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Intellectual landscape

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Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader Edited by Simon Swaffield. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 267pp. £19.50.

Available from 01752 202301 To its practitioners, landscape architecture embraces the planning and design of anything with a sky, from entire regions to intimate gardens. This range is impressive, but it contributes to public uncertainty about what landscape architects actually do, and makes it difficult to lay solid intellectual foundations for teaching and practice.

Establishing a coherent theoretical framework for landscape as an intellectual discipline has - albeit more conspicuously in the US than in the UK - become a major challenge for the universities, and this book is, to my knowledge, a first and welcome attempt to gather together recent 'seminal theoretical texts in the field'.

The field is large, and prone to impenetrable verbiage, but Simon Swaffield - a professor in New Zealand - has provided a wide-ranging and highly accessible introduction to the varied instrumental, interpretative and critical roles of theory. The 42 pieces have all been written since 1950.

Most are extracts, and they range in length from a few hundred to 7,000 words. Organised into six sections, the reader begins with discussions of the nature of theory itself and concludes with the challenges posed by 'Integrating Site, Place and Region'. In-between, we explore design processes, ecology and sustainability, and, inevitably, the ramifications of the 'Post-Modern turn'.

The selection is intellectually evenhanded but decidedly US-biased. Four contributions come from the UK. One, notably obscure - the editor describes it as 'the most challenging' - is by Frenchman Bernard Lassus (a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, whose press has been impressively active since John Dixon Hunt's arrival as chairman of the department made famous by Ian McHarg). The rest are by American authors.

In part, this reflects the US's creative and intellectual dominance, at least within the English-speaking world, but the inclusion of one or two major continental figures, such as C Th Sørensen or Dieter Kienast, and of architects and artists who have contributed significantly, could have enriched the mix.

Among the latter, one thinks immediately of Koolhaas' (more than Tschumi's) Parc de la Villette, and of several essays by Robert Smithson, who arguably did more to reframe our view of landscape than anyone within the field.

These are, however, minor quibbles about a refreshingly inclusive and informative collection. It includes several classics: Garrett Eckbo's 'Landscapes for Living' of 1950; Ian McHarg's trenchant 1967 exposition of his Ecological Method, with its 'power to reveal nature as process, containing intrinsic form';

and 'How to Study Landscapes' by that master essayist, JB Jackson.

This wonderfully lucid defence of the 'Anglo Saxon procedure' of 'stating facts, providing examples and presuming to draw conclusions'was written in 1980, as the PostModern tidal wave was sweeping through the groves of American academe. That genre is impressively represented here by Elizabeth Meyer's incisive analysis of the Picturesque, and by John Dixon Hunt on gardens as 'texts', while Marc Treib's 'Must Landscapes Mean?' elegantly dismantles many of the illconceived efforts to build in meaning, which came in Post-Modernism's wake.

Other contributions I particularly enjoyed included James Corner's 'Representation and Landscape', which takes inspiration from Robin Evans' work on drawing to explore the modes of projection, notation and representation; Laurie Olin's brief but lucid defence - with Brown and Le Nôtre as exemplars - of what one might call the 'classical' view of the discipline; and Ann Whiston Spirn's passionate, if problematic, account of 'The Language of Landscape'. But what I find most encouraging in this collection is the return to ecology as a focal theme - something which, in a sometimes unseemly rush to play catch-up with architecture, landscape designers have tended to see as a constraint on creativity.

This ecological bias reflects the editor's conviction that ecological design and sustainability are areas 'in which landscape architecture can make a distinctive disciplinary contribution to wider human knowledge'. The McHargian 'Method' - a highly sophisticated development of the functionalist 'survey, analysis, design' procedure - remains a potent weapon at the planning scale, but its shortcomings as a stimulus, let alone determinant of form, have long been apparent.

Happily, the recent writings of Spirn, John T Lyle, Robert Thayer, Terry Harkness and Joan Iversen Nassauer, included here, offer variously nuanced interpretations of ways in which ecology can be interpreted and built on as the discipline's central body of knowledge. Indeed, Nassauer's 'Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames' is an argument for the synthesis of cultural and ecological strategies for environmental design with the widest possible implications.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University

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