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.
When it first came into being, the word landscape had two meanings. It denoted an area, an extent of the earth’s surface with boundaries, a meaning that has persisted until the present day. But landscape referred also to the group that shaped that area through practices, rituals, and institutions. Like the modern ‘township,’ landscape in this original sense was both a physical space and a political community. And like political communities everywhere, landscapes were almost always marked by unequal degrees of power. Landscapes were, and remain, places of contest and conflict, of hard work and brute force, even when studiously concealed. To ignore this political dimension of any landscape is to miss a fundamental part of its essence.
So: recover the political dimension of landscape. Wherever you work, know who has influence, who lacks it and why. Take the measure of old rivalries. Understand power.
Perhaps politics has really taken notice of the landscape? Is the opposite also true? The crises accompanying periods of great change are often occasions for new moments of creativity. The time has come to adapt and initiate a dialogue that manages to involve the general public. The landscape involves the science and technique of relations; it is not only an object of contemplation and reaction, but also a discipline in its own right. In recently times, the relationship between the landscape and politics has grown schematic, ambiguous and evanescent. Successively, it is as if it foresaw the imminent coming of a moment of truth, a moment that would raise a question that is not only cultural, but with notable effects on social and economic, and thus eminently political values. The greatest difficulty was to admit the need for a new approach, that it was no longer possible to wait and that the time had come to act and take risks. Despite the anti-political nature of a vision of the landscape as a controlled and guaranteed consumer good, a new way of speaking about the landscape and politics gives precise meaning to these two terms. The problematic dimension of the landscape viewed as a «project» highlights the urgency for transformation, a dimension that demonstrates not only an elevated level of ductility, but also a usefulness, in many cases strategic, to the governance of phenomena in an explosive phase of becoming. The thesis, to date in no way to be taken for granted, is that the question of designing the landscape is a challenge, a political emergency to be confronted as a priority.
The sly and the clever creatively misuse words and torture “landscape” in particular. Cityscape, townscape, streetscape, brainscape, hairscape, cloudscape, airscape, hardscape, bedscape, and other nonce words exist because “landscape” is now a promiscuous word indeed. Its progeny confuse anyone looking around thoughtfully, even at the ocean. In art history circles, seascape designates a concept and image type older than “landscape,” something even young children seem to know when asked which is older, the sea or the fland. They look up from their pails and shovels, away from their castles and embankments, walls and gateways, gaze seaward and instinctively know the great age of the sea and the comparative newness of the land. Variable, moody, implacable, unstable, the sea endures beyond shovels and shaping. The built fabric inland from the beach and dunes appears stable, and so beguiles and reassures the thoughtless. It lends itself to advertising hype, to word-making about making and shaping, to expressions like moral landscape and financial landscape, phrases designating things not subject to sudden sea change. Its complexity occludes the very words intended to name its components and facilitate understanding, especially the basic, old words children learn before they learn to read.
ln its original meaning, ‘landscape’ was not a net draped over the surface of things. lt was a thing shaped from, and the act of shaping, the earth. It was the digging of ditches and canals, the mounding up of berms and walls, the shaping and reshaping of these things over centuries. The substrate was the matrix of this shaping. Landscape went deep beneath the feet into the topsoil, into the gurgling bubbling under that, then deeper still into rock and heat. This early, earthy side of landscape was all but lost in the seventeenth century, and we live in the shadow of that loss. For without knowing the world under your feet, you will never fully know the world before your eyes.
So: get down on your knees. Lay your hands on the ground, then start digging and do not stop until your hands are bloody. Then turn your palms upward and smell the landscape there. Feel the roots of things.
Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog (1818)
The problem of landscape arises precisely because landscape, whether it appears in literary or painterly form, whether thought of in terms of the presented or that which presents, is indeed a function, and a representing, of our relationship with place. Is the term “landscape” inadequate to describe the complexity of that relationship? If we treat landscape purely in terms of the narrowly spectatorial and the detached (or as associated with a single historical formation or artistic genre), then perhaps it is. Yet the argument I have advanced here is that this conception of landscape is itself inadequate to describe the complexity of landscape as such. The problem of landscape is thus that landscape represents to us, not only our relationship with place, but also the problematic nature of that relationship—a relationship that contains within it involvement and separation, agency and spectacle, self and other. It is in and through landscape, in its many forms, that our relationship with place is articulated and represented, and the problematic character of that relationship made evident.
