It is hard to identify the town as a place these days. Urban culture is omnipresent (in western Europe, at least); is a pedestrian zone more urban than a motorway? In the network of technical infrastructure that now spans across almost all of Europe, the collection of buildings that we traditionally refer to as a „town“ is only one service operation among many.

With the disappearance of the categorical difference between them, the traditional territories of town and country seem to be giving way to a kind of continuous metropolis. While the countryside is becoming ever more town-like in an increasingly dense network of urban structures, many inner cities (such as that of London) are being transformed into new, highly artificial landscapes by the decay of traditional infrastructures and the superimposition of heterogeneous systems. When the traditional identity of a place disappears, so does any kind of idiosyncratic iconography. The question of the physical and architectural context of an architectural measure must be posed and answered anew in every case.

There is no doubt that this is a tall order, and one we elude by means of blanket strategies. The uncritical resuscitation of historical patterns is a cliché that appeals to our yearning for stability and continuity, which uses the myth of a dignified past as a measure of the present. The other extreme accepts historical precedent only in order to rationalise individual creations, thus ensnaring itself in the equally clichéd urge for originality in ever new avant-gardisms.

The first concept invents an ideal, conflict-free local authority as the client; the second denies any commonality. To the thinking architect, both models must seem dubious.


Unfinished Modernism

Modernist architecture and town planning saw itself as being directly allied with contemporary culture. It saw the masses as its client and modern technology as an aid; its declared intention was to solve the conflicts of the present in order to help the real world to function. This heroic experiment was interrupted by war. The few of its protagonists who seriously continued the development of modernist thought when peace came were swept away by a wave of mediocrity in the train of a massive reconstruction programme. The experiment of early modernism has not been brought to an end, however. The present of the 1990s consists of a landscape of inherited fragments and set pieces, whose relevance to our reality needs to be reviewed. Dealing with the elements of this inheritance and their retrospective classification and rationalisation seems to be the first step towards an architecture that can be relevant to its surroundings in more senses that its mere character as an isolated object, without having to fall back on clichés of the „tried-and-true“.



The attempt to discover structures of order in the landscape structure of the contemporary „urban hybrid“ of western Europe resembles the transformation of a wild landscape into a garden. The relationship of the landscape garden to the landscape resembles the attitude of modernism towards contemporary culture.


Landscape Tradition

The landscape garden was devised in the England of the 18th century. Now as then, it is the subtlest and most widely cultivated manifestation of the landscape tradition that plays a central part in the mentality and cultural awareness of the English.

Roughly categorised, a work in this tradition would respect the prevailing physical conditions (regardless of their relation to the use or the site), with the designer’s intentions being subordinated to them, or derived from them. The opposite of this would be the logic of an abstract concept that strives to manifest a pre-assumed absolute truth without exception.


Genius Loci

The first step in creating a landscape garden is to comprehend and elaborate the „quality of place“. Brown’s and Repton’s textbooks show in clear diagrams how Nature can be made even “more natural” by the use of variations, contrasts and intensification; how a garden develops from a place that only becomes a place at all as a result of this intervention. This approach is enormously flexible and can, in the case of the garden, incorporate not only landscaping elements but also farming and architecture into the overall composition. John Vanbrugh argued in favour of retaining an old building near Blenheim Palace, because together with the new trees to be planted, it „would indeed supply all the wants of Nature in that place“.

This is the main lesson to be learned from the landscape garden: responding flexibly to a place, whatever it may consist of, and finding and elaborating the genius loci. It is a strategy which, in the uninterrupted continuum of an (architectural) landscape, creates places with identities and power, without doing violence to existing patterns or having to suppress contradictory demands.


Movement / Theatre / Film

The landscape garden is conceived as a dynamic structure. If its individual elements are seen as being stage designs, the whole thing can be read as a theatre or film experience. In the case of Stourhead, for instance, the garden is deliberately laid out as a journey. Each of the stops along the way through the park evokes a stage of the journey of Aeneas (related in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid). In other cases, sequences of atmospheric compositions and situations are presented and it is left to the visitor to make the associations. The crucial point, however, is that the garden as a sequence of ex-periences and spaces is laid out along a timeline: a way of thinking that to a large extent accommodates the new norm of motorised movement in the town, as well as our unconscious, completely internalised, perception of this reality as film.


Esse est Percipi

The landscape garden aspires to be a composition of manifold and varied sensual quality – an aspect that, in historical terms, is connected with the English empiricism of John Locke. Content is conveyed directly, at a popular level. Although the direct derivation of a garden composition from a painted scene can only really be proven historically in isolated cases, the picturesque, pictorial quality of the landscape garden is obvious. Landscape gardeners were often painters, too (like, for instance, William Kent): in order to communicate their designs, they had to rely on pictures, perspectives and similar methods of three-dimensional presentation. Landscape painting became a model for man-made landscapes.

As far back as the early 18th century, the perception of Nature was obviously so intertwined with the landscape painting of Poussin, Lorrain, Rosa and the like, that Horace Walpole, in a letter written in 1739 while on his Grand Tour, described the (real) Alps as „precipes, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvatore Rosa“. This mixing of image and depiction aptly conveys the superimposition of different realities that enter into the language of an English landscape garden, yet it does not seem all that far from the definition of reality that might be formulated by a contemporary artist such as Nam June Paik.

Once one has recognized that the landscape garden is a work of art in its own right, and has comprehended the analogy with the way that urban landscape was treated in the 1990s, it only remains to observe and to learn (to experience) how the best gardens implement the strategy of abstraction in three-dimensional form. In this context, the picturesque quality on which Gordon Cullen placed such an emphasis in his „townscape“ seems less relevant. What interests us more is the fascinating metamorphosis of existing elements through changes in their setting: how a normal group of trees is positioned so as to flank one view, counterpoint a second and conceal a third; how what has been elaborately thought out appears to be wholly normal, while something ordinary can be elevated to become special; how existing and perfectly alien elements seem to find a normal part to play in the foreground or the background, and how a new composition of diverse elements affects us as though it had always been so and had all grown quite naturally. What emerges is not a pretty picture postcard scene, but a pictorial space with the suggestive power of the place, which allows the aesthetic experience conveyed by the senses to become a poetic one in the imagination.


First published in ARCH+ 118, September 1993. Then published in Sauerbruch Hutton. Archive. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2006