Tag Archives: landscape architecture


“… it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”[1]

A landscape architect for president. How about it? In Thomas Jefferson landscape architect. Part I this idea turned out to be not as far-fetched as it sounds…. All first American presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be, with Thomas Jefferson as their champion. In part II of this feuilleton let us zoom in on his life work: Monticello.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation, wasn’t the first American pleasure garden, but certainly the most influential one, uniting arts, science, production, experimentation, expression of both power and of democracy, of renewal and tradition.


Already in college Jefferson started planning his own house and garden, and never stopped planning it for the next 50 years. He inherited most of the land from his father, and his first action was to level the top of what had been his favourite spot since childhood, a hill that rose 170 metres above the river, and which he named Monticello [little mountain]. Two years later, he started building his house, inspired by Palladio. Although some Palladian plantation houses existed at the time, none was as sophisticated as his, and with the house he had a strong statement about who Thomas Jefferson was and would be: fashionable, powerful, looking toward the future. For him Palladian architecture, looking to the ancient past for models of the future, wasn’t old in essence, but modern.


As with the house, he had been planning the garden from early on. Before beginning to build the house, he was already planting fruit trees on the hillside. His first plan for the grounds laid out an astonishing landscape vision: somewhat lugubrious, fairly decadent and shamelessly romantic for someone who is celebrated as a master of sober and statesmanlike prose, totally unlike the no-nonsense Jefferson he was as a president.

To present an image of his ideas, let me describe one of these never-built phantasies. The graveyard, which he described as a circle surrounded by a hedge of cedar, among ancient oaks interspersed with some “gloomy” evergreens, with “no mark of any human shape that had been there, unless the skeleton of some poor wretch, Who sought that place out to despair and die in.”[2] Temples, a pyramid and statues would mark the graves, with inscriptions in pseudo-classical Latin describing water and grottoes. The whole arrangement would be planted with native beech and aspen trees, and a vista would be cut open to the river. There would be fragrant plants and an Aeolian harp would play mournfully by the shifting winds, unseen.

These and other visions were derived directly from his European books, and from the many travels he made when he was a Minister in Paris, spending most of his time touring gardens in France, England, Holland, Germany. His favourite was the jardin anglais, which he saw as the expression of Enlightenment, as a reaction against the autocracy and the oppressive rule of the privileged few (disregarding the reality of hundreds of poorly paid servants needed to keep up these gardens). The new naturalism was an expression of politics—the progress of civilisation moves toward greater liberty and justice, claiming the political powers that be were “natural” —, of the scientific revolution, geared toward empiricism—true knowledge can only be derived from the physical examination of things themselves—and of a new philosophy, with reason replacing faith and religion as the central organising principle, all of which fitted Jefferson’s views.


He kept perfecting his house and garden, living for years in a building site, tearing half the building down and replacing it with a taller portico and a single dome (modelled on Villa Rotunda) to make it aesthetically perfect. In the meantime, all his ideas to make money from his large plantation, such as introducing crop-rotation systems and soil-improving crops, did not deliver, whereas the nail-factory that he started, worked by boy slaves, did, presenting a total contradiction of Jefferson’s deepest-held belief that the United States should be a nation of farmers. This made him one of the first factory owners, the forerunner of what would transform the nations’ economy and social structure.


Despite his ideals, Jefferson was less a farmer than a plant-obsessed gardener of scientific bent, using his garden as an experimental laboratory. Even as an old man, he supervised the plantation almost daily. He was a zealous record-keeper, writing down all his observations, whether the wind direction, the blooming dates of wildflowers, or the life cycle of a destructive insect.

After retiring at Monticello, all his previously designed, unexecuted plans eventually led to the plan that was put in action. Working carefully with native material, although he was constantly experimenting with exotic plants, he created a very original version of a landscape garden. Based on his love for botany, agriculture and surveying, in this final vision he imagined the hilltop as a ferme ornée, an ornamental farm, with temples, clumps of trees, a swooping drive surrounded by flower beds called “roundabout”, a grove, a fish pond, a vegetable garden, fruit garden, and orchards. Outbuildings were moved out of sight, vistas were created, and the wooden fence replaced by a ha-ha.

Monticello is the quintessential expression of the ideal of a virtuous rural retirement, of a country of farmers in the tradition of Virgil’s “Georgics.” The rational exploitation of agricultural lands for profit (utility) married to a concern with pleasure and taste (beauty).



For further reading: Graham, S. (2011). American Eden; From Monticello to Central Park to our backyards: what our gardens tell us about who we are. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[1] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782.

[2] From Jefferson’s Memorandum Book

In the present publicity excess on the American presidential elections, Trump versus Hillary, I can’t help fantasizing about the ideal president. What about a landscape architect for president? Well, it has been done before, and very successfully… Actually all first presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be. Each in their own way made what Adams called “the garden of a patriot”, where the mundane activities of sowing and planting became imbued with the idea of nation building.

