More Than A Trend

As a rule, landscape design is preoccupied with aesthetics. The expectation that landscape be Arcadian is so entrenched in American culture that it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

A move toward performance-based design is changing the way we view landscape architecture.

Although essential, the visual appeal of landscape design may need to take a secondary role in an age of increasingly short water supplies and record-breaking weather events.

According to a 2007 Dallas Morning News article, 80 percent of the water withdrawn from reservoirs around Dallas-Fort Worth is used for irrigation, a trend that is simply not sustainable if climate predictions are accurate.

To understand the problem, it is necessary to take a look at the history of the current aesthetic.

An event in 1857 defined the American landscape mind. Confronted with the problem of designing a vast urban park for which there were no precedents, Frederick Law Olmsted consulted the pictorial inventions of a group of landscape painters known as the Hudson River School to design New York City’s Central Park. Dotted tree groupings, broad clearings, and green meadows highlighted with waterways and sunlit bridges came out of the picture plane and into Manhattan.

Central Park was the latest manifestation in a much longer historical process of painting and landscape transformations. Inspired by the 15th- and 16th-century gardens of the Italian Renaissance, French artists like Claude Lorrain in the 17th century painted new landscape conceptions that later influenced the built landscapes of the English aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The English added refinement in the form of fine lawns and bucolic sensibilities, and these examples inspired the Hudson River School paintings of rivers and valleys.

Six hundred years in the making, it’s understandable that landscape norms have remained constant.

While the arrival of modernism overturned nearly every artistic convention--giving rise to new art forms such as photography and film--landscape stubbornly clung to a green and largely aesthetic impulse throughout the 20th century.

While architecture developed new technologies like the steel and concrete structural frame to support new ideas in architectural space, modern landscape explorations were realized with a pre-modern palette of clipped hedges, fine lawns, and allees. Despite the avant-garde, landscape was still a passive affair, something to be looked at or contemplated in the mind.

Performance has the gravitas to carry the cultural landscape beyond its primarily aesthetic concerns. In lieu of seeing landscape as something that enters human experience only through the eyes, the character of the performance-driven landscape becomes something by doing something.

Image and style are in service to other concerns that are a subset of issues conventionally discussed as climate change, environmental stewardship, and water-use practices.

Performance-driven landscape is more than a trend. Seminal tomes include Ecological Urbanism by Moshen Mostafavi, the current dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design; The Landscape Urbanism Reader by Charles Waldheim, head of the Graduate School of Design’s Department of Landscape Architecture; and Design for a Fragile Planet by Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas.

Performance trumps aesthetics for a new type of landscape.

These works give definition and high credibility to a new way of conceptualizing architecture and landscape.

Where urban ecologists see the city as their central concern, landscape urbanists envision a new type of ecological fabric for making the expansive geographies of the American city cohesive. The debate between the two viewpoints transcends architectural- and landscape-design practice, and is something that draws broader cultural attention to the problem.

An Alternative Approach

“High performance” is my contribution to the discourse, and extends the high-performance building practices of architects like Adrian Smith, Gordon Gill, and William McDonough. Starting as far back as 1982, I co-authored Water Conservation in Landscape Architecture with Gary O. Robinette. This Van Nostrand Reinhold book advanced water harvesting and conservation techniques to contemporary landscape.

The work started a line of exploration that has coalesced in several built works.

After 12 years in existence, the 212-acre Sprint World Headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., has never had to buy one gallon of water for irrigation, which has saved the company an estimated $3 million.

By dedicating the entire site-perimeter to native grasses and reconstructing 17 acres of wetlands as a campus irrigation source, several million dollars in construction costs were saved and redirected to make seven garden quadrangles, resulting in a more habitable and beautiful campus.

Defining performance by quantitative measures is becoming more and more common. However, qualitative terms were used for the new R. Gerald Turner Centennial Quadrangle at Southern Methodist University.

Dedicated in September 2011, the time-honored building methods of load-bearing structure, mortarless jointure, and gravity-fastened slate roofs were modernized and applied to the Gail O. and R. Gerald Turner Centennial Pavilion and the Cooper Centennial Fountain, both located within the quadrangle.

High performance can also be part of the process of programming and urban planning.

For a 100-acre urban infill project in north Dallas, a performance-based urban plan was developed for Vitruvian Park that transforms in image and use as it is built incrementally. Where the first phases of an urban development historically struggle for lack of a formed and usable context, the first two multi-family blocks of Vitruvian Park were conceptualized as a pair of resort hotels leased to tenants. A 17-acre park was built concurrent with the first two blocks that would reinforce the first phase’s incremental image as a resort.

Despite the economy, both buildings are 100-percent leased.

Performance also influenced the design of the 17-acre public landscape at Vitruvian Park. One branch of the network of some 200 springs that traverse the DFW region crossed the project site. The drought-resistant park was produced by opening the formation through excavation. Spring-fed waters envelop a set of cypress-planted islands, making the park a durable oasis for public use.

It’s important that performance is understood as neither a replacement for history, nor a new type of process that will produce design innovation automatically. Rather, view performance as a catalyst with the potential to culturally resonate and breathe new life into the art of landscape design.

Kevin W. Sloan, ASLA, M. Arch, is the owner of Kevin Sloan Studio in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached via email at