The Landscape Guide

13.6 Renewal of Landscape Theory

Contents list

So how can landscape theory be resurrected, and with it, perhaps, the arts of garden and landscape design? Hunt (1992) has three suggestions, each of which has merit. First, designers must bother to find out "what people really want of private or public gardens'. Second, they should "establish a new agenda of meanings'. Third, they should "exploit locality' as "some of the most intriguing recent designs' have done. I arrived at not dissimilar conclusions by a different route. Using the terminology proposed in a previous essay (on Pattern Assisted Design), my version of the points can be phrased as follows:

  • First, designers should respond to human patterns.
  • Second, designers should respond to the sorts of criteria and patterns that influence artists, writers and poets.
  • Third, designers should respond to natural patterns.

Hoping the reader will pardon a little autobiography, I shall explain how I arrived at these conclusions.

My interest in landscape theory began at a party, in 1969. Frank Clark, my teacher and a pioneer of landscape studies in Britain, told me that it would be of great benefit if someone could devise a better name than landscape architecture for the profession we had adopted. "Nobody understands us' he complained. I set out, working backwards, to discover how this wretched term had come into use, and if there were any alternatives. It did not take me long to discover that every member of the International Federation of Landscape Architects who uses the term does so in consequence of the capricious decision by Olmsted and Vaux to adopt the title "landscape architects' in 1863. It then emerged that all those Americans who claim Olmsted as the inventor of the term are misinformed (Turner, 1982). It was devised in 1828 by Gilbert Laing Meason, a friend of Sir Walter Scott. Meason used the term to praise the type of architecture that is found in the great Italian landscape paintings (Meason, 1828). His book is illustrated by engravings of architectural drawings culled from works by the great painters of Italy.

I then spent some time trying to devise a better title for the landscape profession. My favoured proposal was "topist' (one who makes places). But then my historical investigations resumed, now into the meaning of the word "landscape'. I found that it had dropped out of Middle English but had been re-introduced from Dutch in the sixteenth century, as a painters' term, linked to the Ideal, Neoplatonic, theory of art. A "landscape' was a special kind of place: an ideal place. The theory derives from Plato, who, believing the Form of The Good is the proper goal of human endeavour in life as in art, argued that philosopher kings are the people best suited to rule society. Plato's Theory of Forms, or Ideas, led directly to the Neoplatonic axiom that "art should imitate nature'.

I was not sorry to detect the blood of philosopher-kings coursing in the profession's ancestry, and became convinced that "landscape', correctly understood, should be the profession's headword. The aim of landscape design is to make good outdoor places. A full appreciation of this point can be the starting point for a revival of landscape theory. But exponents of the art should work as practical philosophers, not philosopher-kings. Kingship is a dead idea from a bygone age. Professionals can be king-like only when someone entrusts them with a task, not by virtue of their qualifications. Offering to make a "landscape' or a "garden' is a special kind of offer to the public. Many professions use words in specialized ways. "Invest', for example, means "clothe' in the College of Heralds, "lay siege to' on the field of battle, and "employ money for profit' on Wall Street. When used by landscape-makers, the word "landscape' has a favourable evaluative connotation: it means a good place, not just any place, not the end product of topographic evolution. Words have to be used with precision. You would hardly place your spare funds with an investment consultant if you thought the cash would be spent laying siege to a city. Potential clients, seeing advertisements for "landscape architecture', may be deluded into thinking that their funds will be used for tyranny, blasphemy or absurdity.

Had Frank Clark lived longer, my answer to his plea for a "better' name would have been that it is only necessary to define a professional usage for the word "landscape'. After that, the profession should adopt "design', instead of "architecture', as the most general name for the art it promotes. This would, at least, enable the landscape profession to understand its own objectives; explaining them to the public would still be a problem.

If you agree that the aim of landscape design is to make good places, the next task is to determine what characteristics make places good. They are many. The great periods in the history of garden and landscape design have been those when designers have reached out and forged links with artists, scientists and philosophers: Rome in the first and sixteenth centuries, Japan in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, France and Holland in the seventeenth century, England in the eighteenth century, the Americas in the twentieth century. The long drab interludes have been when one or other interest group, usually horticulturalists, has made design a province of their own domain.

Designers should respond to natural patterns

Designers should respond to human patterns.

Designers should respond to the sorts of criteria and patterns that influence artists, writers and poets