More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)


Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)



Visual culture is the primary conduit for globalization, with ideas travelling with ease across the Internet, on television, films and in print media. Inevitably, this leads to a reduction in the range of sensory experience to almost a single sense, where sight and sometimes sound become the sole means of relating to landscape. The focus on the visual – or ocularcentrism – is one of the threads of research that informs the tension between the global and landscape. Ocularcentrism is not a recent practice, but has influenced the landscape for centuries, with the overemphasis on the visual gaining ground through theories like perspective and the picturesque, and the rise of viewing-based practices such as museums, zoos and tourism. Reclaiming the landscape from an ocularcentrist perspective is one of the imperatives for those seeking to resist the homogenising influence of globalization. 

Jacky Bowring, Navigating the global, the regional and the local: researching globalization and landscape (2013)

Germán del Sol, Termas Geométricas (2009)


Formal Properties?

A surface is a living system with its own structure and cycles of production. It is a performative medium that conveys water and supports organisms like bacteria, fungi, plants, and animal life. It is the result of processes that take place under it such as the decomposition of rocks and their migration upwards from the depth of the ground. It is also the result of processes that take place over it like erosion caused by wind, water, and human activity. It responds to external systems like climactic patterns that evolve in their own composition. In its biological sense, the surface in landscape architecture is less a boundary and more a zone of connectivity. It is a place where vegetational, hydrological, and soil systems interact.

Anita Berrizbeitia, Surfaces In-Depth (2012)

If we had this conversation twenty years ago there would be discussion of the formal properties of surface. We might be looking at the paintings of Malevich or Kandinsky, or the photography of Gursky.

James Corner, Surfaces In-Depth (2012)

Andreas-Gursky-2 andreasgursky070521_560 Andreas-Gursky-Nha-Trang-20041

zcs_08_andreas_gursky_architecture_017004_andreas-gursky_theredlistAndreas Gursky, photographs

Andreas Gursky, Rhein II (1999)


Landscape has -we saw many images- a bit of an amorphous image. When people think about landscape they don’t think of rigor, of order, of a formal element but rather of something very free, wild and uncontrollable. (…) We never want to reproduce nature or a landscape but we always want to make clear what is tamed, that we use an aesthetic that always works with elements of the landscape -the reason for an “architectural landscape”. That’s why we also create spaces – elements of architecture, for example, spaces, axes, points of high elevation, we create these elements in the landscape as architectural elements, but we always try to work with the contrast between plants and architecture.

Stephan Lenzen, Interview (2012) 7.04.01_Dyck_7 schloss-dyck-10049p44_grande_proyecto_04057Dyck-Castle-by-Stephan-Lenzen-01

p44_grande_proyecto_11 p44_grande_proyecto_10Stephan Lenzen + RMP Landschaftsarchitecten, New Gardens in the Dyck Field (2002)



So what do we mean by the art of design? I first saw this remarkable design at an exhibition of landscape drawings from 1600-2000 currently on display at Het Loo in Appledoorn. l remarked to my colleagues that it would be wonderful if a student handed in a drawing like that. Wondering who had designed it we peered at the text and found it was by le Notre; it was his design for the gardens of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, accompanied by eight pages of manuscript connecting image and concept, ideas and form.

It is remarkable for many reasons. It exhibits astonishing skill and confidence in the expression of ideas in form, through technology, with elegance and panache. Far from being a slave to the geometry of the plan, the asymmetrical design is an imaginative manipulation of the spatial structure of the landscape, intensifying perspectives, foreshortening views, skewing natural cross falls and creating vistas, connecting seamlessly with the landscape beyond. It is responsive to the topography and context, culture and time. Extraordinarily knowledgeable, skilfully exploiting the full range of the medium, this design is there to manipulate the emotions, express power, and control movement. This is what the art of design is about. There is no mistaking its brilliance – if you know what to look for.

A powerful cultural force is currently undermining any serious attempt to develop the kind of expertise le Notre exhibits. It is, of course, possible to teach many aspects of design. There are books on design theory, criticism, history, its technology and modes of communication. There are guides on collaboration, team building and how to carry out design reviews. But large chunks of the actual design process, the real nitty-gritty of the discipline, are clouded by subjectivity and therefore thought to be beyond teaching. Design is often characterized as a highly personal, mysterious act, almost like alchemy, adding weight to the dangerous idea that it is possible, even preferable, to hide behind the supposed objective neutrality implied by more ‘scientific’, technology-based, problem-solving approaches. Talking about excellence is actually considered somehow undemocratic and elitist. It is this kind of dogmatism that impacts so negatively on our thinking about design.

