Slowly — fitfully — landscape architecture is remaking itself. Its adherents are venturing from the confines of garden, park, and plaza into strange and difficult territory, where they face challenges of a greater order. How will our cities adapt to rising seas? How do we respond to the mass extinction of our fellow species? How can we build places that are more just? Such questions mock the very notion of disciplinary boundaries. Alexander Felson, Nelson Byrd Woltz, Sean Burkholder, Teresa Gali-Izard, Quilian Riano, and Michael Geffel are among the many practitioners and scholars who are transgressing the bounds of landscape architecture, adapting methods from fields as diverse as conservation biology and quantum mechanics, as they pursue more syncretic ways of understanding and shaping environments.
These changes correspond to a growing interest in landscape, broadly defined, which is more prominent in contemporary culture than at any time since the 18th century. As James Corner wrote in 2006, “that seemingly old-fashioned term landscape has curiously come back into vogue.” 1 Architects, especially, have been drawn to the theme, as demonstrated by recent conferences of the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and by David Heymann’s excellent essays in this journal. As Heymann put it: “Landscape Is Our Sex.” Scientists concur; a recent policy briefing of the European Science Foundation identified “landscape research” as “a fundamental, integrated research field” worthy of sustained attention. 2
And yet landscape architecture remains in thrall to the discipline whose name it has borne for over a century. In the academy, landscape studies are typically housed in schools of architecture and taught using conventions established in the Bauhaus and Ecole des Beaux Arts. Students learn to think like architects, to fit landscape into boxes made by Vitruvius and Alberti, to model it with bits of chipboard and surface-modeling programs like Rhinocerous 3D. After leaving school they encounter a profession whose practice is based on, and whose remit is secondary to, architecture. “Vogue” notwithstanding, landscape architects are still cast as pliant helpmeets in the service of architects and their clients: the developers, the speculators, the boosters.
Say it again: landscape architecture. The words roll off the tongue as if their union were inevitable. But this is an arranged marriage. Most landscape practitioners know the name doesn’t quite fit, though few give it further thought. If it hasn’t stopped the production of innovative work, they reason, where is the harm? The crucial question is whether the apparent alliance of landscape and architecture conceals other possibilities for how these two parties might relate to each other, and how they might relate to the world.
First, we must remember how we got here. The English term landscape architecture in its modern sense 3 dates to 1840, when the landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon, fresh from the commercial success of his Suburban Gardener, published a posthumous anthology of the complete writings of his friend and teacher Humphry Repton, who had died in 1818. Loudon gave the volume an unusual title: The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the Late Humphry Repton, Esq. 4 Although Loudon did not explain this coinage, it aptly described his mentor’s work.
Repton was arguably the first landscape professional. Over the course of a long career, he positioned himself as the indisputable authority on matters concerning the “improvement” of wealthy estates throughout England. Flush with money from the conversion of arable to pasture, the owners of these properties sought to embellish their houses and modernize their gardens according to the latest fashions. Repton did not invent those fashions (that honor belongs to Lancelot Brown, William Kent, and, earlier, Alexander Pope), but he was the first to build a commercial practice out of marketing them.
A gifted artist, Repton developed an ingenious system of before-and-after drawings, the so-called Red Books, in which he recorded his improvements. His drawings invariably centered on the great house and its “park”: sometimes the house as seen in the carefully staged approach through the grounds, other times the reverse. Landscape in these drawings was thus a dyadic relation of house and garden. Loudon’s title honored his mentor as the creator of a new discipline — derived from gardening and building, yet identical to neither — which deserved its own name. “Landscape architecture” was both eulogy for Repton and baptism of an art.
The first American practitioner of this art was Andrew Jackson Downing, whose Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) was a near-verbatim translation of Loudon and Repton for an American audience. Downing made his money designing the grounds of those “pretty cottages and villas” then being built by the new industrial bourgeoisie on the edges of America’s growing cities. 5 The son of a nursery man, he argued repeatedly (in both the Treatise and The Horticulturist, the periodical he published between 1845 and 1852) that the buildings and gardens of these miniature estates should be conceived as integrated wholes. “The rural residence,” he wrote, should “by its varied and picturesque form and outline, its porches, verandas, etc. … [appear] to have some reasonable connection, or be in perfect keeping, with surrounding nature. Architectural beauty must be considered conjointly with the beauty of the landscape or situation” (his italics). 6
Although he worked closely with architects, particularly Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux (later the partner of Frederick Law Olmsted), Downing never saw fit to adopt Loudon’s novel formulation. In fact, he repeatedly emphasized differences between the landscape and its buildings; the latter he understood as “component parts of the general scene.” 7 Landscape and architecture were certainly related (those houses contained, after all, his clients), but the relation was one of adjacency rather than affinity.
