Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part III

Comment: Bad role models for landscape architecture Part III

Many a landscape student’s bête noire is the concept – the ‘big idea’ that drives the design. Ultimately, any site’s big idea is its context and how that fits with its possible programme. Many design concepts actually prevent landscapes from functioning, and this series of short articles looks at a few of the ways projects can get off to false starts or come to bad ends.

Bad Concept No. 3 – The Killer Robot

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a simple formula for landscape design? Feed the site in as a variable (x marks the site), solve for x and, lo and behold, beyond the equals sign lurks a finished design. Actually, you’re probably thinking, it wouldn’t be wonderful. Landscape architects and garden designers would simply be out of work. Clients around the world could download the ‘garden design’ or ‘master plan’ app, and that would be that. Run app, print plan, hire contractor, job done.

On the Academy of Urbanism’s Linked In group, there have, at the time of this writing, been 106 earnest responses to the question “I am trying to develop a more systematic approach to assesing (sic) how well a place is doing …”, which shows just how much interest there is in the robotic, systematised approach to landscape. We know a simple formula doesn’t exist, but computerised modelling is still seen as a viable approach to landscape and urban practice, despite the egregious example of traffic planning’s universal failure to make better places anywhere through the use of very sexy and sophisticated models.

Models and formulas also demean our profession. The proliferation of short garden design courses based in a formulaic approach furthers the notion, dangerously amongst the general public, that a bit of careful shading with coloured pencil and the loving application of a bit of Euclidean geometry is all that’s required for place making. Landscape design: it’s just what you like, and just a bit of shrubbing it up. Child’s play. Why on Earth would anyone spend eight years of their life working towards Chartership just to do that? The prevalence of facile shape-making approaches in garden design has led a couple of generations of landscape architects to seek to distance themselves from gardens – a peculiar act that could be compared to denying the existence of your leg while you’re standing on it.

Not that this distancing has done much good. Formulaic approaches are writ large in a classic of the landscape architecture canon: Grant Reid’s From Concept to Form in Landscape Design.  Reid has now assimilated thousands of landscape designers into a colony of killer robots, manufacturing mindless, soulless geometric designs across the face of the Earth. There’s no denying that it’s easy. Begin with a circle (or a hexagon, or even an irregular polygon), click and place it around in CAD a bit, and presto, a garden design that functions only in plan and which stylistically evokes the golden year of 1985. Landscape design, as good practitioners know, happens in four, and probably more dimensions, and we must engage all of our senses in design that is spatial. The 2D plan drawing is not truly our friend, at least not when used in isolation, and certainly not when geometry alone is the driver for site design.

Tim Waterman is honorary editor of Landscape and is a lecturer in landscape architecture and urban design at Writtle School of Design

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the Landscape Institute.

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