Landscape Architecture and Philosophy

It may seem that what I write about will have little to do with landscape architecture. I won’t be writing about the latest landscape designs, best practices, or construction techniques. I won’t be mentioning budgets, planting lists, drainage, soils, or retaining walls. I won’t be talking about design software and tools. But I will be referring to a different set of design tools: perception, society, history, cosmology, emotions, embodiment, ritual, the body, the mind, and the heart. Either through the mundanity or the bustling of the office, we forget that these are the fundamental tools of design. In fact, these are the tools we possess to venture into the world as humans.

James Corner, founder of Field Operations (High Line, Fresh Kills Park, Manhattan West, etc.) wrote in 1991 that “contemporary theory and practice have all but lost their metaphysical and mythopoetic dimensions, promoting a landscape architecture of primary prosaic and technical construction.”1 That was 26 years ago. I am not sure what Corner thinks of landscape theory and practice now, but in my opinion, his past statement still holds true – perhaps even more than before. There have been many beautiful landscapes built in the last couple decades, but the motivation for these spaces arise from problem solving – solving social, cultural, and technical concerns. Contemporary landscape architecture is a business preoccupied with environmental stewardship, social-spatial formations, or visual aesthetics. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this, but there is something missing. Natural landscapes are where we go to contemplate on the meaning of life and universe. When do we get a chance to consider built landscapes as poignant, emotive spaces? Why is there even the need to separate natural landscapes with built landscapes?

Books on theory

I started my undergraduate degree with a 2-year curriculum in architecture. My favourite architecture theory book at the time was A Pattern Language (1977) by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. Categorizing architecture and urban design into 253 “timeless” patterns sounds simultaneously scientific and generalized. However, at the time I referred to it at every chance because it brought inspiration and nostalgia in an orderly fashion. My second favourite piece of architecture theory was an excerpt of Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore’s “Body, Memory and Architecture (1977) found in Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture (1997), edited by Charles Jencks and Karl Kropft. In contrast, I do not recall being inspired by any aspects of landscape architecture theory while I was completing my masters degree in landscape architecture. I believe that this was mainly because we weren’t “forced” to read the stuff, although The Poetics of Gardens (Charles Moore, William J. Mitchell, William Turnbull Jr., 1993), Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review (Marc Treib, ed., 1993), Landscape of Man (Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe, 1975) and Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader (Simon Swaffield, ed., 2002) were all required texts in the program. In fact, the first time I opened up to read parts of Theory in Landscape Architecture was when I wrote my PhD application statement, 10 years after I first bought the book!

In Swaffield’s introduction, he describes the themes of landscape architecture theory. In summary, those themes include 1) what form should theory take 2) the design process 3) qualities of space, form, meaning, and experience 4) the relationship between society, language, and the representation of knowledge 5) ecological design and sustainability, and 6) the integration of diverse values through site, place, and region.2 My interest is in phenomenology. As a vague and diverse approach to view experience, it can be applicable to all 6 themes of landscape architecture theory. Ironically, the only time I remember the term phenomenology come up during landscape architecture school was when I used it in a discussion with a professor. I think I was envious that architecture, though mainly in the decades between the 1950s and the 1980s, embraced the philosophies of Gaston Bachelard, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, generating its own phenomenological movement in architecture through architects/writers such as Christian Norberg-Schulz, Steven Holl, Juhani Pallasmaa, etc.

Since I’ve been away from architecture/landscape architecture education for a long time, and I was a bit curious of what students were supposed to be reading these days, I did a quick online search for “top architecture theory books” and “top landscape architecture theory books.” Of course, that doesn’t tell me what students are actually reading, but at least it shows what’s being marketed. The results (1, 2) for the architecture books generally matched my expectations: philosophy, manifestos, design dilemmas, urban/social critique, etc. On the other hand, the landscape architecture books recommendations (1, 2, 3) can be categorized as historical reviews, planting and construction guidelines/standards, graphic and representation, ecological design, and urban design theory and critique. Out of the 3 websites I checked out, the only “classics” that made the list were Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1969) and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). The go-to landscape theory book, Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader was also on the list. Most of the other books, to put it bluntly, tell us what has been done in the past, what we should do in the present future, and how we should do it. We are rarely enticed to think.

Maybe we should start thinking again

With all the guides and standards out there, we can always skip out on some thinking. Yet, I began my doctoral studies with two philosophical dilemmas that I found inherent in the role of a landscape architect: first, the argument of nature versus culture; second, the issue of authority. While the nature versus culture debate is relevant in theory, it is rarely an issue in practice – construction happens with materials regardless of classification. Authority, on the other hand, is an issue tied with the philosophy and ethics of design. Like architects, landscape architects are designers, makers, and creators. However, from the perspective of land as sacred and natural (i.e. Mother Earth, God’s creation), the authority of landscape architects to create land can also be considered presumptuous and irreverent. Should we think through and around this idea or should we just not bother? Just like how I’ve been shaped by the image of landscapes, how we all learn to understand landscapes must also affect how we design landscapes. Just as researchers are ethically responsible to be self-reflexive, shouldn’t landscape architects also be self-reflexive in their design practice? Let us start by questioning why and how we understand or appreciate landscapes the way we do. Perhaps then we can create more meaningful landscapes.

1. James Corner, “Theory in Crisis,” in Theory in Landscape Architecture, ed. by Simon Swaffield (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, [1991]2002), 20-21.
2. Simon Swaffield, “Introduction,” in Theory in Landscape Architecture, ed. by Simon Swaffield (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 3.

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