The Landscape Guide

13.1 Landscape Architecture Theory

Contents list

The blood of philosopher-kings

Landscape design theory has been rotting away, peacefully, like a garden temple, since the close of the eighteenth century. The Director of Landscape Architecture Studies at Dumbarton Oaks gives poverty as the explanation:

This ignorance or cavalier disregard of history is part and parcel of a larger poverty of discourse; as Steven R. Krog has written, landscape architecture is "a discipline in intellectual disarray' and with a "deficiency of theoretical discourse'. Of all the modern arts none has displayed such a meagre command of analytical, including rudimentary philosophical, language as landscape studies. (Hunt, 1992)


...if you find yourselves in agreement with somebody about a beautiful design in landscape architecture, this happy accident can be explained in more cases than not by a shared class background or education rather than by any examinable philosophical criteria... Modern designs, perhaps to escape this solipsism, have insisted both upon design as problem solving and specifically upon designing for groups or the community.

There is sufficient justice in these remarks, by John Dixon Hunt, for us to return to the Socratic questions that lie at the heart of any professional or artistic activity: "What are the means?' and "What are the ends?'. Spurning the trite answer that "landscape architecture is what landscape architects do', it becomes necessary to review the history and philosophy of the art. According to Hunt, it is essential to have an appreciation of what happened around 1800:

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.

Walker and Simo see the modern development of landscape architecture, after 1945, as "classically tragic'. America had a great natural wilderness, limitless wealth, leaders, writers, gifted planners and highly talented designers. But, with notable exceptions, the result was progressive "environmental impoverishment' (Walker and Simo, 1994). What went wrong?


Plato: The Philosopher King of Landscape Theory