Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Landscape Between Experience and Project.


"When it is raining in Oxford Street the architecture is no more important than the rain, in fact the weather has probably more to do with the pulsation of the Living City at that given moment." (Simon Sadler on Archigram Living City)

In this text I will open a discussion on the criticality of the landscaping as a cognitive practice.
To approach the question, I will read a landscape in its most classical appearance, landscape painting. I will try to draw up a tentative list of meanings along which landscaping works. As they are closely interwoven one into the other, the order of exposition is not to be understood chronologically. To better express that, I will use the word 'dimensions', and not levels or layers which may imply a hierarchy. The following exposition is both permitted and in some ways limited by the fact that I am looking transversally at the history of landscape, so some of the aspects can be more present in determinate painters or periods and some entirely absent.

Drawing based on Isaacz. van Ruisdael. Dunes of Harlem Seen from Northwest. ca. 1670
The first landscape dimension is consisted of the physical arrangement of elements, man-made elements on one side, and natural elements such as flora, hydrological elements, inorganic masses etc., on the other. The physical dimension unites two dimensions of geographic description. The first is cartographic, thus, the layout of the elements in terms of their spatial disposition over a surface. The second expresses their topological description in terms of altitude, a dimension only suggested on maps due to their ortogonal point of view.

The second dimension concerns the social activities that run over a landscape. Almost always there are people present in the image, men involved in diverse activities, peasants working the land, carts transporting people or goods, hunters, fishers, sailors, children playing, rich men simply loafing about their holdings etc. These figures convey or enact different social, economic and political relationships. The gap between people bent on working the land and the aristocracy riding their horses around can hardly find a more straightforward crystallization. Even when men are absent, their structures, such as well-organised farm crops convey socioeconomic processes.
In social dimension operates also a register of emotional experiences connected with social actors within the landscape. Their body language explicates a series of emotions. They may be depicted running away from a storm to seek refuge or they might be clearly enjoying a sunny day.

The third dimensions, ecological one, shows "workings" or life of the ecosystem. Various animals wander around, different kinds of flora grow. The depth of ecological knowledge is limited to the questions of detail of representation. It is very difficult to spot (or to paint) bees, these key actors of ecosystems, in paintings. On the other hand, even the very tiny animals, such as birds are often depicted. This applies also to the richness of flora, as distinct species of trees or plants can be inferred in landscapes.
The vital interrelationship between man and animals is often a central theme in landscapes. This relationship can be more man-dominated, such as in hunt scenes, or more idylliac and equitable, for example, when men are presented in harmonic unity with their domestic animals, or when men play with animals.

There is yet another dimension which operates somewhat transversally and embraces all the cited ones. It is another dynamic dimension, that of climatic conditions. It works through at least two planes, within the painting and without it.
Internally it brings to life, into movement, all the elements in the painting. This can be explicated by the patterns of movements of leafs as wind blows. Otherwise, sea storms can change the topology of every single atom of water in a seascape. The climatic dimension has risen steadily in importance from the 16th to the 19th century, when it in many ways become the predominant theme in landscape painting. The research of some artists on clouds, storms, fog, and other climatic phenomena, came to form an entire aesthetics and ideology of "sublime". This adjective becomes a concept used even to put in question the absolute domination of beauty in the the aesthetic treatises of the second half of the 18th century.
This brings us to the other plane on which climatic conditions unfurl. Externally, they are used to convey moods or feelings to spectators. Sublime as a methodology was understood and adopted to provoke terror or awe in spectators, whereas sunny conditions were probably meant to induce peacefulness. So, climatic conditions are closely linked with psychological or affective dimension of the landscape. 

Drawing based on Paul Cézanne. La montagne Sainte-Victoire, vue de Lauves. 1902-1904
The palimpsest for all above cited landscape dimensions is the subjectivity of the landscaper.
By the way of disposing the previously cited dimensions, the landscaper creates a web of meanings, highlighting certain aspects and obscuring the others. He forms a perspective through which all the the dimensions are inclined and filtrated. Perspective is, thus, understood here in its figurative sense, as bias, intent.
Subjectivity is the most fundamental aspect of landscaping as it operates almost invisibly, but it determines all the other elements. The choice of the standpoint, the hierarchy of elements, the idealisation of certain natural forms, the choice of climate conditions, are the key instruments of landscaping.

To be briefly noted is that subjectivity is connected with the political nature of landscape. Considering that most of the landscapes well into the 19th century were produced in studio, and not on field, it means that they are up to a great degree artificial. What this invention of geographies could possibly imply socially is a matter to be explored in-depth. Anyway, I may advance the hypothesis that landscape painters could in many ways be understood as the first landscape architects.

Thus, landscaping as representational process comprises of a series of decision-making procedures. The most important decisions regard the mere selection of elements to be included and to be excluded, as the elements to be represented are infinite. This is a particularly emphasised characteristic of landscaping, in confront with other classical genres of image production, such as portraiture or even cityscape. Also, significant alterations can be performed without notice, as it is infinitely more difficult to note a missing rock or a tree too many, than to omit a building in a cityscape or a mole in a portrait.
From the very start, landscaping implies confrontation with complexity, with chaos, but it also requires the capacity of synthesis, it relies on project attitude.

The last dimension which passes through landscape is time. We should think of the mere fact that landscapes express determinate landscape in a given moment, thus, landscape in spring or in autumn etc. In this regard it is useful to think of the serial character determinate painters have attributed to certain views, continuing to work on them as seasons passed by. Therefore, temporal or historical dimension is constitutive to landscape, it steeps into its social, ecological and affective dimensions.
This is where landscape differs significantly from the other mean of geographic descrption, maps, indifferent to the passing of time.
Landscape instead is explicitly only a moment in time, and all its elements are subject and even bound to change. Landscape is, thus, experiment, but in its wider sense, as it was intended by Francis Bacon in the 16th century, as a synonym of experience. [Alpers S. The Art of Describing. Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983]
Thus, representing and perceiving landscape is an infinite cognitive process, a phenomenological flux of information. To grasp it, painting is only a single interface among many others, such as photography, video, or a walk through landscape. What painting managed in some of its manifestations, and what other landscaping practices should try to convey is the essential multidimensionality of landscape. The rain is important, and the built environment, too, as well as the nuance of the clouds, and the wind sneaking through the rye, too.

Landscaping can be understood as multilayered geographical knowledge of a given territory. Landscaping can also mean man's positioning in a wider geographical context, zooming out from house, street, neighbourhood or town, to include a more ample horizon. Landscaping can also be a transcendental quest for harmonic relationship between man and nature, and so many other things.

What is fundamental is that landscape is made of the dialectic between experience and project. Some landscapes can be case studies of a project, while others can be experiments of an idea or an emotion.

The essential multidimensionality of landscape can be useful for the redefinition of landscape in context of other disciplines as well, and I will attempt this in blog posts to follow.

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