From the Visual to the Aesthetic, by Daniel Coombes

An effort is being made to situate architecture and landscape architecture within an ethical trajectory that has contemporary currency. Certain proponents of both disciplines are proposing that an ethical practice may emerge through attempting to align the way we approach design with the dynamics of the human and nonhuman processes already operating within a particular landscape.

Central to this endeavor has been a shift away from designers privileging what they suppose the landscape or urban realm should look like. The visual impetus or motivation for design has purportedly been superseded through designers and theorists emphasising the indeterminacy and multiplicity of the forces at play within and across a landscape. This shift has previously been presented as an interdisciplinary transition from what things look like to how they work [1]. In this paper this shift will be contextualised as a movement from the visual to the aesthetic.

The expansion of the notion ‘aesthetic’ from a consideration of what things look like to how they operate and exert influence within the world has been challenged on at least two fronts. Firstly the landscape architect Richard Weller has critiqued process or operational approaches to design for being too functional and often inadvertently controlling the forces they are trying to foreground [2]. Secondly the architect Christopher Hight maintains that focusing on the interconnected formation properties of landscape process does not propel us beyond notions pertinent to the visual such as image and representation [3]. This is because at a base level we are always conceptualising or mentally imaging the performance of the landscape or built environment as opposed to achieving a direct and transparent access to its actual operation through simply downplaying the visual.

Drawing upon a design investigation associated with an international design competition in the city of Hamburg, this paper attempts to show that an initial and conventional privileging of the purely visual aspects of a design intervention can paradoxically generate complex and nuanced relations between colloquial and technical notions of aesthetics. This observation carries on from the work of Weller and Hight through continuing to challenge the discursive shift from the visual to the operational. Ultimately this paper attempts to more accurately align design approach with landscape process and thereby broaden the aesthetic and ethical agendas underlying contemporary architecture and landscape architecture.

[1] James Corner, “Landscape Urbanism,” in Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape, ed. Moshen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle (London: AA Print Studio, 2003), 61.
[2] Richard Weller, “Global Theory, Local Practice,” Kerb, no. 15 (2006/2007): 67.
[3] Christopher Hight, “Portraying the Urban Landscape: Landscape in Architectural Criticism and Theory, 1960 – Present,” in Landscape Urbanism: A Manual for the Machinic Landscape, ed. Moshen Mostafavi and Ciro Najle (London: AA Print Studio, 2003), 27.

Daniel Coombes, Indepdent Scholar, NZ

Harvard Citation Guide: Coombes, D. (2012) From the Visual to the Aesthetic, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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