Loudon’s neologism did not catch on in North America until the 1860s, when Olmsted and Vaux took up the title as “Landscape Architects” for Central Park. But here the term underwent a subtle but significant change. Olmsted was never primarily interested in the design of house and lot; for him, “architect” was not so much a literal description of practice, as it had been for Downing and Repton, but rather a professional strategy to co-opt the prestige of architecture and command a higher fee. 8 In an 1886 letter to his colleague Charles Eliot, Olmsted explained his thinking: “I prefer that we should call ourselves Landscape Architects … rather than landscape gardeners … because the former title better carries the professional idea.” He thought it “best that we should never charge by the day or hour as most who call themselves landscape gardeners do. We should follow the custom of lawyers in good standing and charge measurably with reference to the importance of the trust undertaken.” 9 Like medieval traders setting up camp outside the city wall, landscape architects needed to stake out a space for their craft in the protective shadow of an older, established one.
The risks of that position were apparent even then. The early years of the American Society of Landscape Architects (founded in 1899) and Landscape Architecture Magazine (founded in 1910) were filled with discussions about the folly of indenturing the discipline to a large and powerful master that might swallow its ward whole. Eliot argued that the name landscape architecture would confuse the public and limit the technical and aesthetic ambitions of the new discipline. He saw it as a proxy for an art that yet lacked a title commensurate with its true scope. “We cannot avoid seeing behind the fair figures of Gardening and Building,” he wrote in 1891, “a third figure of still nobler aspect, — the art which, for want of a better name, is sometimes called Landscape Architecture” (italics added). 10
More than a century later, the shape of that “third figure” is not much clearer. Despite growing awareness of landscape issues, most people do not understand what landscape architects do and why they are necessary. The suffix helped legitimize the field at the moment of its definition, but that social standing came at the cost of imposing technical, aesthetic, and statutory boundaries that constrain landscape architecture even today.
As this condensed history shows, the term originally described a metonym, or a relation of contiguity. Landscape architecture was the marriage of two distinct arts. But one cannot juxtapose two words of unequal force and expect their meaning to remain unchanged. Over time, metonymy gave way to metaphor, or a relation of similarity. “Landscape and architecture” became “landscape as architecture,” which is today the predominant sense. The linguists Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle had a name for the pathological overuse of metaphor. They called it “contiguity disorder,” and they provided the example of an asphasic patient who says “spyglass for microscope, or fire for gaslight,” as we now say architecture for landscape. 11 That disorder, we submit, is now an impediment to broadening the scope and strengthening the influence of the discipline. 12
To be sure, landscape and architecture are related. They are both “topographic arts,” in David Leatherbarrow’s resonant phrase, that “provide the prosaic patterns of our lives with durable dimension.” 13 That is no reason, however, to privilege their relation above all others. Landscape “architecture” has always involved an unusually diverse set of skills and modes of understanding. The first faculty, assembled at Harvard in 1898, included a landscape architect, a trained mechanical engineer, and a geologist. Olmsted, for his part, was a journalist and gentleman farmer who, as superintendent of the swath of Manhattan that would become Central Park, was primarily concerned with public relations and material operations — more maintenance man than architect!
However useful architecture may have been for Olmsted, it is no longer fit for the purpose of describing (and containing) landscape practice. But what could possibly replace it at this point? Over the decades, many practitioners have proposed alternate names. Some have fled from “landscape” altogether (“land architecture,” which had many adherents at mid-century, lives on), while others have tried to highlight the discipline’s horticultural origins (landscape architecture at Cornell began as a program in “rural arts”). Few practitioners have fully embraced “landscape” on its own terms, and those who have done so (one thinks of “landscape design” and “landscaping”) define those terms so narrowly that their adherents find themselves banished to an extra-professional (though still profitable) realm of lawns, flagstones, and wood chips.
