Part VI: Bad role models for landscape architecture

Part VI: Bad role models for landscape architecture

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.

Part 6 – Is there a good concept?

A large part of imagination is simulation. The design process can be thought of as a sophisticated ‘flight simulator’ that allows the testing of a design in motion before it takes form on site. A flight simulator saves lives, money, and materials by allowing novice pilots to err virtually – and this is precisely also true of design process. What of the art in design, though? A pilot learns skills that are analytical, instrumental, mechanical, whereas design must also be emotive, sensual, perhaps even mythic (and one wouldn’t want to be on a flight with those qualities). Is the concept the art component of design? Is design like a simulator run on the electricity of the idea? In a word, no. We need to reframe our idea of the idea in landscape design.

What is your concept?
This is the question that is asked in critiques, the question students and professionals ask each other, and it’s even the question clients have been trained to ask. The concept, though, as it is commonly wielded, possesses a monolithic singularity. Once formed, the concept can be unassailable. Mitigating factors and contingencies must be cast off or repelled. The concept becomes so abstracted from the site that communication between genius loci and concept is simply lost. The virtual aeroplane keeps landing on the same runway, same time, same crosswind, same stale coffee.

Where is the rupture? Why do concept-based approaches for design genesis fail? First, because they tend to be uncritical. Concept may follow analysis, but the crucial work of interpretation is missing. Second, because it is a human trait to seek abstractions that transcend the physical – often as pure, universal ‘truths’ – fixed and timeless, axiomatic. Concepts thus formed become so literal that they bear no relation to place. These two related tendencies result in art that more resembles taxidermy than living, breathing nature.

If not concept, then what?
We might begin to found a new idea of landscape design process by first examining the medium. It’s a truism, for example, to say that a potter thinks differently from a carpenter, that the medium of clay creates a particularly plastic mode of understanding, whereas wood has pliancy but requires precision, as does the woodworker. One might even, as an extreme example, examine Zen philosophy through the lens of the art of motorcycle maintenance. Our bodily experience of the world and our interaction with its materials shapes our life views and our modes of knowledge.

To examine medium in landscape design is particularly complex. First, there are the various media employed in drawing and modelling during the creative simulation phase of design that occurs in primarily in the studio. This plurality of materials marks a particular landscape architectural way of knowing that is distinct from the work of the specialist craftsman. Second, there is landscape itself, which really can’t be considered a singular medium at all, but rather must be viewed as a set of processes and forces – ecological, geological, political, social, cultural – that are constantly dynamic and interpenetrating.

The answer is, again, in our idea of the ‘big idea’ of design. If we conceive of both site and of design processes as fluid and relational, then we must begin to work and act in more fluid and relational ways. It is not a question of eliminating concept in favour of context. Context must be engaged through inaugurating a process of active, open-ended conceptualising in design as opposed to a fixed concept. This may seem like a subtle shift, but it is one that could not only utterly redefine our work with landscape, but redefine design processes across the architectures, arts and manufactures. As we seek more sustainable and resilient modes of thinking and practice, the scope of contemporary landscape architecture demands that we lead the way.

NB: If you are currently working on projects – either professionally or academically – that you believe are putting some of these ideas to the test, I am eager to hear about them. The next step is to look for ‘good role models for landscape architecture’.

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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