Today, landscape design plays an increasingly important role in ecological development and infrastructure planning, leading to a disciplinary realignment between landscape designers, ecologists and engineers. Current research and design proposals on 'metropolitan landscapes' in Belgium tie in with international trends in design, based on two main concepts: (1) a balance between 'the urban' and 'the natural' and (2) the potential of landscape design to act as an integrative instrument for several disciplines and experts. However, these concepts are not new. This PhD project aims at mobilizing a historical understanding of the role of landscape design in relation to: (1) a complex field of knowledge production, policy making and planning and (2) shifting conceptions of city and nature in Belgium since the early 20th century. In doing so, the research adds academic and indeed historical profundity to current design discourse as well as contributes to recent developments in urban history.
The research follows an inductive method: an original contribution to existing historiography and theory in the field is built up through case study analysis. The PhD is based on three case studies which allow to explore shifting alliances between designers, scientists, engineers and policy makers in Belgium between 1900 and today, with Brussels as geographical focus: (1) ca. 1900-1929: biologist Jean Massart and landscape designer/urban planner Louis Van der Swaelmen, who developed an 'ethologic' view on landscape design and a 'sociobiologist' theory on urban planning; (2) 1951-1989: landscape designer René Pechère and the Service of the Green Plan, reconciling landscape design and engineering within the conception of the Belgian territory as a garden; (3) 1974-2016: biologist Paul Duvigneaud and the Brussels Agglomeration, developing the scientific field of urban ecology and bringing it into practice in designs of parks, corridors and networks for the Brussels Region. Following a literature review, these case studies are subject to a network, discourse as well as design analysis, with the following questions in mind: In which (inter)national networks did landscape designers operate? Which discourses on the urban and the natural were developed? In what sense were terms as 'sociobiology', 'biotechnics' and 'metabolism' used and how did their meaning evolve? How did the alliance with ecology and infrastructure affect the design and vice versa? The case study research is based on published sources as well as archival research, in the two most recent cases complemented by interviews.
The PhD research develops a new methodological approach charting transformation of landscape design through its shifting relations with other disciplines. Moreover, it offers new perspectives on on-going academic discussions, in both urban history and urban design, and uncovers a new body of archival and other sources. The project is especially innovative because: (1) it approaches ecology and engineering from a landscape design perspective, which will introduce a new way of studying disciplines and fields of knowledge that have until now very often been studied separately; (2) it introduces ideological, sociocultural and aesthetical perspectives in a hitherto technical discussion; (3) it will set a crucial step in the development of landscape design history in Belgium as an academic discipline.