The very first president George Washington was a professional surveyor, discovering firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial America, where land equaled power. Also, he studied and implemented improved farming methods throughout his life, an initial interest driven by his own needs to earn a living and improve his family estate Mount Vernon. He had a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his life, and after returning home from his service in the Revolutionary War, he redesigned the landscape at Mount Vernon, adopting the less formal, more naturalistic style of the 18th century English landscape garden. Based on a plan gifted to him by Samuel Vaughan, he reshaped walks, roads, and lawns; cut vistas through the forest, and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon were delighted by bountiful offerings of fresh vegetables and fruits, and reveled in after-dinner walks amongst all manner of flowering plants. From the beginning, trees had been emblematic of the new nation, and when in 1783, with liberty at last achieved, Washington could return to Mount Vernon, his first act was to embark upon large-scale plantings of native American trees. He wrote to friends and relations all over the 13 states to request specimens of indigenous species – balsam firs from the north, eastern hemlocks and white pines from the north-east, live oaks and magnolias from the south – which, added to the cockspur thorns, redbuds and other trees that grew wild on his Virginia estate, would form an image of the new nation in microcosm. Where earlier colonists had spurned native species, Mount Vernon was to become what Andrea Wulf calls “the first truly American garden”.[1]


Mount Vernon


After Washington, John Adams was elected president, the first president to live in the White House, which was then, like most of Washington, surrounded by mud flats. However, apart from adding a vegetable plot he did not spend enough time there to alter the grounds. But at his retirement he returned to his family farm in Massachusetts, where he spent his time farming. “I begin now to think all time lost that is not employed in farming; innocent, healthy, gay, elegant amusement! Enchanting employment! How my imagination roves over my rocky mountains, and through my brushy meadows.”[2] Much of his land was farmland, with ornamental plants near the house. Adams was no landscape gardener on the scale or with the intensity of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson; the only large intervention he made was the creation of a ha-ha, creating the effect of a long, uninterrupted view. He proposed naming his farm Peacefield, for the sense of peace he enjoyed there, but also in commemoration for the peace he had helped to win for his country.


Adams Farm

Where Adams saw the urban entrepreneurial elite of merchants and traders as the key to the nation’s prosperity, the third president Thomas Jefferson thought the greatest service a man could render his country was to introduce a useful plant to its culture. Since his travels to Europe, Jefferson had been an avid collector of books and architecture and gardening, which he used to shape the Palladian splendour of his estate Monticello.



Jefferson was followed up by James Madison, who, after his term as president, retired to his Virginia estate Montpelier, where he managed a large plantation and devoted himself to the preservation of the environment by conserving timber resources and once-fertile land that had been depleted from overuse. In 1818 he made a prescient speech on the subject, filled with advice for living off the land without destroying it. Humankind, he said, could not expect nature to be “made subservient to the use of man”: man, he believed, must find a place within “the symmetry of nature” without destroying it.[3] His garden, like those of others laid out by the founding fathers, remains today as proof of his dedication to the natural world.



My personal favourite is Jefferson. Although the title landscape architect had not been created before his death in 1826, he was certainly qualified for that appellation. Not only did he design his estate Monticello and his summer house Poplar Forest, but with his design for the University of Virginia he created the prototype for the American University, he played a large role in the design and realisation of the city of Washington and established the grid by which means the American wilderness was colonised.

A feuilleton.

[1] Andrea Wulf (2011) Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.

[2] Letters of John Adams Addressed to His Wife, ed. Adams, 2:139.

[3] “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia” (1818).

Routes are important operative structures in landscape architecture because they play a crucial role in mediating or facilitating the use and reception of (designed) landscapes. Routes are the ‘silent guides of the stroller’ and facilitate the primordial act of walking as an aesthetic and social practice. The shape of a walk refers not only to the formal aspects of routing such as the tracing and gradient of the routes, but also to the landscape space as people perceive it. This perceptual space indicates the visual reality, the sensorial experience that emerges only by bodily movement and is affected by topological, physical, social, and psychological conditions. The psychologist Kurt Lewin proposed in 1934 the term Hodological Space to describe these factual conditions a person is faced with on its way (‘Hodos’, a Greek word meaning ‘way’). The psychogeographical maps of Guy Debord in the 1950’s and Hans Dieter Schaal in the late 1970’s are inspiring attempts to visualize perceptual space.


