The English way

The use of composition elements for routing and movement in English landscape gardens.


Landscape architectonical designs are always connected to nature in a certain way, according to Steenbergen and Ray (2009). They say that it is not possible to ignore the topography of the landscape, the environment of the location and temporary characteristics of natural processes in a design. During the Classical Antiquity and Renaissance, the connection between nature and the garden design was more likely to be hidden. Nature was controlled by a formal design. However, after ages of the straight lines and rational grids, the English gardens were organic shaped and had meandering routes. (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009) This paper will focus mainly on the routing of the English landscape gardens, how it is formed in the composition and characterized, because this principle is still used in contemporary designs.


Type · Position paper 

Date · 2017
Keywords · landscape architecture, English landscape gardens, routing, movement, composition, composition elements, landform, landmarks, focal points, Stowe, Stourhead.

“Every landscape architectural design
finds its origin in the morphological characteristics of the natural landscape.”

(Steenbergen and Reh, 2009, p. 381)

I Introduction

After the Renaissance, something remarkable happened in landscape architectonical designs. The endless topos and the designated locus merged into the genius loci: the characteristics of the place. (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009)

The garden’s villa or castle was not the most important element and central part (locus) of the design anymore and symmetrical principles like axes became less important. Perspective manipulation like in the formal gardens was not necessary anymore, because the garden was fading into the endless landscape (topos). Steenbergen and Reh (2009) argue that, for the first time, designing landscapes was not only about controlling nature but about projecting on natural morphological layers.

Something else that came along with this curious change was the introduction of different types of movement through the design. Routing was subjected to whole new principles, like movement and speed. This was possible because, for the first time, the strict grid was rejected.

Scientific development and cultural differences of the Age of Enlightenment were the basis of all those changes. Natural science emerged and brought new knowledge about nature and its dynamic appearances. Nature was no longer seen as only a raw material, but as a system to which society was inferior. (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009) This new knowledge and perspective was applied in the design of the English landscape gardens and led to a new visual language.

It is interesting to analyze the structure of this ‘new’ garden type, to find out where the organic shapes find their origin and how that works together with the new type of routing and movement, because those design principles are still important in contemporary designs.

However, routing and movement are interpretable in several ways. Therefore, it is necessary to define fluid concepts as compositions elements, routing and movement. This will be done through sub questions, before the main question is answered.

Since there are many types of English landscape gardens in different countries, this paper will concentrate on the gardens from the 18th century, only in England. This frame of reference is chosen so that there will be no substantial difference or influence on the designs by property, geographical location and cultural differences.

Research questions

English landscape gardens differ significantly from their classical and formal predecessors. To find out how the composition and routing of the English landscape gardens are designed and initiated, the following research question has been drawn up:

How are composition elements used for the routing and movement in English landscape gardens of the 18th century?


To answer this main question, it is first necessary to define concepts such as composition elements and routing in relation to English landscape gardens. These are the sub questions that provide for an answer to the main question and define the fluid concepts:

1. What are composition elements?


2.How do composition elements form the design of the English landscape garden?


3.What are the characteristics of the routing and corresponding movement in an English landscape garden?


Outline of the structure

After the brief introduction on the development of gardens in the Renaissance and the subsequent transition during the Age of Enlightenment, an analysis of the composition and routing of English landscape gardens follows.

This analysis is divided in three parts, which each answer one of the sub questions. The first part defines composition elements by categorization. The second part explains how those elements are used in an English landscape garden. In the third part, the routing is linked to the composition and corresponding elements using the answers of the previous sub questions.

Eventually, the conclusions and the answer to the research question are made. Any implications and suggestions for subsequent research are also mentioned here.



The method of this research is based on the review of 18th century English landscape gardens to contemporary categorization of composition elements. Analyzing the characteristics and composition of specific English landscape gardens will reveal the origin of the routing systems. This will conclude the effect of the composition on the routing in the designs.

All examples of gardens are from the 18th century during Age of Enlightenment in England. The source for the contemporary categorization of composition elements found in the book ‘Basic Elements of Landscape Architectural Design’, by Norman K. Booth.

1. Famous English landscape garden Stowe (Federici, 2014)

II Analysis

What are composition elements?

On the front page of this paper the following phrase is cited:


“Every landscape architectural design finds its origin in the morphological characteristics of the natural landscape.” (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009, p. 381)


According to Steenbergen and Reh (2009), it is not possible to ignore the topography of the landscape, the environment of the location and temporary characteristics of natural processes in a design. These are morphological layers and contain changes, additions or eliminations which together form the composition of the design. The adjustments in the existing layers or new layers are called composition elements.

This definition of composition elements tells their origin, namely from the natural landscape. This does not implicate that all composition elements are natural or already existing, but its place and reason could be explained by the natural landscape. This is how morphology and composition interact with each other.

