Design Theory

The word [theory] is derived from the Greek theoria, meaning to supervise, witness and travel, and also to consider, study. ‘Travelling’ in this case indicates the way in which theory becomes method. Since the time of Descartes (1596-1650), a scientific theory has been defined as a creative, ordering hypothesis that is followed by experimental verification or falsification.

Such a model is not applicable to the arts, or to architecture or landscape architecture, which do not make it possible to test or check theories in the same way. Notions such as truth, authenticity and tenability do not apply. The content and intent of ‘theory’ differ, and overlap with such concept , visions and paradigms.

In that it can bridge, mediate or reconcile, theory can play a number of roles in landscape architecture. The bridging role is played by what are effectively ‘guidebooks’ that describe and locate sites, thereby providing the reader with a descriptive vocabulary and with criteria for appreciating the landscape. The mediating role of theory consists of actively revealing the contradictions underlying a given culture’s artistic, political and economic ideologies, thereby influencing perceptions of the landscape in general and of built works in particular. The reconciling role is needed to contain, inscribe, embed, and express within, its designed environments a culture’s complex and contradictory attitudes about the natural world. It can communicate the tension between those intertwined strands of faith and reason, myth and fact.

Theoretical thinking on the subject of garden design has always focused on the how and why of a garden’s layout. In essence, the questions concern the nature of good design, and of ‘good’ environment of the highest possible quality.

This leads to a need to clarify the why and how of the design process. Design theories are based on changing standards and values, on ideologies shared by designers. Verification is impossible because of a lack of adequate systematic knowledge of human behavior, human, ideals, expectations and aims. Assumptions are therefore inevitable.

There is a distinction between positive design theories and normative ones. A positive theory is founded on assumptions and ideas that can be used as a basis for describing and explaining the nature of the design process and the present condition of the natural and the built environment. The greater knowledge of phenomena brought by empirical evidence can deepen a designer’s insight into reality. This, together with his own growing experience, can lead him to better decisions. For every landscape architect, the learning process begins during the phase of professional training; it is a life-long process.

A normative theory is founded on an ideology and on propositions of how reality should be, thoughts on this being guided by notions on human behaviour. Normative theories often lead to utopian design and planning proposals. Architectural history contains many examples of useful innovations and changes that were derived from experiments that were originally utopian in nature. Progress often results from trial and error. There is also a distinction between instrumental theory and critical theory. Though the former is typically derived from empirical observation, it often evolves from practical experience, as with Kevin Lynch and John Ormsbee Simonds. ‘This is what I call the practitioner’s knowing-in-action. It can be seen as consisting of strategies of action, understanding of phenomena, ways of framing the problematic situations encountered in day-to-day experience. It is acquired through training, or through on-the-job experience. It is usually tacit’. A critical theory challenges taken-for-granted ways of thinking and puts forward alternatives.

Meto J. Vroom, Lexicon of Garden and Landscape Architecture (2006)

Bureau B+B, Wijkeroog Park (2004-2011)

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Controversy

Landscape Urbanism describes a disciplinary realignement currently underway in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism. For many, across a range of disciplines, landscape has become both the lens through which the contemporary city is represented and the medium through which is constructed.

Charles Waldheim, Landscape as Urbanism (2006)

Consider that landscape urbanism does not exist; that it is nothing more than an advertising campaign intended to promote the writings of its authors, helping them sell books and get promoted. It is another manifesto for a discipline overrun with manifestos. It will soon be replaced with the next forward thinking, ‘big idea’ answer for the problems plaguing contemporary urbanism.

Rather, what does exist are different ways of thinking about landscape, which come from different people, with different histories, voices and contexts.

From the beginning, this process has been about landscape. It has been about ways of thinking about landscape architecture and ways of approaching a post-industrial urbanism and trying to sew it together with places for people, culture and nature.

Leanne Muir, Mapping Landscape Urbanism (2010)

b8e1a7c54004f38ad58d2c5d814df68aJames Corner + Field Operations,  Qianhai Water City (2011)

New Era

In a new era of multiple unprecedented challenges imposed by the processes of industrialization and urbanization, landscape architecture is now on the verge of change in the world, and especially in China. It is time for this profession to take the great opportunity to position itself to play the key role in rebuilding a new Land of Peach Blossoms for a new society of urbanized, global, and interconnected people. In order to position itself for this sacred role, landscape architecture must define itself in terms of the art of survival, not just as a descendent of gardening. The profession must reevaluate the vernacular of the land and the people, and lead the way in urban development by planning and designing an infrastructure of both landscape and ecology, through which landscape can be created and preserved as a medium, and as the connecting link between the land, the people ,and the spirits.

Kongjian Yu, The Art of Survival. Recovering Landscape Architecture. (2006)

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Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, The Red Ribbon, Tanghe River Park (2008)

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School of Thought

As a school of thought, landscape urbanism compresses the polarisation between design and planning in an effort to combine the strengths of each. It shifts the landscape architectural project from an art (or craft) of making beautiful landscapes to one of interdisciplinary negotiation and the seeding of strategic, development processes. Just as it has been inspirational, the landscape urbanist polemic has also been grandiloquent. Accordingly, I have tried to condense the rhetoric into a set of basic principles without falling prey to reductionism. In short, as I interpret it, landscape urbanism claims to do the following:

include within the purview of design all that is in the landscape—infrastructure and buildings, etc., and shuffle across scales so as to bridge the divides between landscape design, landscape ecology, and landscape planning.

bring greater creativity to planning operations and greater rationality to design operations.

• conceptualize and then directly engage the city and its landscape as a hybridized, natural, chaotic ecology.

emphasize the creative and temporal agency of ecology in the formation of urban life as opposed to envisaging an ideal equilibrium between two entities formerly known as culture and nature.

understand and manipulate the forces at work behind things and less with the resultant aesthetic qualities of things.

interpret and then represent landscape systems so that these systems can in turn influence urban forms, processes, and patterns.

prefer open-ended (indeterminate and catalytic) design strategies as opposed to formal compositions and master plans.

Richard Weller, Landscape (Sub)Urbanism in Theory and Practice (2006)

Dirk Sijmons + H+N+S, Coastal Urban System Flanders (2017)

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Especially

In the opening years of the twenty-first century, that seemingly old-fashioned term landscape has curiously come back into vogue. The reappearance of landscape in the larger cultural imagination is due, in part, to the remarkable rise of environmentalism and a global ecological awareness, to the growth of tourism and the associated needs of regions to retain a sense of unique identity, and to the impacts upon rural areas by massive urban growth. But landscape also affords a range of imaginative and metaphorical associations, especially for many contemporary architects and urbanists.

James Corner, Terra Fluxus (2006)

 

Herzog & De Meuron + Patrick Blanc, Caixa Forum vertical garden (2008)

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