Psychogeographical mapping of hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)

Mapping hodological space (drawing by Hans Dieter Schaal, 1978)


Visual perception and kinaesthesia

The shape of a walk as a concept connects visual perception to the ‘sense of movement’ or kinaesthesia. In traditional Asian culture it is common to link visual perception with movement as exemplified by the Chinese character for ‘to see’ 見 in which the upper part symbolises the eye 目and the lower part symbolises the feet of a person 儿. Kinaesthetic experience involves several sensory channels for an active participation with the spatial environment. The brain integrates information from proprioception and the vestibular system into its overall sense of body position, movement, and acceleration, which is important for spatial orientation as described by the neuroscientist Alain Berthoz.

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are thus closely related to visual perception. As James Gibson elaborates in his seminal work ‘The ecological approach to visual perception’: “Locomotion is guided by visual perception. Not only does it depend on perception but perception depends on locomotion inasmuch as a moving point of observation is necessary for any adequate acquaintance with the environment. So we must perceive in order to move, but we must also move in order to perceive.” The shape of a walk is therefore determined by a kinaesthetic experience of the designed landscape where visual perception is inherently connected to one’s abilities and possibilities for movement offered by the design.


Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)

Bodily sensation and muscle movement are closely related to visual perception (photos by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887)


Walking as field of study in landscape architecture

The shape of the walk is thus of crucial importance in landscape architecture because it is not possible to perceive space without movement of the eye, head and body. It determines the tactile and kinaesthetic experience and is the means to organise the visual logic of a site by directing the individual’s gaze at views or focal points and their sequence. From this follows that the shape of a walk is an important unifying and structural principle in landscape design and the discovery of landscape from past to present. According to the garden theorist and historian Erik A. de Jong it must be considered the hinge that steered more than anything else the changing options for use, experience, and design and contributed fundamentally to both personal and cultural developments.

From this perspective the shape of a walk becomes a highly relevant field of study in landscape architecture. Not only in the sense that it addresses the phenomenological dimensions of landscape as proposed by the sociologist Lucius Burckhardt with his Science of Strolling (called: Strollology or Promenadology), or that it offers an alternative approach to landscape design that integrates intense space perception, encourages intuition and supports organization as elaborated by landscape architects such as Henrik Schultz and Günther Voght. The shape of a walk is also an important container of design knowledge available for systematic exploration, description and classification. It is an invaluable source of design principles that effectively shape the relation between formal space (‘space of coordinates’) and perceptual space. Studying the shape of a walk can help landscape architects to get a grip on space as perceived from eye-level, kinaesthetic aspects, wayfinding, and the phenomenology of landscape in order to become tools for landscape design.

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

GIS-based analysis of the shape of the walk at Stourhead Landscape garden combining height gradient, visible features and light and shade along the route (analysis by Steffen Nijhuis, 2015)

The material as discussed above is excerpted from: Nijhuis, S. (2015) GIS-based landscape design research. Stourhead landscape garden as a case study. Delft, A+BE. or

The dike as a landscape element takes on many shapes [1]. Depending on their form and location, dikes determine the ‘face’ of the Dutch polder landscape. Of course vegetation, land allotment and building development patterns also play an important role. Yet dikes are vital to the landscape’s appearance: apart from their form and location, their uninterruptedness defines spaces in a landscape and connects areas with each other. Dikes make differences in the polder landscape legible: a dike in a river landscape is different from one built in a sea-clay or peat landscape or the area around the IJsselmeer lake. Dikes therefore contribute to the identity and variety of the landscape. They simultaneously provide coherence, a sense of space and a rich variety of appearances. But how do you get a grip on the dikes’ spatial significance?

The seminal publication Het toekomstig landschap der Zuiderzeepolders (literally, ‘The future landscape of the Zuiderzee polders’ [1928]) provides some leads. In this manifesto of Dutch landscape architecture, planning experts such as D. Hudig and T. van Lohuizen described the importance of dikes as follows: ‘The dike is a significant element in every polder. Located on the border, it provides a view on one side of the landscape at its foot, unfolding its particular structure; on the other side it provides a view of the surrounding land, which often has a completely different character. The long, broad slope is one of the dike’s most beautiful features (. . .)’. From this, it can be inferred that a dike’s spatial significance depends on your vantage point, on the perspective you choose for reading and understanding dikes in the landscape. There are at least two different ways of looking at dikes: from the air and from the ground. In these vertical and horizontal perspectives features such as the dike’s course, cross-section and revetment always play a different role.

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The course, cross-section and revetment of the dike exert great influence on its spatial significance. Plan for a new sea dike in the IJsselmeer area (Netherlands), Jacob van Hoorn, 1737 (source: TU Delft Library, Kaartencollectie Trésor TRL33.5.07)

The view from the air

You get a bird’s eye view of the dike system regardless of whether you view it from the air or on a map. It becomes clear that dikes form spatial patterns that endow the landscape with structure. They provide cohesion in the landscape and are also the interface between land and water, or between different polders that are enclosed as spatial units. Dikes ‘frame’ different types of landscape and landscape units. Like the black lines that separate the pictures in a comic book, the dikes are the green lines that demarcate the Dutch landscape. This also means that dikes are connecting structures:  through cities and nature, they meander everywhere and connect the coast with the hinterland. This is significant, not only for plants and animals but also for humans.

