“Joshua Zeunert’s essay Land Architect, has spurred many online discussions among landscape architects incited by his statement “the ‘scape’ is killing the profession”. In his essay Zeunert uses his biting wit to pose serious questions in a quasi-comical manner…” Marie Hermansson (shiftnscu).

Joshua’s article titled ‘Land Architect’ published in kerb 17 under the theme Is Landscape Architecture Dead?

The issue was well received, described at shiftnscu as “a publication…that has a profound effect on the audience it addresses” with ‘Land Architect’ (p90-93) creating much discussion at land8lounge. Kerb is published by RMIT (the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).

Here is a link to download the article: kerb 17_Zeunert_Land Architect.

Here the full text of the article:

Q: Are you a landscape architect? Do you refer to yourself as such to the public, friends and family? What proportion of us call ourselves ‘landscape architect’, rather than architect or urban designer? If you do introduce yourself as an LA, then how then do you avoid the inescapable ‘oh, you can do my backyard’ response?

Uh, I studied for four to five years (or in my case seven), but I’m pretty much useless when it comes to servicing your backyard needs, as my fees for plans, details package and specification etc… are more than your entire budget. Plus my plant knowledge is mediocre, I can’t build it nor can I get you someone to build it. How does that sound?

My architecture professor once said we should be able to sum up any thesis in a concise, ‘cocktail party’ sentence. If it is wordy, boring, or unclear, a ‘cold shoulder’ or blank stare will undoubtedly await. The pertinent question for all LA’s is: In all honesty and in the spirit of brutal self-awareness, are we currently capable of achieving a clear and accurate cocktail party summation of our job description? Should we hold a competition, or focus the next AILA survey, on ascertaining the most concise, effective, one-sentence description of a landscape architect?

At a recent public forum (2030 – The future of two cities) in Sydney held by AILA, with the lord mayors from the City of Sydney and Parramatta present, MC Journalist Geraldine Doogue (ABC) referred to our profession as landscape gardeners and the Institute of Landscape Gardeners four to five times in under one minute of her introduction, making me both shiver and boil in short succession, and forever ostracising me from her future journalistic observations (she was also oblivious to the giant AILA poster directly beside her and logo projected upon an enormous projector screen). If an astute journalist gets it so wrong when surrounded by AILA paraphernalia in the Town Hall of Sydney, what is our standing (or lack thereof) amongst the general public?

Now I must be honest. A significant reason I stayed on at Uni and completed architecture in addition to landscape architecture was to avoid this relegation of status. This is not for pretentious reasons. Since I was a fifteen-year-old reading the job guide I saw massive potential in landscape architecture, embodied by Frederick Law Olmsted and his ecologically transformative visions (who incidentally was cross-disciplinary). In my final year of high school I conducted a detailed special study on landscape architecture. This included a survey of all AILA SA landscape architecture practitioners. Approximately ninety per cent of respondents expressed great concern at the lack of public understanding and recognition of the profession. Over a decade later, I see no discernable difference or improvement of this problem. Additionally, my frustration of studying and now working with architects who cannot think outside of buildings and built form as the solution to the world’s problems is as difficult as the years of sleepless nights in getting the architecture qualification. If the profession closest to us cannot appreciate the scope of our work en masse, let alone the general public, we have a lot of work to do.

I propose a solution. We drop the ‘scapeLand Architect.

Land architect is spacious. It transcends the backyard. It sits nicely. The ‘scape tips the balance away from the respect, status and notoriety awarded to other ‘white collar’ professionals such as architects, doctors and lawyers that we rightly sit amongst with our accreditation process and professional code of conduct. Landscape lawyer? Backyard dentist? Our attempts to position ourselves on the professional radar are in fact sabotaged by our self-conscious depreciation, leaving us in a vacuum somewhere between landscape contractors and Backyard Blitz. In fact, as far as landscape architecture is concerned, Jamie Durie has succeeded in notoriety where we have failed. To put it simply – everyone knows of architecture and everyone knows of town planning. But how many non LAs are aware of and understand landscape architecture, let alone are able to name a renowned landscape architect? Despite Jude Law’s and American Beauty’s ‘Hollywoodisation’ of landscape architecture, in the eyes of the public we remain expensive, incompetent gardeners – if, indeed we even exist.

I interpret ‘scape as meaning ‘pretty dress up’.  Dig up a Chinese creek bed, polish the booty, and dress up my ‘scape outside the screen door. Bewdy mate. If I wanted to play pretty dress ups I would not have become an LA (perhaps an interior designer instead?). I became an LA to improve the health, the ecology and the natural experiential quality of the built environment in which we live. Doctors are doctors to fix people. Lawyers exist to, ideally, mediate society’s dilemmas. Both are handsomely paid and regarded for such efforts. I, on the other hand, try to fix the gigantic global environmental issues faced by humanity. This is heroic: I am not ashamed to say it. I am not highly paid or highly regarded. I do my job predominantly for altruistic reasons. I could have become an investment banker, or an engineer. I laugh at architects who think that creating a crater hole in Italy to build their giant marble monument is heroic: It is egocentric, although I appreciate their sense of ‘doing things right’. I can say these things because I am also an architect. In the age of inconvenient truths we have massive potential to step out of oblivion and offer solutions. Fix water systems and transform denuded and polluted sites. Transform barren, hangover English come-dustbowl cities in water-restricted landscapes into functioning ecologies that blur the boundaries between nature and our human requirements of it. Design community gardens and productive landscapes. Create roof gardens, vertical walls and green facades. Improve air quality. Establish biodiverse carbon banks, even if they are only a temporary fix. At least they are oxygen generators that make me feel warm and fuzzy when I think that we are planting trees to counteract the pulp mills of Tasmania and the new coal mines of NSW and central QLD.

LA’s need to BREAK the standard mould. Shatter it altogether. Take a fresh angle. Step into the sunlight. Or be forever relegated to overqualified gardeners, generally with sub-par plant knowledge and a lack of hands on know-how, thus making us seem at best, inferior to competent landscape gardeners, and at worst, totally irrelevant. We need to create some controversy. Be (calculatingly) politically incorrect. Often the most regarded Politicians were and are controversial, and people lap it up: Paul Keating, for example, still yields a power stick.

With full respect to the LA pioneers who have laid the foundations for landscape architecture in this country, LA must elevate its status to a new level. This level is cross-disciplinary in its outlook, working past restrictive notions of ‘my domain’ and filling the gaps around the building, expanding to a greater vision. Natural systems do not stop and start, they are intrinsically interrelated and co-dependent. Our dependence on natural systems requires this outlook for intelligent design and policy response, and LAs are in the primary position to intertwine our ecological dependence for survival within the bureaucratic minefield we operate within. For me at least, this design vision places ecology and humanity’s reliance on it at the forefront, with aesthetics following to embody the poetic and intangible delight that is so often difficult to realise through legislation, codes, bills of quantities and the pressures of deadlines.

In reality, ‘earth architect’ is a better title. But at the slow rate of uptake of anything new and humanity’s dogmatic resistance to change, I’ll settle for land architect.


kerb 17_JZ_Land Architect


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: