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)



Persistent Snark

There is much talk about landscape—opinions about it are as ubiquitous as the medium that surrounds us. Less certain is the state of serious writing on its behalf. Landscape criticism is work. Its project is not a matter of effusive endorsement or dismissive judgment. Criticism takes into consideration both disciplinary and professional frameworks as well as larger cultural, political and aesthetic conditions of our time.

So why the persistent snark (often from architects and urbanists) that there is no critical writing in the landscape discipline? Is it because such efforts today are too few, and sadly, waning?

Many thoughtful academics and professionals do not write often enough to develop a voice, challenged as they are by a lack of financial support, diminished publishing opportunities, and the uncertain audience that the digital revolution has produced. Is it because criticism seems undervalued in a fast-media culture and is constantly pressured by calls that it is irrelevant and dead, even though this perceived demise is really just the discussion’s shift away from evaluating objects and name designers toward how design can transform the infrastructure of the city, and ourselves? Or might it be simply that what readers expect from criticism—the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” judgment of work—is not what landscape critics do? Our discipline has always invoked the larger context of our world, the people who use and value space, and the notion of collective public life—and so does our writing.

Julia Czerniak, Critics on criticism: Landscape work (2013)


Thicket No. 1 1989-90 by Roni Horn born 1955


Aesthetics are rarely explicitly addressed in conjunction with ethics in the body of literature examining recent landscape architectural research. This seems strange given that, if ‘ecology’ is added to ‘aesthetics’ and ‘ethics’, the classic tripartite definition of the discipline is formulated, and most would agree that this constitutes the unique significance and substance of what we do. (…)

The apparent neglect of research that explicitly addresses aesthetics and ethics together may have several reasons. One aspect is that research paradigms, as well as conventions for working in professional practice, will typically narrow the focus and therefore the methodologies of study or practice. Though often challenged, such crude divisions appear to persist and obstruct the critical development of landscape architectural praxis at all levels. The integrative breadth of landscape architecture is hard to formulate within narrow research and disciplinary specialisms, so when these limitations are overcome landscape theory takes a leap forward. Another aspect contributing to the neglect of detailed aesthetic studies may be the lack of a tradition of philosophical discourse in landscape architecture, coupled with the fact that aesthetics as method, construct, practice, experience and the means toward critical judgment is notoriously hard to define with any rigor. The difficulty in both defining and conveying accurately the nature and significance of aesthetic experience, and in addition, the elusiveness of aesthetic judgment and its tendency to go with the flow of contemporary politics, social taste, and cultural transitions, often means that aesthetics are conveyed tangentially and metaphorically, and sometimes not at all. Many academics are deterred from such intangible topics and tacit approaches, especially the younger in the pursuit of PhDs to whom natural and social science appear to offer greater rigor because they are more amenable to explicit forms of knowledge.

Rituals: crit

Notorious among the rituals is the design jury (crit), a strange act of tribal initiation that is played out in schools around the world. Within weeks of arriving in architecture school, students are asked to pin up an initial, and usually clumsy, attempt at architecture on a wall, stand in front of it and talk about it, with tutors then taking the floor to criticize it. The word alone, crit, is a stab of negativity. The crit places into a pressure cooker a combination of potentially explosive ingredients: students catatonic with tiredness and fear, tutors (mainly male) charged on power and adrenaline, and an adversarial arena in which actions are as much about showing o= as they are about education. Some students survive this; some are deeply scarred by the experience. One of the mistaken arguments for the retention of the crit is that it prepares for the real world—but at what cost? Answer: the development of alien vocabularies (spoken and drawn) understood only by architects, arrogance (attack being seen as the best form of defense in a crit), and a complete inability to listen on the part of both tutor and student.

Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (2009)


Hein Koh: School of Art (2006)

Clue to Culture

For him, aesthetic judgments about the landscape were secondary. Primary was the question of why the landscape looked the way it did. What clues did the landscape itself present as to its own making?

To answer that question, [Peirce] Lewis suggested seven axioms:

Landscape is a clue to culture. It “provides strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in the process of becoming”. By reading the landscape we could glean important insights into “who we are.” As a corollary, Lewis argued, if landscapes looked different, it was because there were significantly different cultures at work. If they were growing more similar, it was because cultures were growing more similar. Moreover, both the diffusion of landscape items across space and local cultural “tastes” were central in giving landscape its particular look and feel.

●  Nearly every item in the landscape “reflect[s] culture in some way”. We need to pay attention even to what at first glance might seem commonplace, trivial, or just plain haphazard and ugly. At the same time we need to make judgments about when an item really just is the idiosyncratic whim of an indi- vidual and thus truly is unique.

 Landscapes are difficult to study “by conventional academic means”. Rather, scholars need to turn to “nonacademic literature” (like trade journals, journalism, promotional literature, and advertisements). Most of all we need to train ourselves to “learn by looking”: we need to train ourselves to pay attention to the visual evidence. (Lewis gives little idea of what constitutes “conventional academic means” but the sense is that it is limited to reading scholarly books).

●  History matters to the structure and look of a landscape. We inherit a landscape which forms the basis for any changes or developments we subsequently make. Change itself is uneven (historically “lumpy”). Both technological and cultural change comes in great leaps forward, perhaps more so than as gradual evolution.

●  Location matters too: “Elements of a cultural landscape make little cultural sense if they are studied outside their geographic (i.e., locational) context.” Indeed, “to a large degree cultures dictate that certain activities should occur in certain places, and only those places”. Thus “context matters”.

