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Essay Landscape Architecture

This issue of Harvard Design Magazine and its focus on the putative “core” of landscape architecture raise timely and fundamental questions of disciplinary and professional identity for the field. While the various etymologies of the term “landscape” have rightly preoccupied the field for decades, the formulation of “landscape architecture” as a professional identity has received less critical attention in recent years.2 

Questions of professional nomenclature concerned proponents of the so-called “new art” since its inception in the 19th century. Long-standing debates over the formulation reveal a tension between the disciplinary identity and the scope of work for the landscape archi­tect. Founders of the new field included a diverse array of positions—from those embodying a tradition of landscape gardening and rural improvement through those advocating for landscape as an architectural and urban art. Many American proponents of the field held 
a strong cultural affinity for English practices of land­scape gardening. In contrast, Continental practices of urban improvement allied with landscape promised a very different scope of work for the new professional. Complicating matters further was the desire by many for a distinct singular identity, not easily confused with any of the existing professional and artistic categories.

In its American formation this new field was imagined as a progressive response to the social and environ­mental challenges of rapid urbanization. While there was great enthusiasm for the articulation of a new profession attendant to those concerns, it was much less clear what to call the new profession and its related field of study. By the end of the 19th century the available professional identities (architect, engineer, gardener) were perceived by many to be inadequate to new conditions. These new conditions (urban, industrial) demanded a new profes­sional identity explicitly associated with landscape. 

What did it mean for the founders of this new field to claim landscape as architecture? What alternative identities were available to the founders of the field? How do those choices continue to inform the professional purview and intellectual commitments of the field today? 

By the end of the 19th century, American boosters of the new art of landscape committed the nascent profession to an identity associated with the old art of architecture. This decision to identify architecture (as opposed to art, engineering, gardening) as the proximate professional peer group and cultural lens for the new art is significant for contemporary understandings of the “core” of landscape architecture. This history sheds compelling light on the subsequent development of city planning as a distinct professional identity spun out of landscape architecture in the first decades of the 20th century as well as debates regarding landscape as a form of urbanism at the close of the century.

A Brief Account

The English poet and gardener William Shenstone coined the English-language term “landscape gardener” in the middle of the 18th century. Humphry Repton adopted the term “landscape gardening” for the titles of his three major texts around the turn of the 19th century: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1794); Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803); and An Enquiry into the Changes of Taste in Landscape Gardening (1806).  

The French architect, engineer, and garden designer Jean-Marie Morel is credited with the formulation architecte-paysagiste. Morel was, at the time of his death in 1810, among France’s most notable designers advocating the English style in gardening. His obituary was widely circulated in France with the professional appellation architecte-paysagiste. Morel had previously described himself as architecte et paysagiste, a descrip­tion of his multiple professional identities. Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, he elided the et in favor of a hyphenated compound. Two decades later, Morel would be referred to posthumously, sans hyphen, as simply architecte paysagiste. Morel’s neologism predates the usage of the English term “landscape architect” and is generally considered as the origin of the modern professional identity.3

The first usage of the English-language compound “landscape architecture” is found in Gilbert Meason’s On the Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy (1828). Meason used the neologism to refer specifically to architecture set in the context of Italian landscape painting. Twelve years later John Claudius Loudon used the same formulation on the title page of his publication of the collected works of Repton, The Landscape Gardening and Landscape Architecture of the Late Humphry Repton, Esq. (1840). While some debate persists regarding the precise meaning of landscape architecture in the title, it is reasonable to infer from the available evidence that Loudon, following Meason, was using the term to refer to architecture set within the landscape, rather than to describe Repton’s practice, which is consistently referred to as landscape gardening in both the title and the text of the publication.4 

Meason’s and Loudon’s publications and the formulation landscape architecture were certainly available to, and likely read by, American proponents of English taste in landscape gardening in the 19th century. Among the most prominent of those proponents was Andrew Jackson Downing, who would play a central role in advocating for the advance of the new art in America. Considered by many to have prepared the ground for the development of landscape architecture as a profession, Downing would have been aware of the formulation landscape architecture from Meason’s book and admired Loudon’s writing. Yet he persisted with his preference for the term “landscape gardening” throughout his career, from the publication of A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) through his untimely death in 1852. In Section IX of Treatise, titled “Landscape or Rural Architecture,” it is clear that Downing follows Meason in using the term to refer to architecture in landscape or rural contexts.5 By the time of Downing’s death, at least one English garden designer, William Andrews Nesfield, was referred to in print as a landscape architect, in John Weale’s London Exhibited (1852). Yet this formulation remained the exception in English practice throughout the 19th century. 

