Book Review: Projective Ecologies—A Natural History of English Gardening, 1650 to 1800

BK ProjectiveEcologies

Projective Ecologies

Edited by Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister. Actar and Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2014.

BK Laird jacket

A Natural History of English Gardening: 1650 to 1800

By Mark Laird. The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2015.

It’s easy to think of the design professions as never changing in their scope and in their responsibilities, but two recent books put that timelessness in question.

The first is an anthology based on a research initiative from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and its Department of Landscape Architecture. Projective Ecologies examines the impact ecological studies are having on the design professions. It includes contributions from many prominent practitioners and academics such as Chris Reed, Ryerson associate professor Nina-Marie Lister, James Corner, Sanford Kwinter and Charles Waldheim.

Much of their research reveals how we define terms such as ecology, cultural landscape and landscape architect. There is a general unease about how these terms are used in the evolving field of landscape architecture—a profession that itself questions both the terms “landscape” and “architect.” Exploring these shifts in meaning, Kwinter comments that even “ecology,” deriving from Alexander von Humboldt’s writing in the early 19th century, has never been concretely defined.

While the essays tend to be written in a densely academic style, they are thought-provoking. Using the lens of theory, Projective Ecologies looks at the possible futures and the present directions for our design professions. The book includes excellent analyses of cities, notably University of Toronto associate professor Jane Wolff’s exploration of scale in post-flood New Orleans and David Fletcher’s overview of the Los Angeles river watershed. Each section contains a series of curated drawings illustrating the themes of dynamics, succession, emergence, resilience and adaptability.

The second book looks at the profession of landscape architecture through its prehistory, and is equally revealing. Mark Laird’s A Natural History of English Gardening considers the world of horticulture at its turning point, before the professionalism of the practice had fully set in.

Laird examines in fascinating detail the broadly creative environment of the amateur gardener in the 18th century—a time when the now-disparate fields of botany, ornithology, geography, and meteorology were all components of horticultural study. The work of the amateur could, at that point, be in turn either an art, or a science, or both.

Many of the period’s major authorities were women, and they dealt with gardens with a depth that cannot be captured simply as a flatly viewed landscape or an architectural design. For Laird, the history of these women has never received the attention it deserves, as it has been glossed over by the men of landscape architecture—the Walpoles, Browns and Reptons. This gender definition is an important part of Laird’s study. He continually underlines the larger, less segregated world-view held by amateurs—a view free of the constraints of the male-dominated profession, which focused on architectural design as the main method for modelling our surroundings.

In very different ways, each of the two books raises questions about how the design professions respond to our environment. In particular, they reposition the profession of landscape architecture, showing both its strengths and its weaknesses. This energy for reinvention could be salutary—and necessary—for landscape architecture and that “other” architecture alike.

Michael McClelland is founding principal of ERA Architects.