Landscape urbanism — one of the most vigorous subfields to have emerged in the last 20 years — has engendered productive discussions and opened up new lines of inquiry in the related fields of landscape, architecture, and planning. But despite excising the word “architecture,” the movement is still largely built on and aligned with architectural commitments emphasizing surface and program. In one key text of landscape urbanism, architectural theorist Alex Wall discusses the influential 1982 proposal for Parc de la Villette by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. “The surface,” Wall writes, “had to be equipped and staged in such a way as to both anticipate and accommodate any number of changing demands and programs” (italics added). 14 In another foundational article, Corner writes, “the second theme of the landscape urbanism project concerns itself with the phenomenon of the horizontal surface, the ground plane, the ‘field’ of action” (italics added). 15
This is not to say that landscape urbanism reduces landscape to a mere programmable surface. As Stan Allen observes, “landscape has traditionally been defined as the art of organizing horizontal surfaces … but the surface in landscape is more particular than the abstract surfaces currently proliferating in architectural design. … In fact, it is slightly misleading to refer to ‘surface’ in landscape. Landscape’s matter is spread out in the horizontal dimension, but landscapes are never, strictly speaking, pure surfaces.” 16
These ideas have been important in the development of landscape urbanism and at times are powerful and useful. But they also represent a privileging of architectural terms and concepts over those of soil science, anthropology, and civil engineering. 17 When taken as the whole project of landscape architecture, they represent a narrowing of the possible with respect to conceiving, experiencing, and making landscapes. Indeed, rather than constantly reformulating landscape-as-architecture, or changing it to landscape-as-something, we should endeavor to locate a more fundamental and capacious understanding of landscape, something that gets to the root of these formulations.
What is needed is a disciplinary title that carries forward the “professional idea” that so preoccupied Olmsted, without sacrificing the “landscape idea” in all its richness and multiplicity. So what are the alternatives? Landscape art is vaporous, landscapism tendentious. Simply landscape might be better, though we hesitate to add yet another meaning to an already contested word. 18 But the main problem with all these alternatives is that they lack the capacity to command social legitimacy and economic resources, or exactly those things that architecture offered in the late 19th century.
We need a term that updates Olmsted’s strategy of professionalization for the modern age. A term that is both broader and more specific, a term that can help simultaneously expand and focus the field. And for that there is only one real candidate. We therefore propose that landscape architecture become landscape science.
Now we have opened a world of problems, not least that the word science brings its own conflicting associations. The high value placed on “data” and “efficiency” in our current political-economic situation (as seen, for example, in the discourse on smart cities and ecosystem services, and more generally in the rise of STEM education) have contributed to a popular understanding of scientific inquiry as the cold pursuit of quantifiable phenomena and material effects, devoid of creativity and divorced from artistic production. This has crowded out the original, more exciting definition:
science // a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws; knowledge gained by systematic study.
Writing in the 19th century during another time of great scientific progress (and massive socio-environmental change), Karl Marx noted that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.” 19 This observation points the way toward the new landscape science. A landscape is not mere surface; it cannot be defined and understood by outward appearance alone. Landscape science will fundamentally endeavor to investigate the difference between surface and substance, or in Marx’s words, appearance and essence.
This proposal invites the objection that landscape architecture and other processes of landscape-making are forms of artistic production, that they are fundamentally creative acts. Yet science is not devoid of creativity and we should not be so quick to judge it so. Science historians such as David Turnbull and Kapil Raj have done much to reveal the role of beauty, idiosyncracy, and chance in scientific practice. Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce defined the scientific process as “the adventurous business of reasoning. When one’s purpose lies in the line of novelty, invention, generalization, theory … instinct and rule of thumb manifestly cease to be applicable.” 20 Accordingly, landscape architect Ian McHarg argued that the “ability to find of all environments the most fit, and to adapt oneself to that environment, is in fact a creative process.” 21 Conceiving the practice of landscape science as a process of creative fitting also squares well with the concept of aptness promoted by Olmsted and Dan Kiley. 22
Rather than stretching our intellectual resources across the natural, physical, and social sciences, we should establish our own integrated science, with its own specific methods, concepts, and techniques. We can adapt tools from the many fields that already work with landscape as a primary object of inquiry, including archaeology, ecology, environmental studies, history, planning, psychology and sociology. As M. Elen Deming and Simon Swaffield observe, “many methods and techniques are interchangeable across disciplines [and] it is the way they are used, combined, and linked to theoretical propositions and practical actions in a coherent overarching strategy that gives them a distinctive disciplinary character.” 23 Landscape science is the organization of this work into a systematic study of landscapes themselves, and of processes of landscape-making, in an effort to discern the difference between surface and substance, appearance and essence.
Building from these roots in the history of landscape architecture, as well as contemporary work by scholars such as Elen Deming and Simon Swaffield, 24 we might take up the European Science Foundation’s call to “establish landscape research as an integrated research field both in terms of its interdisciplinary character and its potential to produce substantial social, economic, and environmental benefits.” 25 Allied fields such as forestry and geography have already laid claims on the term landscape science, but that should be no deterrent . To the contrary: it strengthens the general insight, that there is no reason architectural concerns should be understood as more basic or fundamental than those of geography and forestry. What we must now uncover is how the normative dimension that is fundamental to landscape design relates to and integrates with more descriptive sciences such as geography or forestry.