In that same year, the French landscape gardener Louis-Sulpice Varé was appointed jardiniere paysagiste (landscape gardener) for the improvements at the Bois de Boulogne. By 1854, Varé stamped drawings of the Bois de Boulogne with an improvised seal reading “Service de l’architecte-paysagiste” (Office of the Landscape Architect).6  Varé was soon replaced by Adolphe Alphand and Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, yet his identification as a landscape architect would prove to be particularly important as the Bois de Boulogne emerged as the most significant precedent for the new Central Park in New York.

In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted was appointed “Super­intendent of the Central Park” in New York. After finding himself without prospects as his forays into farming and publishing had left him in debt, Olmsted eagerly pursued the position at the recommendation of Charles Wyllys Elliott, a family friend and member of the newly created Board of Commissioners of the Central Park. Elliott and the commissioners of the Central Park who appointed Olmsted subsequently awarded him (and his collaborator, the English architect Calvert Vaux) first prize in the design competition for the new park the following year, along a strictly political party line vote. Following their victory, Olmsted’s title was enhanced to “Architect-in-Chief and Superintendent,” and Vaux was appointed “Consulting Architect.”7

While the proposal of one member of the Central Park board to invite Adolphe Alphand himself to serve as a member of the competition jury was unsuccessful, there is ample evidence that boosters of the new park looked to Paris for their urban inspiration. One member of the advisory board, James Phalen, retired to Paris in 1856, funded, at least in part, by profits from the sale of land that formed part of the new Central Park. On his arrival in Paris, Phalen requested, on behalf of the Central Park board, a history of the improvements to the Bois de Boulogne presently under way as part of Alphand’s larger urban project. Phalen also introduced Olmsted to Alphand during Olmsted’s 1859 tour of European park precedents to gather models for the implementation and management of Central Park. Alphand met with Olmsted multiple times at the Bois de Boulogne and provided background information and guided tours of his program of urban improvements.8 

From the time of Olmsted’s first appointment as super­intendent in 1857 and through his subsequent elevation to architect-in-chief in 1858, he made no reference to the professional title landscape architect. While Olmsted may have been aware of the French formulation architecte-paysagiste, and would certainly have been aware of the English-language antecedents of Meason and Loudon, there is no evidence that Olmsted conceived of the term as a professional identity before his November 1859 visit to Paris. The term emerged only subsequent to Olmsted’s tour of European parks and his multiple meetings with Alphand at the Bois de Boulogne in November of that year. Associated with the improvements at the Bois de Boulogne, Olmsted would likely have seen drawings stamped “Service de l’architecte-paysagiste” and, more significantly, witnessed the expanded scope of Parisian practice in which landscape gardening was set in relation to infrastructural improvements, urbanization, and the manage­ment of large public projects. During his extensive tour of European parks and urban improvements, Olmsted visited the Bois de Boulogne more than any other precedent project, making eight visits in two weeks.9 Upon his return to New York in late December 1859, every subsequent professional commission that Olmsted accepted for urban improvements included specific refer­ence to the professional formulation landscape architect.

The earliest recorded evidence of the professional title landscape architect in America is found in personal correspondence from Olmsted to his father, John Olmsted, in July 1860. This letter, and subsequent correspondence, refers to the April 1860 commissioning of Olmsted and Vaux as “Landscape Architects” by the “Commissioners for laying out the upper part of New York island.” Among those commissioners charged with the planning of northern Manhattan above 155th Street was Henry Hill Elliott, the older brother of Central Park Commissioner Charles Wyllys Elliott who had originally recommended Olmsted for the position of superintendent.10 It is likely that the Elliott brothers played equally significant roles in the development of landscape architecture as a pro­fes­sion, one through commissioning Olmsted with responsibility for Central Park, the other through conferring upon him the title of “Landscape Architect” associated with the planning of the extension of the city. The first appoint­ment of a landscape architect in America was not for the design of a park, pleasure ground, or public garden. The new professional was first commissioned with the planning of northern Manhattan. In this context the land­scape architect was originally conceived as a professional responsible for divining the shape of the city itself, rather than pastoral exceptions to it.

