The History of Landscaping
In the beginning, there were plants.
Then came animals. And then humans. And the humans saw the plants and saw they were good.
A history of landscape design ranges from antiquity to the present day, exploring the diverse ways in which humankind has shaped the landscape around them, from ancient Egyptian royal cemeteries to magnificent Renaissance gardens to modern-day earthworks, a mirror showing how the landscape reflects social development and cultural values.
So how does what people in the past influence what we are doing today in our gardens? Why do we need to know what there was in an effort to move forward?
The history of landscaping is long and full of detail. Outdoor spaces meant different things for different people, though many recognised the soothing effect nature can have. For thousands of years, people have altered the meaning of space by reshaping nature. As an art form, architectural landscape creations are stamped with societal imprints unique to their environment and place in time.
Though it may seem like a modern invention, public and residential landscaping has been practiced throughout history for hundreds of years by many different cultures. For each culture, landscaping symbolised something different and was made up of different elements.
All around the world, from the Far East to the Americas and through to Europe and Africa, beauty was not initially the prime reason for growing anything. However, one thing was fairly fixed - the instinct and enthusiasm for gardening appears to have arisen from some primitive response to nature, bringing about a wish to produce growth and harmony in a creative partnership with it, as well as the endeavour by cultures to re-create or express in their built landscapes the sacred meanings and spiritual significance of natural sites and phenomena. People altered the landscape to try to understand or honour the mysteries of nature. So we could essentially see early “landscape design” as an elaboration of humankind’s intuitive impulse to dig and to mound...
This has been going on a lot longer than we think, in fact since around 8,000 years ago, when intricate social systems began to emerge concurrently in South and Central America, in Egypt and the Middle East, and in India and Asia. As cultures advanced and humans gained more control over the natural world, they arranged the landscape around them for physical and spiritual comfort. The idea of the garden as a managed pleasure ground evolved from the simple enclosed hunting grounds of Europe and Asia.
Earth’s peoples also learned how to cultivate the plants that they would use for medicines and food. Planting in ancient and Medieval European gardens was largely for utility and often a mix of herbs for medicinal use, vegetables for consumption, and occasionally flowers for decoration. (Strange how in so many cases these days we’re returning to that way of thinking in our own gardens...). In Asia, asymmetrical traditions in garden designs began a lot earlier, in the second to fourth centuries. Sure, in the occident, things changed a bit in the ancient Roman era, which borrowed from Greek, Persian and Egyptian gardening techniques. But something got lost somewhere along the line in the Dark Ages. And it was only during the Renaissance period in Europe, after the Medieval times, that purely aesthetic planting layouts developed.
And this is where our design journey begins....
Nowadays, many people think of garden or landscape design as being something relegated to the home or backyard garden. And of course, we all want to have a beautiful space to live in and enjoy. However, everywhere we go (mostly – unless in the inner city, although that has its own ‘landscape’ – or should that be ‘landshape’?) nature defines what we see and how we react to the greater world around us. The landscape is everything an observer, whether still or in motion, can see. The landscape has been defined as – “a work of individual art is any garden or space designed, developed, and maintained for the private experience of an individual or family, a space not accessible to others either physically or visually. The landscape as a work of collective art is everything beyond this private range: everything seen beyond the confines of private gardens or estates, all borrowed landscapes, all streetscapes, all city, metropolitan, and regional landscapes, and their accumulation in national, continental, and world landscapes. This collective art may be good or bad depending on whether it results from the accidental accumulation of individual and conflicting efforts or from controlled and planned efforts.”
In landscape design history, by looking back at the showy gardens of the Renaissance, moving forward through man’s attempt to subjugate nature in formal styles, and the progression from boxed in stilted areas to free flowing spaces, we can see how humanity has changed the physical appearance of the environment. Yes, the endeavours of the past greatly influence today's design process and design solutions. One only has to take a look at the iconic spaces throughout the centuries, starting from landscapes in prehistory to current trends in landscape design, to understand how the landscape has been changed and shaped over time in relation to human need. It’s when we have this knowledge that we’re able to gain that all important critical perspective on how to apply historical context to contemporary design challenges, and have the ability to make possible that private world of fantasy that may make the difference between sanity and lunacy.