Kathrin Moore, Overlooking the Visual. Demystifying the art of Design. (2010)


André le Nôtre, Design for the gardens of the Grand Trianon (1694). Stockholm National Museum of Fine Art.


Constructed Visibility

Many landscape architects understand their task in parallel fashion. They manipulate landscape forms to induce ordered spatial and visual experiences of significance. For them, this process is an assumed aspect of their profession, and manipulation of the eye is taken for granted. Yet landscapes are often regarded by both scholars and the general public as transparent or even “invisible.” The designed landscape seems common enough to go virtually unnoticed in everyday life. For example, on a typical architect’s plan drawing, the buildings are figural while the landscape is “ground”; the architecture emerges as solid, material, and substantive, while landscape, if it appears as anything other than a white void, seems soft, formless.
Our tendency to regard landscape as neutral ground may be enhanced through architectural means to make the viewer adopt a preferred view. The result is what might be called “spaces of constructed visibility,” in which forms are masked or revealed so as to render “things seeable in a specific way.” If design can enhance vision, it can also hinder it, making spaces of constructed invisibility. In the Islamic world, such invisibility historically maintained the divide between the sexes and between public and private space. In antebellum America, rows of trees separated the plantation manor from the slave quarters, hiding from view slaves whose sweat and toil produced the wealth that supported the owners.
If landscape is less frequently noticed and harder to discern than architecture, it is by that very fact more persuasive. Landscape is “always already there” and thus seems not to have been created but simply to be, not a constructed form but rather a preexisting or even primordial one. It appears above all “natural” because it is composed of plants, soil, geological formations, sunlight, and water and because it seems to exist in the absence of human management or design. Even human interventions such as topographical leveling, deforestation, and drainage appear natural when landscape and nature are thus conflated. From an analytical perspective, this associationis deeply problematic. Hiding human agency naturalizes cultural processes that areby no means spontaneous or innate. Even more importantly, ideologies and social constructs are rendered invisible, or at the very least, made to appear equally inherent. Scholars of the English landscape and its textual and visual representations have demonstrated that the rural and garden scenery of the eighteenth century masked the political, economic, and social hegemony of an elite landed class. With verdant rolling hills, shade trees, serpentine waterways, and distant vistas, the so-called picturesque landscape gave the appearance par excellence of a benign Arcadia, justly given in disproportionate amounts to a powerful landed minority. The distribution thus seemed morally right, an inherent characteristic of the land itself, ordained by heavenly powers. The frequent presumption that landscapes are God-given and natural has led with equal frequency to the notion that what we believe we see in the landscape must be so. When one combines this premise with scientific assumptions the physiology of vision (“seeing is believing”), it becomes easy to imagine nature, landscape, and vision as a powerful trio for conveying ideology.
Herein lies one of the perplexing ironies of landscape: it is regarded as natural and eternally present, and yet it is also ignored as if it did not matter. How then can the study of landscape and vision illuminate cultural discourses that are essentially spatial, yet normalized to the point of invisibility? How does one study such an elusive, unstable object? One strategy entails focusing on mechanisms that are not easily seen, such as the frame, the controlling perspective, illusionism, the lens or screen through which we are induced to look, and the wall or landform that intentionally conceals. Spatially determined, vision can support the construction of “difference” through what is revealed and what remains concealed- marking class, race, and gender. What we see, and the manner in which the built world directs our gaze, contributes to our daily instruction about insiders and outsiders, privilege and denial, domination, submission, and, in some cases, resistance.

Mcregor + Coxall, GASP! – Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park (2011-) 




Gilles Vexlard’s large landscaped park, with its areas of woodland and ground movement which seem to have come into being by chance, fits in well with the flat landscape of the Munich fluvial gravel area. Unfortunately, the woodland is set across the sight lines of the dwellings towards the Alps, which offer a show that is well worth seeing when the foehn is blowing. The long straight paths and huge forestry monocultures are reminiscent of 19th century state forests. Such forests are now generally being changed into ecologically sensible mixed woodland. I do not understand why gigantic monocultures are being planted in Riem.

