Between hermeneutics and datascapes: a critical appreciation of emergent landscape design theory and praxis through the writings of James Corner 1990-2000(Part One)

  • Richard Weller


This two-part essay examines the theoretical work of James Corner across the 1990s. Part one begins with a polemical analysis of Corner's originating notion of a hermeneutic practice of design as published in Landscape Journal in 1991. The essay necessarily broaches themes of ecology, critical regionalism and the broader panoramas of landscape planning as they are encountered in Corner's writings. Part one identifies an emergent dialectic between landscape architecture as scenography or infrastructure in his writings. In order to appreciate Corner's work, part one establishes and discusses the philosophical grounding of his position. Part one is concerned with theory, part two with praxis. Part two, following Corner's lead, summarises and comments upon some emerging design methods and specific design projects so as to situate the issues raised in part one. Part two begins with the unbuilt Parc de la Villette of 1982 by Rem Koolhaas and discusses its ramifications. Part two revolves around arguments put forward by Corner in the late 1990s for the agency of landscape design as structuring development rather than symbolising culture and nature, arguments tor what landscape design does not only what it means. To facilitate this, the writings of Bart Lootsma and Alex Wall who, along with Corner, presented the most pertinent and provocative themes in Corner's latest book Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, are considered in some detail. Part two concludes with thoughts on datascaping - a new design methodology synonymous with current trends in Dutch urbanism and one that impresses Corner with its capacity to manage and manipulate complex design programmes. Taken as a whole the essay offers neither a set of findings nor feigns conclusion; rather, it goes to the co-ordinates Corner has set out and explores the field they demarcate. The essay does, however, seek to qualify the claim that James Corner is articulating a middle ground between the deleteriously exclusive categories of landscape planning and landscape design and that this middle ground is crucial for landscape architecture's future as a 'synthetic and strategic art form'.