‘Capability’

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)

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Gardens of all Sorts

Gardens of all sorts come in all sizes and guises. And our interest in them also takes many approaches. We study the process of their design, their built forms, their materials and plantings, their meanings, their use or how they are experienced on the ground and represented in word and image, their decay and maybe their recuperation. We are interested in who their designers were, who commissioned them, and the motives of both designers and patrons, along with the political and social contexts in which gardens came into being. But sometimes we also construct our own memories of these places.

A history of gardens is best undertaken as a cultural history, even if its primary focus is design, botany, hydraulics or sculpture. People engage in place-making because our choice of habitation is of supreme importance, as we find our identity and a sense of belonging in the process of colonizing and cultivation, which the word ‘culture’ (derived from Latin colere) implies. It is not enough to look at gardens for their style (endlessly and emptily touted as ‘formal’ or ‘informal’, ‘baroque’, ‘picturesque’, ‘arts and crafts’), nor even enough to assess their visual appearance. We need to ask why they came into being, what advantages and pleasures (including the visual, to be sure) accrue from them, and how and why they have survived, changed or vanished.

The range of places that can be envisaged within the category of ‘garden’ is also enormous and various, and it changes from locality to locality, and from age to age. Yet this diversity does not wholly inhibit us from knowing what it is that we want to discuss when we think of gardens. Above all, it is useful to think of the garden as typically a place of paradox, being the work of men and women yet created from elements of nature, the two held in some precious and often precarious tension. And while a garden is often acknowledged to be a ‘total environment’, a place that may be physically separated from other zones, it also answers and displays connections with larger environments and concerns, not least agriculture and cities. Gardens, in short, are both entities within themselves and a focus of human speculations, propositions, and negotiations, concerning what it is to live in the world.

John Dixon Hunt, A World of Gardens (2012)

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Peter Greenaway, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

John Evelyn, Groombridge Place Estates (circa 1650)

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Remarkable

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)

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

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Indigenous

Landscape urbanism is often heralded as the saviour of the built professions, as the new –ism with concerns that are congruent with the politically correct, ecological biases and priorities of the developed, Western world. Much of the contemporary discourse on landscape urbanism – and the projects aligned with this emerging field – focus upon the challenges posed by post-industrial urban voids. The recovery of brownfield sites and the reintroduction of natural processes and habitats are key issues linked to landscape urbanism. At the same time, it is arguable that such projects are more landscape architecture – as opposed to landscape urbanism. Often, the urbanism component is lacking.

This paper will develop an argument that landscape urbanism – understood as structuring landscapes to guide their occupation, use and urbanization – is not new, but has indeed been in practice for several millennia. It argues that there is an ancient, indigenous landscape urbanism whereby an integral system of urbanization is tied to the logics of landscapes. More specifically, it investigates territories structured by water resource management and the relationship of such landscapes to urbanization.

Kelly Shannon & Samitha Manawadu, Indigenous Landscape Urbanism: Sri Lanka’s Reservoir & Tank System (2007)

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Angammedilla Gal Amuna (Rajabemma) at Polonnaruwa (ca 1175)

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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)

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Ordinary Walkers

The word itself tells us much. It entered the English language, along with herring and bleached linen, as a Dutch import at the end of the sixteenth century. And landschap, like its Germanic root, Landschaft, signified a unit of human occupation, indeed a jurisdiction, as much as anything that might be a pleasant object of depiction. So it was surely not accidental that in the Netherlandish flood-fields, itself the site of formidable human engineering, a community developed the idea of a landschap, which in the colloquial English of the time became a landskip. Its Italian equivalents, the pastoral idyll of brooks and wheat-gold hills, were known as parerga, and were the auxiliary settings for the familiar motifs of classical myth and sacred scripture. But in the Netherlands, the human design and use of the landscape -implied by the fishermen, cattle drovers, and ordinary walkers and riders who dotted the painting of Esaias van de Velde, for example- was the story, startlingly sufficient unto itself.

Simon Shama, Landscape and Memory (1995)

Strootman Landschapsarchitecten, Belvederes Drentsche Aa (2010)

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Reawaken

Chris McCandless at his bus-home in Alaska (1994)

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Sean Penn, Into the Wild (2007)

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We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Jensen & Skodvin, Liasanden Picnic (1997)

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None Owns

The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns his field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property on the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give them no title. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

Thomas Jefferson et alt., Virginia University Campus (1825)

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Header: Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World (1948)

Perspectives

Artists and artisans both demonstrate with perfect clarity that a person is least able to appropriate for himself those things which are most peculiarly his. His works leave him as birds do the best in which they were hatched.

In this respect an architect’s fate is the strangest of all. How often he employs his whole intellect and warmth of feeling in the creation of rooms from which he must exclude himself. Royal halls owe their splendor to him, and he may not share in the enjoyment of their finest effects. In temples he draws the line between himself and the holy of holies; the steps he built to ceremonies that lift up the heady, he may no longer climb; just as the goldsmith worships only from afar the monstrance which he wrought in the fire and set with jewels. With the keys of the palace the architect hands over all it’s comforts to the wealthy man, and has not the least part in them. Surely in this way art must little by little grow away from the artist, if the work, like a child provided for, no longer teaches back to touch its father.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities  (1809)

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Alain Resnais, L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)

Dominique Girard, Nymphenburg Palace Sculpture Garden (1715 circa)

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Strange Absurdities

In the affected rage for following nature, as it is called, persons of acknowledged good sense and good taste, have been misled into the strangest absurdities. Thus, forgetting that a road is an artificial work of convenience, and not a natural production, it has, at one time, been displayed as the most ostentatious feature through the centre of a park, in the serpentine line described by the track of sheep; and, at another, concealed between two hedges, or in a deep chasm between two banks, lest it should be discovered: and such, alas! is the blindness of system, that, in a place where several roads are brought together (like the streets at the Seven Dials), within two hundred yards of the hall door a direction post is placed, as necessary to point out the way to the house.

Humphry Repton, An inquiry into the changes of taste in landscape gardening (1806)

Humphry Repton, Site at Wentworth, South Yorkshire before and after proposed landscaping

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Thomas Medland’s Humphry Repton Business Card