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)