●  So does physical environment, since “conquering geography’ is often a very expensive business.” Physical geography may not determine, but it does establish the limits of possibility and the costs of exceeding those limits.

●  Finally, while all items in the landscape convey meaning, they do not do so readily: meaning can be obscure. Even so “chances are” any disagreement over meaning “can be cleared up by visual evidence”.

Don Mitchel, New Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Paying Attention to Political Economy and Social Justice (2008)

Peking University + Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Shenyang Architectural University Campus (2004)


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)




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)



Instrumental and Critical

What is this thing called theory, and what does it do? James Corner has highlighted the contrast between two fundamentally different roles of theory. On the one hand, theory can generalize and codify knowledge, as a basis for practical action. This corresponds to the type of theory described by Garrett Eckbo in “Landscape for Living”, as “the generalization of social experience”. Such instrumental theory is typically derived from empirical observation. For example, Joan lverson Nassauer’s development of the concept of “cues for care” as a means to “frame” ecological restoration projects in a culturally acceptable way was developed from surveys of the attitudes of Midwestern farmers. Theory can also evolve from practical experience. The staged approach to site planning, codified into a set of principles by Kevin Lynch and John Ormsbee Simonds, is one of the most widely used theories in landscape architecture. It illustrates the way that such theory can provide a stable and coherent framework for a discipline.

On the other hand, theory can have a more critical role, which resists and challenges taken-for-granted ways of thinking, and puts forward alternatives. Elizabeth Meyer’s exploration of landscape architecture as other is an example of a critical theory. It challenges the modern view of landscape as a largely passive setting (or ground) for architecture, and instead argues for landscape architecture as an autonomous design practice expressing its own language of space and form. A second example of a critical theory is Corner’s advocacy of “recovering” landscape, with a consequential recasting of its role from being a passive product of culture to become an active and strategic agent of culture. Theoretical work that critiques current knowledge in this way disrupts and destabilizes the discipline, stimulating a search for new forms of knowledge and new ways of working.

Another potential role for theory lies between these two positions. Corner referred to the hermeneutic tradition of interpretation, and interpretive theory is well recognized in related disciplines as a form of knowledge that does not attempt to predict and control the world in the same way as instrumental theory, yet neither is it as disruptive as critical theory. Instead, an interpretive theory helps us better understand a situation, without necessarily changing it. Much of the knowledge of landscape history expressed in J. B. Jackson’s work is interpretive in this sense.



Simon Swaffield, Introduction to Theory in Landscape Architecture. A Reader (2002)

Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1970)



What is the value of “practice-as-criticism” for a discipline in general and landscape architecture in particular? An act of criticism is an act of creation, a productive endeavor. What sort of creation? I will focus on three creative contributions of critical design inquiry.

  1. Criticism fosters precision of language. As Tafuri has suggested, criticism “sets limits” on the ambiguity of architecture. Through the terminology it employs, the relationships it elucidates, and the strategies it uses -combination, description, comparison, and recomposition— criticism makes precise the formal language of design, whether architecture or landscape architecture.
  2. Criticism produces new ways to think and evaluate. Such commentary or interpretation reflects not only existing systems of value and operation, but may produce new systems of value and operation. Accordingly, the form of criticism itself may suggest new strategies for future work.
  3. Critical inquiry agitates for change. In addition to codifying language and projecting new directions, criticism has, again in Tafuri’s words, the duty to “exasperate, to increase the unease” of a discipline. This unease is frequently a function not of commenting on what was done, but on what was not done or said, on the silences within a project that bespeak much about situational or worldly meaning.

Who produces criticism? As my introduction suggested, designers as well as writers can engage in critical inquiry. However, in order for a landscape architect’s physical creation to be understood as a type of critical inquiry, there must be agreed upon (i.e., well established) norms or codes upon which deviations or commentary can be measured and evaluated (Colquhoun, Silvetti). These norms and codes, embodied in theory, are the basic stuff of a landscape architectural education. They are taught in our courses in design, drawing, history, theory, technology, ecology, and so forth. As such, critical inquiry for a practicing landscape architect is possible or not possible because of the specifics of landscape architectural education.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Discussion Papers: Landscape Architectural Design as a Critical Practice (1991)

Carve Landscape Architecture + OMGEVING Landscape Architecture, Play Landscape be-MINE (2016)



We are surrounded by image-making architects who design very special places where columns are hollow. Its hardly a good idea to lean against them because you could be sued for denting them. The entire project, actually, has a hollow ring. Everything seems to be designed to evoke a stage-set image these days, having very little to do with the actual activities going on within the building or the landscape.

Everywhere developers are hiring architects and landscape architects to authenticate their deals by making buildings and open spaces which, like advertisements, call attention to the project. It has become a form of corporate pimping, if you will. It leaves the architect to serve out his role as what Philip Johnson calls “a design whore.” The designs are profoundly phony, Disneylandish structures and landscapes without meaning, or prohindity, or sense of value. They are full of sound and fury, but signify nothing socially relevant.

At the other end of the scale, as Randolph Hester points out, are the homeless, the disadvantaged, the socially burdensome; the planet’s ecological balance is threatened. Real-life communities and small-town neighborhoods are disintegrating in the face of shopping centers full of silly shops selling trendy knickknacks and doo-dads and taking over from the authentic downtown of the village or town.

Lawrence Halprin, Design as a Value System (1989)


Joel Meyerowitz, Broadway and West 46th Street (1976)