Book Review: Designed Landscapes—37 Key Projects

Designed Landscapes: 37 Key Projects

By Alan Tate and Marcella Eaton (Routledge, London & New York, 2024)


REVIEW Ron Williams

Fresh off the press, Designed Landscapes: 37 Key Projects, by Alan Tate and Marcella Eaton, is a beautiful and fascinating volume, and a pleasure to read. The book is a profusely illustrated exploration of a series of outstanding landscapes, all designed by human hand—though many are located within, and skillfully exploit or complement, the natural or vernacular landscapes in which they are located. 

The authors, both longtime professors in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Manitoba, previously collaborated on the second edition of Great City Parks (Routledge, 2015). The format of their new book is similar to that of their earlier work: a kaleidoscope of extremely varied projects, held together by a common theme. While Great City Parks focused on urban parks in North America and western Europe, the focus has been greatly expanded in the current work to include landscapes of twelve different project types, varying from private gardens to campus plans. 

orthala Fields is a contemporary park adjacent England’s A40 roadway. Its design, which centres on mounds made of construction debris, was led by Art2 Architecture (later FoRM Associates). Photo by Studio Fink

A return to primary sources

Designed Landscapes is organized according to project types, allowing readers to compare and contrast the responses of different places, times, and cultures to similar design challenges and opportunities. Each type is represented by two, three or four contrasting projects, typically chosen from different countries and representing, overall, a wide variety of geographical locations. 

The projects span a vast time period, from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (13th-15th centuries), all the way up to innovative projects from the first decade of the 21st century. They include such familiar faces as Vaux-le-Vicomte in France and Paley Park in New York City, along with lesser-known projects that merit attention, such as Chatham Village in Pittsburgh. 

Projects are primarily situated in the United States and western Europe, along with a sprinkling of Asian selections and two projects from Canada: Cornelia Oberlander and Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square in Vancouver (1972-83) and the Promenade Samuel-De Champlain in Quebec City, conceived by the Commission de la Capitale du Québec (CCNQ), designed by the consortium of Daoust Lestage, WAA Inc., and Option Aménagement, and realized over two decades beginning in 2002.

Grouping projects from different venues by type allows the reader to see and understand patterns of design that would be less evident from a sequential or territorial exposition. I was fascinated, for example, by the striking integration of Renaissance squares into pre-existing medieval town layouts in Pienza, Italy; Nancy, northern France; and Edinburgh in Scotland, all grouped under the rubric of “Urban Landscapes.”

Each project is described in a stand-alone essay of some six to ten pages; typically, the social and geographical context of its creation are explored, followed by a profile of the personages who gave rise to the project. Each text then provides a thoughtful analysis of the project’s principal design features, site organization, and vocabulary of materials and planting. Besides this in-depth analysis, each densely packed essay includes all the dates, names, facts, and references needed to satisfy the most enthusiastic and inquisitive scholar. As one would expect, Tate and Eaton identify and provide considerable information about the designers of their designed landscapes, including household names like Olmsted and Vaux, André le Notre, and Hideo Sasaki—and many who are relatively obscure despite their distinguished work.

In researching their book, the authors have followed the dictum of John Brinckerhoff (J.B.) Jackson that the primary sources to be studied are the landscapes themselves. They have personally visited and explored in depth all the projects that they discuss, and have taken all but one or two of the extensive colour photos that accompany each essay. While five of the projects in Designed Landscapes appeared in the authors’ previous book, it’s nice to see that they have recently revisited and rephotographed even these overlapping projects. A special treat—especially for freehand aficionados—is the inclusion of pen-and-ink site plans of each project, hand-drawn by University of Manitoba doctoral student Mojtaba (Moin) Hassanzadeh. On occasion, the overall site plan of a project is supplemented by a larger-scale sectoral plan, a cross-section, or an axonometric view. 

Downtown Vancouver’s terraced Robson Square emerged from a tight synergy between architect Arthur Erickson and landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo by Alan Tate and Marcella Eaton

Lessons for designers

The book concludes with a discussion of specific lessons that the authors wish to impart to readers. Recognizing and making the most of a project’s existing site conditions is high on their list: conditions first regarded as negative may prove to be highly advantageous, as at the abandoned limestone quarry that became the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris. They also emphasize the importance of historical context, and its evocation in the present-day landscape through the use of symbolic references and the inclusion of heritage elements. They underline the ability of landscape to establish powerful spatial structures through landform and vegetation (like the “apparently endless” Long Meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park) and highlight the importance of strong positive relationships between client and designer, and among members of multi-professional design teams, as essential ingredients of successful landscape design. 

Finally, they explore the unique role of time in landscape projects. Tate and Eaton consider landscape design to be “a long-term endeavour that never ends.” While buildings are at their best on Day One and subsequently deteriorate under all the forces of nature and man (gravity, rust, wear and tear), a well-maintained landscape can continue to mature and improve for centuries. The authors note, for instance, that urban spaces are likely to last longer than the buildings that enclose them.  

Beyond providing a multi-dimensional and in-depth study of a broad spectrum of outstanding man-made landscapes, the book promotes understanding and preservation of designed landscapes generally, and inspires designers to achieve a high quality of work in their own projects. 

Who are its readers likely to be? The authors’ primary target would naturally consist of professionals and students in the fields of landscape architecture and urban design or city planning. In fact, many of the projects examined are studied in courses on landscape and planning history, though not always at the level of detail one sees in Designed Landscapes. Architects and students of architecture will also find this book fascinating: almost all the sites illustrated in the book are either settings for buildings; are enclosed by buildings; or feature incidental buildings such as follies, gazebos, or viewing pavilions, and provide many lessons in how to integrate buildings and landscapes. Beyond the world of professional and student designers, even the enthusiastic amateur or studious tourist will find this book highly readable, and a helpful guide while visiting the locations where the projects are situated. 

The misty Quai des Brumes is part of the first section of the Promenade Samuel-De Champlain, designed by Daoust Lestage, Williams Asselin Ackaoui, and Option Aménagement. Photo by Alan Tate and Marcella Eaton

A splendid reference

How does this book fit into the existing literature on parks and designed landscapes? While it contains many historical examples, it is definitely not a systematic landscape history book that follows a clear through-line. It is, in fact, a compendium, defined by Oxford Languages as “a collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject, especially in a book or other publication.” As such, Designed Landscapes will fit in well on the same bookshelf as Edmund Bacon’s Design of Cities (The Viking Press/Macmillan, 1961), Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s The Landscape of Man (Thames and Hudson, 1975), Allan Jacobs’s Great Streets (MIT Press, 1995) and Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s Towns and Buildings (Harvard University Press,1951). All of these books include detailed drawings and descriptions of various town-planning, landscape and architectural projects; but surprisingly, they only rarely overlap with Tate and Eaton’s book, which largely explores new ground. 

Like these classics, Designed Landscapes provides a splendid reference to specific projects that can suggest general principles of design to readers, or inspire them in approaching similar design challenges. It deserves an honoured position in their company.

As appeared in the June 2024 issue of Canadian Architect magazine