Criticism is a vital part of design. It happens at every stage of the design process, from the response to a site and a brief, through to ongoing critique of the design’s evolution, and ultimately to the critique of a built work. Sometimes the most unequivocal critique of a work happens when a built work of landscape architecture is demolished and rebuilt to a different design. Designers critique their own work and the work of others. An active critical discourse underpins a healthy discipline and profession.

Design criticism often suffers from being seen as a negative voice, and a destructive part of the design process. But critique is a creative practice in its own right. As Bernadette Blanchon states, “criticism is fully part of the creative process itself,” echoing John Hopkins’s observation that, “If it is done thoughtfully, criticism can be as much a creative act as design itself.” Kongjian Yu reiterates this sentiment in his belief that “Landscape criticism is in many ways more challenging than creating a landscape itself.” There is a lack of books on design critique in landscape architecture. For many years the lack of theory in the discipline was cause for concern, but the steady flow of books on theory in landscape architecture signals that this dimension of the discipline is maturing. It is useful to consider neighbouring disciplines, such as art and architectural criticism, and consider what can be gleaned from them.

Jacky Bowring, Landscape Architecture Criticism (2020)

ASPECT Studio, The Goods Line (2015)



In your latest art collaboration at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, you define the scope of human existence as the “critical zone”, a narrow band of Earth that can support life. What is the purpose of this approach?

It is a redefinition of our landscape. The idea of the “critical zone” is useful because it gets you out of nature. Nature is very big. It covers everything from the big bang to microbes. Conceptually, that makes it a complete mess. The critical zone is limited. It is just a few kilometres thick – above and below the surface of the Earth. But all discovered life is within it. This brings us inside in a way that nature does not. It is very different from the way of thinking that makes people such as Elon Musk think they should go on a mission to Mars. That is escapist. But when you think in terms of a critical zone, you are locked in, you cannot escape. What does it mean for politics if we are locked in and not in the infinite cosmology opened by Galileo? It means we cannot behave in the same way. It means we cannot just endlessly extract resources and discard our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have because it is finite, it’s local, it’s at risk and it’s the object of conflict.

This seems to add a political edge to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which explains how “Life” acts to maintain habitable conditions for itself. You have long been a champion of this theory…

Lovelock locked us in! While Galileo used a telescope to reveal that the Earth is part of an infinite universe, Lovelock used his electron capture detector to reveal that the Earth is completely different from any other planet because it has life. He and [Lynn] Margulis spotted Gaia. Lovelock from space, taking the question as globally as possible; Margulis from bacteria, taking the question from the other end, both realising that Life, capital L, has managed to engineer its own conditions of existence. For me that is the greatest discovery of this period, though it is still not very much accepted by mainstream science. This may be because we do not yet have the tools to receive it.

Why do you think scientists are still wary?

That such an important concept is still so marginal in the history of science is extraordinary. I have done everything I can to make it accepted. But scientists are reflexively cautious. The cosmological shift from Aristotle to Galileo is the same as that from Galileo to Gaia. With Galileo, our understanding moved outwards to an infinite universe. Grasping that took a century and a half and faced resistance. Gaia is not just one more concept. It is not just about physics and energy. It is Life.

Bruno Latour, Interview by Jonathan Watts for The Guardian (2020)

GREENinc Landscape Architecture + Urbanism, The Cradle of Humankind (2017)


Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Control isn’t necessarily helping worthy contributions. We are living with knowledge that is always evolving. The knowledge held by different disciplines is continuous and exponential. Great achievements rarely happen within the span of a human life but grow on the achievements of others over many years and even generations. It is linked to the tools we use both in micro life (biology, chemistry) then in macro life (astronomy, chemistry, geology).

We all live with the state of knowledge and the tools we have in our own times. We understand that the global behaviour of all populations together won’t fit with the needs of other life on earth. So we need to introduce a more subtle dialogue between our ‘human’ system and other ‘systems’. But we can only use the tools from our timeline – with enough flexibility to embrace what we do not know – and survive by being as efficient as possible. That doesn’t mean no language, no exploration, risk or creativity. If we only had to efficiently apply what we know, we could just give the task to a device, programmed to achieve technical goals. If no human thought or effort or sensibility is necessary, it means no more civilization.

Today a dominant movement in capitals and countries is to ask all inhabitants to express their ideas to contribute to the program –- that is direct democratic decision-making. I totally disagree with this. It assumes that it is not necessary to have experience and knowledge to make decisions. It supposes everyone can equally read and work through all the parameters of a problem; that everyone can do it. That is a total fiction. It actually happens when nobody wants to take responsibility for a direction. It is a way to say that expertise is not valid and everyone has an equally legitimate opinion. The result of this is what we see on social media and in the fragility of democracy.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity was a call to control human wildness and open a dialogue to bring together individuals and communities to make decisions affecting us all. Today we need to do that with other life as well as each other. That is the great challenge.

