Bibliographic Essay Revision

Landscape Imbued with Meaning

Functionality in architecture and landscape design may satisfy the physical needs of humans, but it is unable to appease the human thirst for intellectual stimulation. Landscape architect, Laurie Olin, described the plight of utilitarian design with its “functional and problem-solving ethic which, although socially beneficial up to a point, has in effect asserted that mere instrumentality is sufficient in the creation of human environments.”[i] However, humans confront meaning everyday. Since meaning is inherent in daily life architectural and landscape forms must also be meaningful. In Meaning in Western Architecture Christian Norberg Schulz describes symbolism’s importance to humans:

“Any human product may be considered a symbol or tool which serves the purpose of bringing order (meaning) into certain relations between man and his environment, and nonverbal behavior is just as dependent upon structured symbol systems as verbal behavior… This means that any individual is born into a system of meanings which he comes to know through its symbolic manifestations.”[ii]

Symbolism’s importance lies in its quality as an aid to humans in the comprehension of meaning embedded in a place. The use of meaningful symbols may express the complexities of human existence in architectural form. Landscape architecture and the relation of building and landscape must promote the creation of meanings through the medium of symbols.

Meaning can be categorized as either natural or synthetic. In the article Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture Laurie Olin defined the first category as “natural” or “evolutionary” and the second as “synthetic” or “invented.” The first category “natural” or “evolutionary” builds meaning and significance over time through use and custom, the second category “synthetic” or “invented” references meaning from work of the past, therefore the meaning of the second category is diminished since the meaning taken from one site does not necessarily have the same meaning on another site.[iii] Most designers today operate under the category of “synthetic”, and for this reason meaning associated with the design of architecture and landscape has become weak.

How can a designer create a form meaningful to a place? Marc Treib’s article, Must Landscapes Mean?, acknowledged the return of designers’ interest in creating meaningful forms in the 1980s: “[designers] began to display a new interest in making form, and many of them claimed that these new forms would be meaningful.”[iv] Treib classified five approaches to landscape design that created meaning. Of the five approaches the genius of the place, which used the spirit of the place as a means of rooting landscape to its particular place, and the Zeitgeist, which identifies landscape architecture as art and something representing “the spirit of the times,” fall within the category of “natural” meaning. The remaining three approaches defined by Treib: the neoarchaic approach, often referred directly to Neolithic sources; the vernacular landscape, draws from the “real” world but by referring to the vernacular the original meaning is not preserved; the didactic approach, is one of teaching and should inform the user about the natural processes or history of a place.

The approaches to design that fall within the “natural” category of meaning have become most associated with design of the past, while current approaches to design fall under the “synthetic ” category of meaning. The didactic approach is employed by most designers today, and often seeks to replace or recreate features which once existed on a place. Christian Norberg-Schulz supported that true meaning cannot be achieved without time as set forth in the “natural” category of creating meaning. John Dixon Hunt offers the counterpoint, in support of the “synthetic” category of meaning, that meaning can be created by the designer and imbued on a site during conception.

It takes time for a place to accrue meaning. The design of architecture and landscape should foster the creation of meaning to be categorized under Olin’s definition of “natural” meaning. Christian Norberg-Schulz explains the importance of meaning in architecture:

“It must be emphasized that existential meanings are inherent in daily life, consisting of the relationships between natural and human properties, processes and actions. But, if meanings are inherent in daily life, why do we have to worry about ‘making life meaningful?’ Firstly, it is necessary to become sensitive to meanings; the faculty of perception has to be developed to allow for an adequate ‘intentional depth.’ Secondly, meanings have to be made clearly manifest to make a socially valid perception possible. Hence the importance of symbolism.”[v]

It takes time for a place to accrue meaning and the place cannot gain it without intent during design. Marc Treib determined that while a designer cannot directly associate a place with significance the designer can aid making a place significant: “I do believe that we can circumscribe the range of possible reactions to a designed place. We cannot make the place mean, but we can, I hope, instigate reactions to the place that will fall within the desired confines of happiness, gloom, joy, contemplation, or delight… It would seem that a designer could create a landscape of pleasure that in itself would become significant.”[vi] For Treib meaning compares to respect it can only be acquired with time, and the designer’s prior decisions influence how it will be perceived.

Establishing connections to cultural ideas aid rooting form with its site. Treib referred to the importance of culture through folk cultures that created meaningful places: “Folk cultures produce places that are almost immediately communicative, and communicative over long periods. Because their connections between form and intention are understood within the culture and evolve slowly over time, it is possible for the makers, the people, and the meaning of the place to remain in contact.”[vii] Designed spaces successfully create meaning when they tap into the culture of the place. Of the approaches to creating meaning in landscape designs as identified by Treib two are of the “natural” category of meaning. Firstly, the approach of the genius of the place requires an understanding of the culture of the place. Secondly, the Zeitgeist is also tied to culture, but is often associated with art as a “spirit of the times.” Through the connection to a culture the meanings embodied on a site become widely understood across different people within the culture.

