The best landscape architecture takes its cues from its physical environment—from the contour of the land and the framing of the horizon. The seamlessness with which the world-class installation merges with the surroundings should be mirrored by a relatively small footprint: Great landscaping isn’t just about the marriage of human artistry with the natural world, but—ideally—a demonstration of green technology, sustainable living, and the depth of our inherent bonds with open space, plants, water, rocks, and other elemental wonders.
Without further adieu, here are five stellar examples of landscape architecture from around the world—beautifully engineered works full of character and meaning.
Shawm House (England)
This harmonious installation in Northumberland manages to summon an elegantly rustic aesthetic while featuring state-of-the-art sustainable design. As conceived by the firm MawsonKerr, Shawm House lies on the grounds of historic farmland now used as a residential complex, and is meant to reflect the site’s heritage and rural setting, perched on the edge of Northumberland National Park.
In addition to a general respect for its cultural and geographic context, the project places premier emphasis on green technology and sustainability. Shawm House is a so-called passive house (Passivhaus), conceived as an impressively energy-efficient structure. (That goal is reflected in the name itself: Shawm” comes from a Northumberland expression meaning “to warm oneself,” appropriate given the building’s resourceful insulation.) The construction is based on a Brettstapel approach, which anchors together a timber frame with wooden dowels; according to MawsonKerr, Shawm House is the first Brettstapel structure to be rendered from locally sourced wood.
The two-story house, which links to an extant one-story barn and enjoys broad valley vistas, draws its power from solar panels. A rain garden on site, meanwhile, serves to stabilize soil, manage runoff, and purify groundwater.
All in all, Shawm House achieves an impressive blend of the environmentally responsible and architecturally aesthetic.
The Australian Garden (Australia)
A beautifully realized celebration of natural ecosystems rendered as an interactive and beautiful landscape, the 15-hectare Australian Garden lies at the heart of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the Melbourne suburb of Cranbourne. Completed in 2012, the installation is structured around the island continent’s hydrological pathways: A visitor traces the trek of water from the sere desert interior to the coast.
Constructed where a sand quarry once stood, the Australian Garden strikingly evokes Australia’s globally unique landscapes with tasteful structures—from the Lily Pad Bridge to the mesmerizing sculptures of the Ephemeral Lake—and a remarkable collection of plantlife: According to World Landscape Architecture, the garden displays an astonishing 1700 species of native flora. Woven into the framework are a number of display gardens designed to educate and inspire as well as the Ian Potter Lakeside Precinct, a large-capacity venue for public events.
From the summit of Gibson Hill to the Dry River Bend, the Australian Garden invites its guests to ramble across the landscapes of Australia in miniature. Among its many accolades and honors is the 2013 Landscape of the Year Award presented at the World Architecture Festival Awards.
Garden of Cosmic Speculation (Scotland)
At this point, Charles Jencks’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries is surely one of the UK’s most famous modern masterpieces of landscape architecture. Jencks took as inspiration the patterns and motifs of physics and mathematics—from fractals and black holes to quarks—as he crafted this sprawling 30-acre fantasy world of abstract sculpture, contoured mounds, gardens, and enchanting walkways, all playing off the natural moods and geographies established by rolling woods and fields.
People have long ensconced themselves in gardens to commune with nature. In the mysterious and delirious Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Jencks invites that communion to sweep from the classical arrangements of land and water features to the structural elements of our universe at the micro- and macro-scales. As he writes on his website, “[T]he garden uses nature to celebrate nature, both intellectually and through the senses, including the sense of humor.”
(4) The Floating Gardens (China)
The Floating Gardens in Taizhou City in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province embody all the possibilities of progressive landscape architecture. Created by the Chinese firm Turenscape, the gardens lie along a stretch of the Yongning River that until not long ago was crudely channelized by concrete for flood-control purposes. Such engineering warped the river’s natural behavior and its ecological communities; it also denied residents an inviting and accessible place to commune with their city’s lifeblood.
Convincing the local authorities to remove the concrete, Turenscape set about transforming the riverway into a spectacular mosaic of native vegetation, wildlife habitat, and human-oriented greenspace. Even as riparian wetlands and other features help naturally soak up floodwaters and maintain a more intrinsic rhythm to the Yongning, lovely pathways, benches, and sculptures encourage people to utilize the river corridor for recreation and relaxation. From towering bamboo arbors to serene bridges, the Floating Gardens compose a soothing living landscape all the more remarkable for what so recently preceded it.
(5) Southbank (England)
Rooftop gardens are all the rage—and for good reason. They take advantage of precious pieces of urban real estate too often ignored and wasted, turning them into rejuvenating, scenery-rich retreats of far greater ecological value than bare cement. The private Southbank roof in London, designed by Urban Roof Gardens, serves as an attractive example: a stylish blend of entertaining space and private nooks with a killer backdrop of city vistas. Among the chic components of this bird’s-eye playground is a dining table atop a circular deck enwrapped with river rocks.
These five exquisite manicured spaces demonstrate what’s possible when a topnotch landscape architect manages to amplify a particular locale’s natural splendor or serenity with his or her own artistic touch.