Landscape Architecture’s Peculiar Contribution

there times; font-size: 12pt;”>By Ron Kirk

I am sometimes, in jest, call the profession of landscape architecture the Rodney Dangerfield of the design and planning disciplines. It seems we just can’t get respect. The radio ad says, “Landscape architects would charge thousand of dollars.” No! Certainly not for an equivalent result. The misconception may be our own the fault. Perhaps we’re better doers than marketers.

For whatever reason, the perception persists that gardeners, landscape designers, and landscape maintenance and construction contractors are all landscape architects. With proper preparation and ethical practice, these are all honorable vocations, but they are not in themselves anywhere near equivalent. In fact, in California and most other states, landscape architecture falls under practice acts that require exquisite preparation, and ethical and competent practice equivalent in their spheres to law or medicine, architecture or civil engineering. Prerequisites include university training or its equivalent in office practice, internship practice under professionals, and the passing of a rigorous four-day exam with a tiny passing rate.

What are landscape architects? Landscape architects plan and design the outdoor world in all aspects. Accordingly, we rigorously train in the natural sciences, the arts, design, perceptual psychology, and all aspects of construction in order to enhance human life and nature. We “architect” everything beyond the building, including the building site itself.

Why landscape architecture? Whether in a small residential garden, a streetscape, a commercial plaza, a highway or a great public space, the accomplished landscape architect’s touch is recognizable. New York’s Central Park is the work of philosopher and first self-styled landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. The amazingly engaging, diverse and coherent landscape of Disneyland resulted from the skill of landscape architects. Fine residential gardens and commercial spaces everywhere the world over result from the landscape architect’s skill.


Central Park in New York City (courtesy Ed Yourdon—Wikipedia cc)

A beautiful and supportive environment is a reward that results from intelligence and character. The landscape is a universal stewardship deserving our thoughtful and educated attention. Landscape architects are dedicated to the proposition. A few examples of how landscape architects contribute:  Skilled three-dimensional thinking produces enjoyable spaces. While wide open vistas are grand and inspiring, they can be intimidating. Small space is intimate but can feel confining. Thoughtful spatial definition provides for both inspiration and the comfort of limits.

Dr. Tim O’Connor DDS Office—Murphys, CA (R Kirk)

Dr. Tim O’Connor DDS Office—Murphys, CA (R Kirk)

A sense of movement provides interest to the mind’s eye. Sometimes, the eye or body finds a path toward a destination. Sometimes a mere a sweep of curve intrigues the eye. A line or path that disappears in the distance evokes far the mystery of faraway places. Pioneer landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, married to a dancer, would choreograph the experience of movement through the landscape as an interpretive dance.

Villa Vallecito Vineyard Estate and Event Venue—Vallecito, CA (R Kirk)

Villa Vallecito Vineyard Estate and Event Venue—Vallecito, CA (R Kirk)

Complexity holds interest. Composition reconciles harmonious or discordant elements into an appreciable whole. Weighted randomness, groups of individual elements gradually bleeding into other groups, appears as God’s approach to complexity in the natural landscape. Absolute harmony is not realistic and we soon lose interest. A little danger, a little incongruity, like the dissonance in a great piece of music or in dramatic theater, suggest the compelling nature of real life. While simplicity tends toward boredom, the inability of the mind to take everything in all at once provides for continuing interest. Change over time of day, season to season, and year to year add to compelling interest. The Zen garden at Ryoan-ji at Kyoto Japan produces endless interest of drama, tension, and complexity out of the spare simplicity of a few elements.

Zen Garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto Japan (courtesy

Zen Garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto Japan (courtesy

To achieve the special over the mundane, the comfortable over the institutional, the convenient over the difficult, the beautiful over the ugly requires educated imagination and skill, especially the attention to detail. Design is highly integrated. Details make or break a design. It is far easier to produce something sterile and common than something really engaging and useful, but there is no good reason to settle for less.

In the pragmatism of today’s difficult economy quality of life considerations sadly often take a back seat. Contrary to their intent, contemporary land-use regulations conspire toward blandness, sterility and institutionalism in the landscape. These things should not be so in a community characterized by good neighbors, producing and contributing to each others’ well being as a matter of course. A beautiful and supportive environment is a reward that results from intelligence and character. Just so, the landscape—natural or built—is a universal stewardship deserving our thoughtful and educated attention. In just these ways, landscape architects are ready to serve.

Ron Kirk is a California licensed professional landscape architect (no. 5100) who has practiced in Ventura County since 1977. He would be happy to provide consultation for improving an existing home or corporate image garden, or design something new, beautiful and special—beyond the merely common. Visit Ron on Facebook:


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