Landscape, an Evolutionary System

16 Oct 2013 | Blog

“Conventions of landscape practice and representation are thick with the sediment of habit and tradition”.  Julia Czerniak

Inspired by one of my colleague’s previous blog posts, ‘How to Design Better Social Spaces’, I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss one of the growing trends in landscape architecture that is slowly (and if you ask my opinion for the better) taking hold.

Being developed and driven by some of the biggest names in the industry. I am talking about the shift away from the static picturesque understanding of landscape, which has dominated our industry – resulting in many of our designed landscapes resembling Arcadian paintings – to a more fluid and encompassing view. Landscapes as evolutionary systems.


Water at Wentworth by Humphry Repton, before and after.

 Landscape is emerging as a physical and cultural process with varied spatial and temporal scales, no longer being relegated to a stagnant, unchanging image. Instead, it is being understood as an ever-evolving system, in constant flux and interplay with its site specific (and sometimes not specific) context.

This definition of landscape is, perhaps, best summarised by the renowned landscape researcher, John Brinkerhoff Jackson, who entitled it Landscape Three. He describes Landscape Three as: “landscape not scenery, it is not a political unit; it is really no more than a collection, a system of man-made surfaces on the earth”. Criticising our ingrained scenic approach which he called landscape two, as too narrow a concept. An ideal that has impressed on us the notion that there can be only one kind of landscape. A static, conservative, pictorialised landscape. One that is restricted to a green remedy, a restorative or compensative item to counter balance the pressures of modern life.

It is this new understanding of landscape that has guided, and been driven by, landscape architects such as James Corner and Field Operations, George Hargreaves and Chris Reed among others, expanding on principles and design processes developed by Ian McHarg at the University of Pennsylvania. Their approaches to analysing and mapping landscape, it’s systems and processes, offer a sombre, thought provoking and timely critique of existing landscape conventions.


 The Earth seen from Apollo 17

Pictorial landscapes favour appearance over function, embrace conventionalised compositional techniques, and through particular cultural visions and venues, condition our way of seeing nature. Contemporary landscape architecture needs to deal with the issues of determinacy and in determinacy, entropy, and an openness for change.

It is through an understanding of the ecology of a site and the evolutionary nature of landscape, that we are able to create designs that reveal processes, relationships and the adaptive ability of a site that we would otherwise be blind to. By embracing uncertainty, process and relations into landscape we are able to create designed evolutionary systems more suited to our modern projects, sites and lives.

It will be the challenge of contemporary landscape architecture to not just deal with the retinal aspects of a site but to comprehensively deal with uncertainty, complexity, uniqueness, social issues and sustainability in ways that go beyond analytics or aesthetics alone, but combine the two into a form of ‘systems aesthetics’.

I look forward to discussing many of these ideas, as well as several of the projects of the above-mentioned landscape architects and designers in my future blog posts.

Written Nicholas Pierson