People and Place

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.

Anne Whiston Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998)

Carlo Scarpa Price for Gardens, The Tea Gardens of Dazhangshan  (2019)



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.

Thomas Oles, Go with me : 50 steps to landscape thinking (2014)

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.

Franco Zagari, Landscape and Politics, Finally (2016)

Franco Zagari, Victor Hugo Square (2007)


Dig Down

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. 

Thomas Oles, Go with Me. 50 Steps to Landscape Thinking. (2014)

THUPDI + Thinghua University, Shangai Quarry Garden (2010)


Two Meanings

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.

Denis Cosgrove, Landscape as cultural product (1984)

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.

Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (1999)

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.

James Corner, Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes (1999)

Landscape is a familiar term that is rich and evocative, but also complex and at times confusing.

Simon Swaffield, Landscape as a way of knowing the world (2005)

img06Relais Landschaftsarchitekten, The Written Garden Berlin (2011)


Ordinary Walkers

The word itself tells us much. It entered the English language, along with herring and bleached linen, as a Dutch import at the end of the sixteenth century. And landschap, like its Germanic root, Landschaft, signified a unit of human occupation, indeed a jurisdiction, as much as anything that might be a pleasant object of depiction. So it was surely not accidental that in the Netherlandish flood-fields, itself the site of formidable human engineering, a community developed the idea of a landschap, which in the colloquial English of the time became a landskip. Its Italian equivalents, the pastoral idyll of brooks and wheat-gold hills, were known as parerga, and were the auxiliary settings for the familiar motifs of classical myth and sacred scripture. But in the Netherlands, the human design and use of the landscape -implied by the fishermen, cattle drovers, and ordinary walkers and riders who dotted the painting of Esaias van de Velde, for example- was the story, startlingly sufficient unto itself.

Simon Shama, Landscape and Memory (1995)

Strootman Landschapsarchitecten, Belvederes Drentsche Aa (2010)

FIND IT on the map


LIKE ALL OTHER ASPECTS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, our distinctively American ideology of space has a history, and I propose to sketch something of its origin, its later development, and its presently visible consequences. I call my subject the ideology of “space” rather than “landscape” because space is an essential component of both architecture and landscape. Architecture and landscape architecture are two of the chief forms in which we shape and experience the spaces we inhabit. The term space also may remind us initially that a landscape is a physical entity whose meaning and value we construct and for which we have a variety of other names: land, topography, terrain, territory, environment, cityscape, country-side, scenery, place. One could go on, but all of these may be thought of as forms of space-geographical space. Indeed, the initial European conceptions of North America-the blank white areas often labeled terra incognita on early maps–had more in common with our shared idea of space (an empty three-dimensional field) than with the received idea of landscape (a pretty stretch of natural scenery).

The distinction points to another attraction of the word space: its relative neutrality. It does not carry the inescapably pictorial sense of place that the word landscape has carried since it First came into the English language in the early seventeenth century. (The word evidently was borrowed from the Dutch landskip, which closely associated it with the emergence of landscape painting as an independent genre.) This pictorial idea of space was reinforced by eighteenth-century devotees of natural scenery, who developed elaborate theoretical distinctions among beautiful, sublime, and picturesque landscapes and representations there of by that time, landscape had become the essentially aesthetic concept it still is. Space, on the other hand, invites consideration of the actual state of the nation’s terrain. The term may help to remind us of the differences among (1) ideas and images of topography, or its subjective existence; (2) the relatively small sector of the national terrain that might be called  the designed landscape, consisting of deliberately planned gardens, parks, nature reserves, housing developments, and suburbs; and (3) the rest of the national terrain, most of which consists of a “built environment” shaped by the countless uncoordinated decisions of govermnental bodies, firms, and individuals, and by the operation of various markets, especially that of real estate. I particularly want to emphasize the contrast between the small sector of the terrain shaped by the design professions -architecture, urban planning, and landscape architecture- and the rest of the national terrain, an immense unplanned area where the consequences of the prevailing American ideology of space are massively exhibited. This area is shaped by the decisions -in large measure market-driven-of countless real-estate investors, speculators, and developers.

Leo Marx, The American Ideology of Space (1994)

Avery Lawrence, Mowing-the-Lawn (2013)