What is Landscape? / by Aparna Rao

Two questions linger.

One- why do architects, environmentalists and landscape architects share a tenuous relationship, especially about meanings of the term “landscape”? And secondly, why does the term “landscaping” find fervent recurrence (accompanied usually with a dismissive air) in professional and academic exchanges especially when it comes to ‘dealing’ with the land ?

In this regard, Ann Whiston Spirn’s essay ‘The Language of Landscape’ throws some insights about etymological roots and the fragmented perception of what is “landscape”. Reproduced below are some extracts, from the much debated essay. (note: Italics in original. Parentheses added.)

“...'Landscape’ associates people and place. Danish landskab, German landschaft, Dutch landschap and Old English landscipe combine to roots. ‘land’ means both a place and the people living there. Skabe and schaffen mean ‘to shape’; suffixes –skab and –schaft as in the English ‘-ship’ also mean association, partnership. Though no longer used in ordinary speech, the Dutch schappen conveys a magisterial sense of shaping, as in the biblical Creation. Still strong in Scandinavian and German languages, these original meanings have all but disappeared in English. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines landscape as static. “ a picture representing a section of natural, inland scenery, as of a prairie, woodland, mountains...an expanse of natural scenery seen by the eye in one view”; the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to a Dutch painting term -landskip. But landscape is not a mere visible surface, static composition or passive backdrop to human theatre; therefore dictionaries must be revised and older meanings revived.

The words environment and place commonly used to replace landscape in twentieth century English are inadequate substitutes, for they refer to locale or surroundings and omit people. Mid-century, the declining use of landscape was in part a reaction to the Nazis’ adoption of “blood and soil”, a linking of native landscape and racial identity. Environment and Place seem more neutral, but they are abstract, disembodied, sacrificing meaning, concealing tensions and conflicts, ignoring the assumptions landscape reveals...”

“The language of landscape, humans have always known (sic), but now use piecemeal, with much forgotten. People still read paths and create them, identify boundaries and define territory, delight in a flowering tree comparing it to a lover, but most people read landscape shallowly or narrowly and tell it stupidly or inadequately. Oblivious to dialogue and storyline, they misread or miss meaning entirely, blind to connections among intimately related phenomena, oblivious to poetry, then fail to act or act wrongly. The consequences are comical, dumb, dire, tragic ...”

“...Ironically, the professionals who specialize in reading certain parts of the landscape more deeply than other parts and shaping them more powerfully, often fail to understand landscape as a continuous whole. Once, those who transformed landscape were generalists: naturalist, humanist, artist, engineer, even priest, all combined. Now pieces of landscape are shaped by those whose narrowness of knowledge, experience, values and concerns leads them to read and tell only fragments of the story. To an ecologist, landscape is a habitat, but not construction or metaphor. To a lawyer, landscape may be property to regulate, to a developer- a commodity to exploit, to an architect- a site to build on, to a planner- a zone for recreation or residence or commerce or transportation or “nature preservation”.

As in the story of the blind men who each touch a different part of the elephant-trunk or tusk or tail alone- then arrive at a false description of the whole animal, so (does) each discipline and each interest groups reads and tells landscape through its own tunnel vision of perception, value, tool and action. And as each shouts its own fragment the landscapes of cities, suburbs and regions are severed, become impoverished, dysfunctional. It is even fashionable now to design buildings, gardens and cities deliberately as dislocated and unconnected fragments to emphasize the erosion of common ground, a misanthropic view of cultural differences...”

“...to see landscape as mere scenery gives precedence to appearance at the expense of habitability and risks trivializing landscape as decoration- landscaping- concealing the significance of senses other than sight and of parts hidden from view, the deep context underlying the surface. To call some landscapes natural and others artificial or cultural misses the truth that landscapes are never wholly one or the other.”