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Leave the landscape design to us

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Landscape architects will translate your vision into reality (R Architecture - Unsplash)

By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hazreena Hussein

Architects should not assume that landscape design is something they can do themselves. Period.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hazreena Hussein

Look, I have nothing against the profession. Some of my best friends are architects. I was married to an architect. And currently, I am educating architecture students on the importance of landscape in their architectural design.

Architecture is, and will always be, part of who I am.

But landscape design is often regarded as a cosmetic afterthought, when in reality it can make a significant contribution to improving the environmental impact of a building (internally) or on an urban area (externally). Internal environmental control includes allowing natural cross- ventilation thus reducing the use of energy, such as large air-handling ducts. The external environmental strategy includes incorporating plants for their oxygen-producing and air- filtering qualities as well as their ability to reduce temperatures in shaded outdoor areas.

It is sometimes difficult to convince other professionals; especially architects, of importance of landscape design that deals with land use, site planning, design, construction, management and maintenance. Educating the Architecture professional about their everyday urban environment equips them to participate in the process of respecting and improving the built environment. Landscape design should be at the core of subjects taught – a theme linking biology, art and history.

Teaching children about their everyday urban environment equips them to participate in the process of respecting and improving the city. Cities themselves can be a great tool, a live laboratory for education. Landscape planting should be at the core of subjects taught – a theme linking biology, art and history. We must make funds available to interest and inform the public. We must teach good citizenship to young and old, and listen to our citizens. Much of our future ‘quality of life’ depends on getting this right.

I have developed a rather good roll of eyeballs, which I use to great effect before beginning a stream of invective in which I point out that sixty per cent of all buildings erected in this country are not designed by architects, and that whenever a really good building does appear, it has almost inevitably seen the light of day thanks to an architect or two.

Quite rightly, architects have fought extremely hard to retain registration and to protect their title. In doing so, they have ensured that others cannot masquerade as architects, and cannot claim that particular skill of balancing a knowledge of spatial design with a knowledge of construction to arrive at an individual solution for a particular client.

So why do many architects attempt to do the work of landscape architects?

Critics of the work of landscape architects point out dull municipal planning, expensive maintenance and costly schemes, which are an irritation to clients and public alike – not to mention a general lack of imagination.

I draw your attention to my earlier statement and would argue that possibly as many as seventy per cent of landscape projects in Malaysia haven’t been near a landscape architect, but that whenever a really beautiful, dynamic or sensitive landscape crops up, it sure has been designed by one.

Now I know how difficult it can be to persuade a client that some other professional help is needed, and I particularly understand what landscape architects do, or even that they exist.

Most architects these days do understand, however. Even so, apart from a small number of enlightened individuals, many still undertake landscape schemes with the help of a contractor. Is this because the client tells them to, or that they prefer to hang on to the fee, or simply that they don’t know any better?

Maybe much of this state of affairs is the fault of landscape architects themselves, who are notoriously bad at blowing their own trumpet. And I recognise that just as there are poor architects, there are also poor landscape architects.

Landscape is a complex thing, and it is often interesting to discuss the subject with architects. I usually reckon that if the word ‘landscaping’ is used by anybody, it implies a failure to understand the subject. It implies a cosmetic tarting up rather than dealing with the fundamentals of land use, site planning, design and management. Architects use it in abundance.

Clare Cooper Marcus, an expert in healing gardens at Edinburgh College of Art said, “Landscape Architects should design gardens, not architects. You do not want a brain surgeon to replace your hip, do you?”

What I would say to architects is this: if you are not one of the converted, you go back to cobbling landscapes together with the help of a man with a van and possibly a yard full of spare plants – watching them disintegrate and wondering what went wrong.

Conversely, you could have a quiet word with a friendly landscape architect who, I am certain, for a modest fee will translate your vision into reality and transform both your building and your reputation. Go on, try it!

The author is an Associate Professor and has over 25 years of progressive teaching and research experience at the Department of Architecture, Universiti Malaya (UM). Currently, she is the Head for the Centre of Sustainable Planning and Real Estate, Faculty of Built Environment, UM, and may be reached at reenalambina@um.edu.my

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