Many landscape architects understand their task in parallel fashion. They manipulate landscape forms to induce ordered spatial and visual experiences of significance. For them, this process is an assumed aspect of their profession, and manipulation of the eye is taken for granted. Yet landscapes are often regarded by both scholars and the general public as transparent or even “invisible.” The designed landscape seems common enough to go virtually unnoticed in everyday life. For example, on a typical architect’s plan drawing, the buildings are figural while the landscape is “ground”; the architecture emerges as solid, material, and substantive, while landscape, if it appears as anything other than a white void, seems soft, formless.
Our tendency to regard landscape as neutral ground may be enhanced through architectural means to make the viewer adopt a preferred view. The result is what might be called “spaces of constructed visibility,” in which forms are masked or revealed so as to render “things seeable in a specific way.” If design can enhance vision, it can also hinder it, making spaces of constructed invisibility. In the Islamic world, such invisibility historically maintained the divide between the sexes and between public and private space. In antebellum America, rows of trees separated the plantation manor from the slave quarters, hiding from view slaves whose sweat and toil produced the wealth that supported the owners.
If landscape is less frequently noticed and harder to discern than architecture, it is by that very fact more persuasive. Landscape is “always already there” and thus seems not to have been created but simply to be, not a constructed form but rather a preexisting or even primordial one. It appears above all “natural” because it is composed of plants, soil, geological formations, sunlight, and water and because it seems to exist in the absence of human management or design. Even human interventions such as topographical leveling, deforestation, and drainage appear natural when landscape and nature are thus conflated. From an analytical perspective, this associationis deeply problematic. Hiding human agency naturalizes cultural processes that areby no means spontaneous or innate. Even more importantly, ideologies and social constructs are rendered invisible, or at the very least, made to appear equally inherent. Scholars of the English landscape and its textual and visual representations have demonstrated that the rural and garden scenery of the eighteenth century masked the political, economic, and social hegemony of an elite landed class. With verdant rolling hills, shade trees, serpentine waterways, and distant vistas, the so-called picturesque landscape gave the appearance par excellence of a benign Arcadia, justly given in disproportionate amounts to a powerful landed minority. The distribution thus seemed morally right, an inherent characteristic of the land itself, ordained by heavenly powers. The frequent presumption that landscapes are God-given and natural has led with equal frequency to the notion that what we believe we see in the landscape must be so. When one combines this premise with scientific assumptions the physiology of vision (“seeing is believing”), it becomes easy to imagine nature, landscape, and vision as a powerful trio for conveying ideology.
Herein lies one of the perplexing ironies of landscape: it is regarded as natural and eternally present, and yet it is also ignored as if it did not matter. How then can the study of landscape and vision illuminate cultural discourses that are essentially spatial, yet normalized to the point of invisibility? How does one study such an elusive, unstable object? One strategy entails focusing on mechanisms that are not easily seen, such as the frame, the controlling perspective, illusionism, the lens or screen through which we are induced to look, and the wall or landform that intentionally conceals. Spatially determined, vision can support the construction of “difference” through what is revealed and what remains concealed- marking class, race, and gender. What we see, and the manner in which the built world directs our gaze, contributes to our daily instruction about insiders and outsiders, privilege and denial, domination, submission, and, in some cases, resistance.