The following is an excerpt of the essay “Recovering Landscape as a Critical Cultural Practice” by James Corner. Originally published in Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape, edited by James Corner (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999). Published again in The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner 1990-2010, edited by James Corner and Alison Bick Hirsch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014). Reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
The landscape idea
The power of the landscape idea must not be underestimated or severed from physical space. Landscape is both a spatial milieu and cultural image. As such, the construction of landscape space is inseparable from particular ways of seeing and acting. In this sense, landscape is an ongoing medium of exchange, a medium that is embedded and evolved within the imaginative and material practices of different societies at different times. Over time, landscapes accrue layers with every new representation, and these inevitably thicken and enrich the range of interpretations and possibilities.
Furthermore, the landscape idea is neither universally shared nor manifested in the same way across cultures and times; its meaning and value, together with its physical and formal characteristics, are not fixed. To assume that every society shares an American, English, or French view of landscape, or even that other societies possess any version of landscape at all, is to wrongly impose on other cultures one’s own image. Indeed, there have been societies and times wherein the notion of landscape simply did not exist. Even in European history, landscape is a relatively recent development. As Kenneth Clark observed:
Until fairly recent times men looked at nature as an assemblage of isolated objects, without connecting [them] into a unified scene…It was [not until] the early sixteenth century that the first “pure” landscape was painted [and thus conceived].
Moreover, it is clear that Eastern conceptions of landscape differ significantly from those of the West, which have traditionally been more scenic and stylized. And, as architecture scholar Stanislaus Fung has pointed out, there is an important aspect of mutuality and inclusion to Chinese ideas of landscape as distinct from the binary dualism characteristic of Western conceptions. But whatever the precise origin, coding, and intensity of the lens, the landscape idea arises as an eidetic filter through which different cultures view their woods, mountains, waters, and fields, and gain a sense of social identity.
Consequently, whereas every society has historically been aware of an environment, that same physical seeing has not always been elevated to the level of landscape, which, as an explicit thematic genre, is intentionally set in the foreground in cultural imagery, art, and literature. Even the most modest of these representations indicates a fairly mature development of the landscape idea because they are products that arise subsequent to the act of conceiving a landscape. As Denis Cosgrove is right to remind us, “Landscape is already artifice in the moment of its beholding, long before it becomes the subject of pictorial representation.” It is precisely because landscape is construed in an eidetic and subjective way that it cannot be equated with nature or environment. As geographer Augustin Berque wrote:
Landscape is not the environment. The environment is the factual aspect of a milieu: that is, of the relationship that links a society with space and with nature. Landscape is the sensible aspect of that relationship. It thus relies on a collective form of subjectivity…To suppose that every society possesses an awareness of landscape is simply to ascribe to other cultures our own sensibility.
Thus, to historian John Stilgoe’s oft-quoted definition that “the antithesis of wilderness is landscape, the land shaped by men,” we might add that such shaping is as much imaginary (encoded in language, myth, maps, paintings, film, and other representations) as it is physical (made and represented as material space). Indeed, wilderness itself has today become so widely available (in images, legally protected preserves of land, and tourist sites) that this once forbidding and strictly “unknowable” territory is now entirely consumed as preconceived landscape, packaged as much in pictures and literature as in topographical fact. Wilderness is a socially constructed idea, a landscape, even though it appears wholly “natural.” Thoreau recognized the profound existential aspects of this irony when he wrote, “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature, that inspires our dreams.”
Changing ideas of nature, wilderness, and landscape continue to inform the physical practices of design and building, and these, in turn, further transform and enrich cultural ideas. “A landscape park may be more palpable but no more real, nor less imaginary, than a landscape painting or poem,” write Cosgrove and cultural geographer Stephen Daniels, and these various representations each affect and alter one another. The popular use of a polished copper mirror in eighteenth-century England, for instance, allowed a viewer to appreciate a particular scene as if it were painted by Claude Lorrain; the distance from it was doubled, in effect, as it was not the actual landscape scenery in front of the viewer that was the object of attention but its reflection in a tinted, beveled mirror and its subsequent allusion to a particular genre of painting. Indeed, an essential precondition for popular appreciation of picturesque landscape during the eighteenth century was prior knowledge of pictures — the landscape simply did not “appear” until it had been first presented through painting. Similarly, the acquisition of “good taste” in landscape appreciation was not granted through education alone but through social background and occupation. Consequently, eighteenth-century developments in European landscape equated images of landscape with wealth, high culture, and power, an equation that was encoded not only in garden art but also in painting, literature, and poetry. Landscape, as in the French paysage, carries with it to this day a sense of nationhood and cultural identity, an image that is also reflected in the use of the English term “country” to indicate both nation and that which is not the city.
These instances point to landscape’s inextricable bond with cultural ideas and images; it is thus a gross reduction to consider landscape simply as a scenic object, a subjugated resource, or a scientistic ecosystem. To consider landscape in solely visual, formal, ecological, or economic terms fails to embrace the complex richness of association and social structures that are inherent to it. From a specifically landscape architectural point of view, it is crucial to understand how cultural ideas condition construction and how construction, in turn, conditions the play of landscape ideas in a larger cultural imagination. The implications of reciprocity between ways of seeing and ways of acting are immense and point toward the means by which the landscape project may be critically revised and reformulated. With regard to design, how one maps, draws, conceptualizes, imagines, and projects inevitably conditions what is built and what effects that construction may exercise in time.
Techniques of representation are central to any critical act in design. If it is true that there can be no concept of landscape without prior imaging (and not just perspective but also maps, plans, and other modes of representation), then innovations in image projection are necessary for the virtual to be both conceived and actualized.
About the author: James Corner is founder and director of James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture and urban design studio based in New York City. Alison Bick Hirsch (MLA, PhD) is an urban theorist and historian, as well as a landscape designer.
The Landscape Imagination: Collected Essays of James Corner 1990-2010 addresses critical issues in landscape architecture and reflects on how Corner’s writings have informed the built work of his thriving New York-based practice, Field Operations. This book is available everywhere books are sold. Visit papress.com for details.