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Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture

Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture

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Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture

349 pages
6 hours
Sep 28, 2015


Landscape architecture and architecture are two fields that exist in close proximity to one another. Some have argued that the two are, in fact, one field. Others maintain that the disciplines are distinct. These designations are a subject of continual debate by theorists and practitioners alike.

Here, David Leatherbarrow offers an entirely new way of thinking of architecture and landscape architecture. Moving beyond partisan arguments, he shows how the two disciplines rely upon one another to form a single framework of cultural meaning. Leatherbarrow redefines landscape architecture and architecture as topographical arts, the shared task of which is to accommodate and express the patterns of our lives. Topography, in his view, incorporates terrain, built and unbuilt, but also traces of practical affairs, by means of which culture preserves and renews its typical situations and institutions.

This rigorous argument is supported by nearly 100 illustrations, as well as examples of topography from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, through the heroic period of early modernism, to more recent offerings. A number of these studies revise existing accounts of decisive moments in the history of these disciplines, particularly the birth of the informal garden, the emergence of continuous space in the landscapes and architecture of the modern period, and the new significance of landform or earthwork in contemporary architecture. For readers not directly involved with either of these professions, this book shows how over the centuries our lives have been shaped and enriched by landscape and architecture.

Topographical Stories provides a new paradigm for theorizing and practicing landscape and architecture.

Sep 28, 2015

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Topographical Stories - David Leatherbarrow

Topographical Stories



Series Editor

This series is dedicated to the study and promotion of a wide variety of approaches to landscape architecture, with special emphasis on connections between theory and practice. It includes monographs on key topics in history and theory, descriptions of projects by both established and rising designers, translations of major foreign-language texts, anthologies of theoretical and historical writings on classic issues, and critical writing by members of the profession of landscape architecture.

Topographical Stories

Studies in Landscape and Architecture


Copyright © 2004 University of Pennsylvania Press

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

Published by

University of Pennsylvania Press

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4011

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Leatherbarrow, David.

Topographical stories : studies in landscape and architecture / David Leatherbarrow.

p.    cm.—(Penn studies in landscape architecture)

Includes bibliographical references (p.    ) and index.

ISBN 0–8122–3809–5 (alk. paper)

1. Landscape design.    2.  Architecture.    I.  Title.    II.  Series.

SB472.45.L43  2004



For my parents


Introduction: The Topographical Premises of Landscape and Architecture

1. Earthwork as Framework: or How Topography Exceeds Itself

2. Cultivation, Construction, and Creativity: or How Topography Changes (in Time)

3. Design Freedom and the Laws of Nature: or How Topography Varies (from Place to Place)

4. Leveling the Land: or How Topography Is the Horizon of Horizons

5. Character, Geometry, and Perspective: or How Topography Conceals Itself

6. Architecture and Situation: or How Topography Reveals Itself

7. The Image and Its Setting: or How Topography Traces Praxis

Conclusion: Ethics of the Dust





The Topographical Premises of Landscape and Architecture

My aim in this introduction is to describe the ways that two disciplines, landscape architecture and architecture, contribute to the formation of a single cultural framework, topography.

The relationship between these two fields requires reconsideration because the two versions of their association that have dominated theory and practice until recently are becoming less and less convincing and—it must be said—more and more tiring. One familiar notion maintains that the two disciplines are essentially different from each other, best studied and practiced as distinct. Another idea supposes a contrary affiliation, that the two are really one and best taken up as the same. The historical merit of the first conception is that it has permitted the maturation of landscape architecture as an independent field. The theoretical strength of the second is that it has allowed both practices to rediscover their common origin in creative making, in design. While conflicts between proponents of difference and sameness have enlivened discourse for decades, they have also distracted and fatigued it. Recently a third conception has emerged, a better one because it is less susceptible to dogmatic rendering and more accurate with respect to the practices themselves. Not really the same, nor entirely different, landscape and architecture are quite simply similar to each other. Topography is the topic (theme, framework, place) they hold in common. It not only establishes their similarity but also provides them with the grounds for their contribution to contemporary culture. The task of landscape architecture and architecture, as topographical arts, is to provide the prosaic patterns of our lives with durable dimension and beautiful expression.

1. Leça da Palmeira, Portugal, Álvaro Siza, 1961–66.

While unsurprising as an observation, and seemingly self-evident as a statement, the similarity just proposed is no simple matter to explain, for questions about the nature of this likeness penetrate to the heart of each discipline and disturb assumptions that are normally taken for granted. Still, at this time in their common history landscape and architecture must determine how they resemble each other in order to clarify ways that they can renew and resume their constructive roles in contemporary culture. The conceptions of difference, sameness, and similarity—borrowed from categories put forward by Plato in The Sophist¹—can be used for a preliminary restatement of the question this introduction seeks to answer: what premises do landscape architecture and architecture have in common?