An example of a composition element that is an addition in the morphological layers of landscape, is pavement. This is one of the six categories Booth (1989) uses to classify composition elements. He describes it as a hard and fixed element that accommodates intense use. It provides direction and connection, which are related to routing and sightlines. Besides that, it affects experience of a place, like patterns, scale, borders and division.

Booths’ (1989) other categories of composition elements are: landform, plant materials, buildings, water and sitestructures. The first three he mentions as the main elements of a design. He describes those composition elements as follows:

Landform is the topography of the land as a three-dimensional relief. The topography of a place depends on the geographical location and scale. It could be smooth or edgy, mountainous or grid-like and linear or multidirectional. Landform is subjected to natural processes such as erosion and sedimentation.

Buildings are all architectural objects in a design, for example houses, outhouses, sheds, pavilions, greenhouses etcetera.

Plant material is all the fauna in the design, from trees to grass. It is a combination of existing plants and new plants and native species and exotic species. Plant materials can form points, lines, groups, surfaces and other spatial compositions. Plant materials change constantly because of growth and death and seasonal changes.

Water includes all kinds of moving and stationarity water bodies, like lakes, rivers and ponds. Water levels could differ regularly, depending on seasonal changes and sedimentation.

Site structures include all the manmade interventions to complete the design, for instance stairs, rails, ramps, walls and fences. In general, these are the most temporary elements.

In short, it can be concluded that composition elements are adjustments in the morphological layer of the natural landscape. Those elements could be categorized in six groups according to Booth (1989): landform, planting, architecture, water, site structures and pavement. Each group had its own way of connecting to the morphological layers of the natural landscape.

How do composition elements form the design of the English landscape garden?

In the English landscape gardens, all the composition elements are related to the zones of the garden. According to Steenbergen and Reh (2009) these zones are the garden as pleasure grounds, the fields as the meadow and the nature as the wilderness.

In the book The English Landscape Garden (Jarrett, 1978) the elements of the garden are explained by examples from the 18th century. The first zone is most controlled, so the original landform is less visible and there is almost no existing planting. Although the position and shape of the garden is always related to the house, which is positioned on a favorable place in the topography of the landscape. For example, to have good views or shelter. You could say that the connection between the pleasure grounds and nature is indirectly formed. Architecture, as the house, has a vast share here. Image 2 shows the gardens of Stowe, an early but leading example of the English landscape garden. Most geometric forms are found close to the house, this is the garden.

According to Jarrett (1978), the meadow is more subjected to original topography of the natural landscape. Landform is visible in a natural way: smooth elevations are visible on the grass surfaces, which are framed by woodlands and interrupted by water bodies. Typical for the English landscape garden, several classical or gothic architectonical objects are placed in this zone as focal points. These elements often refer mythical scenes to represent the divinity of nature.

The wilderness is the surrounding landscape, which has usually the largest scale of all three zones. It contains great groups of trees and the landform is as visible as in the second zone. Early landscape gardens like Stowe (image 2), had a network of strict axes projected on the wilderness.

Those axes can be paved avenues or unhardened sight lines that carved right thought tree masses. Later in the 18th century the strictness decreased and axes got subtler or turned into meandering paths.  (Jarrett, 1978)

It can be concluded that all categories of composition elements according to Booth (1989) appear in the English landscape garden. The design is formed in three zones where all the elements take part to a certain extent. Close to the house, the connection to the natural landscape is less visible than in the wilderness which is the furthest away from the house, where landform defines the relief of the garden. The share in architecture increases closer to the house, with classical and gothic objects in the meadows.

2. Plan of Stowe 1739 by Charles Bridgeman. (Austen, 2011)

What are the characteristics of the routing and corresponding movement in an English landscape garden?

In the design of the English landscape, for the first time the designer agreed with the irregularities of nature. Nature even became something poetical and paradisal because of the influence of literature in that time and had to be shown to people through gardens. (Jarrett, 1978). Nevertheless, the garden was not just a frame which showed a part of nature, but it was an ideal representation of divine nature with perfect proportions. (Hussey, 1967)

To show those perfect proportions and paradisal representation, a specific routing was needed. The garden of Stourhead (image 3) is an outstanding example to explain the routing system in English landscape gardens. It is a newer design than Stowe (image 1 and 2) which means that the garden is less strict, all the more the poetic layer is emphasized. The grid in Stowe was leading in the first zone around the house, but Stourhead had only two axes (image 3 point 1 and 2) that were left after a transformation of a formal visual language instead. According to Steenbergen and Reh (2009) this was a remain of the Renaissance.

