Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture
jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com
A response to Prospect, perspective and the evolution of the landscape idea by Dennis Cosgrove (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New series, 10(1), 1985)
As our exploration of living landscape deepens, I find myself wondering more intensely about the landscape in the broadest sense. Is it a useful concept, specifically to the developing profession of landscape architecture? What I had taken for granted as simple and obvious concept has revealed itself each week to be multi-layered, slippery, and contingent upon historical developments and culturally dependent assumptions.
Denis Cosgrove supports a renewed interest in landscape as a means to inject an element of creativity and personal experience into our relationship with the geographical environment. In a larger project to understand the world and the physical environment, he juxtaposes the development of a hard scientific approach to a more humanistic one, involving literature and the arts. He posits that it is important to interrogate the historical development of landscape if it is to be a useful concept, because it is in fact full of assumptions about the relationship of human to nature.
The emergence of landscape as a way of seeing in the Italian renaissance coincided with its development in other fields: architecture, cartography, and military science. The visualization of the world through the depiction of landscapes was used to assert political and military dominion over what was seen – as the property of an individual or the state. Landscape is in fact a visual ideology with political underpinnings that is “all too easily adopted unknowingly into geography when the landscape idea is transferred as an unexamined concept in our discipline.” This underlies the need for a critical examination of landscape’s origins as a way of seeing.
Linear perspective crystallized in the 15th century out of advances in geometry and number theory. In the conceptual model that we still use today, the visual cone of perspective originates in the eye of the observer, and radiates outward to encompass, measure, and therefore understand reality. This understanding is seen as truth because it is based on the universal principles of Euclidean geometry. This “visual appropriation of space” mirrors a deeply Christian and anthropocentric organization of society. Man dominates and possesses what he sees from his vantage point, in the same way that God is omniscient and all-powerful– and ironically enough occasionally represented as an all-seeing eye at the top of a pyramid.
In Cosgrove’s critical investigation, representation of the world in the form of maps and landscape images is the way that we assert control and dominion over what we see. We quickly arrive at a fundamental problem – how can we better represent the complexity of the world, making room for what we do not yet understand, in order to “engage with a nature or a space that has its own life?” By revealing the cultural assumptions present in landscape, it seems urgent to me to revise the landscape concept. Humans still continually assert their dominion over the land as something to own, use, exhaust, and dispose of. But there must be two parts to this revision – changing our relationship to the world itself as well as the way we represent it. The first entails a total paradigm shift which is perhaps already underway. If one focuses on the scientific advances of the 20th and 21st centuries, such as chaos and complexity theory, and the fundamental uncertainty that quantum mechanics throws upon our knowledge of the universe, then we can optimistically hope to eventually evolve in terms of our understanding of the world we see (as well as what we cannot see).
Representation is well within the scope of our work as designers, and it is precisely here that Cosgrove’s insights can have an effect. Architectural representation must begin to represent relationships, processes, and complex ecological structures, to name just a few of the things that fall outside the purview of Euclidean geometry. If designers can re-imagine their relationship to the world through how they choose to see, perhaps physical interventions can follow suit. Landscape is potentially still a vital and useful concept, but not without an evolution of its basic attitudes toward our world – as Cosgrove would surely agree.