“Whatever I may have fondly supposed, all that I have been writing and saying over the past years has in the last analysis dealt with a single topic — how to define (or redefine) the concept of landscape.” — J.B. Jackson As a graduate student, I dedicated much of my landscape theory track obsessing about… Read more »
“Whatever I may have fondly supposed, all that I have been writing and saying over the past years has in the last analysis dealt with a single topic — how to define (or redefine) the concept of landscape.” — J.B. Jackson
As a graduate student, I dedicated much of my landscape theory track obsessing about the same questions. What is landscape? Why must a design profession that draws from a mesh of established disciplines marry itself so exclusively to architecture to deserve social legitimacy in the professional and academic worlds? Why is looking for a stronger identity now of any importance for a profession that has been able to sustain itself for over 150 years in the shadows of the much larger discipline? Possible answers to these questions originate from the fact that landscape design challenges offered by the modern world have changed. Just as the landscape profession once outgrew gardening to enter into a more respected (and better paid) union with architecture, the profession has been drifting apart from its dominant partner by taking on design challenges more closely associated with other disciplines—such as restoring habitats, preserving historic sites, responding to the effects of climate change, providing environments that improve public health, advancing infrastructural innovations in urban and rural areas, and other social and performative concerns.
The union of two distinct concepts, landscape and architecture, no longer effectively describes a professional identity that encompasses the set of holistic design problems landscape professionals are facing. While landscape as architecture captures some aspects of design, particularly structural and topographic form-giving, the metaphor falls short in terms of capturing facets of landscape as a living, temporal, sensory, and cultural phenomenon. Jointly with classmates and professors, I tried to illuminate the intellectual ground under my own feet by finding words that explain this profession more truthfully. Yet as more came to light, the vaster and more unexplored the darkness around seem to appear. Since entering the professional field I can see more clearly that finding a stronger identity for the profession is not only a matter of an intellectual exercise; it is a matter of how landscape designers ought to practice, which tools and methods practitioners ought to employ, and what services landscape design professionals can and should offer to protect and advance our intellectual and professional grounds. Following in the footsteps of people who thought about landscape more deeply, I submit here that at the core of landscape design is a specific “landscape thinking” that holds promise for establishing a more distinct school of thought, capable of reinvigorating not just landscape architecture, but also professions that come in direct contact with our shared mesh of knowledge. Thomas Oles and Brian Davis in their recent article “From Architecture to Landscape,” published in the journal Places, offer a new name for landscape thinking that gives a stronger social legitimacy for this emerging field of knowledge— “landscape science.”
Oles and Davis argue that landscape science is a better alternative to landscape architecture because it captures more fully the scope of design services that landscape practitioners are undertaking. This concept is also forward-looking in trying to apprehend the future expansion of landscape profession into new territories. Oles and Davis write that landscape science is a normative science that should develop knowledge based on what ought to be and what ought not to be. Landscape professionals have been making normative decisions guided by their design sensibility, experience, intuition, and fragments of knowledge acquired from everywhere. Landscape thinking is not being taught intentionally and methodically in part because architectural methods and ways of seeing landscape as merely a programmable surface or a landform are still predominant in many academic programs. But enough has been written, discovered, and designed to establish a landscape identity with its own normative methods and concepts.
At the core of landscape thinking is the understanding of landscape as a way of being in the world. In that, landscape is not merely an artful representation of a surface from a vantage point, but rather a sum of social and physical processes and forces that shape the land, and it’s the act of shaping, too. It is notable that originally the word landscape had nothing to do with design and aesthetics. ‘Landshaft’ defined something closer to a township or village. Landscape design according to this thinking is connecting fragments of architecture, biology, visual arts, planning, sociology, engineering, literature, history, psychology and other fields in a more holistic way with an intent to respond to a specific design challenge. Moreover, this new methodology for studying and designing landscape can change the way design professionals provide and charge for design services. The way of seeing landscape as not as a piece of flat architecture, but as a mesh of knowledge, forces, and actions, could mean an expanded scope of services that landscape professionals can offer by taking on new design assignments that have been in the domain of disciplines such as architecture or planning, and responding to new challenges, whether climatic, infrastructural, or social. This is a departure from seeing landscape as a greenish swath around buildings.
Landscape science is not an easy term to accept in the professional world just yet. It makes more sense within academia at this stage because in the minds of potential clients looking for design services science does not hold the same creative meaning as architecture. It may be a slow transition, but definitions inevitably follow functions and ineffectual names fall off, giving rise to something with a clearer vision of future directions.
This blog post owes its contents entirely to ideas and writings of other people, most directly to Thomas Oles, my thesis advisor at the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cornell, and currently a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
Image: “Landscape 1,” by Levi van Veluw, courtesy of Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam