This opinion piece was written during 2015 and 2016, however, did not find a publisher willing to include it.
Beyond Capability: towards new territory in British landscape architecture and education
Progressive landscape architecture is increasingly engaged in tackling neoliberal strangleholds on our globalised planet. Lateral strategies, plans and visions are harnessing solutions to increase the resilience of settlements from the mega-region to the rural hamlet with stewardship, environmental cleansing, and tackling survival issues of climate change and food and water security. Yet landscape discourse and activities in Great Britain (GB) continues to give substantial focus, fund[i] and vigilantly preserve the centuries-old landscape approach of Lancelot “Capability” Brown (CB).
2016 heralds the tercentenary of the birth of GB’s most iconic landscape architect. The abundance of events[ii] in celebration of the iconic figure’s achievements are perhaps warranted, but is the exaltation and persistence of his once visionary but now multi-century aesthetic in the best interests of contemporary landscape architecture (LA) in GB? The 2016 celebrations offer us an opportunity for not only celebration but review.
A crisis in GB LA education[iii] (which will inevitably extend to GB LA practice over time) can be partially attributed to deep-seated, problematic issues of landscape identity. This article argues that present utilisation and leverage of CB not only misappropriates and contradicts his character, but is not proving effective for the viability of contemporary landscape architecture in GB. It is not possible, however, to be exhaustive in so short a piece. This article is neither a critique of CB and his work, nor his aesthetics (as per most CB discourse[iv]). Rather, it aims to probe GB LA identity and serve as an encouragement toward greater progressiveness within Britain and beyond.
Lancelot Brown (1716–1783) was a talented and prolific English landscape architect with a voluminous output of one hundred and seventy landscapes over a mere thirty five years. The ‘pinup’ for GB landscapes, known for seamless and expansive compositions of harmony and calmness, Brown’s design DNA is indelibly imbued in the English landscape; his territorial influence was not only impressive in his age but his ongoing spatial and intellectual influence is substantial today. Is there another landscape architect in the world—before or since—who has so substantially shaped the territory of their country?[v] Although chiefly operating in the sphere of the sprawling private estate[vi], CB’s influential parkland style has been globally imitated, transcribed and interpreted internationally in the design of innumerable public parks and gardens through to the present day. Thus, countless homages are preserved well beyond the territories of his practice[vii][viii], with heritage legislation ensuing perpetuity of work cast in his hue.
Appreciating and recognising Brown’s work is not of itself problematic, but it does raise three key issues within GB LA’s scope which could each benefit from greater review and transformation:
1) Landscape architectural identity or the lack of it (especially for potential undergraduate GB students);
2) CB’s legacy serving as a contributing legitimization of arguably inequitable and inadequate public space / common land arrangements in England (not conductive to a public realm profession);
3) A new focus for LA to evolve from a problematic obsession with visual character (such as creative, scaled-up solutions to curtail unsustainable global land practices and their consequences[ix]).
Brown himself was a man who shifted tradition, manifesting a new form of landscape architecture in a country both previously and currently focused on the scale of the garden. Thus, a key outcome of his legacy was an expanded scale of operation by landscape architects. He instigated dramatic change and was criticised by his contemporaries for destroying the dominant formalist style of his predecessors to create new and at times radical landscapes[x]. How incongruous then, to freeze time’s entropy in an attempt to preserve his old vision in perpetuity when Brown himself so capably inaugurated widespread transformation. As a visionary, what would Capability design today? It’s unlikely to be centuries-old pastiche or a willing adherence to its dominance. This was not the proven nature of the man!
The Landscape Institute UK acknowledges deep-seated challenges in landscape education and identity in GB, devoting a 2014 journal focus to this “crisis” topic[xi]. Capability might well argue today that LA education and marketing in the UK has failed to move with the times—the pressure for continual growth (in student numbers and profitability) experienced in UK Higher Education (and in many other countries) has resulted in closure of programs[xii]. This has been attributed in part[xiii] to low domestic undergraduate enrolment. In a growing country of over 65 million people, with record applications for HE[xiv], around 200 annual undergraduate acceptances[xv] to study LA represents a severe lack of desirable and effective identity.
It can now be argued that given the low level of school leavers’ enrolments into LA, GB students seem understandably incapable of perceiving the iconic figure and his legacy’s relevance and appeal (peddling a three hundred year old fellow sporting a grey-powdered wig is possibly missing the mark of capturing young minds and imaginations). Star-architects (like recently deceased Iraqi-British Dame Zaha Hadid) have more pull; with UK student higher education applications to architecture programmes around 26,000-31,000 annually, while ‘landscape design[xvi]’ applications are well under one thousand[xvii] and a significant amount of these being in garden design[xviii] (Figure 1).
Left: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown with powdered wig; Right: ‘star’ architect Zaha Hadid.
L: Painted by Sir Nathaniel Dance, via Wiki commons.
R: cropped image from: 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia. https://www.flickr.com/photos/eager/4961685021/sizes/o/
LA continues to suffer the predominant perception that landscape[xix] is scenographic, pastoral and visual, manifesting in a ‘space filler between buildings’, ‘visual and character aid’, and ‘bourgeois style-provider’—arguably hangovers consistent with CB’s legacy without recognition that he was a man of his times who shifted the scale of landscape practice. As John Loudon said in 1831 of Brown’s Stowe Garden: “nature has done little or nothing; man a great deal, and time has improved his labours”[xx]. However, this anthropocentric, potentially conceited and patriarchal dominion over nature has no place in contemporary landscape practice in the anthropocene epoch. We have long proven that we can shift mountains for our own and clients’ gratification and egos, while now we need to shift mountainous toxicity from our atmosphere, soils and water bodies. Landscape architects have the opportunity to be leaders in providing multidimensional solutions for a paradigm shift that manifests socially and environmentally ethical relationships with the planet. Despite this being a routine call in internal LA practice and discourse (to regular chagrin of some LA’s[xxi]), miniscule student numbers indicate that identity based on LA being able to ‘help the planet’ is not substantially translated into public perception and enrolments[xxii].
If GB LA (and indeed contemporary global discourse) loses itself in prolific and semantic visual discourse on the picturesque, palladian, pastoral, sublime and contemporary aesthetic equivalents, GB LA’s are at high risk of losing substantial ground to a capable and well-established Garden Design (GD) profession. In GB, these GD practitioners are arguably better suited and more skilled at fulfilling trend-based, aesthetic-focused design. If beauty remains central to an antiquated eye of beholder, progress on more substantive and ethical issues—such as LA’s capacity to mitigate and adapt to environmental and social change—are rendered cursory. That well-known GD figures in GB are increasingly winning jobs in the public realm (i.e. beating out LA’s in their own domain), is suggestive of the importance of profile and identity.
CB did not get lost in the past, he created ‘the present’ of his day exerting considerable territorial influence. GB LA is struggling to evolve from his largely misinterpreted legacy centuries later. LA needs contemporary personification with clarity and punch. If we are to attract students, build the profession and fulfil a scaled-up stewardship role, we must successfully bridge theory and practice, focussing on the exploration and realization of key issues in contemporary practice. Building on Brown’s example and the work of Kongian Yu and (British born but U.S. based) James Corner, let’s aim for multidimensional landscape architectural processes; beautiful, structural skeletons of resilient substance that engage, connect and employ at a vast scale[xxiii]. In 2016 and for the next 300 years, landscape wigs, veils and surface treatments are not good enough.
[i] National Lottery funding (a non-departmental public body responsible for allocating funds raised through National Lottery revenues for “good causes”) provided a £911,000 grant (around $A1.8 million) for the Capability Brown festival.
[ii] See for example, events at: http://www.capabilitybrown.org/ that include: English Heritage, Natural England, Parks & Gardens UK, ICOMOS-UK, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Landscape Institute, Visit Britain, the National Trust, Association of Gardens Trusts, NADFAS, the Garden History Society, the Country and Landowners Business Association, the Garden Museum, the Historic Houses Association, and the National Gardens Scheme. Also involved are academics, researchers, the owners of Brown’s landscape designs and their estate teams.
[iii] Hayley Hannan, “Responding to the crisis in landscape education” http://www.landscapethejournal.org/The-education-dilemma (accessed January 20, 2015).
[iv] See Tom Williamson, Sarah Spooner & Jon Gregory, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown: A Research Impact Review (English Heritage Research Reports: English Heritage, 2013).
[v] Bill Bryson writes “Brown created landscapes that were in a sense ‘more English’ than the countryside they replaced, and did it on a scale so sweeping and radical that it takes some effort now to imagine just how novel it was…The landscape of much of lowland England today may look timeless, but it was in large part an eighteenth-century creation, and it was Brown more than anyone who made it.” Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 108.
[vi] See John Phibbs “A List of Landscapes that have been Attributed to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown” Garden History Winter 2013 (41):2, and at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_Brown (accessed October 4, 2015).
[vii] See “Interactive Map” http://www.capabilitybrown.org/map (accessed January 2, 2016).
[viii] CB declined £1,000 (around £150,000 today (~$USD220,000) to design an estate in Ireland, stating that he hadn’t done all of England yet.
[ix] Such as devastating floods in GB in 2013-14 and 2015-16.
[x] Examples of routine transformations included felling avenues of trees, demolishing walled enclosures and structures, and damming of creeks and rivers.
[xi] Landscape, Journal of the Landscape Institute, Winter (2014).
[xii] Enrolment numbers have been relatively stable over the last decade but have failed to grow, see Hayley Hannan, “Responding to the crisis in landscape education” http://www.landscapethejournal.org/The-education-dilemma (accessed January 20, 2015).
[xiv] UCAS, “Record numbers of students accepted to UK universities and colleges this year, UCAS report shows,” https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/record-numbers-students-accepted-uk-universities-and-colleges (accessed January 3 2016).
[xv] Actual acceptances have not annually surpassed 300. Data from 2007-2015. See code K3, https://www.ucas.com/sites/default/files/eoc_data_resource_2015-dr3_015_01.pdf (accessed January 7, 2016) 3.
[xvi] UCAS Code K100 (Architecture, Build & Plan: any area, Subcode: K3 – Landscape & Garden Design)
[xvii] Architecture applications (K1): 29,585 in 2010, 30,595 in 2011, 26,775 in 2012, 26,140 in 2013, 26,110 in 2014 and 27,180 in 2015. Landscape & Garden Design (K3): 865 in 2010, 735 in 2011, 640 in 2012, 715 in 2013, 590 in 2015 and 700 in 2015. See https://www.ucas.com/sites/default/files/eoc_data_resource_2015-dr3_015_03.pdf (accessed January 7 2015) 4-5.
[xviii] There are many more applications to private garden design and ‘Further Education’ programmes not reflected in this data, reinforcing the obscurity of landscape architecture in the UK.
[xix] Joshua Zeunert, “The ‘scape’ is killing the profession”, Kerb (17): 90-93. Available at: https://joshuazeunert.com/2009/08/30/land-architect-article-generates-controversy/
[xx] John Loudon, The Gardener’s Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement (7): 389.
[xxi] See a recent protest on this topic from Pheobe Lickwar & Thomas Oles, “Why so serious, landscape architect?,” LA+ Pleasure/Fall 2015, 82-3.
[xxii] Environmental organizations across the world recruit thousands if not millions of volunteers to assist helping the planet.
[xxiii] One only needs to attend a graduating student exhibition at any landscape architecture programme to see that there is a small and still largely unknown profession capable of solving many 21st C.E. challenges we face in a meaningful and creative way.