Traditional understanding recommends that the two disciplines be seen as fundamentally different from each other. Until quite recently, architecture was understood as the parent discipline, landscape its offspring. The history of the professions and their theories supports this assumption, for while individuals identified themselves as architects in the remote past, landscape architecture lacks a long history of self-named practitioners, as that profession began in the nineteenth century. Yet no one can sensibly maintain that the actual making of landscapes is any less ancient than the construction of buildings—mythical accounts such as the Eden story suggest greater antiquity for the art of gardening. Still, the long and short history of the two professions cannot be denied.

The record of theories presents similar, and similarly sharp, differences. Writings on architecture have very great antiquity, those specifically devoted to landscape are fairly recent. Here, too, no one assumes that landscape did not serve as the subject of theoretical reflection in the decades and centuries before the nineteenth century, but ideas about gardens and landscapes were set forth by authors in other fields, such as agriculture, art theory or aesthetics, and architecture, as well as by poets, essayists, and novelists.

Because it is easy to distinguish the histories of landscape design and architecture, the two are commonly taken to be essentially different—parent and child or ancestor and descendant. Sharply distinguishing the two on the basis of subject matter is rather more difficult, however, perhaps impossible. Which art has the responsibility for the design of a courtyard, for example? The answer is hardly clear when even the most well-known examples are considered, such as the courtyard at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, or the forecourt at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. In the former case the landscape practices of Luis Barragán were no less important than the architectural concepts of Louis I. Kahn. In the latter instance the same complementarity existed between the contributions of Laurie Olin and Peter Eisenman. Is the argument for fundamental differences still plausible with examples such as these in mind, to say nothing of the countless examples from earlier centuries?

Under the second category, sameness, research into history is subordinated to reflection on the subject matter of design: form and space in both landscape and architecture. Unlike music, literature, or film, landscape and architecture give amplitude and configuration to the settings and surrounds of practical life. Because of this subject matter, a fairly insistent abstraction is required for acceptance of the space hypothesis and the pairing of arts it proposes, for conditions as concrete as construction materials, modes of production, typical dimensions, and kinds of use need to be neglected to see these two as arts of formal composition. Yet this abstraction has been institutionalized in all relevant types of discourse: teaching, criticism, scholarship, and theorizing. For this reason, it is no more difficult to criticize the asymmetrical balance of a garden layout than to judge an equivalent configuration in a building’s ground plan; likewise for a garden or building’s proportionality, rhythm, layering, transparency, flow, or continuity. Professional journals in both fields give ample evidence of the wide currency of formalist discourse. Yet, for anyone willing to break from well-established habits of thought, it is clear that the penetration of this style of thought is not very deep, nor does its broad-brush treatment adequately render the full complexity of a developed solution. When preliminary designs and general concepts are made more particular, when formal proposals are assigned specific functions or inserted into individual sites, the sameness between the two kinds of work is harder to recognize and generally too schematic to be relevant.

In addition to arguments for difference and sameness between landscape architecture and architecture, there is a third way of describing their relationship, one that proposes similarity. Grasping this simple notion is more difficult than one would think. Many concerned with both fields assume that landscape is a derivative art, architecture’s offspring, comparable to interior design. Commonality is assumed in this kinship but not explained. That likeness is more basic than rank is clear when one realizes that their positions can be and indeed have been inverted. If in the past landscape turned to architecture for ideas and methods, more recently concepts and techniques that were (thought to be) proper to landscape design have been appropriated by architecture: phenomena of process or temporal unfolding, registration prompting articulation, mapping as a survey technique, and so on. The strong impact of these ideas and methods on architecture cannot be denied, nor can it be explained as a result of ecological consciousness, to which it nevertheless relates. Recent arguments for urban ecology suggest that thinking about landscape will enable architects to reconceive the nature and task of designing buildings, as if the whole of which buildings are part is environmental, not only architectural. Similarly indicative of a reranking of the disciplines is the proposal advanced in a recent book on landscape theory for the garden to be seen as the greater perfection, as if it were a higher refinement of a matured civility (evident in stately building).² Because rank is unstable a more basic relationship must be described, a relationship of likeness or similarity. In what, then, does that likeness consist?

Proponents of architecture as the original discipline claim that while landscape concepts and methods were indeed neglected in the art of building in the recent past, they were for centuries properly its own, just differently named. Squabbling of that sort will get us nowhere. We need an account of likeness that will both prevent the absorption of one field into the other and resist their complete separation. The pages that follow develop this middle position, but also have a more ambitious aim: to show that only when architecture and landscape discover the full scope and complexity of their relationships to each other, only when gardens and buildings acknowledge and seek to express their topographical character, will both recover their standing and role in contemporary culture.