Dike patterns also make the history of reclamation in the polder readable: in Friesland (NL), for example, you can see an intricate, irregular pattern of dikes and quays, an echo of the early individual reclamation that from the time of the Romans gradually developed into ring dikes; you can discern the haphazard process of diking accreted silted soil in Zeeland, and the systematic reclamation of the West-Frisian and Holland-Utrecht peat areas that started in the early Middle Ages. The ring dikes mark the areas of reclaimed land that have lain low in the landscape since the sixteenth century. Dike patterns are a record of the formative force of water and the way humans have dealt with it. Natural processes of sedimentation, erosion and stagnation through water provide the foundation for a rich variety of polder landscapes in the coastal, river and peat areas. Dikes also reflect technological progress, such as the Dutch Delta works, the Afsluitdijk (the enclosing dam of the IJsselmeer) and land reclamation in the IJsselmeer area. In a nutshell, the shape of a dike makes it possible to read how we have dealt with water: from the small-scale and winding in early times to the very large-scale and rectilinear today.

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands)  (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The development of the landscape expressed by the pattern of dikes, here visible on the island of Goeree Overflakkee (SW-Netherlands) (drawing by: Michiel Pouderoijen, TU Delft)

The view from the ground

Viewing the dike from the ground means you stand on or next to the dike or see it from a distance. Here, conditions affecting visual perception such as vantage point, the viewer’s elevation and viewing direction, movement, and the weather play an important role. The interplay between the dike’s sideways slope, structure and revetment determine its spatial significance at eye level.

In the field, dikes are spatial borders: they determine the form of the landscape, the two- and three-dimensional composition of vertical elements that define the landscape space. The composition determines the scale, proportion, orientation and significance of the space. Every dike has its own specific characteristics, with form creating the connection between a landscape’s history and our spatial experience. Apart from the sideways slope, the cross-section and revetment are also important. The dike cross-section describes the dike’s height, the angle of inclination of its slope, and the width of the crest and the toe. This is important because a high, steep dike creates a different spatial effect from, say, a gently sloping wide dike. Whereas a steep dike makes a spatial border palpable, a dike with a gentle slope tones it down. Whether a dike is revetted with stones or only with grass also plays a role. The revetment is an indication of the function and use of the dike’s inside and outside, and it can create visual continuity or, in fact, contrast. Trees reinforce the three-dimensional effect of the dike but due to technical considerations they cannot always be planted.

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

The dike as landscape balcony at Wörlitz, Dessau (Germany) (photo: S. Nijhuis, 2013)

Standing on a dike is like standing on a landscape balcony with sweeping views on either side – stretches of water or polder, or both. Movement plays an important role in how we experience these landscapes because there are often roads or cycle-paths on top of the dikes. Seen from the car or bicycle, aspects of the landscape succeed one another like a cinematic experience, as we float above the landscape. The straight or curved course of the dike then provides variation or calm and opens up perspectives on the landscape. Here, too, the cross-section strongly affects spatial experience: if the road and cycle-path are both located on the crest, for example, their width might diminish the special experience of the dike, whereas if the cycle-path is located on the dike’s flank more of the dike remains.

The dike’s continuity makes the landscape’s cohesion visible and connects the local with the supra-regional: in the Rhine-Meuse river area dikes follow the course of the rivers with  occasional sharp bends around deep lakes that bear silent witness to past dike breaches; in the peat area dikes support a system of drainage lakes and cut through the low-lying polder land; in the coastal area dikes are like the layers of an onion, enfolding and merging the land as it grew; and the dikes in the young IJsselmeer polders and the ring dikes around the polders of reclaimed lakes make it possible to experience the former stretches of water as landscape spaces.

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988)

Research through design exploring spatial qualities of re-enforced river dikes (source: Y. Feddes & F. Halenbeek, 1988, compilation: S.Nijhuis)

In conclusion

Taken together, these ways of looking create a basis for approaching the dike from a spatial perspective and endowing it with aesthetic landscape qualities. Thus, if work is carried out on a dike attention must be paid not only to safety and multi-functionality but also to scenic beauty. Carefully designing a dike’s course, cross-section and revetment ensures its contribution to the identity, spatial aspect and variation of a landscape. The design disciplines are vital here: landscape architects and urban planners play a key role in planning developments that affect the landscape, and they should take the lead in developing the expertise and tools to formulate the dike as an object of spatial design in a context of functionality and social embedding.



