Meaning Depends

Meaning depends on all the receptors, whether they are users, sponsors, critics or theorists. This angle is not examined very deeply in the literature because investigating the response of all these ‘beings’ is highly complicated. It demands a deep understanding of the development of the socio-economic setting, the identification of all those who give meaning to the place and for whom it has meaning, and the renunciation of beliefs such as the existence of a single truth to be attained and a universal mental structure. It also demands that we question, as Potteiger and Purinton do, the narrative’s capacity to respond to the programming and forces us to believe in the possibility of giving meaning and still giving comfort, as Herrington says. As these authors suggest, using narrative to lend meaning to a garden involves the users and critics as much as it involves the designers.

Meaning as an approach to landscape architecture is criticised and questioned by the very people who expound it. According to Barnett, the search for meaning does not change the reality of the spaces themselves, while Treib asks whether it is possible to discuss meaning without defining it, and whether the reality, after all, is that the designers simply suggest meaning and it is up to the users to find it.

Nicole Valois, Josiane Paradis, Place Émilie-Gamelin in Montréal – landscape narrative, meaning and the uses of public space (2010)

Imma Jansana + Robert de Paauw, Barcelona Turo de la Rovira Belvedere (2011)


Narrative Essence

What clouds the vision and makes it frustrating, indeed, useless to be an architect, is the way that the reality of occupied spaces, branded and scarred with use, compares with the perception of them. If I have understood correctly, the question is that architecture knows nothing of that precisely narrative essence from which spaces are made. Pamuk became a writer, because that makes more sense; it is more honest in facing the way his city is made up. He wants to bear witness to this city, he wants to be present in it, gathering with a sharp eye and witty shrewdness the past of places, of events, of its stones. Better to write, to narrate, because places don’t stand still, they change with the swelter of the lives that leave their imprints there, with the elusive approximation of intrinsicality.


Franco la Cecla,  Against Architecture (2008)

Lawrence Halprin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997)



Clue to Culture

For him, aesthetic judgments about the landscape were secondary. Primary was the question of why the landscape looked the way it did. What clues did the landscape itself present as to its own making?

To answer that question, [Peirce] Lewis suggested seven axioms:

Landscape is a clue to culture. It “provides strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in the process of becoming”. By reading the landscape we could glean important insights into “who we are.” As a corollary, Lewis argued, if landscapes looked different, it was because there were significantly different cultures at work. If they were growing more similar, it was because cultures were growing more similar. Moreover, both the diffusion of landscape items across space and local cultural “tastes” were central in giving landscape its particular look and feel.

●  Nearly every item in the landscape “reflect[s] culture in some way”. We need to pay attention even to what at first glance might seem commonplace, trivial, or just plain haphazard and ugly. At the same time we need to make judgments about when an item really just is the idiosyncratic whim of an indi- vidual and thus truly is unique.

 Landscapes are difficult to study “by conventional academic means”. Rather, scholars need to turn to “nonacademic literature” (like trade journals, journalism, promotional literature, and advertisements). Most of all we need to train ourselves to “learn by looking”: we need to train ourselves to pay attention to the visual evidence. (Lewis gives little idea of what constitutes “conventional academic means” but the sense is that it is limited to reading scholarly books).

●  History matters to the structure and look of a landscape. We inherit a landscape which forms the basis for any changes or developments we subsequently make. Change itself is uneven (historically “lumpy”). Both technological and cultural change comes in great leaps forward, perhaps more so than as gradual evolution.

●  Location matters too: “Elements of a cultural landscape make little cultural sense if they are studied outside their geographic (i.e., locational) context.” Indeed, “to a large degree cultures dictate that certain activities should occur in certain places, and only those places”. Thus “context matters”.

●  So does physical environment, since “conquering geography’ is often a very expensive business.” Physical geography may not determine, but it does establish the limits of possibility and the costs of exceeding those limits.

●  Finally, while all items in the landscape convey meaning, they do not do so readily: meaning can be obscure. Even so “chances are” any disagreement over meaning “can be cleared up by visual evidence”.

Don Mitchel, New Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Paying Attention to Political Economy and Social Justice (2008)

Peking University + Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Shenyang Architectural University Campus (2004)



In Entropy and the New Monuments, written one year before the trip to Passaic, Smithson stated that certain minimal objects celebrate what Flavin called an “inactive history” and what physicists call “entropy” or “energy dispersion”, the measure of energy utilized when one state is transformed into another. They were objects that confirmed the phrase of Vladimir Nabokov, for Whom “the future is simply inverted obsolescence.” According to Smithson, “the new monuments, rather than reminding us of the past, seem to want to make us forget the future.” In the empty spaces, forgotten by their very inhabitants, he recognizes the most natural territary of forgetting; a landscape that has taken on the character of a new entropic nature. In the Tour the description of the territory doesn’t lead to ecological-environmental considerations regarding the destruction of the river or the industrial wastes that make the water putrid, there is a delicate balance between renunciation and accusation, between renunciation and contemplation. The judgement is exclusively aesthetic, not ethical, never ecstatic. There is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no emotional involvement in walking through the nature of suburbia. The discourse starts with an acceptance of reality as it presents itself, and continues on a plane of general reflection in which Passaic becomes the emblem of the periphery of the occidental world, the place of scrap, of the production of a new landscape made of refuse and disruption. The monuments are not admonishments, but natural elements that are an integral part of this new landscape, presences that live immersed in an entropic territory: they create it, transform it and destroy it, they are monuments self-generated by the landscape, wounds man has imposed on nature, and which nature has absorbed, transforming their meaning, accepting them in a new nature and a new aesthetic. The new landscape that appears in suburbia calls, according to Smithson, for a new discipline capable of grasping the significance of the transformation and mutation from the natural to the artificial and vice versa: “We live in defined structures, we are surrounded by reference systems but nature dismantles them, taking them back to an earlier state of non-integrity. Artists today are starting to notice the strongly evanescent character of this progressive disintegration of structures, Claude Lévi-Strauss has proposed the founding of a new discipline of ‘entropology’. Artists and art critics should orient their efforts in this direction.”

