Landscape urbanism revisited


Not long ago, in response to my post “Steuteville’s public square,” a pile of emails and comments was generated by my query as to whether something called landscape urbanism still exists. One email called for another look at its continued existence, lest the matter be lost in the flurry of comments. To which urbanist theoretician Michael Mehaffy replied:

Landscape urbanism is yet another attempt to be the anti-new urbanism. … [A]s a brand it has mostly disappeared [but] as a practice it is still pervasive because it is simply yet another reactionary form of modernism.

Mehaffy described LU as “sprawl in a pretty green dress.” He did concede LU’s “contribution of ecology to urbanism.” To which architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros added:

I see this as just a desperate grab for commissions. A bunch of faculty from the Harvard GSD [Graduate School of Design] just made up the brand name Landscape Urbanism then decided they had to displace New Urbanism in order to get those jobs. Obviously they could not compete with industrial modernist planning … [s]o they used pretty landscapes and made up a whole bunch of propaganda words about using native plant species, etc. But they then imposed the same modernist industrial buildings, since that’s all they know how to do.

In a comment, Mehaffy, agreed, adding that

[t]he trouble with Landscape Urbanism is that it is simply a scheme to “shrub up” the old modernist failures, and thereby re-supply some of their symmetry deficit. It works up to a point, but only superficially. And it is one of a number of “predatory” strategies to steal symmetries from other sources, and (temporarily) camouflage what is essentially design malpractice, from the point of view of human well-being.

I could easily construct a whole post quoting Mehaffy and Salingaros back and forth in reply to my original post. In 2018 they won Traditional Building’s Clem Labine Award – see my post “Joint prize for dynamic duo” – in which I attempt to explain their work in partnership with each other and with computer- and urban-language guru Christopher Alexander.

Together, the three of them, along with another pathfinder, architect and cognitive theorist Ann Sussman, essentially perceive that whereas traditional architecture is additive – has been building on its own progress for hundreds if not thousands of years – modern architecture is reactive. It can only conceive of progress (if you want to call it that) as a sort of aesthetic oneupmanship, always reacting to attempts at novelty by other modernist architects.

(Among other matters, Sussman’s research uses eye-tracking software to show that observers of architecture tend to avoid looking at blank spaces in buildings, and focus instead on buildings that feature traditional detailing and ornament.)

The additive character of traditional architecture resembles the reproductive character of nature, whereas the reactive character of modern architecture must address the limits of innovation. Since for modernists “copying the past” is not permitted, or at least not admitted, practitioners inevitably reach a point where the next new thing appears increasingly absurd. Its theorists consume themselves in an unending effort to differentiate the latest novelty from its predecessors. They never even reach the point of explaining how the latest novelty compares favorably with what traditionalists call the “living architecture” of their work. Modern architecture produces confusion among its adherents and anxiety or even repulsion among its victims (the public). To read a critical review of the latest work of a celebrity modernist shows that the absurdity of its design is matched only by the absurdity of the gobbledygook required to describe and defend it.

Research, polls, surveys and anecdotal evidence bear out this alienation of the public from modern architecture, whereas no science exists (that I’ve seen) that posits affection for modern architecture or its contribution to human well-being.

Traditional architecture (including its roots in Greek and Roman classicism) demonstrably contributes to positive human health outcomes. Modern architecture causes illness. It either disorients its users or bores them.

So intent are modernists to seek out the increasingly rare sources of novelty in their designs that they often forget primary tasks, such as to signal the location of a building’s front door. On the other hand, the tool of symmetry in traditional design not only places the front door in a usually central location; it also uses embellishment to boldly distinguish a front door from other doors that might be visible to an approaching observer. Salingaros refers to the modernists’ neglect of this as “symmetry deficit disorder.” To cite the title of Christopher Alexander’s most famous book, ornament is pattern language writ small. At different scales, architectural detail promotes the clarity of a design’s symbolic intent.

I see I have strayed from the question of whether landscape urbanism still exists. Of course it still exists. To quote Salingaros again:

Wikipedia is right, in that so-called Landscape Urbanism is not urbanism at all. You can see it is just industrial modernism in attractive new clothes, simply because it uses the same obscurantist modernist language to hide its lack of design substance.

It seems that symmetry – and let’s not even get into the question of beauty, which has long caused anxiety among modernists – is as verboten in the design of modernist landscapes as in the design of modernist buildings. It must be difficult for landscape urbanists to decide whether to lean toward symmetry or toward the organic patterns of nature in designing a green setting for modernist buildings and communities. Either way seems to edge too close to traditional models of landscape architecture. Split the difference, yes, but how? And how to do so without accidentally replicating the novelty of other landscape urbanists?

It’s too bad landscape urbanists have not discovered the potential usefulness of trees, shrubbery and other plantings to disguise or otherwise block modern architecture from the observation of passersby. Or maybe they have. Mehaffy recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s cocktail party joke: “You doctors are lucky. You can bury your mistakes. We architects have to plant vines.” That might explain the continued existence of a debate over whether landscape urbanism still exists.

