New Worlds for Landscape Architecture

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com


Design is about making choices. As landscape architects we are called on to make physical interventions in the world in order to solve problems and fulfill societal needs. We change the existing through our realizations, and the results have consequences for the lives of people as well as for natural systems. But what guides our decision making process? What is our current understanding of landscape in the largest sense, and can it be broadened to include new ways of seeing the world? If our worldview is reflected in our designs and representations, can new ideas about the world allow our practice to evolve?

I believe that design is not free from values. In this context values can be considered to mean the beliefs held about the world we operate in. Values are inherent in designers’ work. Our worldview guides our course of action in the design process. We all work from fundamental, although often not explicitly expressed sets of beliefs. Many if not all of our ideas about landscape come with “baggage.” These cultural viewpoints color how we approach the idea of landscape, however it may be defined. Our way of seeing the world is ingrained in our way of representing our ideas as well as in their materialization through the design process.

Landscape architecture needs new vision articulated through representation and practice in order to address the challenges of our time. In this paper I will explore concepts in new scientific and philosophical worldviews to see if they have relevance for landscape architecture. From this very broad discussion of worldview I believe it is possible to narrow down the focus, pinpointing ideas that could become future strategies for landscape.

Landscape and Worldview

The exploration of landscape theory by writers such as Thomas Mels, Kenneth Olwig, J.B. Jackson, and Karl Benediktsson reveals underlying cultural beliefs associated with landscape. Landscape for many is dominated by the human perception of the world. Landscape is what we see; it is “out there.” On the one hand the origins of landscape are pictorial, linked to a tradition of painting. These depictions of landscape carry messages of political and economic identity; they reflect cultural and historical contexts. On the other hand, landscape has another origin as a unit of agricultural and economic management from ancient times, specifically from northern Europe. The first landscape representations from the Italian Renaissance are grounded in a Euclidean understanding of space, of static objects within a plane whose focal point is the human eye, much like God at the apex of a hierarchical pyramid of being.

These positions reflect an anthropologically centered universe focused on human affairs. It seems surprising that since the Renaissance these underlying tenets of landscape have not been more challenged; however, startling changes have occurred in the last hundred years in terms of the human worldview. I would like to explore some of these ideas in order to gauge how these alternate worldviews could potentially affect landscape.


“The emerging new paradigm may be called a holistic, or an ecological, worldview, using the term ecological here in a much broader and deeper sense than it is commonly used. Ecological awareness, in that deep sense, recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the embededness of individuals and societies in the cyclical processes of nature.”[1]

– Fritjof Capra

Advances in physics in the 20th and 21st centuries reveal that the universe is not the Cartesian mechanism that we imagined it to be. Physics now describes matter as made of parts that are fundamentally connected through their interrelationships on a subatomic level. All matter is entangled. The very nature of each elementary particle is affected by changes in the other particles. In this view all matter exists and functions more like an organismic system. The universe, and therefore nature, is a flowing pattern of movement that unfolds across time. What we distinguish as static forms are in fact shifting patterns in a larger flow, just like whirlpools are recognizable forms in flowing water.

This view of nature is one of seamless wholeness. The structure of the whole is more important than any of the individual parts. The individual elements themselves have no meaning or function outside of the larger system. The state of the whole organizes the parts, and the existence of these parts depends on the context of the whole, just like the existence of individual organs depends on the organization of the whole body.

What is the consequence of “seamless wholeness” for landscape? The design process could begin with a concept of the whole, or the larger world outside of the design intervention’s location. In turn the intervention is enmeshed in this larger system. The discrete elements of designs are therefore less important than the relationships between them. The quality of the entire space in relation to the larger world becomes more important than the formal qualities of the site’s design.

For the system to be seamlessly integrated according to the holistic view, the whole must be inscribed in each of the parts. To use the body metaphor once more, the whole is inscribed in each of the parts in the same way that a living cell contains the DNA of the whole body. It is intriguing to wonder what “design DNA” could be. Perhaps each design element belongs to the system in a way that is visually and materially unique, functioning optimally only for the site and its conditions.

The concept of wholeness potentially ends the idea of separation between “nature” and “culture.” Natural systems and cultural systems become enfolded in the larger whole of the planet; human interventions can be seen as a thread running through a larger fabric. According to this wide-sweeping logic, all is one indivisible landscape, regardless of where humans choose to see or place boundaries. As designers working with and within natural and human systems, a high achievement would be creating integrated designs reflecting this wholeness. We can begin by not focusing solely on individual design elements, but rather on the creation of ensembles and spaces where ecological systems and human needs are integrated and working for each other.

The Three Ecologies

“More than ever today, nature has become inseparable from culture; and if we are to understand the interactions between ecosystems, the mecanosphere, and the social and individual universes of references, we have to learn to think ‘transversally.’[2]

– Félix Guattari

In his book “The Three Ecologies,” philosopher Félix Guattari suggests that in addition to biological ecologies, there are two other types of ecologies, the social and the mental. The three ecologies simultaneously encompass the world, and are woven through each other, necessitating transversal thinking. He proposes mapping methods called schizoanalytic cartographies, which can be applied to the three ecologies. If physical, mental, and social are aspects of the same thing, then it follows that cartography is as applicable to the psyche as it is to a geographical feature.

The idea of mapping coincides with the idea of landscape as perception, as something to be seen and transcribed, but here it becomes inversed; the mental and the social become landscapes unto themselves. Guattari’s worldview is an existential territory of relationships between the three ecologies. He describes it as an open process inhabited by human subjects as well as other “assemblages” and “machines” which are combined material, political and psychological entities, the precise definition of which lies outside the scope of this paper. The three ecologies are intertwined and interwoven. Therefore, landscape as perceived outside of the self, as an image or scene, ceases to exist.

