Enclosed gardens can render landscapes accessible and make nature easier to experience. They therefore play a role in connecting people with their environment, observes landscape architect Saskia de Wit in her doctoral research.

Landscapes are becoming more of a diffuse mix of suburbs, nature, cultural landscapes, industrial areas and old towns. The classical garden reflects the landscape. Is the same true of gardens in the new metropolitan landscape, where the old dichotomy between town and country no longer exists, asks De Wit in her thesis ‘Hidden landscapes. The Metropolitan Garden and the Genius Loci’. It certainly is, she affirms. Internet and globalization have made almost everything accessible and that is reflected in the landscape. The metropolitan tissue embraces everything, even nature. ‘And nature also includes the city.’ 

A look back at the development of gardens shows that ideas that were once in opposition to one another now coexist in landscape architecture. The first modern gardens, in the 1940s and 1950s, were based on abstract designs. The garden was pure space, captured within a composition of buildings and urban design. The 1960s saw the emergence of the ecology movement and this brought us the ‘nature garden’. The rich 1990s produced gardens of abundance, while these crisis years have taken us ‘back to nature’ as a basic human need. De Wit: ‘The sensory nature that we can feel close to the skin, part of everyday life and of the metropolis, is artificial as well as natural: it brings together the architectural and ecological notions of the twentieth century.’

De Wit analysed a large number of gardens for her research. Using the data gathered, she defines six developments. These range from trans-historical garden, such as the Tofuku-ji hojo in Kyoto (1938) to the skyscraper garden in New York (Paley Park, 1967). She uses her analysis to identify three design strategies for the metropolitan landscape: (1) defining boundaries, (2) ordering the landscape to make it readable for the user, and (3) articulating the material, to release information in the landscape for all the senses.

Do these design strategies give landscape architects the tools to shape the fragmented living environment of the 21st century effectively? De Wit: ‘Look at it positively: in the metropolitan landscape there are many left-over spaces, undefined or temporary areas. This is where the opportunities are. Let’s use these to make a connection with the place.’

Her study also includes a warning for landscape architects. With today’s focus on citizen’s initiatives, for example, the architectural development of the ‘genius loci’ could disappear. But design is precisely the means that we can use to make the environment accessible to people. ‘The form of the space, as an expression of place, must therefore remain the subject of design, regardless of the issues at play.’

Published: June 2014