From emergence to divergence: modes of landscape urbanism

Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island”. New York City, USA. September 2005. Photograph: Author's own. 

Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island”. New York City, USA. September 2005. Photograph: Author's own. 

I began writing my Master of Architecture dissertation in July 2006 for submission in September 2006 as my final qualification at Edinburgh University/Edinburgh College of Art. The subject is the emergent field of landscape urbanism, a field that aims for a hybrid practice between architecture and landscape architecture, both disciplines that I have studied and practiced in for some time.

A pdf of the entire dissertation is available to download here (it is about 5Mb). Please feel free to download and print as you wish, but please bear in the mind the many hours I spent working on it and acknowledge any reference you make to it accordingly. Drop me an email if you find the document useful! 


This dissertation is the result of my interest in a hybrid practice that might cross architecture and landscape architecture. As a student of both, and a city dweller, I have always been fascinated with how the contemporary city, in all its complexity, engages with the physical architecture of its built form and the landscape of its territory. Just as fifty years ago, there were few concepts of spatial structure in cities, we are perhaps now in a period where the understanding of ‘natural’ systems in cities is only just starting to emerge. The conceptualisation of the ecological structure to cities and their supporting landscape systems is a critical problem when the global trend is for more and more people to live in urban areas. As a field that delights in de-industrialised, complex city sites, landscape urbanism appears to offer a way of understanding the contemporary city and furthermore, offer a way to sustain the city in a healthy, active manner. Landscape urbanism emerged at the start of my studies and has been something of a preoccupation ever since. This dissertation was an opportunity to explore the field in some depth; to try to understand its position within the broad range of disciplines in which I am interested; and speculate on its endurance as a critical approach. 


A point of clarity with regards the title of this dissertation: towards the end of writing the main text, I became aware of a specific definition of emergence as “the process of complex pattern formation from simpler rules.” This definition, whilst it is happily enmeshed with the topic of landscape urbanism, is not the meaning I originally intended in the title From emergence to divergence; my use of the word is to mean simply the act or process of coming into existence. 

Aim & Objectives

With the author’s background in both architecture and landscape architecture, the informal development period for this work has been several years, drawing from time in practice and study of both disciplines. A more focused period of research in preparation for the dissertation drew both from texts and projects within the field of landscape urbanism and from theories in aligned disciplines and hybrid fields. The final proposal identified the following key research question:

What modes of landscape urbanism have emerged and developed over the past decade and what key differences can be discerned between these modes and parallel practices? 


The following sub-questions were subsequently formulated to shape the investigation:

  1. How has the critical framework for landscape urbanism emerged from a synthesis drawn from the fields of urbanism, infrastructure, ecology, architecture and landscape architecture?
  2. Where can landscape urbanism be positioned in a critical perspective of aligned disciplines and hybrid fields?
  3. Through exploration and definition of the various modes of landscape urbanism, can dominant modes be identified? Can specific characteristics be identified for each mode? 
  4. What are the similarities and differences in ethos and methodology between the two dominant modes? Can these two modes be described as divergent?

Key to this dissertation is the proposition that two distinct theoretical threads can be perceived within the theoretical texts and projects on the subject. As will be presented, landscape urbanism can be understood to operate in several distinct modes. Furthermore, these modes have somewhat diverging assumptions as to how landscape urbanism might be made manifest. The aim of this dissertation is therefore to study the development of landscape urbanism and define the different modes in which the field can be understood; subsequently the paper will investigate the contrasting manifestations of the two schools of thought through their diverging theories and methods.