Examples of symbolic elements in landscape architecture?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Examples of symbolic elements in landscape architecture?

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    Benjamin Payne

    I have an assignment in my high school English class to build an “object of power” that is symbolic of personal characteristics. I thought I might render a park or pavilion in SketchUp or Minecraft (don’t hate) for this. I’d appreciate any input on elements of landscape architecture, whether natural or artificial, that could represent certain values. For instance, I might include rills because they have been known to symbolize adaptability. Thanks!

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Start by looking at governments and leaders who have done such. I don’t understand why you think a park pavillion is an “object of power”.


    Think about the pyramids as self tributes to the Pharohs, think about the giant Hammer & Sickle sculptures all across the former Soviet Union as a symbol of power of the government, sculptures of Saddam Husseien, Mount Rushmore, canons adorning small parks all over our country…. The Twin Towers!

    Trace One

    Olmstead included rings of oak trees and rings of elm trees in his designs, with the oaks symbolizing the male element, and elms the female element..I think this had roots in druidic culture. His whole park idea was based on valuing the equality of democracy. The parks are open for all to enjoy nature that used to be mostly accessible on english country estates..Chinese gardens are extremely detailed in what each plant represents, each rock, etc…as are islamic gardens, which represent the garden of eden, mostly.

    It seems like you would want to choose things that have meaning for you (an x-box, perhaps? Just kidding) and come up with  your own symbolic definitions, that hopefully make sense to others as well…

    I did a classical looking fountain one time, with a super-hero lady stabbing at a super-hero guy who was sprawled across her lap..It was intended to be the metal sculpture in the center of the fountain, and to represent Cory Aquino killing Marcos, in those wonderful days when Marcos was deposed and the P.I. seemed to  be about to get out of it’s mantle of corruption..

    but I digress..

    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    Maybe Benjamin’s park pavilion will rival the Taj Mahal. Or maybe he could specify that it be built with slave labor. However, an “object of power” doesn’t have to represent power in the sense of government/industry use/abuse of its citizens/capital to memorialize itself. Knowledge is power. Influence is power. Energy creates power. There are many more things that are power-ful (storms, animals, religion, technology, people, war, peace) depending on your definition. I would encourage you to continue to look deeper into the meaning of the words in your assignment. You may find that a non-literal translation is the most interesting and personal for you. It sounds like a cool project, and if you really take the time to reflect on your own values, it could result in something that is very meaningful for you. 

    To more directly answer your question, you might think about the spiritual symbolism evident in religious architecture and gardens throughout the world. Or the design of memorials. That could be particularly interesting, as memorials often exist as a counterpoint to some sort of abuse of power, and by their nature and design are very powerful places in their own right.

    Mike G

    The National Mall in D.C.  You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an object of power there.

    Jason T. Radice

    You might want to look to architectural elements. Namely, neoclassic pieces. Banks and older government buildings used classical Greek and roman designs for a reason. Even the building material is important. Stone is used to denote weight, permanence and stability. If it’s built out of stone of a classical style, it looks like it has been there forever, and will be there forever (a very important notion when building a bank after the great depression). Stone is hard to move, after all, so once in place, it is stable. Columns implicate that a firm is “grounded” and strong. Using classical forms rarely goes out of style, denoting a conservative approach and a penny-wise philosophy important to commercial success. Classical elements are timeless. It hides age (or lack of) rather well, like Andy Warhol dying his hair white when he was in his 30’s…he looked the same for decades which hid his true age.


    Opulence was and still is a sign of success. That’s why rail stations, banks, and government buildings were once so fancy and used expensive materials with ornate decoration. Libraries and museums were fancy to denote their importance in the community. For commerce such as railroads and old movie theaters, one of the basic business and marketing rules is to make it appear that you do not need the business, so people think that you are good at what you do, so they spend their money there. They trust it more than a run-down place that can look “sketchy”. See: interiors of Vegas (or other) casinos. The level decoration is more subdued now, but the materials alone can convey this.


    Now compare that with modern government buildings starting with the modernist movement around the late 50s and 60s up through the 70’s. Brutalism was the style of choice, with its heavy, colorless concrete walls and curtain wall or punch-through small windows. This style expresses permanence, but in a different way than stone. MAN made this! They look more like bunkers as they are overbearing and threatening, almost prison-like once they get a decade or more of patina on them. Some would say it reflects the government’s dominance of almost every aspect of society (see FBI building, education department, labor department buildings in DC, or Boston City Hall). There is nothing more depressing than looking at a filthy older Brutalist building on a rainy day. And their adjacent large and unadorned plazas are windswept and horrible places to spend time. It is no wonder that this style was used primarily in the government sector, where the more transparent and light International Style was favored by commerce.


    Height is akin to power. It used to be that the height of a building was a direct reflection on its importance to the society, no more. That was why church’s had tall steeples or towers on them; they were built to the heavens. They dominated the skylines of antiquity up followed by government buildings then commerce. Height was expensive. This was the way of things until elevators and lightweight steel frame construction made tall commercial buildings economically viable, and commerce began to take over the skyline. We still see this with the “tallest” building race crown currently held by Dubai and soon to taken by Saudi Arabia, of they ever build their proposed building.   


    Another source of inspiration for you would be a Victorian era cemetery, one that allowed vaults and large family markers. Prominent families would build large and fancy monuments or vaults that were akin to their place in society. This, of course, cost a lot of money, so successful businessmen and local politicians typically had large family plots adorned with stonework of the times. Gothic looking vaults, pyramids, obelisks, Greek or Roman columns or colonnades, and the occasional cannonball or stack for high-ranking veterans. Talk about personal memorials.    

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