The two meanings inherent in the diaphor of landscape are well expressed in the definition of landscape in Dr. Johnson’s classic 1755 dictionary: (1) “A region; the prospect of a country”; (2) “A picture, representing an extent of space, with the various objects in it.” At first glance, it might seem that definition one refers to the object of representation, whereas the second refers to the pictorial representation of that object. But this is not the case. In the second definition, what is represented pictorially is not a region or a country, but first and foremost “space,” the “objects” being secondary to the space. It may seem counterintuitive that an artist is more interested in space than the objects in that space, but the fact is that space itself, as a form of nature, is an important object of artistic representation. When the various objects in a painting representing an extent of space happen to be objects identifiable with those normally found in a region or country, it is easy to think of landscape 2 as being the pictorial representation of landscape 1, and thereby forget the predominant importance of the space being represented. This is especially the case because space does not appear to be as “visible” as the various objects represented, even though it could be argued that all one sees in this sort of painting is space!
William Kent + Lancelot “Capability” Brown et alt. Stowe (1730-1751)
(Header: Fragment of Rene Magritte, The Human Condition (1933))
Landscape comes into English language geography primarily from the German landschaft. Much has been written about the fact that the German word means area, without any particularly aesthetic or artistic, or even visual connotations.
The word landscape finds its roots in the Old Dutch word landskip, which designates a stretch of cultivated land. The word paysage in French stems from the Latin word pagus, which simply means an extent of land made by the peasant. In other words, landscape is the belabored making of the peasant, and has nothing to do with the ideal of untouched wilderness.
Christophe Girot, Immanent Landscape (2012)
Historically, landscape has had a range of meanings, some quite unrelated to art. One such meaning applies to civic classification of territory. It has been argued that the German Landshaft or Lantshaft was not originally a view of nature but rather a geographic ares defined by political boundaries. In the late fifteenth century, the land around a town was referred to as its landscape, a meaning that still survives in some places, as in the Swiss canton of Basel Landschaft.
This distinction can be traced back to the Old English term landskip, which at first refered not to land but to a picture of it, as in the later, selectively framed representations of seventeent-century Dutch landschap paintings. Soon after the appearance of this genre of painting the scenic concept was applied to the land itself in the form of large-scale rural vistas, designed estates, and ornamental garden art. Indeed, the development of landscape architecture as a modern profession derives, in large measure, from an impulse to reshape large areas of land according to prior imagining.
Landscape is a familiar term that is rich and evocative, but also complex and at times confusing.
In his remarkable essay The Beholding Eye, D. W. Meinig explores an extended definition of landscape through an analysis of the various ways in which we view landscape and the complexities of the human relation to it. He crystallizes how the landscape is freighted with competing views:
… there are those who look out upon that variegated scene and see landscape as …
Nature: amidst all this man is minuscule, superficial, ephemeral, subordinate
Habitat: what we see before us is man continuously working at a viable relationship with nature
Artifact: the earth is a platform, but all thereon is furnished with man’s effects so extensively that you cannot find a scrap of pristine nature
System: such a mind sees a river not as a river, but as a link in the hydrologic circuit
Problem: the evidence looms in almost any view: eroded hills, flooding rivers, shattered woods
Wealth: the eyes of an appraiser, assigning a monetary value to everything in view
Ideology: the whole scene as a symbol of values, the governing ideas, the underlying philosophies of a culture
History: a complex cumulative record of nature and man
Place: every landscape is a locality, an individual piece in the infinitely varied mosaic of the earth
Aesthetic: that there is something close to the essence, of beauty and truth, in the landscape.
Landscape, then, has powerful physical, environmental, economic, cultural, psychological and aesthetic components.
Gillis van den Vliete, Villa d’Este Garden’s Diana of Ephesus (1568)
Our era is decidedly the one for the landscape, at least in the sense of verbal reproduction and being iconic. The word and the image are everywhere, in the daily newspaper and in the specialized publications, on the screens, and on the walls, in the leaflets and in the spirits. Today the landscape is labeled and revealed, it is explained and adulated, conserved and protected, and it is equally sold and re-sold. Popularised and democratized, it belongs to everyone, as it functioned in the past as a social code and distinctive sign of a certain elite who willingly recognized themselves in the common sharing of emblematic places or topical representations.