‘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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Coffin

Ian McHarg, too, was concerned about unrestricted developement. The idea that some developments are more suitable to some landscapes than to others seems only common sense, but when homes built on floodplains are inundated, or hotels built on cliff tops fall into the sea, the extent of human folly becomes evident. We could avoid such calamities and live more harmoniusly whit nature, thought McHarg, if we took natural processes and values into account. He proposed a method for bringing everything into the picture. Known as ‘landscape suitability analysis’ or sometimes just as ‘sieve-mapping’, the technique he developed involved layering information on acetate sheets. So, for example, in considering the optimal route for a new highway, McHarg would combine layers showing the engineering properties of the substrates with layers showing productive soils, significant wildlife habitats, important cultural sites, and so on. When these were combined, it was the areas which were clearest of symbols that were the better areas in which to construct the road. The method also worked” well for planning development at a regional scale. Typically, after gathering physiographic, climatic, and geological data, McHarg could produce suitability maps, usually zoned for agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urban development. The method, which relied on extensive gathering and manipulation of data, became much easier with the growing availability of computers, and ‘McHarg’s Method’ became the basis of the technology known as GIS (Geographical Information System) which uses digital map layers instead of superimposed drawings.

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


Some years later, however, another nail in the coffin of the designed landscape was drilled: the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, which cited the natural world as the only viable model for landscape architecture. This text provided landscape architects with both an analytical method and sufficient moral grounds to avoid almost completely decisions of form and design -that is, if design is taken as the concious shaping of landscape rather than its stewardship alone. McHarg emphasized the evolving study of natural ecology and remained within the bounds of natural processes and planning. A strong moral imperative underpinned the discourse; it mixed science with evangelism -a sort of ecofundamentalism. In his writtings and lectures, McHarg took no prisoners and allowed no quarter.

Marc Treib, Nature Recalled (1999)

Ian McHarg, Minimum Social Cost Alignment of a Road (late 1960s)

 

Mechanistic

Functionalism was entirely consistent with the rationalistic and mechanistic world-view which rose to become the dominant European ideology in the seventeenth century. Believing, as they did, that the cosmos was a complicated clockwork, Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and their ilk maintained that it could be analyzed, reduced, investigated and ultimately controlled. If the universe is a machine, it is easy to assert, as did Le Corbusier, that a house ought to be one. It was this connection with science which ultimately distanced the functional approach from ordinary people and delivered it into the hands of technocrats. This did not begin to happen until the emergence of the social sciences in the nineteenth century when functionalism became linked with ideals of social progress and revolutionary political developments.

Ian Thompson, Ecology, Community and Delight (1999)

DROM + Strelka KB, Azatlyk Square (2019)

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Tyrannical

Turner notes that the word “landscape” has itself undergone a shift in meaning. In the seventeenth century it was a painter’s term. derived from the Dutch, which referred to a picture which depicted inland scenery (as opposed to seascapes, portraits, etc.) The scenery depicted was usually of ideal, or idealised places. The eighteenth-century “landscape gardeners” took their inspiration from painting particularly the works of Poussin, Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, but sought to realise these ideal Landscapes throught the tangible manipulation of earth, water and vegetation. Things started to go wrong, as far as the meaning of “landscape Archiecture” was concerned, when a secord sense of the word “landscape”, which Turner calls the Geographer’s Sense, gained ascendancy over the original meaning. In this sense “landscape” has come to mean “a tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics and features, esp. considered as a product of modifying or shaping processes and agents (usually natural)”.

As Turner sees it, the problem with “landscape architect”, if “landscape” is used in the Geografer’s Sense, is that it implies God-like powers to rise mountains, to direct the course of rivers, to control the climate and to dictate the pattern of human seattlement” This aspiration to omnipotence is, he says, “as preposterous as it is sacrilegous as it is tyrannical”.

Ian Thompson, Ecology, Community and Delight (1999)

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Chris Reed + Stoss; Huangpu Riverfront (2012)

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Flawed

The focus of this paper has been deliberately narrow; it has examined Geoffrey Jellicoe’s ideas far more closely than it has examined the body of his design work. Many would judge Jellicoe to be an outstanding designer, but my contention is simply that being an outstanding designer does not make him an outstanding philosopher. I am willing to concede that it is rather harsh to judge theories presented in talks and articles written over a lifetime as if they were rigorously argued in a journal of philosophical aestehtics. Nevertheless, it should be said that Jellicoe’s ideas are seriously flawed. In particular he is wrong to make the communication of subconscious contents a necessary condition for creating works of art. Nor can such communication be regarded as supplying a sufficient condition.

Jellicoe’s ideas are wrong, but they are not pernicious. They are unlikely to cause any harm in the world, and have served him well enough in his own art. Seen as a personal philosophy rather than a general theory in philosophical aesthetics, they have value. It is naive to expect great artists, whether they be composers, poets or landscape architects, to be profound or consistent thinkers.

Second, though Jellicoe’s theories do not make complete sense, and in some respects are plainly wrong, he is surely right to maintain that landscape architecture can produce works of art. My purpose in this paper has not been to evaluate Jellicoe’s landscape designs, butI would notdisagree with the view that many ofhis own designs would count asart.

Third, we will never find a single criterion against which to judge those things that aspire to be works of art, and we are mistaken to look for one. It will probably benefit landscape architecture if at least some of its products are considered to merit the appellation “work of art”. To this extent its status is more than an academic question. There is not, however, one right or guaranteed way of producing such work. Some will see that as a problem, others as a liberation. Which schemes are works of art, which are not, and which lie on the borderline, will always remain matters of judgement and debate.

Ian Thompson, Can a Landscape be a Work of Art?: an examination of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s theory of aesthetics (1995)

Sir Geoffrey Allan Jellicoe, Sutton Place Gardens (1983)

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