[1] This text is published as:  Nijhuis, S (2014). Dikes in focus. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dutch dikes (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 publishers. In Dutch: Nijhuis, S (2014). Oog voor de dijk. In EJ Pleijster & C van der Veeken (Eds.), Dijken van Nederland (pp. 72-75). Rotterdam: nai010 uitgevers. Both available at:


Many people know the overwhelming feeling of peace and admiration one experiences overlooking a canyon, snow capped mountains, sunset at the beach or tumbling waterfalls. Our relationship with nature is of all times and ranges from worshiping the gods of nature to overcoming or ‘taming’ it. The relation with nature has been the subject of many great thinkers such as the 18th century philosopher Rousseau who, with his admiration for nature, has had a big influence on our current way of thinking. Our desire for unspoiled nature is today perhaps greater than ever. Every year, millions of people have their holidays (to some indeed ‘holy’ days) in the mountains, which seem to have an enormous appeal to us.

Moraine lake, Banff National Park, Canada

Special ecosystems and lots of variety

The variety of (plant)species in the mountains is very big as a lot of different conditions can be found on a relatively small surface. In a North West European lowland forest one can find particularly forest plants due to different conditions. In the mountains these different conditions and gradients are more extreme, think of: altitude, temperature regimes, PH, moisture, soil types, snow coverage, nutrients sunlight etc. The result is a great balanced ecosystem with many different habitats and species.

It is not rare, to experience the grandeur of the mountain scenery during a walk when suddenly a little further, you hear a splashing waterfall and find yourself in front of a vertical cliff filled with rare flowers of Saxifraga, Sempervivum and Ferns; the most beautiful garden on a few square meter! Can we have some of this experience in our Gardens? Let’s have a look at the how we have dealt with this till now?

History of the Rock Garden

Although rocks were already used in Chinese gardens it was in the English landscape gardens that the grotto (rock cave) was introduced. As a reminder to pristine nature, which in those days was right in the spotlight. It was the time of exploring the remote corners of the world, exploring exotic places, but also, for example the Alps. There were also special plants and animals that were brought back to zoos and botanical gardens. Since the late 18th century, rock gardens were laid out and were on display (first one 1772 in London). This was mainly to create an artificial habitat for the plant collections brought back from the mountains, not to experience the feeling of the mountains! Later, local large angular limestone blocks were used to build these gardens and slowly the ‘English Rock Garden’ came into existence as can still be found in Kew Gardens. Around 1900 rock gardens were very popular, especially because Reginald Farrer brought back new species from the Himalayas and China. During an international plant exhibition of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in 1912 Farrer showed a natural rock garden he built himself. This was actually the start of the continuing interest in rock gardens today by enthusiasts worldwide.

English Rock Garden in Kew Gardens built in 1882

Alpine flowers in our gardens

Over the years, a variety of possibilities were created to grow Alpine plants in our gardens. This varies from the English rock garden, alpine houses, Czech crevice gardens, tufa gardens, using troughs, rubble gardens (rubble instead of rock), artificial and natural stone walls, raised beds and even refrigerated benches. Often this is mainly for genera, which are more difficult to grow as they often need moisture but good drainage, cool root systems but sun! Interestingly many of our perennials, shrubs and bulbs used in our gardens right now, grow naturally in mountain regions of the world think of plants like Bergenia, Buxus and Tulips

Garden secrets

So there are ways to make artificial habitats for a collection of alpine plants. The question now is, can we create the experience of the mountains in our garden. The total effect of plants, rocks and water together! In fact this is not an easy question to answer as I think it touches the core of what garden design & landscape architecture is about. In this respect, a Japanese garden is very interesting! Rocks as islands in the sea (gravel), smoothly pruned Azaleas as rolling hills in the Japanese landscape and so on. The Japanese garden is actually a translation of the local landscape! Which reminds me of William Blake’s poem ‘To see the world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wildflower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour!

Also very telling is the quest of the renowned landscape architect John Ormsbee Simonds. With fellow students he had spent years looking for the essentials of the world’s famous gardens in Japan, China, Tuscany, France, England and so on. What are the secrets of all these gardens? Was it just the lay out, the geometry, order, unity and intricacy or is there more? Somehow they felt the essence of what it was seemed to escape them. Many years later when he sat in a woodland, as he describes it; sunlit trees, motionless air fragrant with Hay fern, purple foliage, squirrels searching for acorns….’an old familiar tingling went through me, a sense of supreme well being, and an indefinable something more’…. It gave him the same feeling as he had felt in some of the gardens, years earlier. It was not the design of the gardens but rather what one experiences there what was the secret! A special garden is not merely ‘an exercise in geometric acrobatics’ but, like in the mountains, an experience or feeling that the garden evokes.

