Wednesday, July 2, 2008

John Dixon Hunt on Place Making, 3 Natures, Poetry, and Numinous Gardens

I'm just barely into Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory, but the title alone scares me; gardening is not perfecting, it's interpreting, something which I'm coming to realize may be Hunt's ulitmate point. This title might be tongue in cheek, because even though he's trying to map out a solid, historically-grounded garden theory of the west, he's very concerned with issues of environment and how our perceptions of the natural world have changed radically in recent centuries; or how we believe landscape can only exist by being conceived and perceived by humans. Poor Mr. Hunt, caught in a quandary--to be or not to be a landscape architect in a greening world.

In his attempt to create a core definition of landscape architecture and theory, we come across this large chunk about place-making:

"Landscape architecture is, then, an activity of exterior place-making. This activity may include buildings within its remit; it may also look to pictorial art for inspiration, but it occurs essentially in the space BETWEEN buildings / architecture and paintings / landscape. It may include elements of what conventionally we call nature—in other words, organic materials like trees, shrubs, and grass and inorganics like water and rocks. Place-making is fundamentally an art of milieu; it creates a “midst” in which we see or set ourselves, places to be lived, hence its concern to environmentalists, whose business is with our environs or surroundings. The milieu involves not only inhabitants and users but the history of the place that is made or remade, the story of the site over time. Time and process lie at the very heart of landscape architecture and therefore, as we shall see in later chapters, accommodate themselves very readily to narrative. The stories of place-making engage innumerable narrative strategies and modes, for there are, after all, many sorts of fiction.”

I like how he sees a narrative in landsacpe, designed and not designed, how its meaning is essential only because of human interaction (now, if a flower grows and no one perceives it, is it still a flower?).

Milieu is, according to Augustin Berque:
1) The production of landscape is mediation of environment. Not just objective physical surroundings, but involves inscription on the site of how individual conceives of envrionment. Not simply a place made but a place we see as having already been made or is in process of being made.
2) Landscapes are combo of place maker and place user, and it is impossible to dinstinguish between these two.” Landscape comes into being as the creative coupling of a perceiving subject and an object perceived.”

Interesting. We can only have a landscape if we think about and experience it. Really? Ok, How about comparing gardens to poetry? Oh, we just have to read THIS:

"Gardens focus the art of place-making or landscape architecture in the way that poetry can focus the art of writing. Not everyone wants to write poetry, nor do its modes of expression suit every occasion or topic (people probably don’t use verse to make up shopping lists). But the poet’s formal and creative skills, technical resources, linguistic inventions, and (especially relevant to the highly atavistic art of garden-making) uneasy relationship with the demanding traditions of his or her art—all these make poetry among the most concentrated and demanding of literary expressions; this quality of compactness, concentration, is especially conspicuous in lyric poetry, where the scale is relatively smalls. The same claim can arguably be put forward for garden art, which of all forms of open space design draws on a richly constituted repertoire of effects, motivs, and traditions.”

Hunt discusses the three natures he sees at the outset of this treatise:

1st nature: Wild, undisturbed, unseen landscape. Not likely to find this anymore, but we try by making national parks, don't you know.
2nd nature: Agriculture, suburbia, cities, Nasca line in Peru
3rd nature: Gardens

Oh, how about this slightly sarcastic take on the sublime / wilderness vacations?

"Just as a highway or airplane… physically connects them to their preferred “wilderness,” so our very ideas of that sought after “other” nature link it to the rest of our experiences. We come to terms with first nature and explain our encounters with wilderness by talking of wonder, awe, fear, or distaste. We see it as divine, the nature of the gods; or we excoriate it as hostile territory and mask it off, as in some medieval representations; or we are more ambiguous and accommodate it philosophically, for instance, by labeling it the sublime. The switch from locating the sublime not in rhetorical productions but in landscape during the 18th century may be explained as part of an effort to make acceptable without diminishing the newly available experiences of wild European scenery. Tourists in first nature could translate their wonder, awe, and fear into a shared commodity, that in its turn became part of their cultural second nature and was occasionally translated into designed landscapes.”

Damn nature as commodity. Go green, people, buy green windex and drink green beer, you self righteous consumers. In fact, get a fungal disease and look green. Turn moldy.

Finally, I especially like this bit about places being spiritual without being distorted by religion, or our tainted experiences of it--or, that gardens somehow, perhaps, provide more divine access, or are simply more divine, than anything else we've culturally constructed.

"The sense of sites as ineluctably special continues to be part of contemporary human experience. It is an instinct that does not belong exclusively to what we would call “religious” people. This may raise the question of whether such privileging of place transfigures a site into first or third nature—does it make it divine territory or something like a garden? It can presumably be either or both: if some deliberate and formal intervention is attempted (i.e., invoking forms not available on site), then it certainly aspires to landscape architecture. A garden has the status for some people today of a sacred spot. The passions aroused by a dedication to the natural environment and / or by the activity of gardening suggest to how fundamental and “religious” an experience each of these activities gives access. Much modern place-making calls up a deeper sense of the numinous than we generally care to acknowledge, and it brings to the recognition of something special in a place a far greater wealth of cultural resources than we have so far encountered in the [second nature] aboriginal pole, the Ottoman tree, or even geoglyphs and songlines."

