What is a landscape?

It may sound somewhat silly to ask a landscape architect “what is a landscape?” but to me, that is a fundamental yet elusive question. I’ve been seriously searching for an answer to this question for the last 3 years and still haven’t come up with a straightforward answer. Perhaps I never will, because landscape is supposed to be ambiguous and complex. On one hand, landscape is about material entities – tangible and real. On the other hand, landscape is about meaning and cultural ideologies – intangible and ever changing.

For me, landscape is a term that can be interpreted differently depending on the situation. Most of the time, I prefer to think of it as an impression of a place through sensible (eg. mostly the visual in the Western worldview) and insensible (eg. emotions and thoughts) processes. It can span between two, three, and four dimensions – as an image, a spatial experience, and a temporal occurrence. It is set by a horizon, which may or may not be seen, and consists of sky and ground or water. Landscape is distinct from land, place, environment and nature, but it is inseparable from these other terms.

There are so many aspects to landscapes that this post cannot cover. As this is only an introductory post to this complex question, I will begin with a few basic concepts that I initially started off with. Perhaps the easiest way for me to explain is to follow my own path of unraveling the mysteries of landscapes.

Landscape as a historical construct

As I have mentioned, I have always believed that landscapes are magical and poignant. Without this belief, I would not have become a landscape architect nor would I continue a PhD on the subject. To think that landscape is purely a social or historical construct is to kill my love for landscapes. This may sound extreme, but I think the thought would even destroy my sense of existence in the universe. But I have learned to simultaneously accept and resist this perspective. I’ve accepted that the notion of landscapes is indeed a historical construct, but there is also much more.

Two quoted descriptions of different landscapes provide a glaring contrast:

Image source: Fireflies by xenmate, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

. . . between the constellations below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the clusters of stars overhead, others, like graceful meteors, slipping down from above to join the constellations underfoot . . . I felt myself at times falling through space, at other moments floating and drifting. I simply could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies, and their reflections in the water’s surface, held me in a sustained trance.

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous1

Image source: Canola fields by Bosnimf1, Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I remember wanting to get off the train at every point and lie in the sweet summer fields. While it’s nice to think that my image of those fields came from within, from memory of authentic, animated, real space, I know that is also part of the repertoire of images of nature that tourist culture produces in great number and variety, and that in some ways are indistinguishable from nature itself.

– Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature2

Abram’s description of a night in Bali is poetic and mesmerizing. Wilson’s description is a bucket of cold water that wakes me up from the idyllic dream. Both are valid descriptions of their respective landscape experiences. Neither of them is wrong. I am spellbound by the fireflies but the respectable scholar in me wants me to give up the magic and follow “reality.” But that doesn’t have to be the case. I can acknowledge the history of landscape construction (in the conceptual sense), and I can also question why. The answer is never so simple, and there’s got to be a part of the discovery that will be poignant and meaningful.

Landscape as representation

The modern idea of landscape can never be dissociated with imagery. Originally, the word “landscape,” deriving from the Dutch word landschap, was used to describe administrative units of farm fields.3 As paintings of these fields developed in the 16th century, the term consequently became associated with the representation of land and nature. Today, landscape is considered synonymous with scenery. Scenery is visual and often implies a backdrop to something. It is not surprising that the earliest forms of landscape images were the scenery used as background to the Greek and Roman theatres.4 If we consider landscapes as stage backgrounds, then logically, there are performances that occur in the front. Obviously, the performances are the activity of humans. From the history of Western art, landscape was always a product of the conceptual split between humans and their (natural) environments.

Landscapes as backgrounds were prominent during the Renaissance and the “invention” of perspective drawing was definitely an influential factor. Accuracy of representation was utmost important. However, landscape, as its own respectable subject matter in painting did not occur until the 17th century with the Dutch Golden Age (eg. Jacob van Ruisdael) and the Classical Baroque landscapes (eg. Lorraine Claude, Nicholas Poussin). Romanticism, starting in the late 18th century, could be considered as an “awakening” in the ideology of landscapes. During that time, landscapes as pictures were most celebrated. The Romantic landscape image was not merely scenic; it questioned the split between human and nature. In a sense, it questioned our cosmological existence.

Jacob van Ruisdael, Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (1670), Amsterdam Museum
Claude Lorraine, The Roman Campagna (1639), Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Romantic landscape implies an association with (anti-) modernism and nostalgia. With the rejection of the Enlightenment, and the search for authenticity and wholeness, landscape became a product of a history of attached emotions, fetishes, and appeals to nature. Consequently, a strong aestheticization of landscapes was formed at the time. The concepts of the sublime, the picturesque, and the beautiful were examined by philosophers, writers, and artists. These concepts have been reinforced through landscape image to the point that “landscape” has become an aestheticized attribute.5 The ways we see landscapes are inevitably shaped by how landscapes have been represented. In turn, this shapes how we remake (design) landscapes. I will be writing more about Romanticism and Romantic landscape paintings in the future, so I will not be going into detail at this time, but fundamentally, landscape’s metaphor as the picture window to nature is still reinforced today through art and media – photography and film – and also in landscape architecture through framed views and lookouts.

Landscape as the excess of representation and language

But is that it? There must be more to landscape than ideas and images. What about the material aspects of landscapes? What about the immaterial aspects of landscapes such as atmosphere and aura? What about sacred landscapes? Or less representative forms of landscape images, such as those from Eastern cultures? What about experience?

We exist through language, but can everything be represented by language? Anthropologist Tim Edensor argues that landscapes are affective because of their resistance to be represented by language.6 We can look at this from several different perspectives. First, there is a material component to landscapes. Landscapes may be processed as images but they are also made from material matter. These materials have their own agency to affect and influence how we perceive. Second, we have bodies. Real landscapes are always embodied. Whether we stay in place or move around, our experience of landscape cannot be disassociated from our sensuous responses. Third, certain things that are seemingly invisible can be visible if perceived in the right way. For example, we cannot see the wind in itself, but we will see and hear it when it blows across a bunch of leaves. Similarly, light is intangible, yet we cannot see anything without it. At this point I have only dappled on the beginnings of alternative ways to perceive landscapes. Through a phenomenological approach to the study of landscapes, I hope that I can make more of the invisible visible – because that is what keeps landscapes poignant and magical.

1. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 4.
2. Alexander Wilson, The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), 20.
3. Yi Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974).
4. Gina Crandell, Nature Pictorialized: “The View” in Landscape History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993).
5. T.J. Diffey, “Natural Beauty without Metaphysics,” in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 43-64.
6. Tim Edensor,”Aurora Landscapes: Affective Atmospheres of Light and Dark,” in Conversations with Landscapes, eds. Karl Benediktsson and Katrin Anna Lund (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), 227-240.

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