Catherine Mosbach, Foreground Interview (2019)

Vetschpartners Landscape Architects, Sulzerareal (2002-2015)


People and Place

Landscape associates people and place. Danish landskab, German landshaft, Dutch landschap, and Old English landscipe combine two roots. “Land” means both a place and the people living there. Skabe and schaffen mean “to shape”; suffixes -skab and -schaft as in the English “-ship,” also mean association, partnership. Though no longer used in ordinary speech, the Dutch schappen conveys a magisterial sense of shaping, as in the biblical Creation.

Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998)

Carlo Scarpa Price for Gardens, The Tea Gardens of Dazhangshan  (2019)


Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics matter to everyone, and the sort of virtue ethics approach outlined in the preceding section has implications for everyone alive. However, in terms of scale and impact, it is those who take managerial decisions about land, whether they are politicians, policy-makers, farmers, planners, landscape architects, property developers or foresters, who ought to examine their characteristic values and reflect on their actions the most closely. Those ethicists who have argued in favour of plural sources of values and who have been willing to embrace anthropocentric reasons for protecting the environment, are surely closer to the thinking of the majority of such professionals, as well as to that of the wider public. Recognizing this however, we should never allow ourselves to slip into the sort of resourcist thinking which sees the environment with its multitude of component landscapes as a warehouse of reserves solely for the use of human beings, a point made powerfully by Heidegger in his later writings. The main message of environmental ethics is that environmental problems are not just managerial or resource problems but are moral issues, which, as Jamieson observes, ‘brings them into the domain of dialogue, discussion and participation’.

Ian Thompson, Landscape and environmental ethics (2013)


This ecosystem-focused project becomes a political statement when analyzed in relation to the threat posed to the environment in Poland. Since 2017, following the green light granted by the Ministry of Environment and State Forests Agency, the forests of Poland have been ravaged, including even the most precious primeval woodlands. Logging activities threaten the whole ecosystems – both plants and animals – as the harvesting is nonselective and enormous areas are destroyed producing ‘environmental massacre’ landscapes.

In this context the project is seen as a unique example of environmental awareness accomplished after an intense investors engagement process – The City Council of Iława, environmentalists, local historians and a broad team of designers and engineers from different disciplines. Since the very beginning of the project it has been clear that the more subtle a design intervention is, the better for the ecosystem. Also, after a long process of encouragement the decision was made to change the character of the project to non-productive and natural forest, which resulted into a no-wood-harvesting policy and protection of the dead wood.

Landscape Architecture Lab, Iława Forest (2018)




All landscape is reuse, whether through the intervention of human action or through the earth’s continual formation in a process that, in the words of geologist James Hutton, ‘has no vestiges of a beginning, nor prospects of and end’. Acting in parallel, human and non-human agents work to remake the surface of the earth and its ecosystems, though on different material and temporal scales and with different impacts, often working against each other. Thus, it is not possible to ‘discard’ landscape, only to reuse it. Continual formation and reformation is central to Georg Simmel’s definition of landscape. In his 1913 essay ‘Philosophy of Landscape’, he defines it as a subset of that which is not divisible: nature. In the tension between landscape’s claim for autonomy against ‘the infinite interconnectedness of objects, the uninterrupted creation and destruction of forms’, a boundary, says Simmel, is essential. In this essay I posit that to construct this tension between the discrete and the continuous, and to make its representation visible, is both the work of design and the work of criticism in the age of global disruption.

In the intervening century since the publication of Simmel’s essay, capitalism has advanced to form a globally interconnected and undifferentiated world. Many boundaries have disappeared while others have been formed as economies and priorities shift, as the strength of the institutions that sanction landscape wanes, as nature’s entropic forces soften its structures. Still, it must be emphasized, landscapes continue to be an act of will, a social product that registers the conflicts, the diverse interests, the tensions and the pressures that act on it. As such, landscapes do not just appear on their own, they must be simultaneously created, kept, maintained, and protected through institutions and governance. In this way they are demarcated, strongly or more subtly.