Rotstuin Rock Garden Ber Slangen Maastricht

Experience the mountains in your garden

It is precisely this experience of the mountains that Ber Slangen in Maastricht tried to take home in 1950 when he cycled to the Alps Without a preconceived design he tried to create some of experiences of the Alps in his garden. A small magical landscape was created with rocks, plants and water. Several species of evergreen give depth of field and make it a special and harmonious place. Streamlets and waterfalls come from little gorges and water tumbles over rocks finding it’s way to the central pond in the garden. Vertical cliffs are covered with ferns, Epimediums, Solomon’s Seal and other interesting plants like Ramonda, and Haberlea. Large groups of one genus are used which gives some unity but also provides a background for a few solitary gems! The overall effect of the garden has always been a priority to the plants used. It didn’t matter if this effect was achieved by planting local easy growing ferns or endemic choice species, as long as the overall effect, which is the feeling of the mountains, was there. Vertical green cliffs are great to help to reach this effect. French botanist Patrick Blanc’s green walls are fine examples of this and have added new possibilities in the urban landscape to experience nature in our urban areas or at least try to plan for it. As Simonds describes it: ‘A garden, perhaps the highest most difficult art form, is best conceived as a series of planned relationships of human to human, human to structure, and human to some facet or facets of nature, such as the lichen-encrusted tree bole of an ancient ginkgo tree, a sprightly sun flecked magnolia clump, a trickle of water, a foaming cascade, a pool, a collection of rare tree peonies, or a New Hamshire upland meadow view’.

One of Patrick Blanc’s Green Walls

Although I love travelling and experience the beauty of pristine nature I still would like to end with Ber Slangen’s favourite quote by Italian writer Alberto Moravia. “And those nature lovers should not only decide to travel to Italy or remote areas to refresh their minds with it’s natural beauty. Those who have an eye for beauty can be endlessly happy in their back yard gardens” (Alberto Moravia, De Tijd, May 25, 1984)


Simonds O. John, Landscape Architecture: The shaping of man’s natural environment, New York, Toronto, London, 1961

Facebook page Rock Garden Ber Slangen


“To discover and reveal the deeper substrate of the landscape is something the natural sciences alone cannot accomplish.” – Günther Voght

The Department of Urbanism at the Faculty of Architecture and Built Environment, TU Delft considers urbanism as a planning and design oriented activity towards urban and rural landscapes.[1] It aims to enhance, restore or create landscapes from a perspective of sustainable development, so as to guide, harmonise and shape changes which are brought about by social, economic and environmental processes. In this respect we can consider urbanism as an object or goal-oriented interdisciplinary approach that breaks down complex problems into ‘compartments’ or ‘themes’. The core of urbanism is formed by the disciplines of urban planning, urban design, and landscape architecture. Giving shape to the relationship between man and natural landscape is a core task for this disciplines and involves civil-, agriculture-, nature-, and environmental based techniques as operative instruments. However, in order to work together effectively it is important to identify and develop the qualities of the involved disciplines individually. What is the particular nature of landscape architecture as an independent discipline? The presumption is that the answer can be found in a repertoire of principles of study and practice typical for landscape architecture.

The nature of landscape architecture as a discipline, and particularly landscape design as an important activity, can be characterised by the interplay of four principles of study and practice.[2]

(I) Landscape as three-dimensional construction

Here the focus is on research and design of the landscape ‘from the inside out’, as it could be experienced by an observer moving through space. It elaborates on the visual manifestation of open spaces, surfaces, screens and volumes and their relationships in terms of structural organisation (e.g., balance, tension, rhythm, proportion, scale) and ordering principles (e.g., axis, symmetry, hierarchy, datum, transformation).[3] The basic premise is that the shape of space, plasticity (form of space-determining elements) and appearance (e.g., colour, texture, lighting) of spatial elements in the landscape determine the relation between design and perception. This principle addresses the form and functioning of three-dimensional landscape space, which creates a spatial dynamic. This might be, for example, the framing of a landscape or urban panorama, or the construction of a spatial series along a route, making a pictorial landscape composition. Examples from landscape architecture designing landscape as a three-dimensional construction include: Stourhead landscape garden, Wiltshire (UK) (figure 1), Vaux-le-Vicomte, Melun (France) and Japanese pre-modern gardens.