In the distant past the distinction between landscape and architecture was hardly as sharp as it became in the twentieth century. This was true during the periods when some of the most wonderful designs incorporating both were developed. The pilgrimage routes built into the foothills of the Alps during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are beautiful examples of the complementarity between landscape and architecture, as shown in the final chapter of this book. Only when the baroque period came to an end did designers who were concerned with the nonagricultural or aesthetic aspects of terrain seek to distinguish their ideas and techniques from those of designers whose efforts concentrated on rooms, buildings, and city spaces. Other arts were also distinguished in this period, architecture from sculpture, likewise painting from drawing. The drawn sketch, for example, was no longer a mere preliminary to a project, but an evidence of artistic creativity no less eloquent than a castle or cathedral—perhaps even more eloquent insofar as genius realized its potentials more completely and intensely in works that resulted from the hands of one author than in those that suffered collaboration. The more so of this comparison introduces again the matter of ranking, which was also a concern of art theorists and philosophers in the period of early Romanticism. Hegel, for example, subordinated architecture to all the other fine arts because of its physicality and service to practical affairs. Others ordered the arts differently, but all who did assumed their independence from one another.

Lamenting this division and the specialization it encouraged, the art historian Hans Sedlmayr decried the negative consequences of the withering of the composite work of art, for with the birth of pure painting, autonomous architecture, and the landscape garden came not only rivalry between tasks that once cooperated with one another, but also the atrophy of their relevance in the public realm and the dehumanization of culture.³ The Lost Centre, used as the subtitle of the English language version of his book, literally translates the nostalgia of his German title: Verlust der Mitte. The same dark sentiment is apparent in the epigraph Sedlmayr selected from William Butler Yeats: things fall apart, the center cannot hold.

Sedlmayr was quick to point out that some degree of sibling rivalry between the arts had existed from the time of the Renaissance. But never before the end of the ancien régime, he implausibly asserted, did the arts define themselves autonomously, free from engagements with architecture. The first major battle of this revolution occurred outdoors, he reports, for the development of the landscape garden was the initial outburst of conscious protest against the hegemony of architecture. As an opening maneuver, the proponents of the English garden took their stand against all who defended the French. The former sort of garden was praised as natural, the latter condemned as artificial, unnatural, and architectural. Sedlmayr identified the Third Earl of Shaftesbury as the instigator of this rebellion. My estimation of Shaftesbury’s importance in garden history is set out in Chapter 5. Shaftesbury’s reverence for things of a natural kind seems to have inspired not only militant but quasi-religious activists, for the decades that followed witnessed the development of a cult of nature, underwritten by deist theology, one secular symptom of which was early nineteenth-century parkomania, seen clearly in the European and American cemeteries of the time, and later in designs for university campuses, and most recently in industrial parks.

Since Sedlmayr proposed this thesis in 1955 it has received tough criticism, especially from apologists for modern art and architecture. His account of the history of the landscape garden also has been shown to be deficient, especially his account of the natural character of the English garden. The repositioning of fully grown trees in Chiswick Garden can hardly be described as following nature, even if the rerooted profiles were allowed to remain irregular. The congestion of little pavilions in this smallish garden led John Dixon Hunt to describe it as an open air museum of architecture—hardly natural, if that means nonarchitectural.⁴ Finally, Sedlmayr’s association with German national socialists has tainted his judgments as repressive and dogmatic. Still, despite the shortcomings of his concepts, historical interpretation, and ideology, his description of the disintegration of the gesamtkunstwerk and the pluralism that followed helps one understand the historical context for later attempts to rethink the relationships between architecture and landscape. It sheds light on not only the partisan character of many of these efforts, but also, and more positively, the motivation for continued reflection on the possibilities of their convergence, quite apart from assessments of the priority or primacy of one or the other.

Sedlmayr’s account, no matter how flawed, also demonstrates that there is a history of interpretations of the relationships between landscape and architecture. It seems to me that any current reflection on the topic should make itself aware of this history, if only because the concepts and terms we take for granted can be clarified when the range of earlier interpretations is understood—which means these concepts and terms can be confused when it is not. Over the years I have returned to this history again and again because I have been dissatisfied with dominant interpretations of the nature of architectural creativity and its role in contemporary culture.