[Illustration of and caption for two landscape urbanism examples atop this post is from an article by D. Kelbaugh in a 2014 edition of Semantic Scholar.]

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Landscape urbanism revisited

  1. LazyReader says:

    The mentality that views man and nature apart and irreconcilable in terms of land-use is rooted in our culture from the shock of industrial urbanism in the 19th century that made super clustered ghettos that Jane Jacobs would later call “Neighborhoods” They were neighborhoods when they cleared the riffraff and turned tenements into actual homes and aparts. With the advent of the City beautiful movement and labor rights and welfare of Children spearheaded some progress but mostly built grandiose public buildings and little used parks. Central park New York at 2.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide would have been more successful if it were smaller (2 x 0.5) Most of the park is desert (not in the arid sense) but it requires substantial maintenance, is frequently hosted by cities less savory people, and is virtually blair witch-esque to visit at night.

    The most successful urban park projects are often small. Look at Paley park, at 1/10th of an acre, the park is by far the most successful of urban civic design, it is merely 12 trees, a stone plaza two blank walls and an artificial waterfall and some tables.

    But having no faith in urbanism, and having no training in civic design, the environmentalists could imagine only nature as a solution: trees, grass, etc, (forgetting for a moment that even parks are man-made artifacts). Giant fields of grass for skyscrapers is sore attempt to give people sense of nature they never frequent because they’re being observed by towers. Not a university, we don’t need a quad. But the desire to integrate with some nature stems from a severe problem in urban design. Good urban design generates forms for public enjoyment are divided into three thresholds, If we’re talking about the human habitat, let’s adopt the vocabulary of urban design
    1: the PARK (1- Pocket parks which occupy 0.01-1 acres often nestledd between buildings or private or near streets, roads, The small parks in the city between 1-50 acres in size and the BIG parks between 50-1000 acres for wildlife, naturalistic and more active outdoor activities like camping, boating, horses)
    2: The square (Often occupied by civil buildings, but a huge public open space whether it be trees or planters; and the biggest accoutrements is the use of public domain and free assembly and petition)
    3: The Plaza. the smallest and least vegetated. Often built by companies/building owners to satiate zoning laws that benefit specific building demands, but society benefits from an open realm.

    Environmentalists rather than working in actual environmental work, Instead, they have been leading the NIMBY wars and striving to insert leftover bark nugget and sickly trees as landscape entertainment into the urban setting and, of course, choosing to live outside of the traditional town given their totality of nature worship. Instead of working to improve human conditions so as to not tear down more nature they cry why nature is torn down and blame it on human conditioning they wrecked themselves with. Good design invokes community observation this not only maintains a good appearance, it’s self policing…. DC is invoked for it’s grand park like facades; observationally it’s a nightmare of a city. Design wise it’s a mess. It’s large expansive avenues were easily adapted to auto usage. The low widely separated buildings whose heights restricted by law render building residences overpriced catastrophe. While DC has many places beautiful enough for a walk. There’s little to walk to out of necessity. The city is difficult to get around on foot. The traffic circles are nightmares, Europe replaced with smaller ones decades ago, big lawns, huge plazas and massive public squares provide little activity because people only work there in day and leave in evening. Parks and open spaces are pretty, but they’re also vacuums which don’t attract human activity, especially at night. At night, heavily wooded areas in major cities are nothing but drug, rape and sex havens. Look no further than Portland, whose small city square layout and obsession with green; rather than flowers, short plants the parks are heavily wooded to apparently resemeble forests they chopped down to build portland in the first place; it has made heavily wooded parks with pitbull wielding drug addicts camping in the squares.

    Environmental architects like William Mcdonough and names alike, seem to believe adding tons of vegetation to buildings roofs and sides will stem out the process. This is not only stupid its questionable. Adding sidemounted vegetation to a building seems nice, like ivy covered buildings of yesteryear, strip it away, what have you? Nothing but ugly facade. Classical architects knew that owner would/could de-nature their property if they so choose. Or that simple plants like Ivy, etc are low maintenance. Complicated plants require huge maintenance and if he substrate doesn’t hold you may have to remove the entire thing at huge expense. Property owners care more about low operating costs than environmental attitude. Let me be succinct, More plants is good thing ANYWHERE, home, work, rest. But this isn’t about green it’s about thinking green will cure our psychological enclave of poor urban design.

    Nobody comes back from a trip to Italy or Paris complaining that the hill towns all looked the same. The urbanism Tuscany or Paris is so rigorous that the casual observer could easily mistake one villa for another, however no environmentalist ever came home from Paris complaining that the streets all looked too much the same or not enough trees. The problem which is common US urban daily environments is not that they are too uniform, but that they are of uniformly miserable quality. Uniform excellence, as in Paris and Tuscany, induces a different state of mind and produces quite a different result. We don’t need a suburban sprawl repair kit or a total overhaul, just hire those who care…. Care, concern, attention to detail….those aren’t trainable skills, they’re mindsets. People with those mindsets do well in services that benefit the public. People without them……go into politics.


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