Anita Berrizbeitia, Criticism in the age of global disruption (2018)

Martí Franch + EMF,  Jordi Badia + BAAS, Can Framis Museum Gardens (2009)


Essential Ingredient

Criticism operates in different environments. As, for example, Treib remarks, critique is an essential ingredient of the design studio, hence the word ‘crit’ for interim discussions of student work. To some extent, if we look at criticism as evaluation in a system of peer review, competitions are also a specific milieu for criticism – in this case, obviously, with regard to projects that exist only on paper or on screen. In these instances, criticism is part of a larger operation. The main locus of critique being presented as critique is its written form, in design magazines, journals or websites, and blogs, which is what this essay concentrates on. We should also mention newspapers here. Although there is no strict demarcation, one could say that moving from design magazine to newspaper, the critique shifts its target from professionals to the larger public. These days, social media also presents itself as a channel to broadcast opinions on the world, on subjects that even include landscape design, and perhaps this will establish itself as a new, accessible, and public platform for critique. A recent example of this is a Facebook initiative, inviting people to participate in design critique, in this case related to app design. However, this essay aims to speak about critique as something much more than a few harsh one-liners. It cannot be denied that social media are part of today`s political discourse, and more so, are shaping the discourse. Perhaps in the future we will witness a lively and well-grounded critical culture adapted to 140 characters. What this would mean for a professional culture of critique in design magazines remains to be seen. Pessimists might argue that this would be the end of any well-educated criticism. In an optimistic view, interest in landscape design, and a debate on landscape design, broadens.
Critique has a long tradition in the arts, and in architecture. For landscape architecture, with the exception of a vibrant period in the seventies, critique has been largely absent from magazines and journals.

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Little Sparta (1966-1983)



Mad Scientists

On the eve of the Euro 2016 final between France and Portugal, ground staff at the gigantic Stade de France in Paris had left the stadium’s lights on, for security reasons. Attracted by the blinding floodlights, thousands upon thousands of migrating Silver Y moths descended into the empty arena. Those not killed by the heat of the lamps eventually ended up among the grass of the playing surface, where, after the lights were turned off, they hid throughout the day of the big match. As evening fell, 80,000 spectators took their seats and the lights were turned back on. The sleeping moths stirred, and soon thousands were zigzagging among the players. Photographs taken that night show annoyed football officials picking moths off each other’s suits, while the swarm blocked the lenses of TV cameras and hung from the goalposts. Perhaps the highlight came when Cristiano Ronaldo sat injured and weeping on the pitch, while a lone Silver Y sipped his teardrops away.As the Portuguese superstar had discovered, the mingling of urban development with the natural world can throw up some weird and wonderful occurrences. Cities are like mad scientists, creating their own crazy ecological concoctions by throwing all kinds of native and foreign elements into the urban melting pot, then spicing it up with artificial light, pollution, impervious surfaces and a host of other challenges. Researchers around the globe are documenting how globalisation and urbanisation are changing the behaviour and evolution of animals.Indeed, evolutionary biologists no longer need to travel to remote places like the Galápagos todiscover their holy grail: speciation, the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. The process is going on right in the very cities where they live and work. In tune with their human population, cities have been assembled from immigrants from around the globe.

The Guardian , Darwin comes to town: how cities are creating new species (2018)

Moebius, Arzach, 1976


Today the entanglement of funding and research erodes speculative, disinterested research in favour of quantifiable, reproducible findings, and promote inquiry as an instrument of certainty based on sanctioned principles, be these technological objectivity or historical lineage. Reinforcing instrumentality and certainty rather than reflexivity and speculation perpetuates a disembodied culture that is the root of discontinuity between human and non-human, offering few critical insights into how the natural world is actually envisioned, conceptualized, and manipulated in a capitalist-pluralistic culture. While digital publishing is creating new opportunities (and audiences) for landscape, it is doubtful whether this can overcome the reality that, in the United States at least, there is little popular discourse about constructed landscape (as opposed to ‘environment’). For the most part, landscape remains a taken-for-granted background, without a clear advocate, or more pertinently, consumer.

Far from justifying a post-theoretical/post-critical paradigm, the contemporary entanglement of the built environment with the political/cultural economy makes landscape interpretation and criticism more essential than ever. Indeed, it invites an expanded, consciously political (that is, attentive to the play of power), form of landscape criticism that not only transcends discussion of the physical landscape, but is reflexively aware of its own cultural agency. Here, it is useful to recall a key construct in humanistic geography, what Denis Cosgrove called the ‘idea of landscape’. Mapping cultural values onto material terrain and lending practical actions ideological and theoretical weight, the landscape idea is a syncretic ‘structure of seeing’ that mediates aesthetic, moral, and political values. Facilitated by representation, and especially visual imagery, it emphasizes that all material landscapes are socially and historically constructed, and therefore not just reflective but constitutive of a social, political and economic milieu. Consequently, discourse not only affects how people relate to built environments, but indirectly helps shape those environments, by forming values, opinions, and expectations. However we might want to analyze landscapes, this cultural/political linkage between seeing, thinking, and acting is latent in every utilization and signification of extensive territory in late modern society in general, and the disciplines involved in shaping constructed environments in particular.

Jeremy Foster, Landscape criticism: Between dissolution and objectification (2018)