Is There a Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

Approach to Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, Australia / TCL

Kicking off a two-day planting symposium at the University of California at Berkeley, professor emeritus Marc Treib posed the question: Is there still a place for the “art of landscape design” in an age “dominated by the science of landscape ecology?” Planting design is often brushed aside as superfluous or unserious. British historian and critic Tim Richardson reminded the audience of the litany of unfavorable adjectives associated with artful planting: the bourgeois, the small-scale, the amateur, the hobbyist, the ephemeral, the female.

Nonetheless, Treib answered his own question with resounding affirmation. In organizing the symposium, Treib’s goal was to focus on planting and landscape design that surpasses function and landscape ecology alone and brings in beauty. Addressing the concerns of ecology in landscape architecture has become nearly (and arguably) required. Accordingly, all of the speakers’ designs, or the projects discussed, are sustainable “to a greater or lesser degree.”

But building from the constraints created by location and environmental conditions, how can aesthetics and art inform design? And what level of beauty can be attained? Given we are in an environmental crisis, Trieb audaciously questioned the “narrow ambition” of designs that solely address ecological function, and the idea “that good morals automatically yield good landscapes.”

Speakers from around the world also explained how planting aesthetics are tied to histories. For example, Laurie Olin, FASLA, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked: “In design, one is never truly free of earlier sense of form, particularly those found in nature. Everything you do refers to everything else, whether you mean it to or not.”

Speakers employed the vocabulary of plant selection and form to connect to cultural, natural, and formal histories, deepening the discussion on aesthetics. Below are highlights from the weekend:

Planting to Illuminate Cultural and Natural Histories

Kate Cullity, a founding director of Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL) in Adelaide, Australia, seeks to respect and illuminate cultural histories through her designs. These histories are brought to light through the selection and placement of plants. At the Uluru Aboriginal Cultural Center at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the design encourages the visitor to respect the Uluru’s culture and their right to the land (see image above).

Before the start of the project, Cullity relocated to the desert for one month, slowing down to learn the landscape and recording stories from the Aborginal people. In a rare rain event, she learned “how water moves in a dendritic way over the desert.”

Her time at the site influenced the ultimate design of the project: the cultural center was sited to give guests a meditative walk through the landscape before arriving. No change in grade was made across the entire site, as doing so would have altered the way water flowed, and consequently the growth of the existing plants. “Sometimes,” Cullity noted, “designing is not the answer. This was the answer here.”

In similar theme, others also referred to the importance of water, and lack thereof, as defining their planting habits. Mario Schjetnan, FASLA, an architect and landscape architect in Mexico City, discussed botanical geography, and the variations determined by “latitude and altitude.” He discussed designing in a subtropical climate and the importance of retaining stormwater.

Working primarily in the deserts of Arizona and Texas, Christy Ten Eyck, FASLA, is guided by the aesthetics of “Plant what will survive!” and “Own your own geography.” These tenents translate into: use native and drought-tolerant plants; pay attention to runoff and permeability; evoke the natural landscape features, such as arroyos; and look to where native tribes have found meaning in the landscape.

Landscape architects Thorbjörn Andersson of Stockholm, Sweden; Cristina Castel-Branco of Lisbon, Portugal; and Erik Dhont of Brussels, Belgium expressed the influence of their respective cultural histories in their planting practices. Andersson noted the poverty of the Swedish landscape as influential in his own career. His design of the Hyllie Plaza in Malmö, Sweden used one single species, the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) to create a stylized beech forest. The tree’s architectural form, smooth silk trunk, the near-sterile understory: “It already looks designed in nature,” Andersson noted, adding, “plants become part of what signifies our culture.”

Beech trees in Hyllie Plaza, Malmö , Sweden / Thorbjörn Andersson

Dhont credits Belgium’s strong cultural heritage with defining his own body of work. “When you know heritage, it’s impressive to go in the footsteps of history.” He re-employs that heritage in his own work to new ends, such as using the topiary to guide and provoke encounters in a garden.

Topiaries at a chateau in Geneva, Switzerland / Erik Dhont

Castel-Branco, too, has merged the historic and the new in her own work. In a historic garden of exotic plants, she provokingly planted more exotic Sequoias after witnessing their success. She reminded the audience that the garden is an “eternal laboratory of adaptation,” which will grow in importance as the climate changes.

Planting as the Arbiter of Form

Other speakers focused on the formal abilities plants can offer a place. For Peter Walker, FASLA, his approach to planting has been a fifty-year journey to achieve what he experienced at the Parc de Sceaux, outside of Paris, France: the power of a landscape to instill a Gothic-cathedral sense of awe in the visitor. Walker has attempted to make architecture from plants, concentrating on the instant trees meet the ground on a flat surface. “I will not talk about a region or ecology—we’ve had enough of that,” Walker said.

Parc de Sceaux, France / Pinterest

Nonetheless, he admitted the relevance of place in his designs. In Japan, regarding subtle changes in the landscape is habitual, and his proposal to populate a landscape solely with a field of trees was easily accepted; in New York City, a similar design required thorough explanation to city stakeholders.

