The Landscape Guide

13.4 Three Stakes in the Body of Landscape Theory

Contents list

A first stake was driven into the throbbing heart of landscape theory by changes in the Neoplatonic axiom that "art should imitate nature'. So long as "nature' had meant the world of the forms, the axiom worked satisfactorily. By the end of the eighteenth century, when "nature' came to mean "the natural world', as it usually does today, it became ridiculous to make gardens that imitated nature. To have done so would have meant filling gardens with weeds, rocks, broken branches and wild animals. The French Neoplatonist, Quatremère de Quincy, declared that if the objective of landscape gardening was to imitate wild nature herself, then landscape design could not be admitted to "the circle of the fine arts' (Quatremère de Quincy, 1837). The great ship of Neoplatonism had run aground, in a garden of rocks. The practical men had no theory. For landscape designers, this was the immediate and practical cause of the watershed that Hunt identifies. Three main styles evolved from the dilemma, as shown in the lower part of Figure 1. Another possible way out would have been to interpret "nature' in yet another way, and to have represented the individual's "inner nature' in gardens. Hunt would like to have seen a "marvellous flourishing of ad hoc, idiosyncratic, or vernacular gardens' (Hunt, 1992). Some owner-designers, like the Earl of Shrewsbury at Alton Towers and James Bateman at Biddulph Grange, walked down this path. But most professional designers remained lost in the theoretical maze.

A second stake was driven into the weakened heart of landscape theory by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, when they inadvertently chose landscape architecture as a professional title (Turner, 1990). Their choice would not have mattered, but for the fact that the predominant use of the word "landscape' was changing, as had the predominant use of "nature'. In 1860, a landscape was still, more or less, an ideal place. By the twentieth century, it had become any place at all that results from "shaping processes and agents'. When the picturesque theorists of the 1790s spoke of "making a landscape', the word represented a Neoplatonic ideal. When the word "landscape' was adopted by geologists and geographers, it came to mean "the product of topographic evolution'. If the "landscape' in "landscape architecture' is understood in a geographical sense, instead of a Neoplatonic sense, then the profession's title becomes a patent absurdity: as tyrannical as it is sacrilegious as it is preposterous. Tyrannical, because it requires a despot's power to control the environment in any way that resembles an architect's power to control the production of a building. Sacrilegious, because God, or Mother Nature, is the architect of the visible world. Preposterous, because it is not given to humans to wield such awesome power.

A third stake was driven into the now-rotting cadaver of landscape theory by the advance of scientific functionalism during the twentieth century. Shaking off the historicist styles of the nineteenth century, architects and other designers came to see design as "a problem-solving activity'. "Form follows function', they proclaimed. Such slogans are still heard echoing betwixt blank walls and blank faces in the design studios of the world. Landscape architects were attracted to the new rationalism, but faced two immediate puzzles: What were the problems to be solved? Where were the functions to be followed? This is when the "desire line' assumed such portentous eminence in landscape teaching and practice. Too often, the "function' of a space was conceived merely as a route from an origin to a destination. The "problem', therefore, was to find an alignment that pedestrians might wish to follow. Not too difficult, though many got it wrong.

Having dealt with desire lines, landscape architects began to look for other "problems' to solve. They discovered needs for "shelter', "enclosure' and "visual screens'. This was no basis for a fine art, an applied art, or any other kind of art. Should anyone believe the approach can produce art, let them look through a book of modern design details. Theodore Walker's ever-popular Site Design and Construction Detailing ( Walker, 1992) is a good example. The details are functional in the worst sense of the word, though one has no assurance that they actually work any better than the twentieth century buildings that are ridiculed by critics of Modernism. Even if they do function, the majority of the details are heartless, soulless, plain, vacant and even downright ugly to the non-professional eye. They are the outdoor equivalent of hotels in the International Style.

Fig 13.2 The ancient theory that 'art should imitate nature' suffered near-fatal blows from Three Stakes driven into its heart: Empiricism, Geography and Functionalism. The heart of landscape theory is represented by Repton’s trade card.