, and underground drainage pipes. If one travels to Paris one can find examples of architectural post-modernism applied to park design, but not examples of un-master-planned, post-modern, post-industrial environments. Parc de la Villette is a significant example. Bernard Tschumi made much of his structuralist, deconstructed, layered, approach. But the layers are abstract constructivist geometry. They are not digital layers and they do not reflect an intelligent set of landscape structures. Parc de Bercy takes a step forward, with its use of historical layers, but it shows little inventiveness with regard to natural process or social process layers. As Holden remarks, 'the functions of the Parc de Bercy are those of the traditional municipal parc'¦ there is not even a cafe. But in post-1972 projects we also see the begining of a multi-layered computer-aided approach to design. Hence the death of the master plan and the birth of digitial creativity. Kathryn Gustafson summarized  her design method as 'Words-Diagrams-Models'. The Diagrams and the Models could well be produced digitally.

Digital creativity Top

Wishing that master-planning had died in 1972, we must hope that digital techniques do as much for outdoor design as dynamite did for modernist architecture. Computers can:

  1. Abolish 2-dimensional master-planning
  2. Make 3-dimensional design the norm
  3. Encourage 4-dimensional design, by simulating changes through time
  4. Supply designers with a wealth of factual information
  5. Incorporate a full range of values into the design process
  6. Impart post-modern structures to the design process, employing intellectual structures from natural science, social science, the arts and the humanities
  7. Facilitate the environmental assessment of projects from many points of view, including the motorist, the cyclist, the pedestrian, the local resident, the frog, the hedgehog and the buttercup.

Highway design provides a useful example. To begin with everything was done according to the sciences of bearing capacity, frictional resistance, design speeds, horizontal and vertical curves. McHarg wrote a brilliant criticism of this approach, lampooning the responsible engineers as ‘highwayman’. His solution was to introduce a vast range of additional information: on wildlife, hydrology, scenic quality and everything else. But what he ended up with was the path of least resistance. He found the highway route which caused the least damage but not the route which created the most value. His method could never have led to the design of the Champs Elysee, which is perhaps the most creative urban design project realized in Europe. Its creative influence has already continued for 300 years. Nor could McHarg's approach have produced Gold Street in Shaftesbury or the Shambles in York. These wonderful streets were the result of craft evolution. They respond to the knowledge, ideas and habits of generations. Bearing the Champs Elysee and Gold Street in mind, we can see that McHarg is a white-coat modernist. In part, this explains his wide recognition outside the landscape profession. The men and women of science could recognize him as a kindred spirit, integrating their knowledge and applying it to the making of a better world.

Carl Steinitz has developed the McHarg method, as its originator proposed, with the aid of digital Geographical Information Systems. We are doubtful as to whether this gets over the above of criticism McHarg and believe that the different planning contexts of the UK and USA may require different approaches. In the South East of England, there is a great demand for housing land. Government policy and public opinion favour the development of 'brownfield' land instead of 'greenfield' land and this is a major influence on land allocations. The South East Thames Region will be subject to rapid urbanization. It has much brownfield land of this type and a major a major transport project: the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The question, therefore, is not so much which land to develop as how it should be developed. We believe that digital techniques have a major role to play and will give examples of the approaches discussed above.

3-Dimensional design Top

Two-dimensional design-on-paper was a great advance in its time. Use of scales, dividers, rulers and, above all, mathematics, enabled vast projects to be successfully completed. But the method is obsolete. The original jet aircraft were designed on paper but the safety and efficiency of a modern plane could not be achieved without computer-aided 3-dimensional modeling. Digital approaches also enable us to design better buildings and better landscapes. This point can be illustrated but it need not be laboured.

4-Dimensional design Top

Engineering and architectural design can be distinguished from landscape and urban design by the fact that post-construction completed changes are unlikely to be anticipated during the design process. Urban and rural landscapes, by contrast, are subject to constant evolution. Designers can look to the future but cannot control the future. So the best course of action is to use the animation capability of digital techniques to simulate possible future developments.

Information-rich design Top

As students, most of learned to apply a Survey-Analysis-Design procedure which began with land survey plans. It was a classic social science approach, adapting the methodology which has had such apparent success in the natural sciences. But the information-inputs were thin. We tended to survey the existing site (geology, soils, artifacts etc) and make suppositions about 'user needs'. Today, the information age is presenting us with a richer harvest of data: textual, numerical and graphical.[Fig 1].

Value-rich design Top

The Survey stage of Survey-Analysis-Design was often limited by the geographical extent of the site. After data-assembly one was expected to make a 'creative leap'. Image-editing techniques encourage the use of other information resources. Colin Rowe discussed the role of collage in urban design. The technique can be used to assemble ideas from books, from one's travels and from the whole history of art.

Layered design (& GIS)  Top

A layered approach to design has become popular, for several reasons. First, a concern for the environment, which tends to be analyzed in layers. Second, a response to the philosophy of structuralism. Roland Barthes wrote that:

We know now that a text consists not of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God), but of a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.

Third, Jellicoe advised us to consider the 'transparencies' of the hunter, the settler and the voyager. Fourth, many computer programmes, including image-editing, CAD and GIS use layered data structures.

Environmental assessment/design Top

The logic of environmental impact assessment, upon which McHarg was a significant influence, invites us to review the impact of a development on the every social, physical and biological aspect of the environment. This requires a reviews of the environment from many disparate stand points. Layered data can be made available via web-based GIS and interest groups can assess the impacts of development projects from their own points of view. Instead of development projects being assessed only by white, male, middle-class planners, we can embrace the views of ethnic minorities, the young, the old, the dispossessed and every other group. It is a more democratic procedure.

Pattern-assisted design Top

Kythryn Gustafson summarized her approach to design as 'words, diagrams, then models'. This lends itself to digitization. Words can be drawn from databases. Diagrams and models gain enormously from digital techniques because it is easy to make the endless minor adjustments which produce good results - in a manner not unlike pre-industrial craft evolution. Turner made a case for pattern-assisted design in City as landscape and two recent books have given further consideration to the use of patterns in design. The Kaplans, in With people in mind advise on the creation of restorative places through the use of Alexander-type patterns. Bell, in Landscape, pattern, perception and process considers the role of social, human and natural patterns in creative design. We believe that digital techniques will, in due course, allow a fully-developed pattern-assisted design procedure.


Let us bid farewell to master planning and the twentieth century with one wave. Both were responsible for some glories and many disasters. Designers can look forward to exploiting the rich information resources which are now available to each desktop. Alone, the information could make our task more difficult. With computing technology to process the digital information we can put the resources to creative use.