Figure 1: Stourhead landscape garden (Wiltshire, UK) is a landscape designed from the observers point of view. Views and sightlines are combined with formal, transitional and progressive elements. Study map of Stourhead in 1779 by Frederik Magnus Piper showing important sight lines at eye-level (image courtesy: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm)

Figure 1: Stourhead landscape garden (Wiltshire, UK) is a landscape designed from the observers point of view. Views and sightlines are combined with formal, transitional and progressive elements. Study map of Stourhead in 1779 by Frederik Magnus Piper showing important sight lines at eye-level (image courtesy: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm)

(II) Landscape as history

The landscape is ‘read’ as a biography, as a palimpsest that evidences all of the activities that contributed to the shaping of that landscape. The Genius Loci expresses the character of the site, not only geographical but also the historical, social, and aesthetic character, and is at the heart of this principle. The landscape is regarded as a layered entity where traces that time has laid over can reinforce or contradict each other. Knowledge of these layers is one of the starting points for new transformations of the landscape involved, or adding a new design layer. This principle involves the evolution of landscape over time and elaborates on operations of ‘erasing’ and ‘writing’ history.[3] Operations of erasing history include: complete or partial eradication, etching, excision, entropy and excavation. Operations of writing history include: parceling, infill, addition, absorption, enveloping, wrapping, overlay, parasitize and morphing. Examples from landscape architecture carefully intervening in the landscape as a historical culture include: Bunker 599, Diefdijk (Netherlands) (figure 2), the Quarries at Crazannes (France) and Oranjewoud Estate (the Netherlands).

Figure 2: Bunker 599 (Diefdijk, the Netherlands) is an example of a careful design intervention in an important historical defence structure of the Netherlands, the New Dutch Water Line. Project by Rietveld Landscape with Atelier de Lyon, 2010 (source: Rietveld Landscape)

Figure 2: Bunker 599 (Diefdijk, the Netherlands) is an example of a careful design intervention in an important historical defence structure of the Netherlands, the New Dutch Water Line. Project by Rietveld Landscape with Atelier de Lyon, 2010 (source: Rietveld Landscape)

(III) Landscape as scale-continuum

This principle regards landscape to be a relational structure connecting scales and spatial, ecological, functional and social entities. Landscape is viewed as a scale-continuum. The design involves establishing relationships via attachment, connection, embedment of a specific site or location into the broader context at different scale levels. A landscape intervention will have impacts on different levels of scale, hitting interests of stakeholders operating on that level. Although scale is a matter of grain and radius, it implies that a particular site is always part of the larger context.[5] Once the frame and granule of the site (object of study) is determined, the rest is regarded ‘context’. The reach of scale is also important, because conclusions on a specific level of scale could be opposite to conclusions drawn on another level of scale (called: scale-paradox). This principle addresses working through the scales as an important basic premise, for example for systematic elaboration of planning strategies (e.g., regional planning and design) and design interventions (e.g., project-based realization). Examples from landscape architecture connecting scales and different layers of interest are: Metropolitan Park Boston (USA) and Emscher Landscape Park (Germany) (figure 3).

Figure 3: Emscher Landscape Park (Germany) is based on a regional strategy elaborated by project-based design interventions. Section of the Masterplan 2010 indicating realised and future projects (source: Regionalverband Ruhr, 2010)

Figure 3: Emscher Landscape Park (Germany) is based on a regional strategy elaborated by project-based design interventions. Section of the Masterplan 2010 indicating realised and future projects (source: Regionalverband Ruhr, 2010)

(IV) Landscape as process

The landscape is regarded as a holistic and dynamic system of systems.[6] In that respect landscape is an expression of the dynamic interaction between ecological, social and economic processes. The landscape is considered as a process rather than as a result. Natural and social processes constantly change the landscape, making the dynamics of the transformation a key issue in research and design. The design is like an open strategy, aimed at guiding developments, no blueprint design. Projects play a role as an open-ended strategy, as in staging or setting up future conditions (e.g., manipulating processes of erosion and sedimentation by water or the development of project-based master plans). Operations focus on the interaction between landscape processes and typo-morphological aspects and facilitate aesthetic, functional, social and ecological relationships between natural and human systems. This principle of study and practice elaborates on models for understanding the landscape as system (e.g. layers-approach) and concepts like sustainable urban metabolism and urban ecology. Examples from landscape architecture using natural and social processes to shape landscape include: Jardin Élémentaires (Italy/France: study project) (figure 4), Nature development De Gelderse Poort, Nijmegen (the Netherlands) and London Guerrilla Gardens (UK).

Figure 4: Jardin Élémentaires is a theoretical experiment were natural processes of erosion and sedimentation by water are manipulated by dams, creating changing patterns of streams and sedimentary islands in a valley landscape. Project by Michel Desvigne, 1988 (image courtesy: Michel Desvigne)

The knowledge reflected by the principles of study and practice form the core of landscape architecture and expresses the integrative nature of the discipline. It embodies a way of thinking typical for landscape architecture and is visible in landscape architecture theories, planning and design processes and products. The understanding and development of this body of knowledge is an important basis for interdisciplinary, context-driven and problem focused research. Boldly stated it is like this: “if you don’t know what the core of your own discipline is, you don’t know what you can contribute to other disciplines”. By developing the typical principles of study and practice of landscape architecture, it is possible to contribute to other fields in terms of theories, methods and techniques, as well as their application via concepts, strategies and interventions. It becomes the basis for exploring the boundaries of the discipline, exchange of knowledge and the search for collaborations and partnerships to engage in sociocultural, ecological and technological issues from the perspective of spatial planning and design.


