Nature as ideology

But what do we mean by “nature” or “the natural”? The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) addressed the problem long ago, pointing out that many of the connotations attached to the two terms led to terminological confusion because they were based on a commingling of moral concepts legitimization, and normative aspects? This article, however, is not primarily concerned with the Millsian definition of nature, which characterized it as, among other things, “a name for the mode, partly known to us and partly unknown, in which all things take place.” This article deals much more with the concept of “nature as ideology,” which the German landscape designer Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn described as, “Nature, understood in this way, is a (more-or-less) systematic scheme of ideas, held by particular social, political, cultural, and other groups.” In that assessment, nature represents an intellectual construct. And according to Wolschke-Bulmahn, it is only human reflection on nature that produces an emotional bond and the assignment of values to nature.

The terms nature and naruralness are associated with positive or negative values depending on the cultural context. In the European context, “natural” is assigned a predominantly positive value and often functions as a kind of seal of approval, with which products, but also landscapes, are stamped. Urban dwellers in particular often express a yearning for “the natural.” But the German philosopher Thomas Schramme argues that when people think of “the natural” they mean only a specific part of “nature”–to wit, exclusively the beneficial part of nature. Everything else, such as the dangers or unpleasantness associated with nature, is ignored. The historian Rolf Peter Sieferle characterized nature as “that which is elementary, self-contained, spontaneous, sprouted, unavailable, unproduced, while on the other side is that which is artificial, technical, regulated by arrangements and agreements, made and compelled, designed and cultivated.” And even things that have the positive connotations of “natural” are subject to differing levels of meaning: “the natural as biological, as self-evident, as non-artificial, as non-cultural, and as non-technical.” When we talk about the “naturalness” of a landscape in a landscape architecture project, the emphasis is often on the “non-artificial” aspect. However, landscape architecture has in fact a long, historical-cultural tradition of dealing with artificial representations of nature, with the imitation of putatively untouched landscapes. Landscape architects have always been busy creating images that suggest “nature” and “natural,” but are thought through down to the tiniest technical detail and “artificially” effectuated by humans.

Representing landscape as a facsimile of nature is a gardening tradition that has its roots in the Chinese gardens, in which the emphasis was not on the construction of a paradise, but rather on a devotion to honoring nature, by creating as perfect a copy of real landscapes as possible. Chinese garden designers adhered to geomantic principles and focused on designing an efngy of an ideal microcosm that was closely allied to traditional, allegorical Chinese landscape painting. No trouble was spared, and they constructed artificial seas as well as artful replicas of entire mountainous massifs. In Asia, the “natural landscape garden,” which had spread out over ]apan, was replaced over time by sublimely excessive citations of landscapes. Landscapes were reproduced on a smaller scale, or individual aspects, such as water, were symbolized by materials like gravel, turning them into artifacts. An artificial refinement of “raw nature,” in place of purely replicating it, became the expression of the gardening art.

Susann Ahn & Regine Keller, False Nature? (2017)

Z+T Landcape Architects, Vanke Eco-Campus (2011) 

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vty

vty is professor on Landscape Theory and Landscape design at the Catalonian Politecnical University in Barcelona and at the Politecnico di Milano

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