Landscape architecture is context: “the circumstances relevant to something under consideration” Landscapes can be described as fields, pulsing with active forces and flows (visible and invisible) these are dynamically embedded in the character and workings of the landscape.  Climate, aspect, population, activation, politics and circulation are each examples of contextual fields that influence the landscape or environment in which we live.  Design professions such as urban planning, planning, engineering and architecture tend to engage mechanical systems such as, buildings, roads, transport networks etc.  Landscape architecture, however, is a profession with a focus on humans and social systems: the activation of space, balancing scale, engaging in the ephemeral nature of seasonal change, and the experiential characteristics of a given site.

In his teaching at Cornell University, as early as 1964, Colin Rowe began trialing, with his students, methods that engaged site context, operating in a manner that prioritized the method of investigation over the results[2]. He found then, as we do now, that engagement with the contextual fabric of the site offers opportunities to produce new forms and also re-configurations of existing and older forms. This technique results in design interventions that become intrinsically linked to the character of the site and specific to the nature of that place. Too often sites are accepted as straightforward entities contained by their immediate boundaries.  While physical design arguably has a focus on a finite place or site, the way that a site functions reaches well beyond those physical boundaries[3]. Wind and bird movement, seed dispersal, aspect and orientation, are all elements that occur outside of site boundaries, yet have a direct and immediate impact on the physical shaping of the site. By viewing our living environments, built and un-built, as fields: streams of information, shifting scales, ephemeral moments in time, we can begin to develop a methodology that examines contextual information, and in turn, influence the design outputs we create.

One example of this methodology in practice is the Hunt Road Project, a collaborative proposal between landscape architect, architect and client.  Located in a small rural community in the Catlins (the South Eastern most corner of the South Island of New Zealand), provides the program for design intervention through linkages to the contextual implications of journey and the exposure of expansive, at times harsh, site scale characteristic of the region. For example, microclimates, overland flow, unexplored wetland opportunities, the muted tones and rugged materiality of the native landscape, and notions of journey, arrival and destination.

Xsection Issue Two 2012/13 What is Landscape Architecture?

[1]{C} Collins English Dictionary, 21st Century Edition, Harper Collins, 2001.

[2]{C} S. Isenstadt, Contested Contexts, in C. J. Burns & A. Kahn, eds. Site Matters, Great Britain, 2005, p. 163.

[3]{C} C. J. Burns, & A. Kahn, Why Site Matters, in, C. J. Burns & A. Kahn, eds. Site Matters, Great Britain, 2005, p. vii.