The routing of Stourhead is made of so-called circuit walks (image 3 blue line), which refers to the circular design of the house (image 3 point 3). As equivalent of the Renaissance houses, the English designed house plans where all quarters were directly connected to each other by having several doors per room. This emerged a circuit that effected the routing outside the house as well. (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009)

According to Steenbergen and Reh (2009) all the English landscape gardens have circuits as their main routing system. They are connected to the three zones in the garden: pleasure grounds, the meadow and the wilderness. Every zone is featured by a specific way of movement.

The pleasure grounds are more about stationary vision, like the formal Renaissance gardens. Nijhuis (2011) described this vision as standing still or sitting. This zone of the garden contains axes which are best experienced from a motionless moment. In Stourhead this is characterized by the sight line over the axis to the Alfred’s tower, one of the architectonical object is the garden.

The meadow is about strolling along the architectural objects, forming a pictorial scenery. Nijhuis’ (2011) definition for this way of movement is the following: “movement with an ultimate purpose within the site and a sense of destination. Strolling also implies a defined route between whatever incidents punctuate and give rhythm to the movement.” In Stourhead, the visitor is strolling around a lake (image 3 blue line) past the Grotto (cave), River of God (sculpture), Sleeping Nymph (sculpture), Temple of Apollo, Pantheon and Palladian bridge. Hussey (1967) argues about Stourhead that the views between those elements are of great importance to keep the visitor strolling. Sight lines (image 3 dashed lines) are framed by planting along the elements as focal points and route. The vistas along the route are as important as the route itself.

The wilderness features a different movement, because of its scale. Nijhuis (2011) calls this ramble. He defines it as a way to move based on the curiosity of the visitor. It has similarities with strolling, but its movement is the joy itself and not reaching a certain place or object. In Stourhead, rambling, takes place over meandering paths in the woodlands. They were initially designed to use on horseback or by horse carriage. (Steenbergen and Reh, 2009)


In conclusion, the routing of English landscape gardens is characterized by a circuit routing system. Each zone of the garden has its own circuit and matching movement.  The way of movement influences the way visitors experience the garden.  We also could conclude that strolling is the most characterizing for the English landscape garden, because this kind of movement is forming a pictorial scenery of the landscape.

3. Plan of Stourhead 1779 by Frederik Magnus Piper about sight lines, marked as dashed. (Nijhuis, 2013)

III Results


Routing is a part of the design and works together with the composition elements. On one hand, routes are literally formed by composition elements such as pavement and site structures. On the other hand, the route leads us along the composition elements which form the design. This means that both composition elements and routing are affecting each other; it is an interaction.

In the English landscape gardens of the 18th century the composition elements landform and planting play an important role to achieve a divine representation of nature. The garden exists of three zones with their own connection to the natural morphological layers through different composition elements. Also, each layer is characterized by specific movement of the visitor. From stationary visions in the pleasure grounds around the house to strolling and rambling in the meadow and wilderness.

Strolling in the meadow zone is typical for English landscape gardens. As seen in Stourhead, a leading example, the ideal representation of nature is shown by framing pictorial sceneries of architectonical elements. These focal points emphasize particular places in the design and keep the visitor strolling to the next element.


Composition elements are used in English landscape gardens of the 18th century to create the ultimate way of moving through the design, to show the divine landscape as a perfect representation of nature. This representation is made by adjusting the morphological layers of the natural landscape. The composition elements Landform and plant materials hold the main share here.



This analysis is a brief study on two notable examples of English landscape gardens from the 18th century in England. The research could be extended with more examples or a bigger frame of reference. The case of more examples, the four generations, discusses by Steenbergen and Reh (2009), could be used to make a comparison. In case of a bigger frame of reference, newer gardens or gardens abroad could be introduced. This could provide a more detailed answer to the question of how composition elements are used for routing and movement in English landscape gardens.

Besides increasing the garden comparison, it might also be interesting to focus more on movement and speed and its effect on visitors.  This would require different kind of literature than used in this paper.

IV References


Booth, N.K., 1989. Basic elements of landscape architectural design. Waveland press.

Hussey, C. 1967. English Gardens and Landscapes 1700-1750. Country Life Limited Londen.

Jarrett, D. 1978. The English Landscape Garden. Academy Editions Londen.

Loidl, H. and Bernard, S., 2014. Open(ing) Spaces: Design as Landscape Architecture. Walter de Gruyter.

Nijhuis, S., 2011. Visual research in landscape architecture. Research in urbanism Series2(1), pp.103-145.

Steenbergen, C. and Reh, W. 2009. Architectuur en Landschap. Het ontwerpexperiment van de klassieke Europese tuinen en landschappen. 2nd ed. Mart.Spruijt BV, Amsterdam.



Federici, C. 2014. Image 1. Available through [Accessed 6 November 2017].

Austen, J. 2011. Image 2. Available through [Accessed 6 November 2017].

Nijhuis, S. 2013. Image 3. Available through [Accessed 6 November 2017].

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