This brings us to a final point about the new landscape science: it is a normative science, concerned with developing a systematic knowledge of what should be. It requires testing limits and evaluating, not merely describing or generalizing facts. Inherent to the normative sciences is a critical dimension intimately related to values and desired outcomes. In “An Outline Classification of the Sciences,” Peirce argued that normative sciences investigate the relations between empirical relation and ends, and may be divided into three categories: aesthetics, ethics, and logic. More simply, normative science “distinguishes what ought to be from what ought not to be.” 26
It is common now in landscape architectural practice to work in and with formerly marginal landscapes: not just parks and promenades, but mine sites, active rail corridors, marine ports, landfills, interstate overpasses, river spillways, and old factory sites. Often this work (built and speculative) involves developing possible futures for these sites, relying on well-worn typologies and aesthetic tropes — usually by making them park-like. However, there are exceptions: projects by practioners such as Kate Orff, Sarah Cowles, and Julie Bargmann investigate novel possibilities, new sets of relations, and alternative organizational structures and experiences as a response to dereliction, toxicity, shifting cultural values, or changing climate. If we aim to continue and further these projects under the mantle of landscape science, we must ask two primary questions: “What can landscape practice learn from this situation? And what can we bring to the table?”
For too long, a dependence on architecture has enabled landscape architects to take for granted our role as actors in landscape-making. We work on highly valued social landscapes, such as parks, playgrounds, and the immediate surroundings of important buildings, and we have developed a set of conventional techniques for the design of these boutique environments. Yet just as it is possible to work with a diverse array of landscapes, it is also possible to conceive diverse modes of practice. Imagine landscape forensics as a subfield of landscape science that could systematically extend the professional practice of site analysis. Forensics might be most powerfully applied to landscapes of extraction, post-industrial landscapes, sites of ongoing social conflict, or places where violence predominates, but it could also be used to change the way we work within more traditional recreation landscapes, and to suggest ways of interpreting, constructing, and otherwise contributing to the everyday, prosaic landscapes that constitute most of our environment.
What can we learn? What can we bring? With these two questions, landscape practice is fundamentally positioned as a process of inquiry. If we undertake that process systematically, it is a science.
The articulation of a new landscape science will also benefit those designers who have classified some of their production as research in an effort to compete for legitimacy and funding with the STEM fields. The Landscape Morphologies Lab, led by Alexander Robinson at the University of Southern California, offers an instructive case. Building from a foundation of landscape architecture and computer science, the lab “explores the intersection of landscape form and infrastructural performance” through rigorous, integrated research projects with engineers, planners, policy-makers, and architects. In this effort, architecture is often an important contributing discipline. But it is not privileged. Such projects stand to be clarified and strengthened through the formation and integration of a discrete landscape science.
Further, this shift would relieve some of the cultural bias in the term landscape architecture. Cultures with rich traditions of landscape-making are often excluded from the modern canon of landscape architectural history, theory, and practice. In Argentina, for instance, significant landscapes built by alliances of agronomists, architects, gardeners, and engineers are not part of landscape architecture discourse because they do not fit neatly within the Northern European tradition. 27 And around the world, the inventive, appropriate concepts and projects of vernacular and indigenous landscape-makers are often left to the realm of anthropology or archaeology, if they are acknowledged at all.
No doubt there will be many details to resolve as we establish this new landscape science. What might its practitioners be called? How would this affect education and licensure? Perhaps practitioners of a certain temperament will hold fast to the title of landscape architect, and that specific tradition might be understood as one important pillar in an expanding field of landscape science. People who study landscape science might be known as landscape architects, but also landscape geographers, landscape engineers, and landscape anthropologists (just as they have already started to claim titles such as landscape ecologist, landscape archaeologist, and landscape urbanist), or they might call themselves, more generally, landscape scientists.
The new landscape science will also give space at the table to related practices that are fundamentally important but often ignored or denigrated. Maintenance workers, tree pruners, landscapers, and heavy machine operators should be seen not as imperfect executors of design intent, but rather as collaborators in the process of making and studying landscapes, just as clients, users, inhabitants, bluebirds, and mycorrhizae are sometimes understood today. Subfields such as chorology (study of land) or landscape metrology (study of metrics) could emerge to address broader, systemic questions in specific ways. In his treatise Art as Experience, John Dewey captures the spirit of the enterprise:
There are more opportunities for resistance and tension, more drafts upon experimentation and invention, and therefore more novelty in action, greater range and depth of insight and increase of poignancy in feeling. … The designs of the living are widened and enriched. Fulfillment is more massive and more subtly shaded. 28
The metaphor of landscape-as-architecture is historical, not ontological. It was made, and it can be remade or unmade to meet new demands and new realities.