the view from stockton house

Search this site:

The Commonspace

May 2003 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

Architecture & Landscape: The Inseparable Pair
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

"People, not plants, are the important things in gardens."
Garrett Eckbo

Renowned landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who passed away three years ago at the age of 89, stated with simplicity the importance of how we as human beings relate to our surroundings. Hobbled by pollution and resource exploitation, our garden planet still invites us to partake of an intimate relationship with it. Though it is a part of our nature to seek communion with the forests, fields, seas, and all our fellow species that dwell within them, we humans act according to our conditioning — we seek control over that which at times appears uncontrollable, and the ways in which we shape our living environment for the most part reflect this desire to place Nature herself in a cage, much as we have done in our zoological parks. However, this attitude and approach alienates us from our own evolutionary roots, producing pathologies within our ranks and ugliness and destruction all around us. And so how do we accept Nature's invitation, and return the world, our cities, and our lives in them to a state of balance? Approaching the design of our buildings and landscapes as interdependent parts of an inseparable pair, we will find our way.

The first book in the Torah — the fundamental text for Judaism and Christianity and western civilization as a whole — mentions that the first humans were placed in a garden with "dominion" over every living thing. Everything in the garden figured into a grand balancing act, yet when these mythic humans recognized their own ability and will to create evil, they experienced something they had never experienced before, excepting of course, when dealing with the Creator "him"self — fear. Their purity, their security, and their innocence had been threatened by a serpent and the fruit of a tree, symbols of a feminine Nature that would need to be placed in subjugation. Throughout the development of western culture, the term "dominion," originally intended to imply that humans were to be the protectors of Nature, developed a new meaning — namely, that the world around us was something to be reined in, conquered, subjugated, and controlled. As landscape architect and urban planner Ian McHarg wrote in his seminal Design with Nature:

"The original cities and towns of the American 18th century were admirable — Charleston and Savannah, Williamsburg, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans. The land was rich and beautiful; canons of taste espoused the 18th-century forms of architecture and town buildings, a wonder of humanity and elegance. How then did our plight come to be and what can be done about it.... Our failure is that of the Western World and lies in (its) prevailing values...the hot-dog stands, the neon shill, the ticky-tacky houses, dysgenic city and mined landscapes. This is the image of the anthropocentric man: he seeks not unity with nature but conquest."

Gardens for Private Residence, City of Saint Louis We humans view Nature like a material resource, too much on the order of a "commodity" that can be bought, sold, and manipulated to serve whatever end, taste, or fashion we happen to be most fond of at any given time. Humanity has developed and nurtured this mindset, which disallows us to see Nature as it truly is, and to find within ourselves an ability to live in harmony with Nature. Even when we do "preserve" or set aside any portion of the land, we again see it as a mere "commodity" to be preserved and viewed from a distance — sort of like a trophy on a wall. Today, people go to parks and wildlife preserves to "experience" Nature. Rarely does one think of one's self as essentially an integral part, or even an extension of, the natural world. We continue to maintain a position in which we believe ourselves above and removed from it. This isolationist perspective has found fuel since the Enlightenment, when reason justified separate systems of thinking. Discriminative thought itself mutated into the skill of classification and categorization — a way to bring order and structure to a seemingly chaotic world. Instead of asking how an apple was similar to an orange, we set up a duality in which we proclaimed their radical differences. Now it is rare to find the individual who thinks holistically and acts natively. Perhaps the reason why we as individuals, a people, a society, and a culture face so many systemic aberrations, whether it be deteriorated mental health or environmental degradation, is because we no longer recognize a symbiosis between man and nature — that we are one and the same and that the health of one depends upon the health of the other. To defile the landscape and to not live in a proper, healthy relationship to Nature is to do so at our own peril. For example, very few people in the Saint Louis region have any knowledge of the native fauna and wildlife. Having arrived from somewhere else with our alien religions, cultural mores, customs and styles, we have overlaid and imposed an artificial ideal world upon this unique and fragile local environment, forcing it to conform to our "Old World" views. As products of these views, our buildings look more like they belong in Europe or Asia, or at least some dreamland version of them, and our landscapes feature plants nearly entirely imported from somewhere else. After generations in this region, how many of us may claim with any seriousness that we have become native to this place?

Most of the buildings our architects, developers, and builders produce, much like our foreign systems of morality, tend to impose themselves on the native landscape without much thought or effort undertaken during the design process to appropriately integrate them into their settings. Consequently, these structures appear removed and out of place — cancerous tumors upon a surreal land that shed water in the wrong directions and produce erosion, lay their windows prostrate to the afternoon sun as their occupants boil within their cubicles or kitchens, topple over in strong winds, etc. Of course, there is hardly anything natural about the act of building. Did the Torah's mythic proto-humans feel an absolute need for protection from the elements under the roof of a cavernous vinyl-clad box? However, the basic animal desire and instinct to create shelter for one's self is an absolute biological necessity. And so it would behoove us as a species to provide shelter for ourselves that is responsive to and respectful of our particular local environment. The aboriginal peoples of each particular region — even in this country, before they were decimated by germs or warfare or were displaced to reservations — understood this simple fact. They watched other species within the ecosystem for clues, and they learned how to protect themselves from winter winds, how to channel warm breezes, how to capitalize upon the sun's rays, and when to deflect them. The earlier generations of colonists and immigrants here once understood these lessons, and have passed them on to us through our built heritage, yet our technology has allowed us to unlearn these lessons. If, perchance, we were to relearn how to design our buildings in response to our surroundings, we would depend less on purchased energy supplies, in particular foreign oil. And if we are to build in response to these surroundings, then why not also open our buildings to them? Not to say that allowing woodland creatures to run wild through your abode chasing your pets would benefit you, however amusing that may seem for a brief moment. Instead, let us open our buildings to the winds, to the sun, to the woods, to our yards, and in the process allow a modicum of Nature into our buildings — these steel, glass, and plastic cages of our souls — and in doing so, free them!

