Starting to Think About Cultural Landscapes

When we think of the physical landscape, it’s easy to conceive of it as the interplay of contrasting and complementary forms, textures, materials, and so on. It is also fairly straightforward to think of landscape as layered: we have been conditioned to think of the spatial layering of the landscape in terms of fore-, middle- and background; we are aware of the historical layering of landscape as it is uncovered through archeological investigation; and landscape is also, of course, the physical manifestation of geological layering.

Left: Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove), 1862; Right: Geological Map of Pennsylvania, 1960

Appending the term “landscape” to a description of culture implies that the cultural is not unitary, that culture never exists as a discrete, objectifiable, or constant expression but rather results from the layering and overlapping of different elements. Even a relatively specific cultural subset could not be equally and uniformly experienced by all those who construct it. Take, for example, Pennsylvania Dutch as a cultural mode identifiable by characteristic sartorial, culinary, ideological, linguistic, and practical markers. Like any cultural mode, it is the product of those who identify themselves according to its terms and who conversely establish the parameters by which it is defined as a cultural mode. But while there are many similarities amongst those who participate in the construction of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, not all participate in cultural production to the same degree, nor do they share constant, uniform attributes of and attitudes toward said culture. They could be described as polythetically overlapping—as occupying distinctive positions but with enough overlap to identify commonly as a group. Enlarging the frame of cultural reference from the specific to the broad brings us to the concept of American culture. If the fairly specific Pennsylvania Dutch cultural mode was itself marked by a layering and overlapping of distinct positions, then the broader mode of American culture must be necessarily more densely layered and divergently experienced.

Returning to the idea of physical landscape as layered assemblage, I would suggest that the way in which one perceives a landscape reflects more upon the position of the viewer than the inherent properties or composition of the landscape itself. Experienced from different perspectives, the landscape resolves into a multiplicity of distinct views. One achieves a varied experience of landscape primarily by moving through it—that is, by engaging it both spatially and temporally. It seems clear that the perception of a cultural landscape is also entirely dependent upon the position from which it is viewed, but while most individuals have the mobility to move through the physical landscape, our relationship to cultural landscapes is basically limited by our very subjectivity, by the degree to which we are embedded in our own constructed identities.

This raises several questions:

How does one become aware of the layering of the cultural landscape? Can one view a cultural landscape from any perspective other than that of individual, embedded subjectivity? And…what role can architecture play in revealing the multiple experiences of cultural landscape?


// JD said...

A very well articulated set of issues. You might consider reading Bernard Cache's Earth Moves, especially his chapers on "Territorial Images" and "Architectural Images." In very opaque terms, he uses the idea of landscape (or terrain) to describe a continuous surface of culture that is inflected by a history of social vectors. These vectors then proceed to fit within a frame (of reference) through which we comprehend the world. In this sense, Cache is not delineating between cultural and physical landscapes, or vectors, or frames. In any event, your enlightening analogy between physical and culturally layered landscapes reminded me of this.

ricetable said...

josh--i'll have to check out Cache's work. thanks for the suggestion.