The Woodland Cemetery, located outside Stockholm, designed by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz captures the genius loci and gracefully joins architecture and landscape. Treib speculated on where the magnificence of Woodland came from: “Perhaps the power of this funeral landscape ultimately derives from an almost animistic feeling of pre-Christianity that addresses the forest, the land, and the heavens as a primeval setting. Perhaps the design also tapped into something basic to Swedish religion and culture.”[viii] Asplund and Lewerentz ‘s design combined ideas about the soul of and the emotional content of the landscapes and the buildings of the cemetery.  The design borrowed from archetypal Nordic landscape images created by the romantic German painter Caspar David Friedrich such as: “the deep evergreen forest with graves set in the wilderness, the church with surrounding churchyard, and the dolmen and earth mound on the heath surrounded by oaks, and the wayfarer’s cross… Friedrich’s landscapes… took on transcendental and symbolic dimensions.”[ix] Symbols such as the earth mound related directly to cultural history in this case being ancient burial mounds of the past. In Nordic history there was also a tradition of woodland cemeteries; cemeteries where graves were protected within the shade of dense Nordic forests. Asplund and Lewerentz connected to the culture’s past to create strong symbols that were accessible to the visiting public.

Often the invention of meaning in a place, in reference to Olin’s definition of “synthetic” meaning, is taken from precedent. John Dixon Hunt argued that a designer has the ability to give a specific place meaning. He used the example of the English landscape garden to illustrate the point: “like many garden traditions before it, was a coherent system of signs devised to be legible to both maker and visitor.”[x] The success of the formal English landscape lies in the meaning embodied in its design. Symbolic references could be landscape features, structures, or written inscriptions used to reduce ambiguity. The Modern Movement dismissed this type of landscape for its artificiality and association with the past. As a result designed landscapes and architecture have lost the sense of genius loci. Hunt’s exploration of genius loci claimed that landscapes can be valued for more than their aesthetic qualities.

Intuition plays a major role in the giving of meaning to a place. Hunt explained the intuition required to understand the genius loci seen through the works of painter J. M. W. Turner. Turner’s work creatively exaggerated certain aspects of a site to create the spirit of the place:

“What is crucial about these motifs is that country estates required of the landscape artist both a visual naturalism and an instinct for their special sense of place: on the one hand, optical and visual accuracy, and on the other celebration of something more elusive than simple topography; what the visiting eye would see as well as the special rapport that its owners and residents would have for an estate”[xi]

While Hunt was praising a painter, Turner, for his understanding of genius loci designers could apply the same understanding and sense of the spirit of the place to impose meaning upon a site. Of Treib’s approaches to creating meaning in landscape design three are of the “synthetic” category. First, the neoarchaic approach drew directly from neoarchaic examples, and therefore was based on past precedent. Second, the vernacular landscape approach drew from vernacular examples, therefore also based on precedent. Third, the didactic approach informs the user about the natural processes or history of a place, but the history that it refers to may no longer be relevant to the times. Because all of the “synthetic” meanings are based on the past or examples of prior design the meanings they capture do not reflect the current times, and as a result do not hold the same strength in their meaning as the genius of the place or the Zeitgeist.

Since humans confront symbols of meaning everyday the designed human environment must be imbued with meaning. Designers of architecture and landscape alike must foster the creation of meaningful form. When confronted by designed forms expressive of the complexities of human existence humans will question and validate their existence.

[i] Laurie Olin, Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture, The Landscape Journal.

[ii] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture, pp. 222

[iii] Laurie Olin, Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture, The Landscape Journal.

[iv] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 98

[v] Christian Norberg-Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture, pp. 222

[vi] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 100

[vii] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 99

[viii] Marc Treib, Must Landscapes Mean? pp. 99

[ix] Stuart Wrede, Landscape and Architecture, Perspecta. pp 199

[x] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque. pp. 217

[xi] John Dixon Hunt, Gardens and the Picturesque. pp. 235


 Architecture: Meaning and Place. Christian Norberg-Shulz. New York, New York: Rizzoli International Publications (1988)

Meaning in Western Architecture. Christian Norberg-Schulz. New York, New York: Rizzoli International Publications (1980)

Meaning in Architecture. Edited by Charles Jencks and George Baird. New York, New York: George Braziller, Inc. (1970)

“The Suppressed Site: Revealing the Influence of Site on Two Purist Works”, Site Matters. Wendy Redfield. New York: Routledge (2005)

Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture. John Dixon Hunt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press (1992)

“Landscape and Architecture: The Work of Erik Gunnar Asplund.” Perspecta, Vol. 20. Stuart Wrede, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press (1983)

Form, Meaning, and Expression in Landscape Architecture. The Landscape Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2. Laurie Olin. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press (1988)

Must Landscape Mean? (1995), Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader. Marc Treib. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press (2002)


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