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Should all masterplans be landscape-led?

Hattie Hartman

There is a growing argument that landscape should drive the layout of the buildings rather than the other way around, says Hattie Hartman

When Daniel Burnham applied Beaux Arts principles to Chicago’s lakefront a century ago, a certain consensus prevailed about what made a good masterplan. Yet too often today, when architects lead on masterplanning, it is just big architecture. Landscape is brought in too late. For Le Corbusier at La Ville Radieuse, for instance, landscape was ‘just a wallpaper that goes underneath and beneath the buildings’ as Luke Engleback of Studio Engleback remarks.

AECOM’s Jonathan Rose, responsible for the North West Cambridge project, observes that the key to a successful masterplan is ‘many people bringing their intelligence and critical views to a process’. Thus interdisciplinary teams often include urban designers, architects, landscape architects, infrastructure engineers and specialists such as traffic engineers and ecologists. The question is: who should lead?

Masterplans on paper are incredibly difficult to assess. ‘It’s very hard to look at a masterplan and say “that’s brilliant”,’ notes Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison. That’s why masterplanners often resort to shape-making and symbols that can be easily grasped in two dimensions. 

The focus is shifting away from 3D modelling of buildings into dynamic modelling of environmental systems and how people use space

How buildings frame external spaces is critical. Andrew Taylor of Patel Taylor explains that an understanding of building typologies, a skill that architects bring to the table, is key to developing plot sizes that relate to intended uses.

Yet heightened concern about climate change means that an increased emphasis on green and blue infrastructure has brought landscape and environmental issues to the fore. And the concept of natural capital, as something we must look after and invest in, has replaced the notion of natural resources that are there only to be exploited. 

Inherited landscape character, together with a site’s natural systems and how they relate to the larger ecosystem beyond a site’s boundary, are increasingly the starting point for masterplanning. The focus is shifting away from 3D modelling of buildings into dynamic modelling of environmental systems and how people use space, according to Grant Associates’ Andrew Grant. 

Landscape can create a shared understanding of a site, which helps build consensus. HAB design director Isabel Allen notes that landscape issues are often ‘the most effective basis for early consultation with statutory authorities and local residents’. Such dialogue can be enormously informative because it taps into local knowledge. 

During consultation on HAB’s Stroud housing by DSDHA, a couple of images by Studio Engleback that communicated a sequence of green spaces framed the initial discussions. ‘There was no indication of what the houses looked like and no one asked,’ says Allen. 

By exploring and exploiting the potential of both the natural and built heritage of a site, landscape can be used to get it right, divorced from questions of style. Bob Allies describes a recent project in Oman where ‘Kim Wilkie’s understanding of the inherited landscape changed the way we understood the site’s potential, gave us confidence in our approach and gave the plan integrity.’

In an essay prepared for Berkeley Group subsidiary St William, LDA Design goes a step further, advocating landscape-led development. ‘Appoint the landscape architect first. Landscape should drive the layout of the buildings rather than the other way around,’ says Selina Mason of LDA Design. 

‘But,’ notes AECOM’s Jonathan Rose, ‘if you have too much landscape, the architects get frustrated that no one is addressing development and architectural character, and if you get the architects dominating, it’s amazing how quickly they forget about nature.’

More fruitful than a tug of war between different skill sets is the need to work collaboratively across professional silos. We must shift the hierarchy of teams and the order of thinking so that landscape is at the table from day one, or earlier, as an equal partner.

This article appears in the New town issue – click here to buy a copy


Readers' comments (5)

  • This has recently been promoted by Charles Waldheim and others as Landscape Urbanism, and as usual with issues relating to landscape this debate is more advanced in the US and better understood as an appropriate approach to urban design in Europe than it is in the UK. In this country landscape is often still defined by the legacy of our 'picturesque' tradition that placed landscape in a support role to architecture. Good examples of a more integrated 'landscape first' approach include the thoughtful work of Palmbout in the Netherlands, although precedent extends back to Olmsted. Without due consideration of the inherent and potential qualities and opportunities of each distinct place as a part of our holistic 'landscape', in the widest interpretation of this often misunderstood word, a masterplan can often appear to be too limited by number-crunching. All development rises out of the ground so an intelligent reading of the landscape seems like the only meaningful place to start if we want distinctive sustainability for the future. Quality public realm creates connectivity and adds value. A subject worthy of much wider debate given current increasing pressures placed upon our shared public spaces.

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  • Master planning is too complex to be led by just one profession. Architects, urban designers, landscape architects, engineers all contribute. Who should be the conductor is the question? Any of the above or the landowner, an artist or planner - Anyone but a project manager.

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  • Robert Park

    Of course. Sometimes a great masterplan proposal can emerge from the landscape design. But equally, it can appear from a formal architectural concept. Let's not get too caught up on which discipline should lead which. Some of the most thrilling urban environments I have been to have very little landscape.

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  • Masterplanning begins at a macro-scale, well beyond either architecture or landscape design. First, there is the economic, social, political and cultural context to consider. Then, the site topography, climatic, environmental and ecological setting. Out of these emerges place-making, to which both built form and external space contribute. Label these architecture and landscape if you must, but they are intrinsically linked, along with a multitude of engineering influences such as services infrastructure, drainage and transportation. The masterplanner, as the name implies, has to have the ability to bring all of these influences together to create a unified plan.

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  • Richard Crooks

    I agree with Roger F above. It depends on scale and stage in the process. But at the initial stage and macro-scale, didn't Ian McHarg set out the process quite well back in 1969 with his "Design With Nature".

    When masterplanning large-scale schemes (e.g. 200+ha mixed-use schemes), it is necessary to first draw together and overlay many "layers" of environmental information (ecological, heritage, flood risk/drainage, arboriculture, highways/connectivity etc. as well as landscape and visual factors). Each of these layers will have different weights dependent on context. However, as 90% of new development takes place at the edge of settlements and is visible from the open countryside (much of which has designations), changes to landscape character/visual amenity - more often than not - is the key determinant in achieving planning consent at outline stage. Therefore, whatever the primary qualification of the masterplanner, he or she needs to have a good grounding in landscape planning in my opinion.

    Whether you need to be an architect to create a great illustrative masterplan is perhaps another debate, but architecture (of individual buildings) is really only needed at the detailed/Reserved Matters stage when the key street layout and spaces have probably been fixed by parameter.

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