Francesco Careri, Walkingscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice (2002)

Robert Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (1967)

Eternal Wandering

Errare humanum est…
The act of crossing space stems from the natural necessity to move to find the food and information required for survival. But once these basic needs have been satisfied, walking takes on asymbolic form that has enabled man to dwell in the world. Baby modifying the sense of the space crossed, walking becomes man’s first aesthetic act, penetrating the territories of chaos, constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects. Walking is an art from whose loins spring the menhir, sculpture, architecture, landscape. This simple action has given rise to the most important relationships man has established with the land, the territory.
Nomadic transhumance, generally thought of as the archetype for any journey, was actually ‘the development of the endless wanderings of hunters in the Paleolithic period, whose symbolic meanings were translated by the Egyptians in the ka, the symbol of eternal wandering. This primitive roving lived on in religion (the journey as ritual) and in literary forms (the journey as narrative), transformed as a sacred path, dance, pilgrimage, procession. Only in the last century has the journey-path freed itself of the constraints of religion and literature to assume the status of a pure aesthetic act. Today it is possible to construct a history of walking as a form of urban intervention that inherently contains the symbolic meanings of the primal creative act: roaming as architecture of the landscape, where the term landscape indicates the action of symbolic as well as physical transformation of anthropic space.

Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an aesthetic practice (2012)

Dimitris Pikionis, Pathways to the Acropolis (1957)




Narratives are also there in landscapes. They intersect with sites, accumulate as layers of history, organize sequences, and inhere in the materials and processes of the landscape. In various ways, stories “take place.”

The term landscape narrative designates the interplay and mutual relationship that develops between landscape and narrative. To begin with, places configure narratives. landscape not only locates or serves as background setting for stories, but is itself a changing, eventful figure and process that engenders stories, A road establishes a sequence while opening the possibilities of chance encounters. The scale of space becomes the scope of an epic or the confines of a personal drama, Traces in the landscape hold secrets and invite interpretation. Trees, rocks, ground, weather, or any elements can serve as emblems in a narrative. In this manner people map landscapes into the very texture and structure of stories.

In turn, every narrative, even the most abstract, allegorical, or personal, plays a critical role in making places. It is through narrative that were interpret the processes and events of place. We come to know a place because we know its stories. Whether it is an encounter with the edge of a forest or a drive down a suburban street, we know these places through personal experience as well as from books, television, or folklore.

Matthew Potteiger and Jamie Purinton, Landscape Narratives (1998)

giphy (1)

the-blair-witch-project1the-blair-witch-project-evidenceThe_Blair_Witch_Project_1080_423.The Blair Witch Project Woods Scene 2blair-witch-projectThe_blair_witch_project_05-19    Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez; The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Layers of Desires, Wills, and Actions

The landscapes are built by layers of desires, wills, and actions: and fight to stay, between the wear and tear from the weather and the momentum of major catastrophes and minor ones though this memory that legitimates them in images. That is why each landscape has the imprint of the one who has preceded it and leaves for the future the signs of the cultures that have gone through it or have appropriated it. Somehow, each project responds to a previous spatial structure that “walks”, and that predictably behaves with its own autonomy, with limited reaction capacity.

Gustav Lange, Mauerpark (1994)


Place Memory

“We all come to know each other by asking for accounts. by giving accounts and by believing or disbelieving stories about each other’: pests and identities.” writes Paul Connerton in How Societies Remember. Social memory relies on story-telling, but what specialists call place memory can be used to help trigger social memory through the urban landscape. “Place memory” is philosopher Edward S. Casey’s formulation: “It is the stabilizing persistence of place as a container of experiences that contributes so powerfully to its intrinsic memorability. An alert and alive memory connects spontaneously with place. Ending in it features that favor and parallel its own activities. We might even any that memory is naturally place-oriented or at least place—supported.” Place memory encapsulates the human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments that are entwined in the cultural landscape. It is the key to the power of historic places to help citizens define their public pasts: places trigger memories for insiders, who have shared a common past and at the same time place often can represent shared pasts to outsiders who might be interested in knowing about them in the present.

Place memory is so strong that many different cultures have used “memory palaces” —sequences of imaginary spaces within an imaginary landscape or building or series of buildings— as mnemonic devices.

Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place (1995)





 WES Landscape Architecture, Esterwegen Memorial (2011)



These semiotic features on landscape, and the historical narratives they generate, are tailor-made for the discourse of imperialism, which conceives itself precisely (and simultaneusly) as an expression of landscape understood as an inevitable, progressive development in history, an expansion of “culture” and “civilization” into a “natural” space in a progress that is itself narrated as “natural”. Empires move outward in space as a way of moving forward in time; the “prospect” that opens up is not just a spatial scene but a projected future of “development” and explotation. And this movement is not confined to the external, foriegn fields towards the empire directs itself; it is typically accompained by a renewed interest in the re-presentation of the home landscape, the “nature” of imperial center. 

William J. Thomas Mitchell, Landscape and Power (1994)

Dan Kiley + Eero Saarinen + Ian Tyndall, Jefferson National  Expansion Memorial (1965)