Social Agenda

It is in his social agenda that Burle Marx’s lectures are perhaps most surprising. In several lectures Burle Marx tells us that he is motivated by people, by the collective, and by society. While this is very much consistent with his role as an activist, the general perception of Burle Marx’s landscape architecture was that he did not care about the client or user, but did his own thing. Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe put it bluntly, “You see, what he does is he will walk onto a site and do the swishing and do these lovely things,  mind it will be his thing, it will be what he wants to have there and very nice worthwhile it is too.” Even Haruyoshi Ono would confirm this approach:  that Burle Marx did what he himself wanted, but that over time he began to consider the user more carefully. “In the beginning before I started to work with Roberto, he just said ‘I think I want this garden’ and made it. But then I started to work with him and tried to, more or less, open his mind and said ‘you have to listen to the client because the garden is for the client.’ Then he became more open for the client.”
In Finding a Garden Style to Meet Contemporary Needs, Burle Marx tells us that, “a work of art cannot be, I think, the result of a haphazard solution.” He applied what he termed a series of principles-not formulas-to his projects. He claims in Concepts in Landscape Composition, to have ‘never deliberately sought originality as an aim.” Having been initially trained as a painter -who works alone- Burle Marx brought the attitude of the “great maestro” to his landscape architecture, even though, through his firm, he provided full-service design, from concept to maintenance.  Despite -or indeed because of- his concern for the users, and their quality of life and their needs, he believed very much in the agency of design.  In Gardens and Ecology he tells us, “The social mission of the landscape architect has a pedagogical side of communicating to the masses a feeling of esteem and comprehension of the values of nature through his presentation of it in parks and gardens.” Burle Marx saw the potential of design to educate on the environment, in addition to the ability of changing the quality of lives through his landscape architecture. Burle Marx’s lectures show the social intentions of his artistry.

Gareth Doherty, On Burle Marx and his Lectures (2018)


Roberto Burle-Marx, Copacabana Promenade (1970)



Distanced Authorship

Landscape architecture has seen a paradigm shift in the last two decades, requiring designers to respond to the dynamic and temporal qualities of landscape. This response examines the long-held view that landscape embraces an ephemeral medium constructed and maintained through generations. Landscape—a dynamic and temporal medium—is expressed through careful manipulation of vegetated, hydrological, and stratigraphic systems. Combining this shift with the increased accessibility of responsive technologies presents a new approach for challenging static design solutions. The ability to sense and respond to environmental phenomena invites new ways to understand, interpret, experience, and interact with the landscape.

This shift can be traced to several parallel events inherent to the discipline of Landscape Architecture and seeded by new paradigms in scientific thought particularly within ecology. A generational trend has emerged within landscape architecture that promotes a form of “distanced authorship,” emphasizing natural processes such as succession, accretion, or passive remediation as agents for landscape design. In the essay, “Strategies of Indeterminacy in Recent Landscape Practice,” Charles Waldheim uses the term “distanced authorship” to describe how the “privileging of landscape strategy and ecological process distances authorial control over urban form, while allowing for specificity and responsiveness to market conditions as well as the moral high-ground and rhetorical clarity of environmental determinism.” Autonomy within these systems has the potential to create scaffolds for designed landscapes, urbanism, or territorialization. This approach privileges the actions of biology and geology over manufactured static conditions and instead seeds these dynamic processes through an overarching ecological regime to shape designed conditions over time.

 Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman, Responsive Landscapes (2016)


Devon Boutte, Josh Brooks, Kim Nguyen, Martin Moser, Hunter Lero, and Danielle Martin, Ecolibrium (2012)

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)

Role of Beauty

Sustainable landscape design is generally understood in relation to three principles -ecological health, social justice and economic prosperity. Rarely do aesthetics factor into sustainability discourse, except in negative asides conflating the visible with the aesthetic and rendering both superfluous.

This article examines the role of beauty and aesthetics in a sustainability agenda. It argues that it will take more than ecologically regenerative designs for culture to be sustainable, that what is needed are designed landscapes that provoke those who experience them to become more aware of how their actions affect the environment, and to care enough to make changes. This involves considering the role of aesthetic environmental experiences, such as beauty, in re-centering human consciousness from an egocentric to a more bio-centric perspective. This argument in the form of a manifesto is inspired by American landscape architects whose work is not usually understood as contributing to sustainable design.

Elizabeth K. Meyer, Sustaining Beauty (2008)

Piet Oudolf, Hummelo (2017 video)


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)



Concern for Children

The concept of the junk playground was invented by a Danish landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sorensen, whose lifetime project was to transform the status of the park from an object of aesthetic contemplation into a site of active and participatory recreation. Following his observation that children were attracted to construction sites and junk yards, he proposed to enclose a space, supply it with building materials, discarded objects and tools, and allow the children to build the playground according to their own ideas and for their own pleasure.

