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)


Messy Ecosystems

Ecological quality tends to look messy, and this poses problems for those who imagine and construct new landscapes to enhance ecological quality. What is good may not look good, and what looks good may not be good. The distinction between function and appearance may distress idealists who regard presentation as dissembling, but it is intrinsic to the concept of design, in which each landscape is recognized as one of any number of possible designs for a particular place. Landscape architects may consult the genius of the place, but they do not expect the genius of the place to design it.

However, even designers may become strangely submissive in the face of nature’s genius, sharing in a common popular delusion that nature will speak for itself——-if only human beings will quit interrupting. A belief that nature needs no presentation and that presentation is essentially sinister in its intent leaves ecosystems highly susceptible to misunderstanding. Decades ago, Lowenthal and Prince (1965) instructed that people “see their terrain through preferred and accustomed spectacles.” As much as our affection for the cultural concept of nature would lead us to believe otherwise, people do not know how to see ecological quality directly. We know how to see ecological quality only through our cultural lenses, and through those lenses, it may or may not look like nature. Nature has come to be identified with pictorial conventions of the picturesque, a cultural, not ecological concept. More significantly, picturesque conventions have become so integral to landscape perception that we no longer are able to accept their origin in culture. Picturesque conventions seem so intrinsic to nature that they are mistaken for ecological quality.

The difference between the scientific concept of ecology and the cultural concept of nature, the difference between function and appearance, demonstrates that applied landscape ecology is essentially a design problem. It is not a straightforward problem of attending to scientific knowledge of ecosystem relationships or an artistic problem of expressing ecological function, but a public landscape problem of addressing cultural expectations that only tangentially relate to ecological function or high art. It requires the translation of ecological patterns into cultural language. It requires placing unfamiliar and frequently undesirable forms inside familiar, attractive packages. It requires designing orderly frames for messy ecosystems.

Joan Iverson Nassauer, Messy ecosystems, orderly frames (1995)

also see: Obscure the Human Act

Gilles Clément, Matisse Park (1990-1997)


Derborence Island, an inaccessible concrete structure set in the middle of Lille’s Parc Henri Matisse, is an intriguing example of recent landscape design. The park, which was completed in 1995 as part of the vast Euralille development, was designed by the French landscape architect Gilles Clément. The idea for the park is derived from several sources, including the aesthetic characteristics of uncultivated ground, the symbolic reconstruction of a fragment of primary forest and the enhancement of urban biodiversity. It is suggested that Clément’s novel synthesis of nature and culture is significantly different from prevailing discourses of landscape design and is best interpreted as a form of site-specific art. Clément’s project reveals tensions between the aesthetic and scientific significance of so-called ‘waste spaces’ in contemporary cities and the widening scope of utilitarian approaches to landscape design.

Matthew Gandy, Entropy by design: Gilles Clément, Parc Henri Matisse and the Limits to Avant-garde Urbanism (2012)