Evidence of the theoretical and critical aspect of landscape design has been rather thin on the ground, writes Kathryn Moore. And when confidence is low in design, which happens more often than it should, it is an occasion for all sorts of apparently more tangible factors to fly in to fill the void. Ecology, collaboration, inclusive design, public participation, livability, sustainability - the aura of practicality or the whiff of a scientific basis makes them seem far more respectable and substantive than all that arty stuff.
And, to be fair, these all have a role in the design process. Each one can help unravel aspects of technology, the process of creating a brief, better methods of implementation and so on. They can provide insights into design problems and solutions. But the thing is, they do not help with the actual designing bit - how to find an idea, investigate it and transform it within the landscape medium in a way that is culturally embedded, knowledgeable and appropriate to the site and brief. They do not set an aesthetic agenda. They have little to offer as far as the nuts and bolts of the design process is concerned.
With one or two notable exceptions, design theorists have been reluctant to address how ideas are expressed in a design. It seems impossible to question the belief that aesthetics is different from function, ideas are separate from content and theory is separate from practice.
There is a dogged determination to hang on to the idea that design expertise is innate, that the visual dimension of design is subjective and that consideration of form is an indulgence, reserved for design snobs. This is all too evident in the stampede to pursue what at first seem to be more easily defendable agendas.
Landscape architects create and manipulate form. It is a visual, spatial medium. It all has form of one sort or another, even if it is imagined. Design is about the elegant transformation of ideas within the medium. It is based on the knowledge we have of the landscape - its traditions, its ideas, its materiality, its physical possibilities, technology and modes of expression.
There is no short circuit to the acquisition of this knowledge. It is not a gift from our collective subconscious; it has to be studied and learned.
Design is a cultural, artistic and technological practice, determined by and expressive of its wider cultural context. To achieve design excellence, therefore, it is imperative to have a more informed critical debate as to how aesthetic, social and political ideas can be and have been transformed into a visual, spatial and conceptual medium. It's time to reclaim the lost horizon of design.
The next International Federation of Landscape Architects World Congress, being held from 26-29 June in Edinburgh, will address some of these issues.
For more information on the congress, visit the Landscape Institute's website at www. l-i. org. uk.
Kathryn Moore is president of the Landscape Institute.
With thanks to the Concrete Centre for its support and sponsorship of the Student Landscape Institute Council to attend the event