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September 14, 2016

There has been, over the life of the landscape architecture profession, a profound predisposition/bias toward a particular emotional response to outdoor space: nostalgia. It is certainly visible in the work of the great 18th-century English landscape designers, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, whose work meant to capture the romantic ideal of Edenic perfection that flows from the landscape paintings of Claude Lorraine and his cohort. “If only the world could be as perfect as it was at creation.” (This is an unconscionable reduction of their impulses to a couple of phrases. Space limitations…) The earliest American landscape architects, although considerably more conscious of the uses and perception of outdoor space, can also be seen as hearkening back to the pastoral ideal of rural England/America as a counterbalance to the squalor of the industrial revolution.

Given the banal character of our vernacular landscapes these days (that’s about the kindest way to put it), it’s not surprising that there is a similar nostalgic impulse behind much of American landscape architecture these days. The operative descriptor, often used by the general public, by architects and even by landscape architects (who ought to know better), is “natural.” There’s an impulse to see oneself as the lone observer of an untrammeled wilderness, even in the middle of the city. It’s an essentially asocial point of view.

We object. We insist both on taking responsibility for our work and on providing an arena for people to interact. We think that designing a “natural” landscape is a way of abrogating that responsibility. We can make landscapes, to the extent that they are appropriate, that are “woodsy” or “windswept” or “rocky,” but not “natural.” In the end, there is no way to make a natural landscape – the landscape is our responsibility, not God’s. An English garden is no more natural than a shopping center parking lot, just more pleasant. We can’t escape the fact that every place we make contributes to culture, either well or poorly.