The only problem with landscape urbanism is
its proponent’s fondness for the obscure terminology of post-structuralism. For Anglo-Saxon
philosophers this vocabulary is painful – and well-satirised by the Ruderal Academy’s
bullshit generator . I prefer the Wikipedia explanation that: ‘Landscape
Urbanism is a theory of urban planning arguing that the best way to organize cities is through
the design of the city’s landscape, rather than the design of its buildings’. The word ‘landscape’ came into English,
in the seventeenth century, as a painters term – with the theory that artists should
represent ideal scenery, rather than everyday scenes.
In the eighteenth century, landscape became a designers’ term.
And in the nineteenth century it became a geologist’s and then a geographer’s term.
As used in ‘landscape urbanism’, it tends to waiver between these uses. The word ‘urbanism’ comes, via French,
from the title of a book published by a Catalan engineer in 1867. IIldefons Cerdà’s General
Theory of urbanization explained the principles used for the expansion of Barcelona. It was
an interdisciplinary and enlightened theory. But it was flawed:
The grid was monotonous The pre-1859 landscape was obliterated. The rivers were converted into drains The design had no provision for landmark buildings
or other focal points The streets were all 20m wide and are now
very noisy and very congested Most of the green open spaces included in
the original plan were not built. Cerda’s plan over-regulated some things,
under-regulated other things and largely ignored the existing structures of the Catalan landscape. As related in a parable, the wise man built
his house ‘upon a rock’ and the foolish man built his house ‘upon the sand’. Then,
‘when the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew’, the wise man’s
house stood firm and the foolish man’s house was lost.
This parable can be used to make two points about urban design. First, it is necessary
to understand the landscapes on which cities are built. Second, different landscapes require
different approaches to city building. In prehistoric Scotland, settlements were
often built on stilts in lakes, completely disregarding the parable of the wise and foolish
builders. One of Modernism’s great mistake was the
adoption of an International Style. It resulted in far-too-similar cities being built in wildly
different cultures and landscapes. With results were very, very dull.
In landscape architecture, the Modernist design method was Survey-Analysis-Design – SAD.
Ian McHarg developed this into a layer-based design method known as ‘ecological design’.
It was rooted in science and McHarg wrote that “any man, assembling the same evidence,
would come to the same conclusion’. As a design method, it was much too determinist Postmodernism developed in architecture. It
was a welcome change, though it gave us an anything goes pluralism and an excess of diversity.
City skylines became architectural junk shops inspired by big egos and random geometry.
But two architects showed, in their entries for the 1982 Parc de la Villette competition,
how postmodern concepts could work with landscape architecture. Their design method was layer-based
but the layers were cultural rather than ecological. Landscape Urbanism integrates the ecological
layers used by McHarg with the cultural layers used for Parc de la Villette. I see this integration
as post-Postmodern. In place of an ‘anything goes pluralism’,
it can give us a diversity which is rooted in ecology, conservation, culture or faith.
Many beliefs cannot be proved or disproved by science. But they are very important, in
design and in life – and in landscape architecture.