Landscape associates people and place. Danish landskab, German landshaft, Dutch landschap, and Old English landscipe combine two roots. “Land” means both a place and the people living there. Skabe and schaffen mean “to shape”; suffixes -skab and -schaft as in the English “-ship,” also mean association, partnership. Though no longer used in ordinary speech, the Dutch schappen conveys a magisterial sense of shaping, as in the biblical Creation.
All landscape is reuse, whether through the intervention of human action or through the earth’s continual formation in a process that, in the words of geologist James Hutton, ‘has no vestiges of a beginning, nor prospects of and end’. Acting in parallel, human and non-human agents work to remake the surface of the earth and its ecosystems, though on different material and temporal scales and with different impacts, often working against each other. Thus, it is not possible to ‘discard’ landscape, only to reuse it. Continual formation and reformation is central to Georg Simmel’s definition of landscape. In his 1913 essay ‘Philosophy of Landscape’, he defines it as a subset of that which is not divisible: nature. In the tension between landscape’s claim for autonomy against ‘the infinite interconnectedness of objects, the uninterrupted creation and destruction of forms’, a boundary, says Simmel, is essential. In this essay I posit that to construct this tension between the discrete and the continuous, and to make its representation visible, is both the work of design and the work of criticism in the age of global disruption.
In the intervening century since the publication of Simmel’s essay, capitalism has advanced to form a globally interconnected and undifferentiated world. Many boundaries have disappeared while others have been formed as economies and priorities shift, as the strength of the institutions that sanction landscape wanes, as nature’s entropic forces soften its structures. Still, it must be emphasized, landscapes continue to be an act of will, a social product that registers the conflicts, the diverse interests, the tensions and the pressures that act on it. As such, landscapes do not just appear on their own, they must be simultaneously created, kept, maintained, and protected through institutions and governance. In this way they are demarcated, strongly or more subtly.
The dominant narrative upon which conservation’s global mandate rests is therefore one of immanent ecological catastrophe. In this tragedy, humanity is cast as a destructive force in an otherwise harmonic environment. In this account nature is right and humanity is wrong and as such clear moral lines can be drawn. It is however possible to think that the nature, of which we are now undeniably a part, is in itself as destructive as it is creative, the one necessary to the other. Similarly, the new paradigm in ecology, as ecologist Robert Cook explains, is one in which the ecosystem is understood as inherently chaotic and humans increasingly accepted as a ‘natural’ albeit currently destructive part of both its history and its future.
Optimistically, as neither destroyers nor saviors we can begin to re-imagine ourselves as participants in, and perhaps managers of, endless ecological change. As Jedidiah Purdy writes, “the question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.” Michael Soule, the founder of the Wildlands Network brings Purdy’s point full circle, explaining that “when we choose the kind of nature we will live with, we are also choosing the kind of human beings we will be. We shape the world, and it shapes us in return. We are the creator and the created, the maker and the made. “Zuzanna Drozdz, a student of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania puts it perfectly when she writes: “by making a cultural decision to embrace, protect, and engender an ecologically robust, biodiverse world, we start to build a new identity for ourselves as a constructive force in nature.”
The most frequently quoted reference on locality is probably Christian Norberg-Schulz’s book ‘Genius Loci’. He stresses the importance of place for our existence—whatever happens, happens somewhere i.e. in a place. Place is not an abstract or quantifiable but a qualitative phenomenon. He criticises the way that modern architecture deals more with abstract functionality that can be applied in a generic way than with tangible meaning that is specific to a place. For Norberg-Schulz, “the existential purpose of building (architecture) is therefore to make a site become a place, that is, to uncover the meanings potentially present in the given environment.”. In other words, the specific character of a site needs to be understood and developed. If this is achieved, people are able to really dwell there—a highly desirable goal for Norberg-Schulz, because it indicates a“total man-place relationship”. Two psychological needs are fulfilled in this ideal situation: orientation and identification. Following Kevin Lynch, he explains the importance of orientation for human dwelling: without orientation,“man feels lost’”. But identification with the environment is even more important. Identification means becoming friends with a particular environment and its properties.
