The Significance of Indeterminacy

Inevitably, many community-based initiatives tend to be framed in conventional terms—a “wished-for world” based on familiar ideals from the past. What is most challenging under such dislocated conditions is to envisage new strategic possibilities that can deliver long-term “necessities of landscape performance.” Brett Milligan’s concept of “corporate ecologies” envisages strategic action being implemented through organizational networks, rather than by top-down policy or single site intervention. In Christchurch, it is not corporations, but non-governmental organizations and not-for-profits such as Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, and the Student Volunteer Army that have emerged as key agents in bottom-up recovery actions. They prefigure a significant extension of landscape architectural activity from specific sites, to multiple spaces and places of engagement with landscapes—where human relationships with landscape are “designed” through manipulating the tools and practices of everyday life.

Perhaps the problem is that, as designers, we mis­understand the significance of indeterminacy. The contemporary world is in thrall to the paradigm of choice and open-ended possibilities—What would you like to buy? Which scene do you prefer? Which design should we select and how many different ways might it turn out? Sudden, unpredictable, and traumatic landscape transformations challenge the presumption of ever-expanding choice and the excitement of uncertainty, and instead focus attention upon how to make decisions over those things that are vital to life and which we can have some hope of influencing.

Jacky Bowring, Simon Swaffield, Shifting Landscapes In-Between Times (2013)

Thierry Kandjee + Taktyk, Alive Architecture, Parkfarm (2014-2015)



Landscape comes into English language geography primarily from the German landschaft. Much has been written about the fact that the German word means area, without any particularly aesthetic or artistic, or even visual connotations.

Denis Cosgrove, Landscape as cultural product (1984)

The word landscape finds its roots in the Old Dutch word landskip, which designates a stretch of cultivated land. The word paysage in French stems from the Latin word pagus, which simply means an extent of land made by the peasant. In other words, landscape is the belabored making of the peasant, and has nothing to do with the ideal of untouched wilderness.

Christophe Girot, Immanent Landscape (2012)

Historically, landscape has had a range of meanings, some quite unrelated to art. One such meaning applies to civic classification of territory. It has been argued that the German Landshaft or Lantshaft was not originally a view of nature but rather a geographic ares defined by political boundaries. In the late fifteenth century, the land around a town was referred to as its landscape, a meaning that still survives in some places, as in the Swiss canton of Basel Landschaft.

Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (1999)

This distinction can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which at first refered not to land but to a picture of it, as in the later, selectively framed representations of seventeent-century Dutch landschap paintings. Soon after the appearance of this genre of painting the scenic concept was applied to the land itself in the form of large-scale rural vistas, designed estates, and ornamental garden art. Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imagining.

James Corner, Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes (1999)

Landscape is a familiar term that is rich and evocative, but also complex and at times confusing.

Simon Swaffield, Landscape as a way of knowing the world (2005)

img06Relais Landschaftsarchitekten, The Written Garden Berlin (2011)



In more recent decades, social and ecological issues have again stimulated a range of more radical ‘landscape’ initiatives, in which the science of landscape ecology combines with a focus upon the experiential, everyday land- scape of local communities to resist the worse excesses of globalisation. An early expression of this reformulation of landscape as a radical challenge to conventional practice was the ecological design approach pioneered in Holland and introduced into the British New Towns in the 1970s. Initially, emphasis was placed upon restoration and recreation of largely indigenous woodlands, grasslands and wetlands within the new urban areas, frequently on former industrial or mining sites, with the aim that they would make natural environments more accessible to children and communities.

Over time, emphasis has shifted to community participation in the re-making of urban landscapes, through organisations such as Groundwork and Common Ground. These initiatives are tangible expressions of a phenomenological commitment to ‘dwelling’ through landscape, combined with the instrumental knowledge of ecology. Drawing upon both public and private funding, these new vehicles for landscape knowledge contrast dramatically with the ‘elitist’ history portrayed above, as a fundamental part of their operation is the empowerment of local communities, frequently in lower socioeconomic areas, to become engaged in their local landscape setting.

Simon Swaffield, Landscape as a way of knowing the world (2005)

Basurama+Makea, Barna on wheels (2009)


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)


Particular Interests


Attempts by particular professions or disciplines to define social and· biophysical reality in a particular way are a necessary characteristic of collective action. At the same time, they invariably express to some degree the particular interests of the group involved. The challenge faced by any critically aware practitioner or academic is to recognize the inevitability of this linkage, yet at the same time to maintain a personal commitment to informed and responsible social action.

Simon Swaffield, Roles and Meanings of “Landscape” (1991)

Grant Associates + Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Gardens by the Bay (2011)