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Landscape Architecture Theory

A theory is a 'supposition or system of ideas explaining something' Concise Oxford Dictionary

A theory of landscape architecture should explain:

  • the nature of the discipline
  • how it should be practiced

Our webpage on landscape history concluded with a comment on the vast scope of the subject, as treated by Newton and Jellicoe. One might imagine that landscape architects have primary responsibility for laying out forests, fields, roads, towns, parks and gardens. Well, they do have an involvement with these tasks but, except in the case of public parks, it is a relatively minor involvement. We therefore need a new history and a new theory.

The former Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, John Dixon Hunt, published an important book on on landscape theory, in the first year of the twenty first century:  Hunt, J.D., Greater Perfection: the practice of garden theory (Thames & Hudson 2000). The following quotations reveal the extent to which he challenges the current state of the subject:

  • The subject of landscape architecture has no clear intellectual tradition of its own, either as a history, a theory, or even a practice' (page 6) 
  • ‘... though much has been written about the garden, none of it satisfies even the basic requirements of a theoretical position’ (page 7);
  •  ‘Landscape architecture is a fundamental mode of human expression and experience.’ (page 8)
  •  '... only dance and body painting otherwise come to mind as arts that actively involve a living, organic, and changing component'. (page 9)
  • 'The most sophisticated form of landscape architecture is garden art'. (page 10)
  • 'Gardens focus the art of place-making or landscape architecture in the way that poetry can focus the art of writing' (page 11)
  •  ‘...  the point is that landscape architecture, locked into a false historiography, is unable to understand the principles of its own practice as an art of place-making’. (page 207)
  • 'Walpole's achievement has to be saluted all the more when it is realized that single-handedly he determined (or distorted) the writing of landscape architecture history to this day' (page 208) [Note: the full text of Walpole's essay is available online at the Gardens Guide section of this website]
  • 'The crucial moment of modernism occurred not circa 1900 but rather one hundred years earlier... The failure to identify and understand that watershed contributed substantially to the historical and theoretical inadequacies of those who prompted modernist landscape architecture'. [This quote comes from Hunt's 1992 book Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture. There is a comment on this book in an essay on 'The blood of philosopher-kings' in Tom Turner's City as landscape (Spons, 1996) from which the illustration below is taken].

Tom Turner's response (May 2000) to John Dixon Hunt:

I agree with Hunt about:

  • the relationship of garden design to landscape architecture
  • the weaknesses in the history and theory of both arts
  • landscape architecture being a kind of  place-making
  • the mishap in landscape theory which occurred c1800

However, I would also make the following points:

  • the key theoretical mistake was a failure to take account of shifts in the predominant use of the word 'nature'
  • it is insufficient to define landscape architecture as 'place-making'
  • we have to specify that the aim is to make 'good places'
  • we also have to specify the aspects of places with which the landscape profession is concerned. Ian Thompson has done this job with the title of his book: Ecology Community and Delight: sources of values in landscape architecture (E&FN Spon, 2000).
  • Hunt comments that 'there was never a body of specialists to compose treatises specifically for what we have come to call landscape architecture, as Vitruvius did for architecture', but Vitruvius lays the basis for landscape architecture, just as he does for civil and mechanical engineering.

SHORT SUMMARY:  The aim of garden design, as of landscape planning, is to make good outdoor space. This requires us to understand the nature of the world. One must appreciate what can be changed and how it can be changed. There is no one right way. Approaches to understanding the nature of  place, through art, science and religion, yield different views of outdoor space: of how it can be moulded and of the degree to which it should remain unchanged. With historical, philosophical  and etymological  precision, these views can be described as 'landskips', interpreting the word in relation to Plato's Theory of Forms.

Medium 3stakes original