Science - May 18, 2006

Rather landscape than architecture

The presentation of two international books on landscape architecture rapidly turned into a debate on the content of landscape architecture as it is currently practised. Professor Yusuck Koh of the Landscape Architecture Group presided over an abstract but enlightening discussion on the question of which should prevail: landscape or architecture.

On Wednesday 10 May, the brand new group Ahoi, ‘meeting place for landscape, knowledge and debate’, organised a discussion on two recently published books. Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture, Menno Vroom, compiled the ‘Lexicon of garden and landscape architecture’, a sort of dictionary on the subject, published in both Dutch and English. And ‘Fieldwork – Landscape Architecture Europe’ is the first yearbook of European landscape architecture, published in Dutch, Germany, English, French and Spanish.

In his contribution, Koh argued in favour of landscape architecture as a ‘landscape approach to architecture’, rather than an architectural approach to the landscape, as has been the case in the Dutch tradition, which is strongly rooted in modernism. According to Koh, an architectural approach focuses on controlling and colonising the landscape. The result was that many designs look better than they are in reality. ‘Landscape is about place, and connection with that place,’ explained Koh. ‘I see design as intervention rather than as transformation.’

‘Are we choosing elegance or significance?’ Koh asked the more than fifty people in the audience, which included many students. ‘Architecture is a means, not an end in itself. The relevance of landscape architecture lies not in the form of a space, but in its experience. It is people and place that make architecture complete.’ Koh would like to see the landscape architect as an intermediary between landscape and people, not someone who transforms landscape into a design object.

Martin Knuit of Okra Landscape Architects – one of the offices with a project chosen for the European Yearbook – agreed with Koh, adding that landscape should be seen as a system in time. He cited ‘Plan Ooievaar’, formulated in 1987, which was used as the model for nature development along the big rivers in the Netherlands. ‘The plan was about developing nature, but also with people in mind.’
According to Knuit, many landscape architects do not take people into account in their planning. In northern Europe the approach has become a tradition, but in the south it is the architects and ecologists that have the upper hand. ‘The differences are gradually disappearing,’ admitted Knuit. ‘I think the two books make an important contribution to defining the discipline.’

Students today profit from the professionalisation that the discipline has undergone in the last few decades, according to Professor Eric Luiten, chair of Design and Cultural Heritage at TU Delft, and Wageningen alumnus. There is the Dutch journal Blauwe Kamer, now these two important books, and in addition the English-language journal ‘Scape. ‘When I was a student in the 1890s there was no specialist literature,’ he recalled. ‘The time is ripe for a book with text that represents the essence of landscape architecture.’ Only then can the discipline become more professional and promote a wider discussion on its content. / MW

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