Thursday, August 12, 2010

Landscape Architecture versus The Garden

Between Two Worlds

I am a landscape architect by profession. It is a career I chose out of passion and calling. I love the nobility of the profession’s history. Frederick Law Olmsted’s sweeping democratic vision created parks that made America’s great cities habitable after the Industrial Revolution. I love the expansive scope of the profession. Landscape architects design almost any site under the open sky, including highways and bridges, water treatment plants and power lines, urban plazas and parks, green roofs and greenways. I love the breadth and diversity of projects. In the last two months, I spent one day wading through a woodland swamp, one day in the Library of Congress researching historic letters, one day sketching a plan for a three-acre urban park, and one day designing a high speed race track. Next month will be entirely different.

Yet despite my love for landscape architecture, it is the garden that I keep returning to. The garden speaks to my intellect, my emotion, and my spirit. I am beginning to understand why Spanish landscape architect Fernando Caruncho calls himself a ‘gardener’ rather than a landscape architect. “I say ‘gardener,’” says Caruncho, “because this mythical word belongs to mankind and contains memories of our purest origins, so full of resonance and touching aspects both elemental and fragile.”

What’s the difference between landscape architecture and gardening? Some have described the difference between the garden and landscape architect as a matter of scale. The garden is simply a more concentrated version of landscape architecture. Gardens are to landscape architecture what poetry is to prose. But I think the differences are more profound. Each discipline involves a different approach to land.

Corporate Headquarters, San Francisco.  OLIN.  Photo by Marion Brenner
Landscape architecture adopts an essentially rationalistic approach to analyzing land; after all, the profession emerges from a hybrid of architecture, engineering, horticulture, and ecology. The term landscape can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which refers not to land but to a picture of land. Landscape architecture creates a concept of land, an idea of what land should be, and then executes it. Celebrated landscape architect James Corner writes, “Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imaging.” It is this imaging or conceptualization that is the hallmark of the practice.

Image from The Ministry for Food, 1941
Gardening, on the other hand, is essentially relational. It is not about a picture or an idea for a piece of land, but about a personal relationship with a piece of land. Literary critic and garden theorist John Dixon Hunt calls gardens a third nature. Resurrecting concepts from the golden age of Italian gardens, Hunt recounts that the First Nature is wilderness, an undomesticated wild that predates man; the Second Nature is man-made agriculture and towns. The garden resides between these two zones. Gardens are a third nature, a place where art and thought are in relationship with nature.

One of the themes of this blog is to advocate for gardening. Garden more, garden now, just get out there and garden. What we need now is not so much a new concept for re-shaping land, or a new image for landscape. What we need now more than ever is to be in relationship with land. The blessings that flow from this engagement are myriad and mighty. Be absorbed in a garden: I can think of no purer expression of the human condition.


  1. Wonderful post - I agree x 100!

  2. Thomas,

    Another excellent post. I agree that gardening is where "art and thought are in relationship with nature." Children put down their electronic gadgets, get outside and get their hands dirty.

  3. Couldn't agree more that we just need to get out there and put our hands in the soil and get in relation to the land again, or to begin with. A worker at the nursery last week said, when I was looking for milkweed, "Oh, monarchs are in trouble, and they prefer milkweed?" Your ideas remind me a lot of native American writers like Linda Hogan (Dwellings), Vine Delorai Jr, and N. Scott Momaday.

    Hunt's 3 natures have alwys bothered me, because third nature cn be as dangerous as second nature, lead to even more hubris--and it can do the opposite. I suppose that's the nature of human nature--we have great capacity for such god and such wonderful acts, and we struggle with that dichotomy every second, and it is manifested in ecological destruction, war, rape, agriculture....

  4. Emerson said "Only connect" -- and while he didn't necessarily mean to connect with our environment, it's one of the most important things we can do. Great post!

  5. I loved this analysis, Thomas! It occurs to me that garden design occupies a continuum that is closer to landscape architecture at one end and closer to relational gardening at the other end. I know some gardeners (I'm referring to ornamental gardeners here) who cannot begin putting in plants until they have a conception of the whole landscape and how all the parts will relate to one another. At the other end of the continuum are gardeners who just put plants in the ground as the spirit moves them and let the garden design emerge out of those planting decisions. I tend to plan out specific areas of the garden before I begin to plant, but I adjust those plans as I work. And I find it impossible to to plan out in advance how the various parts of the garden will relate to one another; that has to emerge out of the process.

    I love it when my fellow bloggers make me think :-)! Thanks. -Jean

  6. Great post! Truly enjoy the thoughtful analysis.

  7. What a timely post. Just this past week, I turned down a project because the client's needs went beyond my skills as a flower garden designer. I recommended that the client seek out the services of a landscape architect. With that advice, I also suggested that the architect designate flower beds that I might plant when the project will be realized.

  8. Very interesting post and it sounds like you do have a great diversity in your work. I particularly love and relate to your reflections on gardens. "It is not about a picture or an idea for a piece of land, but about a personal relationship with a piece of land." and Hunt's "Gardens are a third nature, a place where art and thought are in relationship with nature." You are a very talented writer as well. I enjoyed this post!

  9. ah touch the earth and listen to its song...very well written Thomas...

  10. As a student of Landscape Architecture and gardener, I am constantly trying to find ways to explain to others what those things mean and how they're different. From now on, I'll just refer them here.


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