Thinking about landscape

We need to ask if the fact of thinking about landscape is not ultimately opposed to landscape itself, or whether, which amounts to the same thing, making landscape an object of thought excludes landscape thinking. We must not forget, of course, to evaluate this question in the general framework of social life. The landscape is born in the thinking of a literate elite: will it self-destruct when it evolves into an object of common representation?

This question is not as convoluted as it seems. Those familiar with architecture will recall a still famous book, which was of decisive historical importance in the sixties; indeed, it led to the first widespread questioning of the foundations of architectural modernism. Until then, this questioning had been limited to quarrels between different architectural schools, or between the happy few capable of understanding Heidegger’s comments in Bauen Wohnen Denken. Beyond these elites, no one really dared to ask the question: “Actually, why this particular architecture?” The book I refer to loosened people’s tongues: I am thinking of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects. The magnificent illustrations said more than any specialized arguments. It spoke directly to the souls of most readers, the generation that had fully experienced the consequences of modernism in the concrete transformation of the built environment. Reacting against modernism and massively enthralled by all forms of premodern habitats, this generation was to invent, among other things, postmodern architecture.

As far as we are concerned, this phenomenon illustrates the problem that I have just posed in a related field, for the built environment is par excellence that which transforms the landscape. What I have called the landscape thinking of the countless generations without landscape theory, guided “the architecture without architects” discussed by Rudofsky. The doubt he expressed about the dominant ideology in architecture is precisely the question I am formulating about those two forms of thought.

Let us clarify this first approximation. The abovementioned homology does not mean that I am confusing symptom and cause and intend to make landscape architects the scapegoats for the disaster of our landscapes. That would be absurd. The cause is much more general. It is the result of the sum of our behaviors. Landscape architects are now like doctors facing a pandemic of a new sort: they do what they can, and occasionally they do great things, but by themselves they can do nothing against existing conditions.

Augustin Berque, Thinking through Landscape (2008)

also see: Opportunists?

Alberto Burri, Crack of Gibellina (1984)

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Ecumene

Fragmenting the experience of place in the abstractions of the special disciplines reinforces the split between our methods of feeling and our methods of thinking. It also spoils the human environment, vitiating our ability to build and inhabit good houses, communities, and cities, because the conventional ways of thinking about housing and urban spaces do not grasp the reality of places as wholes.

The integrity of a place suffers when what we learn by ear gets disconnected from what we perceive with the eye – still more when what we imagine seems irrelevant. The imagination makes sense. It is, moreover, an organ of perception – like our eyes, ears, and legs. We get to know a place when we participate in the local imagination. The whole synthesis of located experience – including what we imagine as well as the sights, stories, feelings, and concepts – gives us the sens of a place.

We are threatened today by two kinds of environmental degradation: one is pollution – a menace that we all acknowledge; the other is loss of meaning. For the first time in human history, people are systematically building meaningless places. However, we are a living through the end of an era, experiencing the demise of modern architecture, a revulsion from “futurism,” scepticism about planning, and a reaction against urban renewal programs. As we contemplate the ruins and dislocations of our cities, another way of understanding the built environment and the natural landscape is struggling to emerge. Today, everyone yearns for renewal, but from a holistic perspective, what does the renewal of a city mean? It is not merely physical reconstruction, as many people think – demolishing slums and replacing them with new buildings. Historically, the renewal of a city was experienced as a mental and emotional transformation, an improvement of the spirit, a rebirth of psychic energies.

Eugene Victor Walter, Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment, (1988)

 

Recognizing and fostering regional and cultural differences in landscapes will probably be the strongest challenge of this global age. As with the disappearance of species, countless cultural traditions related to landscape will disappear in coming decades due to the increased political, economic, and environmental pressures of globalization. French geographer Augustin Berque reminds us of the very particular relationship that humans have with their natural environment, a relationship that differs strongly and symbolically from one society to another, from one language to the next. Berque defines this bond with nature as the ecumene and reminds us of the unfathomable differences between cultures of the Orient and the Occident, and the North and the South. The ecumene expresses, therefore, a society’s attachment to a particular landscape reality, an ontological predisposition toward nature, where the relationship to landscape is understood as a set of strong beliefs and signifiers. Our relationship to the world is the complex product of language, work, culture, and myth, and the idealized expression of this faith in nature often merges at the cusp of strong cultural divides, where things can barely be explained, let alone be sensed. Commonalities and environmental concerns will thus continue to face prevailing linguistic and cultural divides, nurturing strong distinctions and discrepancies between human societies. As cultures disappear, other hybrids will arise, underlining the prevalence of local lore over globalization, and each landscape will thus become an invitation to express a culture of difference in an act of superb creative defiance.  

Christophe Girot, Topology and Landscape Experimentation (2017)

Christophe Girot, Invaliden Park (1997)

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