Meanings of Landscape

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

A response to Discovering the vernacular landscape – The Word Itself by J.B. Jackson ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)

Why is it important to discuss the meaning of landscape? The word ‘landscape’ is everywhere. It is found in so many different contexts that its meaning is increasingly indeterminate- from landscape painting mental to financial landscapes. At the same time, the suffix –scape has detached itself from land to cross-pollinate a multitude of words, from cityscape to cyberscape.1

Despite the indeterminacy of the word landscape, the practice of landscape architecture has to somehow get on with its daily work. Perhaps the landscape part of our professional title is a merely an atavistic remnant of an earlier tradition – because landscape architects do not make landscapes. Practitioners prefer to use words that have specific meanings, such as site, area, environment, topography, terrain, or zone. The goal of investigating the origins of landscape should throw some light on the conceptual framework of our practice as designers.

In “The word Itself,’ taken from Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Jackson proposes that the most commonly understood definition of landscape is a composition of man-made spaces on the land. He concludes his essay by offering a new definition: a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence. Landscapes have a synthetic character. They are artificial systems superimposed on the land and do not function according to nature’s rules. They are deliberately created to speed up or slow down nature’s processes. Is this truly the case? Is this as far as we have come in our understanding of the complexity of the earth’s processes as context for our interventions as designers?

I would argue that this understanding of landscape as the superimposition of synthetic spaces on top of natural systems is accurate yet problematic. Firmly grounded in a European tradition, Jackson’s exegesis of landscape ignores or disallows any other cultural understanding to enter into the picture. It follows from his definition that indigenous cultures’ practice of living within the natural systems that sustain them, rather than replacing them with synthetic versions, could have no landscapes. Jackson’s understanding of landscape could evolve, as the field of landscape architecture itself must evolve, to embrace a holistic understanding of the interwoven forces that shape the surface of the earth. This system has no distinct boundaries comparable to the hedges and stone walls that separated the lands of our Germanic ancestors’ agricultural plots.

Landscape in the current context is essentially a unit of human perception. It assembles discrete units into groups (the original meanings of land and scape) so that we can more easily alter and control them. Landscape frames, sometimes literally, that which we can see with our eyes as a natural space or metaphorically frames a site where an event takes place. The complex processes of environmental evolution – of which human activity is an integral and sometimes pernicious part, are impossible to see clearly through this monocular lens, yet our ‘synthetic’ systems are undeniably inscribed within them.

Jackson leaves me asking for more. There is room left in our understanding of landscape left by everything which he leaves out. Landscape as cycle, as process, as fabric, as trace of something larger than our senses can perceive, which we still struggle to fully see.

1 Gold, David, ‘English Nouns and Verbs Ending in –scape’ Revista Alicantina de Estudios ingleses 15, 2002

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