Clue to Culture

For him, aesthetic judgments about the landscape were secondary. Primary was the question of why the landscape looked the way it did. What clues did the landscape itself present as to its own making?

To answer that question, [Peirce] Lewis suggested seven axioms:

Landscape is a clue to culture. It “provides strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in the process of becoming”. By reading the landscape we could glean important insights into “who we are.” As a corollary, Lewis argued, if landscapes looked different, it was because there were significantly different cultures at work. If they were growing more similar, it was because cultures were growing more similar. Moreover, both the diffusion of landscape items across space and local cultural “tastes” were central in giving landscape its particular look and feel.

●  Nearly every item in the landscape “reflect[s] culture in some way”. We need to pay attention even to what at first glance might seem commonplace, trivial, or just plain haphazard and ugly. At the same time we need to make judgments about when an item really just is the idiosyncratic whim of an indi- vidual and thus truly is unique.

 Landscapes are difficult to study “by conventional academic means”. Rather, scholars need to turn to “nonacademic literature” (like trade journals, journalism, promotional literature, and advertisements). Most of all we need to train ourselves to “learn by looking”: we need to train ourselves to pay attention to the visual evidence. (Lewis gives little idea of what constitutes “conventional academic means” but the sense is that it is limited to reading scholarly books).

●  History matters to the structure and look of a landscape. We inherit a landscape which forms the basis for any changes or developments we subsequently make. Change itself is uneven (historically “lumpy”). Both technological and cultural change comes in great leaps forward, perhaps more so than as gradual evolution.

●  Location matters too: “Elements of a cultural landscape make little cultural sense if they are studied outside their geographic (i.e., locational) context.” Indeed, “to a large degree cultures dictate that certain activities should occur in certain places, and only those places”. Thus “context matters”.

●  So does physical environment, since “conquering geography’ is often a very expensive business.” Physical geography may not determine, but it does establish the limits of possibility and the costs of exceeding those limits.

●  Finally, while all items in the landscape convey meaning, they do not do so readily: meaning can be obscure. Even so “chances are” any disagreement over meaning “can be cleared up by visual evidence”.

Don Mitchel, New Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Paying Attention to Political Economy and Social Justice (2008)

Peking University + Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Shenyang Architectural University Campus (2004)