The three ecologies have an enormous potential impact on the definition of landscape. We are aware of the meaning of a physical ecology. The world of thoughts and ideas, from the individual consciousness to collective society, is also an ecology. All three function as physical and existential territories, and therefore potentially as landscapes. Things become ideas, and ideas become things.

Landscape in this view is immanent, meaning that it is permeated with consciousness. The consequence is that we act upon the world but the relationship is reciprocal; what happens to the world also happens inside us. The loss of biodiversity on a global level, the death of seas, and the loss of forests – Guattari considers these as an impoverishment of the human spirit. This is perhaps a converse to Bohm’s holism: not only are we enmeshed in the landscape, the landscape also manifests within us.


Making images is the primary testing ground for design concepts. It occurs when the designer’s pencil first touches a notebook, and it continues through many stages to a final plan. How could the ideas of wholeness and the three ecologies lead to strategies for landscape representation?

James Corner offers some clues.[3] He believes the key emerges from the abstract space of our conceptualization of the image. He proposes that new information can be layered into a drawing that also refers to its own developmental process. Corner refers to this process as deictic drawing. In this way we can refer to experience, to emotion and the senses, and to the complexity of what we are grappling with as well as physical and spatial form. Abstract symbols, diagrams and schema can function intertextually to layer in other meanings to drawing. Corner alludes to notation in music and dance as a way to potentially include references to physical and temporal processes of landscape. Notational drawing also refers to a much older tradition where informational signs are layered into an image. For example, medieval images of cities and farmland sometimes contain astrological references to the seasons and the passage of time.

Designers can grapple with the idea of wholeness by representing the larger systems in which their designs are inscribed. This flows naturally from traditional landscape analysis by showing the geographical, ecological and historical context of the design. However, it needn’t stop there. Perhaps it would be possible to apply Guattari’s idea of cartography to other aspects of the design context, mapping out social and even personal relationships and narratives about the site. These new layers could be added to the representation process. This new representational language could begin to describe relationships within the design that aren’t typically visualized.

From the idea of wholeness to the idea of interwoven social and personal ecologies, a new language could be developed to show more levels of information within the design process, establishing visual “transversal thinking.”

A new world in view

In the context of holism and the three ecologies, landscape moves away from the visual and pictorial. It becomes a dynamically unfolding process, which is enmeshed in the world. We are also enmeshed in it; we are one of its processes. Design must also occur within this enmeshing. This has several consequences for landscape architecture. The importance of a design moves away from individual design elements towards the relationships between them, and the whole system the design creates. Design moves towards creating platforms of experiences and exchanges where humans and nature are integrated. Design thinking embraces the dynamic process the design will create rather than only the formal aspects.

I agree with the Thomas Ingold’s[4] concept of the landscape as an unfolding fabric. This metaphor parallels the ideas of David Bohm and Félix Guattari, who both imagine the world as a continuum of interwoven forces, constantly evolving. David Bohm illustrates his concept of holism in physics with an explanation of the hologram – a leap forward in complexity in the way that we represent the world visually. In a normal photograph, reality is represented by a series of points – physical dots on paper. In a holograph, the waves of light themselves that emanate from an object are captured. Holograph means “to write the whole.” Each part of the holograph contains the whole image. There is no point-to-point correspondence. In the holograph the waves of light are unfolded to reproduce the whole object. The enfolding and unfolding are the primary movement, the process. The object is secondary.

The process of life is also a permanent unfolding of interwoven forces. Although extremely abstract, this image underlines the idea that we are enmeshed and indissociable parts of a larger system. Holographic landscape design is still perhaps to be realized only in the distant future. However, tracing the outlines of the potential for these concepts to be manifested in landscape architecture leads me to believe that this expanded notion of landscape will lead to a richer practice.

The new territories revealed by Bohm, Guattari, and others wait to be explored. The most vital new path, in my view, is the idea that we cannot step back from the landscape. We are within it, and it is within us. Representing landscape on the way to realizing a design is part of a larger unfolding in which our voices are added to the whole. In this view, we are directly engaged.

Sources and References

Bateson , Gregory, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Bantam Books, 1979)

Bohm, David, “Postmodern Science and a Postmodern World,” in Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Ecology Second Edition, ed. Carolyn Merchant (New York: Humanity Books, 2008), 387-395.

Bohm, David, Thought as a System (transcript of seminar held in Ojai, California, from 30 November to 2 December 1990), (London: Routledge,1992)

Capra, Fritjof, “Systems Theory and the New Paradigm,” in Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Ecology Second Edition, ed. Carolyn Merchant (New York: Humanity Books, 2008), 365-372.

Corner, James, “Representation and Landscape,” in Theory and Landscape Architecture: A Reader (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Liebniz and the Baroque (University of Minnesota, 1992)

Goodwin, Brian, “Organisms and Minds: the dialectics of the animal-human interface in biology,” in What is an Animal, ed. T. Ingold (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 100-109

Guattari, Felix, Les Trois Ecologies (Paris: Galilée, 1989)

Ingold, Thomas, ‘The Temporality of Landscape’ in World Archaeology 25: 2 (1993)

[1]Capra, Fritjof, “Systems Theory and the New Paradigm,” in Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Ecology Second Edition, ed. Carolyn Merchant (New York: Humanity Books, 2008), 365-372.

[2] Guattari, Félix, Les Trois Ecologies (Paris: Galilée, 1989), p.35

[3] Corner, James, “Representation and Landscape,” in Theory and Landscape Architecture: A Reader (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

[4] Ingold, Thomas, ‘The Temporality of Landscape’ in World Archaeology 25: 2 (1993)