After the course ‘Landscape Aesthetics’ in the WUR bachelor program of Landscape Architecture, students wrote essays on their insight and perception of aesthetics. TOPOS will publish three views on aesthetics in a series.
To define landscape aesthetics, one has to seek for the kind of sceneries that are personally perceived as something that can range from visual pleasure to pure beauty, and which is just strikingly perfect to fit in or exist of a particular site-specific composition. This scenery can be invented on canvas, physically present in a landscape or even envisioned in a dream.
Point is, an overall interpretation of the phenomenon of aesthetics is hard to grasp and can never exist in a consistent form, because it is by definition intertwined with individual senses and perceptions. This means that the definition transforms for each individual mind.
And yet, here we are, following a course named ‘landscape aesthetics’, reading multiple scientific articles on the subject and discussing our findings. Will such briefings make us able to capture ‘aesthetics’ in a shape, or are these all wastes of words?
Before the start of the course of Landscape Aesthetics, I was doubtful about whether we – as designers – were even supposed to be lectured on aesthetics, as it is crucial for a designer to shape their own unaffected understanding and shape of it. For that matter, I would like to address aesthetics as a stable theme that develops throughout the whole study program, manifesting as a personal layer that goes on top of each course – operating silently but crucially. This aesthetic layeris at some point fulfilled and has then become a style, which can keep evolving throughout a life-time. As art is the mean to capture, explain and interpret aesthetics, I believe in a strong link between art and a landscape architect’s aesthetic layer.
Whilst learning about current landscape aesthetics, a distinction into two approaches soon became recognizable: cultivated aestheticsand natural aesthetics, where a more suggestive classification would be aesthetics as an ode to artsor cultureand that to (sustainability of) nature. There seems to be a persistent trend going on which determines the latter type of aesthetics as leading in present-day design principles, placing all other (non-sustainable) approaches aside. This is due to the steady trends of mass spatial cultivation throughout the past of which the negative impacts on ecosystems and health are only recently coming to light. It appoints a need for reversal, and returning cultivated places to nature for the sake of ecological restoration and increase of health by ‘imitation of nature’. This approach supports the natural perspective on aesthetics, and leaves those with the artistic point of view with too limited freedom to operate because they are stuck with the origin of arts and science: “natura artis magistra”.
This arises the question if the landscape architect’s artistic layer of style can even be expressed at all in such a climate. The counterpart is that our discipline’s expressive side is simultaneously gaining influence and attention through the rise of Landscape Urbanism, that supports the idea that cities should have a flow-through of nature and landscape. As cities are the representatives of artificiality and culture, this is where the cultivated aesthetics take the stage.
Cultivated and natural aesthetics meet where Landscape Urbanism preaches to cope with nature and landscape as something in between an engine and an ecosystem. This idea of circulation requires a very flexible approach where all concepts and components that make a part of it are inseparable and no permanent solutions exists. This sounds familiar. It reminds of the remarkable lecture given by Matthijs Schouten, who spoke about Buddhism – that pleads against the world of separate phenomena and advocates the idea of impermanence and transiency – and Daoism – about finding harmony in the constant movement of all beings. These non-western interpretations sound like having a lot in common with Landscape Urbanism that propagates the city as a flowing system, as both claim that every entity within a system should be evolvingly interconnected in order to work as a whole.
It is compelling to note that even though main principles in landscape architecture change over the decades, designing from the perspective of culture and religion has always remained relatively stable. Tones in design change and switch, but meanwhile, their design principles remain fixed to own beliefs. As for religions, the landscape architect might as well be tempted to stick to his own understanding of aesthetics and to execute it on a more crucial level than the time’s trend suggests. However, as pointed out in relation to the aesthetic creation theory: the work of a landscape architect must meet the need of users and the aesthetic preference of the audience, not of himself alone as in the case of the artist. After all, self-centred as an architect can be, othersare most often the target of design, so he must either refrain and seek for an equilibrium or make sure that the functional design is irrefutably in line with the granted aesthetics. What I found a striking statement in the same article is that “[I]in landscape architecture the aesthetic intentions […] are expressed in terms of drawings and written explanations of the design made before execution.”. This implies for the design that – until the point of execution – it can be art. Perhaps that this aesthetic layer as spoken of in the introduction is embedded in such drawings and written explanations.
The course’s lectures, articles and examples taught me not about an overall understanding of aesthetics, nor about my own perception of aesthetics. What these sources did provide me of, is the ability to understand and judge aesthetics from various perspectives and with different mind-sets.
Moreover, this course reminded me that contemporary landscapes can be functional, moving, sustainable, religious and so on – and that aesthetics are often a postponed layer. Most opinions that I read and heard from fellow students, pointed out the functioning ideology behind the aesthetic result, while for myself, I tend to think the other way around and generally start by thinking in aesthetic visuals, then seek for functional a.o. ways to achieve those, and then get there with a detour. I am aware that this is often not the appropriate order since the aesthetic dimension should, by academic principles, be a completion of the rational dimension that comes first. Yet, I cannot manage to change this order of thinking process, and only practice can tell me if this will either weaken my projects or make me an excellent designer.