More Than A Trend

As a rule, landscape design is preoccupied with aesthetics. The expectation that landscape be Arcadian is so entrenched in American culture that it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

A move toward performance-based design is changing the way we view landscape architecture.

Although essential, the visual appeal of landscape design may need to take a secondary role in an age of increasingly short water supplies and record-breaking weather events.

According to a 2007 Dallas Morning News article, 80 percent of the water withdrawn from reservoirs around Dallas-Fort Worth is used for irrigation, a trend that is simply not sustainable if climate predictions are accurate.

To understand the problem, it is necessary to take a look at the history of the current aesthetic.

An event in 1857 defined the American landscape mind. Confronted with the problem of designing a vast urban park for which there were no precedents, Frederick Law Olmsted consulted the pictorial inventions of a group of landscape painters known as the Hudson River School to design New York City’s Central Park. Dotted tree groupings, broad clearings, and green meadows highlighted with waterways and sunlit bridges came out of the picture plane and into Manhattan.

Central Park was the latest manifestation in a much longer historical process of painting and landscape transformations. Inspired by the 15th- and 16th-century gardens of the Italian Renaissance, French artists like Claude Lorrain in the 17th century painted new landscape conceptions that later influenced the built landscapes of the English aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The English added refinement in the form of fine lawns and bucolic sensibilities, and these examples inspired the Hudson River School paintings of rivers and valleys.

Six hundred years in the making, it’s understandable that landscape norms have remained constant.

While the arrival of modernism overturned nearly every artistic convention–giving rise to new art forms such as photography and film–landscape stubbornly clung to a green and largely aesthetic impulse throughout the 20th century.

While architecture developed new technologies like the steel and concrete structural frame to support new ideas in architectural space, modern landscape explorations were realized with a pre-modern palette of clipped hedges, fine lawns, and allees. Despite the avant-garde, landscape was still a passive affair, something to be looked at or contemplated in the mind.

Performance has the gravitas to carry the cultural landscape beyond its primarily aesthetic concerns. In lieu of seeing landscape as something that enters human experience only through the eyes, the character of the performance-driven landscape becomes something by doing something.

Image and style are in service to other concerns that are a subset of issues conventionally discussed as climate change, environmental stewardship, and water-use practices.

Performance-driven landscape is more than a trend. Seminal tomes include Ecological Urbanism by Moshen Mostafavi, the current dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design; The Landscape Urbanism Reader by Charles Waldheim, head of the Graduate School of Design’s Department of Landscape Architecture; and Design for a Fragile Planet by Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas.

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