Sorensen’s idea was first tested in 1943 during the German occupation, as part of a social housing project in Emdrup, Copenhagen. Play was seen as preventive in two ways: firstly, it prevented the so-called rough and difficult children from drifting into marginality by occupying them in constructive play. Secondly, there was an agreement that the occupation gave rise to delinquency because it created an atmosphere of moral confusion and blurred the distinction between sabotage and asocial behavior. To reinstate a sense of community, play was designed to encourage communal solidarity through the democratic practice of self-government. Although the housing estate management employed a play supervisor, he refrained from assuming a position of authority. Everyday dilemmas such as what to build and what to demolish, the sharing of tools and building materials, how to resolve disagreements and fights peacefully, were up to the participants themselves. Bertlesen, Emdrup’s first play leader, declared that ‘the initiative must come from the children themselves… I cannot, and indeed will not, teach the children anything.’ Hence they developed their own building projects, demolished them after they got tired of them, and began anew. Thus Sorensen commented that of all the landscapes he designed, the junk playground was by far the ugliest, but also the best, because of the kind of experience and pleasure it made possible, rather than its aesthetic contribution to the city.

Roy Kozlovsky, The Junk Playground: creative destruction as antidote to delinquency (2006)


The most artistic and no doubt the most inspiring project for allotment gardens was designed at Naerum Vaenge by Professor Sørensen in the 1950’s. He proposed individual oval-shaped gardens surrounded by different types of hedges, mainly of soft fruits, with summer houses set within the perimeter hedge. In practice, the allotments were surrounded with clipped hawthorn hedges, and the summer houses were placed inside the oval gardens, but this improved the concept rather than detracting from it. Although the layout of adjoining oval shaped gardens rather than detracting from it. Although the layout of adjoining oval shaped gardens appears to waste a lot of space, the remaining areas of mown grass were intended for use as a labyrinthine playground. It was his great concern for children that has characterized so much of Sørensen’s work.

 Jan Woudstra, Danish Landscape Design in the Modern Era  (1995)


Carl Theodor Sørensen, Oval Allotment Gardens in Nærum (1952)


Little Influence

The public was never made fully aware of the scope of landscape architecture, and among those who were aware, attitudes have changed over the past forty years from hopeful interest to, at worst, critical wrath.

Why has a field so full of idealism and both practical and economically available solutions had so little influence and effect? The answers do not seem to lie in the arguments and dichotomies of the field itself, though insecurities that may have been both cause and effect certainly have played a role.

One basis of insecurity may have been inherited from the modern architectural movement’s dictum that history is not important. While being educated for a greatly expanded contemporary role, students of design were routinely underprepared to measure their current efforts against the work of previous generations and other cultures. This has not only psychologically orphaned the young practitioners but also denied them the means to evaluate previous work in any but their own terms. The emphasis on learning about, and assimilating, increasing amounts of science and technology in the schools has limited students’ access to cultural and philosophical inquiry. This has tended to remove students from debates about the political and economic forces that have controlled the direction of society. What is more, the mistaken faith that technical knowledge would give the power to lead may have reduced the designer’s ability to affect society by the power of iconic example. If one is service oriented, how much scope does one have for offering philosophical guidance or cultural leadership?

Peter Walker, Melanie Simo, Invisible Gardens (1994)

Peter Walker + PWP Landscape Architecture, Barangaroo Reserve (2015)



Alfred Caldwell, Promontory Point Park (circa 1937)



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)



Our role as educators is to offer our students the opportunity for three kinds of learnings:

(1) the building of competence in changing or conserving the landscape,

(2) the building of experience and confidence in doing so, and

(3) the building of the theoretical constructs that underlie the above two.

The development of the third leg of our self-justification -theory- is by far the most important and represents in all fields the most fundamental and traditional role of the university.

Carl Steinitz, A Framework for Theory Applicable to the Education of Landscape Architects (and Other Environmental Design Professionals) (1990)



Anyone familiar with the ever-widening practice of landscape architecture is fully aware that this is not likely to be an overpopulated profession. There is good reason for its relatively small size, as professions go. An unusual combination of concerns and capacities has proved essential in a well-rounded landscape architect. He must have a compelling interest in, and sensitivity to, the environment as a whole. This requires of him a total view of ecology; a deep and abiding grasp of the natural world as an ongoing process of which humans are an integral part. He needs innate responsiveness to people, to their problems, and to the quality of life surrounding them. With it all he must be a visualist; fundamental to his approach is a sense of design, an intimate concern for specific form at every scale, and a keen appreciation of visual relationships as these affect human behavior. His mission insists on a creative urge and a dedicated search for excellence. It asks of him the ability to see, feel, and think-all with clarity-and to communicate visually as well as verbally.

Norman T. Newton, Design on the Land. The Development of Landscape Architecture. (1971)

Theo Angelopoulos, Landscape in the mist (1988)

Thessaloniki Beach, Greece