Norberg-Schulz’s phenomenological call for real things and the importance of character and orientation are useful advice for designers of urbanisation projects—but the issue of identification is more difficult if you have a site that offers little with which people can identify. How can you design for identification then? This issue exposes a problem with Norberg-Schulz’s theory, which relies heavily on existing layers of history to which new construction has to relate. Although he stresses the importance of time and change in realising the genius loci by mentioning: “To respect the ‘Genius loci’ does not mean to copy old models. It means to determine the identity of the place and to interpret it in ever new ways.”, most of his arguments have a preservationist perspective, which isn’t much help in the face of rapid urbanisation. Another problem of his theory is the use of dualisms, like settlement versus landscape or natural spaces versus man-made spaces. Almost forty years after he wrote Genius Loci, these oppositions have become questionable in the light of contemporary debates on planetary urbanisation or the Anthropocene.
To summarise: Norberg-Schulz offers a deep analysis from a Western point of view and raises awareness of the topic. However, he gives scant advice on designing for locality in contemporary and future urbanisation projects on previously unsettled territory.
Inevitably, many community-based initiatives tend to be framed in conventional terms—a “wished-for world” based on familiar ideals from the past. What is most challenging under such dislocated conditions is to envisage new strategic possibilities that can deliver long-term “necessities of landscape performance.” Brett Milligan’s concept of “corporate ecologies” envisages strategic action being implemented through organizational networks, rather than by top-down policy or single site intervention. In Christchurch, it is not corporations, but non-governmental organizations and not-for-profits such as Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, and the Student Volunteer Army that have emerged as key agents in bottom-up recovery actions. They prefigure a significant extension of landscape architectural activity from specific sites, to multiple spaces and places of engagement with landscapes—where human relationships with landscape are “designed” through manipulating the tools and practices of everyday life.
Perhaps the problem is that, as designers, we misunderstand the significance of indeterminacy. The contemporary world is in thrall to the paradigm of choice and open-ended possibilities—What would you like to buy? Which scene do you prefer? Which design should we select and how many different ways might it turn out? Sudden, unpredictable, and traumatic landscape transformations challenge the presumption of ever-expanding choice and the excitement of uncertainty, and instead focus attention upon how to make decisions over those things that are vital to life and which we can have some hope of influencing.
Following this logic, Iris Marion Young, in her influential book Justice and the Politics of Difference, offers a cultural politics concerned to explain (in)justice also beyond ‘equitable distribution of life’s necessities, comforts, luxuries and burdens, to include the potential for people to participate fully in the conditions, situations and decision processes that give rise to particular distribution in the first place’. Young’s theory is important because she demonstrates how injustice or oppression is always social, contingent and systemic. This allows her to identify more than one source (i.e. the economic, distributive system) of oppression. In outlining five facets, or ‘five faces of oppression’ – exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence – Young draws attention to the multifarious ways (in)justice is (re)produced.
While Cosgrove notes that ‘landscapes have a special significance within heritage debates’, he also argues that it is heritage which forces an engagement with the ‘realities of a postcolonial, polyvocal and globalized world’. While a ‘landscape approach’ has aided heritage scholars to move beyond what was a site-based engagement with their subject matter, therefore, an increased recognition of heritage – both tangible and intangible – has encouraged landscape scholars to heed the importance of the affective qualities of how, as Holtorf and Williams note, memories and mythologies, community and personal histories were ‘inherited, inhabited, invented and imagined through the landscape’. With its focus on the present and future, I would argue that a heritage sensibility would appear to provide a sense of hope and engagement.