In April 1862, as evidence of their enthusiasm for the new collective identity, Olmsted and Vaux had their appointments clarified as “Landscape Architects to the Board” of Central Park. Following the interruption of the Civil War years, they were reappointed “Landscape Architects to the Board of Commissioners of Central Park” in July 1865. In May of the following year, Olmsted and Vaux were appointed “Landscape Architects” for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the formulation was well on its way to being consolidated as the definitive professional identity for American practitioners of the new art.11

In spite of his conversion to the new formulation, Olmsted remained “all the time bothered with the miser­able nomenclature” of landscape architecture and longed for a new term to stand for the “sylvan art.” He groused that “Landscape is not a good word, Architecture is not; the combination is not. Gardening is worse.” He longed for specific English translations for the French terms that more adequately captured the subtleties of the new art of urban order.12  So the question persists, given the long-standing anxiety of conflating landscape with architec­ture, why did proponents of the new profession ultimately choose to claim landscape as architecture? Olmsted was convinced that adopting the mantle of the architect would bolster the new field in the eyes of the public, and mitigate against the tendency to mistake the work as being primarily concerned with plants and gardens. It would also, Olmsted argued, guard against the “greater danger” of landscape’s potential future “disalliance” with architecture. Olmsted became convinced that the range of study that was called for by increasing demands of scientific knowledge would press the new profession toward increasing reliance on special­ized bodies of technical knowledge, and a resulting alien­ation from the fine arts and architecture.13  

By the final decade of the 19th century, enthusiasm had built for the claiming of a new profession. While many antecedent practices on both sides of the Atlantic predated the founding, the first such professional body, the American Society of Landscape Architects, was formed in 1899. Based on Olmsted’s successful advocacy for the French formulation, American founders of the field ultimately adopted the Francophone “landscape architect” over the Anglophone “landscape gardener” as the most suitable professional nomenclature for the new art. Based on this formulation, and its claim to practices of urban order and infrastructural arrange­ment, the profes­sion was first fully embodied in America.

In spite of Olmsted’s stature, and decades of precedent, many of the founders of the Society chaffed at the formulation “landscape architect.” Beatrix Farrand rejected the term outright, and persisted in her preference for the English landscape gardener. As evi­dence of this ambivalence, the original constitution of the Society invited fellowship from either landscape gardeners or landscape architects in good standing. The larger concern among the founders of the field was to establish the new art as a “liberal profession” rather than a commercial activity. Thus, the constitution invited members who earned their livelihood from the profes­sional activity of design, rather than commissions from the selling of labor, plants, or other commercial interests.14 

Following the establishment of the professional association, the new profession quickly set about establishing a new academic discipline and professional journal. The first academic program in landscape archi­tecture was founded in 1900 at Harvard where it was housed alongside architecture in the Lawrence Scientific School as a liberal art and profession. The development of the academic discipline and programs of study, as well as the subsequent founding of Landscape Architecture as a quarterly journal in 1910, consolidated the institutional foundation for the new profession.15

The professional identity of the landscape architect and the professional field of landscape architecture were consolidated as the definitive formulations inter­nationally through the foundation of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) in 1948. In spite of his role in founding the international professional body, no less a figure than Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe expressed his misgivings about the formulation landscape architect, shortly after stepping down as founding president.16 In spite of Jellicoe’s lingering anxiety, the field has been increasingly coherent in its commitment to be identified internationally through the claiming of landscape as architecture. In so doing, it has recommitted to its origins in the urban and infrastructural arts, and reanimated the potential of landscape as a medium through which to remediate the social, environmental, and cultural conditions of the contemporary city. 

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 urbanismone 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.

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Brian Davis & Thomas Oles, “From Architecture to Landscape,” Places Journal, October 2014. Accessed 13 Mar 2018.