The Landscape Guide

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Structuralism and Design

Origins of 'structuralism' in linguistics

The Philosophy Pages give the following account of structuralism and its relationship with linguistic philosophy:

Method of interpreting social phenomena in the context of a system of signs whose significance lies solely in the interrelationships among them. Initiated in the linguistics of Saussure and Chomsky, structuralism was applied to other disciplines by Lévi-Strauss, Piaget, Althusser, Lacan, Barthes, Foucault, and Eco.

Word Net gives the following usages for structuralism:

1. structuralism, structural linguistics -- (linguistics defined as the analysis of formal structures in a text or discourse)
2. structuralism, structural anthropology -- (an anthropological theory that there are unobservable social structures that generate observable social phenomena)
3. structuralism, structural sociology -- (a sociological theory based on the premise that society comes before individuals)

Structuralist design

Given the fact of design styles (see our classification of styles and the examples on this page), it is evident that designers are not free agents. We work within paramaters (structures) set, it would appear, by the age in which they live. For medieval designers, religion came first. For modernist designers, human functions came first (in theory, anyway). Bernard Tschumi, with his design for Parc de la Villette made the connection between structuralism and design theory, though he wasted his insight. Tschumi's argument was that designers should deconstruct the structure of modernist dogma ('form follows function') and use its obverse ('function follows form'). Deconstructionist theory rests on structural analysis - if structures are not recognized they cannot be deconstructed.

Structuralist design: a recommendation

Accepting that we are guided by the intellectural structures through which we understand the world, how should designers respond? In one word: consciously.

Designers should recognize that different areas of knowledge result in different views of the world and that each set of 'intellectual structures' yields design approaches. Two examples from the last quarter of the 20th century can serve as illustrations:

  • 'Ecological design', as advocated by Ian McHarg in Design with nature
  • 'Hydrological design', as advocated by Atelier Dreiseitl in Waterscapes
  • 'Environmental psychology' originated in the 1960s and continues to inspire a significant psychological approach to garden and landscape design

It is a little late to be making 'turn of the century' predictions but my prediction for landscape and garden design in the twenty-first century is that the must useful concept with which to analyse the trends of 2000-2100 will be STRUCTURALISM. Just look at, or at's Subject Guide: the universe of knowledge is vast - and available for garden designers and landscape architects to deploy in their work.

Tom Turner, 31st March 2004

Medieval 'style'

Postmodern 'style'

approaches are
likely to prevent
a unitary answer
to this question.