Well, on to the other 200 pages. I bet you feel like you just read all 250 pages of this garden theory, don't you, IF you made it this far....


Victoria Summerley said...

I think the idea of landscape being a product of perception (which is so often itself coloured by experience) is very interesting (and I love the idea of gardening as a kind of poetry). From an environmental point of view, however, I think it's slightly dangerous because we tend to make such value judgements about what is a 'landscape'. Your mountain view or glorious garden is a 'landscape' and thus worthy of nurture, but my scruffy neighbourhood is an eyesore and thus not worthy even of a glance. If only we could find some way of persuading everyone to worship the spirit of the place in their own backyard, regardless of what they perceive as its aesthetic value. I think that's what those people who create urban gardens in big cities do. By creating something that is recognisably lovely, they help change the perception of local people of what is around them.

Frances, said...

At least I got to the end.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Victoria--Maybe perception is experience? Hunt keeps talking about place-making needing a historical context, or, I think, time in that place, or time enough for that place of value to come into its own. If we place value on landscapes by perceiving them, and if that poses an environmental problem, couldn't experience / history bypass perception, or trump it? Does that make sense? Your scruffy 'hood might have great environnmental value for those who live there just because they've put in the time, had a human life there with all its ups and downs, and so they'll fight to keep it. Maybe not idyllic, but I bet that's how Native American's felt, that farmers do, etc. (of course, I'm limited to U.S. perceptions here).
Frances--Huzzah! Gold star for you coming in the mail! (Seriously--I know some of my posts get long winded.)

Victoria Summerley said...

I made a resolution last night not to go commenting on people's blogs (at length, and especially at quarter to one in the morning). However... If people love their scruffy neighbourhoods and value them, that's great. The point I was trying to make is that many people feel their neighbourhood is not worth looking after because it's not crammed with Federal houses, or antebellum mansions, or part of a national park or whatever (I'm trying to use US perceptions here too!). As for equating perception with experience, that's a very provocative proposition. But I have to go to work.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Victoria--Gotchya. Yes, if we all look after our neighborhoods, no matter what, it'd all be good--but how much of that is a product of class / race / values? Now, stop blogging late at night (let's see, 6 hours ahead I think from me, so it's something like 2:30 am now....)

IBOY said...

I was just idly clicking about... I'm going to have to come back to read this one (I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw you use the word "numinous".

:o) don

Benjamin Vogt said...

Don--I'm giving out prizes for people who read my longer, note taking posts on "dense" books I'm reading. This week, it's another post of similar content. Yippee!

Sarah O. said...

As a gardener and a landscape historian making the transition to landscape architect in September (starting a new degree) I really liked this post.

Re: Victoria's comment, most landscape theories posit that any place that is observed/acted upon by humans is in effect a "landscape." This includes your neighbourhood. As you pointed out, whether people properly value that landscape is another thing altogether. If it is any comfort, neighbourhoods such as yours are of great interest to many landscape/urban researchers (we're not all historians - some are cultural geographers, planners, etc.), so at least in academia, you are not being overlooked. :)

Re: nature as commodity, Dennis Cosgrove argues that the "landscape way of seeing" is inherently about consumption and ownership, because it only originated with the rise of capitalism. That's why it and tourism go together so well!

As a historian, I couldn't help but say "yess!!" to the inclusion of "narrative" in the landscape - because if landscape is a set of symbols, well symbols are established through shared pasts, for which you need narrative...

Finally, I like the "three natures" concept. I'm not completely convinced, however, because it seems like he's prioritizing levels of human intervention, and one of the most important aspects of the definition of landscape is that "action" is not more important than "thought" - and goodness knows we heap as many meanings upon "wilderness" as we do upon "pastoral".

I won't apologize for the length when I'm following other's examples. Also, it's the topic! I couldn't resist. ;)

Sarah O. said...

Oops, I take it back; that was waaay too long. Sorry!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Sarah--Not too long, no way! C'est bon. I don't like thinking how Cosgrove does, and I'd like to argue with him, though maybe if I read him he'd convince me. I think we could still "own" landscape without the negative effects of consumer ideology. Really, landscape rose with capitalism? And as for narrative, I don't know how much narrative is left in landscapes, since what we know collectively is far more fragmented than it's ever been--a recent study showed of the top 100 books in English lit, highschool graduates have read less than 6. If the only narrative we're sharing is one based on sublime romanticism, fine, we're ok. If it's something more, somethign specific, however defined, I don't know.