The science of landscape design

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The fact that landscapes can be designed is a fascinating possibility. Implicitly it includes the design of fjords and mountain ranges, as if building the set of the next CGI adventure movie. Many of my students are secretly drawn to such a challenge. Fueled by increasingly lifelike renderings and ethically imprinted by real footage imagery of recent tsunami’s and flooding, they feel the urge to change landscapes not for late afternoon strolls, but for the good of survival. They ooze a need to design better cities in delta regions, to re-grow resilient landscapes, to maximize landscape experiences as a means to inspire new generations with a sense of care for coexistence with even the most remote rocks that have not moved in ages. They ought to become the grand-gardeners, the next capability-Browns. This is the only reason why I joined the academic world. To share my own ambitions of what I saw fit in landscape design with upcoming generations and to explore serious landscaping.

Serious landscaping, I figured, would be in need of some serious arguments, theory and methods. Yet since my own professors had been too modest – as seems to be one of the typical intersubjective assets within the tribe of landscape designers – to leave behind a few books, let alone a few bookshelves of thorough insights and aged confessions, this project had yet to take shape. Some say that this profession is still too young to have gained such serious weight, yet I have always felt that the thickness of the trees that have been planted by conscious design arguments already disproofs the suggested age of this profession. Was not the garden of Eden already a first and profound design project? Was not the Nile-delta in the ages of the pharaohs a highly successful landscape machine? Is not Mexico city in the time of Aztecs one of the best landscape urbanism examples? To me, serious landscaping is all there is to landscape design. The temporary side trip of picturesque influences that only meant to indulge the human spirit, is a mere aberration in the millennia old flow of landscape design. So I expected – and still am expecting – a well drained rooting system of landscape design theories and methods all the way through human-environment interactions.

You might have guessed that such was not the reality when I re-joined my former chairgroup at Wageningen University (2002 onward). The academic sense of landscape design was at a terrible state by its ill-defined and almost oblivious sense of doing. No strategy to defy the problems at the grand global scale, no strategic collaborations with experts in climate, perception, chemistry or energy transmissions and not even an agreement on the characteristics of our own ‘Wageningen School of Design’. Nevertheless, over the last decade, I have become convinced of the possible scientific fundaments of landscape design; equaled however by a skeptical awareness of the current intellectual community and its lacking organizational capacity to enlighten themselves and the potential millions of affected persons. Currently, the strategic collaborations are shaping up and the urge to define a landscape specific framework of theories and methods has also become unquestioned. There still remain a few mayor bugs that slow down the process of serious landscaping, such as (1) the obvious informality of venues – conferences keep growing in the number of contributions that are of very different status and thoroughness, making it obvious that the diners and excursions count more than the acceleration of synthesized products that are ground breaking; (2) the remorseless scientific valuta of published papers that do not reach the professional community and thereby lack embedding, 1:1 testing and oscillating discussions. I frequently cannot explain why I should continue to specialize within a academic niche other than to enhance my changes to become one of the cited players within a very select group of similar focussed minds; (3) the lack of dare to synthesize in between the domains of greater and more informed expertise such as neural sciences – to improve perception theories; or anthropology – to improve the description of what designers do; and ethics – to improve the legal and political services for common good (in the spirit of for instance Jane Jacobs).

My suggestions for the science of landscape design would be to (A) increase the formation of research groups with a clear design conceptual framework. Research in landscape design needs to synthesize many aspects at the same time without losing a pragmatic focus on construction. There is a need for new aesthetic research and improvement of narrative design methods, yet these must serve within a design challenge and not stand alone amongst discourses within a too select group of hyper-experts. For instance research on the landscape infrastructure concept by Pierre Bélanger (SWA), as well as my own landscape machine group. These groups focus on a design challenge first and then improve theory and methods to custom fit.

(B) There must be an Office-in-Residence-Program amongst various design institutes, to allow the great offices of the world to immediately collaborate, share and improve the research groups with a specific focus. Offices can hardly afford to invest in serious landscape studies, yet they cannot afford NOT to include up-to-date research to convince governments and investors to design landscapes on the right scale and within the rightly paced timeframe. The type of landscapes that the researchgroups envision have yet to be commissioned and that is where the collaboration between the professionals and academia needs to be smarter. (C) We need test grounds, mockup-laboratories to go beyond photoshopped realities and paper truths. And lastly (D) there needs to be a comprehensive design monitoring of existing designs. There is an illogical blind spot in the way the inheritance of former design efforts is treated. There is much to learn from behavioral studies of intended design concepts, careful inventories of the state of the used material by long use and weathering conditions, political and investor susceptibility to certain design rhetorics, and so on >>>.

There is work to do, so let’s rock and roll.