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.]