[1] This is an abridged version of the book chapter:  S.Nijhuis (2013) “Principles of Landscape Architecture”, in: E. Farini and S. Nijhuis (eds.) Flowscapes. Exploring landscape infrastructures. Madrid, Universidad Francisco De Vitoria, pp 52-61

[2] This principles are adapted and modified from: M. Prominski (2004) Landschaft entwerfen: Einführung in die Theorie aktueller Landschaftsarchitektur. Reimer Verlag; S. Marot (1995) ‘The landscape as alternative’, in: K. Vandermarliere (ed.) Het Landschap / The Landscape. Four International Landscape Designers. Antwerp, De Singel, pp 9-36; S. Nijhuis (2006) ‘Westvaart als landschapsarchitectonische ontwerpopgave’, in: Westvaart in de polder. 4 ontwerpen voor een verdwenen 7-molengang. Leiden: Uitgeverij Groen, pp 35-37.

[3] S. Bell (1993) Elements of Visual Design in the Landscape. London, E & FN Spon.

[4] P. Lukez (2007) Suburban Transformations. Princeton Architectural Press

[5] T. de Jong (2006) Context Analysis. Delft University of Technology

[6] I.S. Zonneveld (1995) Land Ecology. An Introduction to Landscape Ecology as a base for Land Evaluation, Land Management and Conservation. SPB Academic Publishers, Amsterdam

“All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.” This quote of Rudolf Arnheim was the starting point of the 4 hour mapping workshop for graduate students [1]. Two landscape types, graphite, paper, cups and silverwork were the means to explore mapping as a tool in landscape architecture.

The two landscape types were taken from J.B. Jackson’s seminal book ‘The Vernacular Landscape’, where he described the political and the vernacular landscape. By the political landscape he meant those spaces and structures designed to impose or preserve an unity and order on the land, or in keeping with a long-range, large-scale plan (well-defined territories, public spaces, large-scale production landscapes). The vernacular landscape is one where evidences of a political organization of space are largely or entirely absent (absence of defined, permanent spaces).

After a lively discussion the structures of the political landscape were set up in wet graphite following a set of rules. Step by step this landscape evolved according to the master plan. After a while, the initial setup was overlaid with dusty graphite using natural forces such as water and ‘wind’ (since it was in a classroom we had to simulate by blowing ;-)). The result was a landscape of unexpected beauty showing human interventions confronted with natural patterns.



The vernacular landscape was created by a succession of spontaneous actions. At the moment we began, patterns of graphite started to evolve responding to the field conditions set by the table and the tools used. Some structures stayed and became part of an incremental process, others disappeared. Sometimes nature took over and added another layer. In the end the landscape was like a palimpsest presenting the result of the dialogue between processes of inhabitation and natural forces through time.



While reflecting on the mapping exercise we wondered how we could use this in the practice of landscape architecture. What could we learn from this? In both cases the initial intervention remained and became a modus operandi for the development of landscape by natural and sociocultural processes. This intervention can be architectural in nature, or more practical, but always precise and geared to achieve certain goals in space and time. Close reading of real-life landscapes all over the world reveals the unexpected beauty and logic of spatial organisation in this types of landscape. Examples can be found on e.g., such as:



This landscape in the delta of the Vjoses River, Albania (north to the right), where an occupation grid is superimposed on the fertile river landscape. This grid establishes a modular system and alternating pattern of parcellation, drainage canals and roads, which can be extended seaward, to obtain new land created by processes of accretion (in Dutch: aanwas).



Or this landscape in the North-East of Iran (north to the left), where the pattern of agricultural fields is closely related to the structure of an alluvial fan, taking advantage of the geological processes of erosion and sedimentation. Interventions are geared to optimize use of water and fertile sediment.

To conclude: by mapping physical, biological and cultural aspects we can understand the organization of space, how landscapes were created and how they change. It reveals certain ways of defining and handling space and time. In that respect “mappings are neither depictions nor representations but mental constructs, ideas that enable and effect change. It is a tool to explore and create new realities. Mapping is already a project in the making”, as James Corner puts it.

[1] The graduate students who created the maps: Anna Ioannidou, Nikolaos Margaritis, Lisanne van Niekerk and Mariska van Rijswijk; the workshop was led by John Lonsdale and Steffen Nijhuis.

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