Gottfried Hansjakob, The architecture of landscape (2005)

Gilles Vexlard + Latitude Nord, Riemer Park (2005)



Paradise Gardens

A visitor to Kesh in 1403 wrote: ‘The whole of this mosque with its chapels is very finely wrought in blue and gold, and you enter it through a great courtyard planted with trees round a water tank. Here daily by the special order of Timur the meat of twenty sheep is cooked and distributed in alms’. In madrasahs (theological colleges), courts for teaching and prayer are designed and used as religious gardens. In urban open spaces, courts and fountains were used, like paradise gardens, for rest and contemplation. Fountains in mosque courts were used for ceremonial ablutions. In later centuries the planning of mosques became geometrically integrated with the maidan, a public space. Shah Abbas (1587–1628) made Isfahan into a capital city with an intricate complex of gardens which Khansari rightly compare with the urban structure of Versailles and Washington, DC. Its development continued in the eighteenth century, with the Madrasah-ye Chahar Bagh. The Central Avenue, known as the Chahar Bagh is now a depressingly busy traffic artery.

Tom Turner, Garden History (2005)

Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Yahán Square (1619)


Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque

Initial capitals have been used in the account of Knight, Price and Repton for the words Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque, to mark their use as part of a specialised aesthetic vocabulary. As explained by Edmund Burke, ‘Beautiful’ meant smooth, flowing, like the body of a beautiful woman. ‘Sublime’ meant wild and frightening, like a rough sea or the views that might be obtained while crossing the Alps on a rocky track in a horsedrawn coach. ‘Picturesque’ was an intermediate term, introduced after Burke, to describe a scene with elements of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Without its initial capital, ‘Picturesque’ means ‘like a picture’. In what is called the landscape style in this book, Picturesque gardens have a sequential transition from a Beautiful foreground, through a Picturesque middle ground to a Sublime background. Composing gardens like paintings integrated the design ideas of the eighteenth century to create a landscape design concept of significant grandeur and exceptionally wide application.

The landscape style is the chief support for the claim that British designers made a unique contribution to western culture during the eighteenth century. In his 1955 Reith Lectures Nikolaus Pevsner used the term ‘English picturesque theory’ for what he described as an ‘English national planning theory’. Pevsner stated that it ‘lies hidden in the writings of the improvers from Pope to Uvedale Price, and Payne Knight’ and that it gave English town planners ‘something of great value to offer to other nations’. He then asked whether the same can be said ‘of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture proper’. His answer was that Henry Moore and other sculptors had ‘given England a position in European sculpture such as she has never before held’, but that English painting and architecture of the period were of markedly lower quality.

Tom Turner, Garden History (2005)

Humphry Repton, Woburn Abbey Gardens (1805)


Sobering Thought

A sobering thought for all designers: in fact whatever designers dream up and realize affects the formal perception of landscape architecture objects only to a limited extent: (a number of other parameters, situative variables that the designer can scarcely influence, have their own very definite parts to play. These include the weather (rain, sun, dark clouds, broken cloud, heat, cold, storm, light breezes etc.), the seasons, the time of day (the incredible interplay of colours at sunrise, hard shadows at midday, the softness of twilight etc.), the number of other users (the happy school class on the main pathway, the couple on the edge of the wood etc.) but also the robin singing in the bushes or the rumbustious drunk on the adjacent bench. This list could be continued ad infinitum. All these parameters are “simply there”, are permanent and more or less simultaneously effective, but just in different forms, relating to each other at different force levels. Objects in landscape architecture simply have to let these parameters “go over their heads”, “put up with them”, sometimes “suffer them”. But often it is precisely these unpredictable elements that can create moments of intense harmony in their interplay with a designed landscape.

Perceiving form (in landscape architecture) – a right-hemisphere experience – is thus always more, and always more complex, than the things the designer really can affect. So what does the landscape architect actually do as a designer? The –admittedly materialistic– answer has to be: landscape architects distribute solid items within an area that is being worked on topographically and structurally; they design starting-points, signs, with the aim of (gently) leading and accompanying users to create form (or space).

Given the complex way in which form is perceived, we have restricted ourselves in this book to the “feasible”, to what the left hemisphere can manage to say. Above all, we have reduced the phenomenon of “landscape architecture” to make it “tangible”, “comprehensible”, in other words morphological.

We hope that it will be possible to discern this.

Stefan Bernard, In the form of open space (2003)

Atelier Loidl, West Gleisdreieck Park (2014)