Echoing Walker, Andrea Cochran, FASLA, a landscape architect based in San Francisco, commented, “plants can shift how people think about environment. It’s about re-calibrating what is beauty.” Her landscapes, most notable for their edited, sculptural forms, nonetheless are determined by the California climate that lacks rain for six months of the year.

Richard Hindle, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley, asked the audience to consider how plants and structures unite by examining vertical gardens, which bring together architectural and the garden-making approaches and allow for new paradigms, such as extending the anatomical and physiological possibilities of plants.

On a broader scale, Alexandre Chemetoff, a landscape architect and urbanist based in Gentilly, France, offered a similar point: “a tree is not an isolated subject,” and neither is landscape architecture. In his work that spans architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture, he works with the three disciplines in tandem, the design of one informing the others. “This is quite different than the idea of having things separate, one from the other,” he explained, demonstrating the example of a thicket of trees that serve as a natural cooling system to a cocooned building.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of California at Berkeley.

9 thoughts on “Is There a Still a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?

  1. Craig 02/24/2018 / 10:51 am

    Perhaps Mr. Walker has had enough of ecology, but the planet has not. Ecology is the very “stuff” that makes life possible and to ignore that is render one’s profession irrelevant.

    • Chris 01/16/2019 / 1:36 am

      Perhaps he just meant that other speakers at the symposium had discussed the topics of region and ecology in depth, so he didn’t have much more to add? I could see how that might be easily misinterpreted…

  2. disappointed 02/27/2018 / 5:55 pm

    “….a Place for Aesthetics in Landscape Design?” And that the conversation about SUPERFICIAL STYLING continues to be celebrated should be concerning. We can romanticize the past, but should we not improve, becoming more aware, more adept, and more responsible? If we were talking about cars, we may all agree that we might like the styling of old Cadillacs, but who argues with new technology? The application of new knowledge?

    That this is even the focus of a serious academic discussion, at a time when the Arctic is well above freezing — during the coldest time of year, is a missed opportunity, a wasted day and a wasted forum! And its kind of sickening.

    Wake up to our world, most people don’t even know what this profession does, and we make it even less accessible by pursuing this nonsense. If a planner, architect, engineer, or political scientist were to sit through that conversation, what would they think? We need practitioners well ready to engage the current world, the current crisis, politically and ecologically, otherwise this profession is doomed to be in service to nothing more than “plutocrats” and “playground design.”

    Everyone knows that we always stand upon the shoulders of those that came before us; give us something worthy of standing on!

    • David Campbell 02/28/2018 / 2:21 pm

      While I agree with your fundamental point, the topic of this short symposium was intentionally narrow. No one there advocated aesthetics over sustainability or function. We can certainly make room for discussing the history, relevance, and application of beauty.

  3. Caren Yglesias 02/28/2018 / 12:06 pm

    The reason we’re in such environmental trouble is that we need more of this kind of thinking, not less. While Nature, and by extension, the plant world, needs no help to exist from people; people need Nature. When designed landscapes draw attention to the natural world in ways that are accessible and can be appreciated and valued, then winning the fight for long-term investment over short-term gain means we will stop fouling our home. Nature is not just “natural resources,” but is, as Emerson said in his essay on nature, “Not me.” Aesthetics (all forms of sensible perception) + plants + design = what we must do, as these conference speakers argued, using methods that are culturally, historically, and ecologically responsible.

  4. Anne Jones 02/28/2018 / 1:37 pm

    Tim Richardson’s assertion that artful planting is associated with negative adjectives such as ‘the female’ is one of the reasons that many female landscape architects don’t enjoy wage equality in our profession. That supposition negates the art and creativity of landscape architects like Isabelle Greene, Christine Ten Eyck, Andrea Cochran and so many other female landscape architects. Hardscape is essential to a project but it’s the ‘artful planting’ that is the frosting on the cake.

    • Caren Yglesias 02/28/2018 / 2:44 pm

      The assignment by gender of women with kitchen and flower gardening and men with field work has a long history, but doesn’t account for wage discrimination.

  5. David B 03/20/2018 / 9:31 pm

    Yes, exactly. It must be frustrating when attempted progressive points of the moment are inverted by other progressives to to criticise you for not being progressive.
    But I am frustrated by Peter walker’s reported comments. He’s had “enough of ecology”. Each new discovery in the field of art or science can become another layer in the development of a design, which ultimately illuminates our time on this earth.
    To be obsessed with replicating Le Notre to the extent of offering a field of trees as a solution (single species?) – seems to reduce design to short lived gestures. I know Japan and the Japanese to know that they wouldn’t question a ‘master’ and a foreign master would accepted as in a different world to their own sensibility with respect to nature. And somewhat conversely the mass planting of flowering trees is very much in their culture and is somewhat un artfully done throughout Japan for a one-off effect that lasts two weeks.

  6. Richard K. Sutton 04/04/2018 / 10:01 am

    Ecology is about relationships between organism and environment. Aesthetics taps our experience, learning, and moment-to-moment sensory awareness; aesthetics engages and binds us to the material world. Plants especially have the power to do so. Gregory Bateson has said: “By aesthetic, I mean being responsive to the pattern which connects.”

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