Macondray Lane, photo by Al Hendley And so, landscape often plays a more important role in how we live than architecture itself. If designed and installed properly in dense gardens (not as mere periphery or as skirting around lone trees in vast lawns), landscape performs the role of demarking and organizing space as well as architecture, yet often with guaranteed beauty at minimal cost. How often have we seen spaces between buildings in our city that sit empty as idle collectors of trash? What could be an interesting and exciting series of exterior spaces, collectors of human activity, instead remain unused, lacking the sort of excitement and sensual delight one should find around every corner in a city. These interstitial spaces, when publicly owned (such as by the Land Reutilization Authority), could be cleared for reuse as mini-parks to be shared by the denizens of a particular block as well as passers-by seeking refuge from the heat or rain. When owned privately, such as in an office complex, they could be used by employees as outdoor training classrooms, lunch and break areas, or simply as places of retreat during a hectic day. In residential areas, neighbors could partner together to create common gardens, much as the people of Macondray Lane, a pedestrian street in San Francisco, have done. There are tracts of land, even in our city, which may not be wide enough on which to build, that could find appropriate uses as pedestrian garden streets on which buildings front. However the land may be used, landscape should be seen, like the parts and pieces of architecture, as an element to frame and organize space. Our interstitial spaces should be an interconnected quilt of outdoor rooms for our enjoyment. If we all do our part to stitch these spaces together, we would effectively create a grand garden city in which landscape and building, the natural and the manmade, would be one. Saint Louis, or any city for that matter, could pride itself as a place in which everyone finds Nature at his or her back door; a new Garden of Eden in which concepts such as seas of asphalt and heat islands no longer threaten our desires for interaction, inspiration, and the improvement of health.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater And yet, that is the promise of a future secured through proper action; a future as of yet unachieved. With rare exception, most buildings do not relate to or integrate with either their developed landscapes or the natural environment. In addition, it is just as rare to find a well-developed landscape that properly celebrates the native landscape of which it is designed to be a part. Even more rare is the building that celebrates and honors the landscape, and vice versa. Our architecture and landscapes, as integrated, inseparable pairs, should inspire us to live fuller, happier and healthier lives, and by way of achieving this, improve our sanity of mind, physical health and well being, and enhance our cities and rural areas and the lives we live in them. To fully achieve this, architecture and landscape should be complementary. They should honor, respect, and celebrate each other. In this, both our architecture and landscapes would be better served and would achieve an aesthetic superiority, or as Frank Lloyd Wright once stated while describing an example of his own work (a mantra every architect should follow), a "good building is not the one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built." And thus a symbiosis between the two seemingly separate disciplines develops — a symbiosis in which the one needs the other, in which neither competes for dominance, and in which we as humans cultivate a more native and proper relationship between Nature and ourselves. If we are to achieve any degree of genuine intimacy and healthy association it must be in how we as human beings live and work in healthy balance to the natural world, understanding the natural world and appreciating what it can offer us outside of commoditized value. We must then seek an architecture that consists of more than simply buildings and disassociated landscapes that are merely stylistically contrived formulations having little to do with our local and regional conditions. We must develop our environments to look and work like nowhere else in the world, to demonstrate to others and to remind ourselves of who and what we are as a local people and local culture. Instead of opting for generic, off-the-shelf, "new and improved" solutions and relying on technology to control the climates of our buildings, we must use passive tools such as dense landscaping, broad overhangs, transoms, and deeply set windows, and therefore capitalize upon the patterns of wind and the sun. By properly orienting our buildings to the winter sun and providing appropriate northwest landscape buffering to protect against winter winds, we will allow ourselves to open our buildings, which are in fact, extensions of ourselves, back to the Nature, from which we are extended.

Gardens for Private Residence, City of Saint Louis The older buildings and neighborhoods of the City of Saint Louis provide for us the best examples of how this can be achieved. Before highways tore through these neighborhoods, providing an easy out for those who were looking for something new or comforting, or somewhere where they would not feel "threatened" by those unlike themselves, our neighborhoods were a patchwork of gardens and active interstitial, densely landscaped spaces that were extensions of people's homes. They were public living rooms; the sites of coffee klatches and havens for conversation. Much of the framework of this urban Eden still exists, although it may be ignored at times by the new development of suburban-style housing units that close themselves off from rather than opening themselves up to Nature. As we return to the city, we must do so with a respect for where we have come, where we have been, and what those who were here before us knew. Our buildings and associated landscapes should learn from our shared past, and by doing so, endeavor to lead us toward a new vision of how to live graciously, harmoniously, intimately, and in balance with our natural environment. Only after we have learned the lessons Nature wishes us to learn will we be worthy of Garrett Eckbo's claim. Only after releasing ourselves from our conditioning, no longer challenged by or challenging the world around us and that which we once did not understand, will we once again hold dominion over every living thing in the garden.

Urban Design Forum

Past articles:
What is Architecture?
Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
The Myths of New Urbanism and Sustainability
Leon Strauss' Vision of Modern Urban Living
Demolishing Only the Unsalvageable
A More Appropriate Plan for Grand Center

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2003 The Commonspace