First let me state my disciplinary concerns. In the 1970s and 1980s—the so-called postmodern period—there was much attention to the semantic aspects of architecture. The often-discussed turn to history in these years meant a turn to historical styles, and the preoccupation with style led to a fixation on imagery, particularly two-dimensional imagery, or figures in profile, in and outside the building. Space was subordinated to surface, and surface subsumed styles—many of them. Both history and style could have offered topics for study other than imagery, styles of building construction for example, but postmodern architects wanted to retrieve figures that would restore to architecture an expressive or communicative power, on the assumption that modern buildings lacked this because historical imagery had been stripped from their surfaces. After all, their designers had admitted to rejecting traditional ornament in favor of modern functional requirements. The postmodern desire was for meaning, and that was taken to result from the elements through which content was most prominently displayed, the building’s figurative or pictorial elements. In this effort more than historical motifs were borrowed, however; semiological vocabularies and concepts were appropriated into architecture in explanation of the building’s potential for signification (blended into an odd mixture of traditional rhetoric and modern marketing).

While I have never doubted that buildings can and should be expressive, figurative, or communicative, I have always thought and remain convinced that architecture’s modes of disclosure are different from those of painting, theater, and film, to say nothing of advertising. Or, putting the matter more forcefully, the modes of disclosure proper to painting are inadequate to architecture’s ways of making itself significant, even if buildings sometimes deploy and display pictorial motifs.

The following premise states the basis for my counterposition as directly as possible: buildings are always built somewhere. This laconic statement can be helpful in reversing the tendencies that render architecture increasingly less significant in contemporary culture. Although this term opens a wide range of issues, it immediately suggests the limitations of an architecture that presents itself as scenography, and reminds us of the importance of construction and location, topics pictorial architecture often neglects in its market-minded attention to surface and free-signifiers. Over the years, and in the essays revised for this book, I have tested the premise that reflection on the material (constructed) and spatial (situated) characteristics of terrain—concentrated in gardens and expanded in landscapes—can help architecture rediscover modes of disclosure that are just as significant as image articulation, perhaps even more so, or more basically so.

Concern for terrain means more than an interest in geometry (the profile, compass, or configuration of a given plot of land), it means care for the materiality, color, thickness, temperature, luminosity, and texture of physical things. Further, land is not only soil, it is all that can be discovered beneath it and emerges from it, as well as the several agencies that sustain that emergence. Attention to the qualities of these elements naturally leads to an interest in their associations, and thus to their expressive power—even their potential for representation. But concern for the physical aspects of land can also lead to an awareness of its functional potentials, what the materials of a site can do, how they can act or perform in service of some purpose other than expression or representation. Attention to the performative aspects of landscape also invites recognition of its expected and unexpected events, the latter revealing the limits of both foresight and design intelligence, which can be disastrous in some cases, wonderful in others.

Further, while land is obviously physical, it is also clearly spatial. There is no reason to deny or to neglect this, even if the perspectivity of the typical approach tends to favor frontality and pictorialism. Attention to the spatial aspects of a place—its enclosures, continuities, and extent—can also lead to interpretations of its potentials for occupation and use, which are not only or not essentially pictorial but practical.

In addition to the material and spatial aspects of the land there is a third characteristic that is even more fascinating for architecture, its temporal quality. Seen over time the materials of landscape continually renew themselves. A site’s metabolism is key to its capacity for continued relevance. Time is also the medium of one’s experience of landscape, for terrain is known most fully in the duration of spatial passage or movement. Temporality opens a wonderful dimension of architectural sense. In sum: landscape is important to architecture because attention to the materiality, spatiality, and temporality of terrain shows how alternatives to the pictorial approach can increase architecture’s cultural content.

This is to say that the turn from architecture toward landscape enables one to reconceive the role that buildings play in a wider cultural context. Landscape and architecture are ways, or can be ways, of constructing culture, of giving the patterns of our lives durable dimension and expression. In their expressivity gardens and buildings resemble other forms of cultural production—poetry, philosophy, or politics, for example. The practice of these two arts, like that of the others, assumes criticism: creative thought proposes alternatives to existing arrangements once the latter have been judged to be inadequate (inadequately useful or expressive). In architecture there has been much criticism over the past few decades of buildings that were designed and built as isolated objects. Many have argued against the view that a building can be internally defined, can be conceived (in full) without reference to a given location. The alternative proposes that relationships between buildings and other configurations in their vicinity are decisive. Variants of this alternative range from those that use design to conserve or affirm what predates the project, to those that modify given conditions, to those that see design as a form of critique. Reworking the old analogy between the building and the body, many critics have explained the development of object-buildings as an evidence of modern individualism. The loss of public space was related to the loss of public life because introverted private lives had eclipsed both. Such is the thesis advanced by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man, for example.⁵ The philosophical foundation for this argument, however, was established outside architecture, urban theory, and sociology.

For the architecture of the past several decades the decisive contribution of modern philosophy has been the argument that existence is necessarily relational, that the person defines him or herself with respect to or in dialogue with others.

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