The place can be described as an astonishing and complex geological structure. The tectonic gesture of the place is made visible by the sea eroded cliffs and its several lava and ashes layers of orange, black, brown and grey. An old conical lime kiln characterizes the image of the place. An artisanal industry of drying fish and salt extraction completed the principal local economic activity of fishing, more recently developed on touristic service. This social condition of very humble and poor economic situation was accentuated by a strong feeling of isolation and segregation shared by this community. The recent regional connection and several investments on public services, inverted a process of social erosion and conflict, stressed by a previous wrong policy on social housing. By adding the new and complex program of public space and connections, an extraordinary change took place on social and collective representation and valuation of space.
Visual culture is the primary conduit for globalization, with ideas travelling with ease across the Internet, on television, films and in print media. Inevitably, this leads to a reduction in the range of sensory experience to almost a single sense, where sight and sometimes sound become the sole means of relating to landscape. The focus on the visual – or ocularcentrism – is one of the threads of research that informs the tension between the global and landscape. Ocularcentrism is not a recent practice, but has influenced the landscape for centuries, with the overemphasis on the visual gaining ground through theories like perspective and the picturesque, and the rise of viewing-based practices such as museums, zoos and tourism. Reclaiming the landscape from an ocularcentrist perspective is one of the imperatives for those seeking to resist the homogenising influence of globalization.
Radicant design can make do with these sites. Instead of creating an oeuvre, radicant design evolves along with continuous inquiries, interventions and evaluations into a dialogue. This evolution and the related design processes are as much part of the work as the various elements, persons. materials, events, memories, and atmospheres. The work cannot be described as a classical form; it is a progressing form. Its authorship is blurred: the classical framework of designers, clients, and public no longer fits — all are co-creators. Not that these evolutive and cooperative work modes would be unfamiliar to landscape architects — on the contrary, but they didn’t propel 20th-century landscape discourses. Let’s do so now with Bourriaud who calls the ethical mode of altermodernity ‘translation’ and its aesthetical expression the ‘journey-form’. Performative aspects are easily part of a journey-form, as the Seljord Lake Sites project shows – a forgotten place where both the legends of old and the international students’ building activities form the landscape architectural work, to say nothing of the experience of being on the (wondrous) ways that link these minimalistic interventions. The work takes place rather than form.
Komar and Melamid are two Russian artist emigrés who undertook a fascinating project. Their book, Painting by Numbers, explains that “with the help of The Nation Institute and a professional polling team, they discovered that what Americans want in art, regardless of class, race, or gender, is exactly what the art world disdains–a tranquil, realistic, blue landscape.”
Once they received the general consensus, they painted the result. The painting above is what Americans prefer to see, complete with a historic figure (George Washington), deer, and children. It’s an ugly amalgamation for sure, but it is quite revealing of the aesthetic preferences of the general populace. One thing that immediately strikes me is that it looks absolutely nothing like what the Art World tells us is ‘good art.’ Although, I do suspect (like Arthur Danto) that most people would rather not actually hang this on their wall. I know I wouldn’t like to.
Not content to stop there, the duo polled countries from all over the World. The results are in (and not a surprise): People the world over tend to prefer a strikingly similar landscape. The elements we have laid out earlier are all there. What does this tell us about aesthetics and human evolution? The argument has been made that the results are an aberration due to the ubiquity of Hallmark calendars in all the countries polled – that the results have been skewed. I like to think that the ubiquity of Hallmark calendars is exactly the proof we’re looking for: Hallmark is everywhere precisely because that’s what we prefer to look at.
Komar and Melamid have just laid out Hallmark’s market research for them, and Evolutionary Psychology has backed it up: The experience of beauty belongs to our evolved human psychology.
Alan Carroll, An Instinct for Beauty (2011)
Komar and Melamid, USA’s Most Wanted Painting (1993)Komar and Melamid, Russia’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, China’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, France’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, Germany’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, Kenya’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, Italy’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)Komar and Melamid, Holland’s Most Wanted Painting (1995)