Landscape as Lens

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

A response to J. Wylie’s Landscape (New York: Routledge, 2007.)


What clearly surfaces in J. Wylies introduction to “Landscape” is that landscape is an emergent phenomena. It is the product of a dynamic relationship between humans and the world. One of the main qualities of this relationship is tension. Tension can be understood here as a divisive force, one that creates separation between human observation and an external reality. Are we living in a landscape or looking at it? I would argue that this tension is the essential animating force of this relationship, and that what we call landscape is its outcome.

Landscape simultaneously describes the interconnectivity of human culture and natural world as well as its representation. It is a result of being, looking, and doing. It can be compared to the act of photography: an image results from an observer looking through a camera at an external scene. The image materializes on the film as light from the scene crosses through the camera lens. Physical reality is framed by the photographer’s gaze; photons travel through the lens and are captured. The resulting image is not only a product of a physical process – it is also created by the intention of the photographer, the way that she composes, chooses, and reacts to what she sees. What mediates the process is the lens itself, the point between the two partners in this dialogue. In fact this metaphor surfaces in the expression “to put it in perspective” – what we do conceptually when we seek to understand something.

Wylie outlines the different schools of thought in the discussion of landscape that can be compared to the lens of the camera. These lenses, or ways of viewing the external world, are tools in the creation of the different meanings of landscape that we are setting out to explore. Cultural geographers, those who study cultural products and norms and their variations across space and place, draw upon art history, visual theory, anthropology, literary studies, and cultural theory in their explorations of landscape as a cultural phenomena. Geographers rely on field science, observations and the accumulation of scientific fact, from biology to geology, to arrive at another understanding of landscape. Each of these lenses is a different epistemological means to describing the world- which ultimately is why the exploration of landscape is such a vast terrain with no definitive end.

Probing further, the lens itself is “laden with particular cultural values, attitudes, ideologies, and expectations,” in Wylies’s words. Of course! Just as in photography, the lens is made of compound elements whose interaction transform information into a final conception. As the elements of compound lenses are interchangeable, this further multiplies the possibilities. But a photographer carefully chooses her lens according to the effect that she wants to achieve in her work. Do we do the same as designers working on the organization of the physical world? Perhaps we are not even aware of the precise composition of the “lens” that we use as landscape architects and individual designers. What are our precise attitudes, expectations, and values? Awareness of these positions is not built into a design education; yet it seems fundamental to the activity of transforming the world through the realization of our designs.

This line of thinking refocuses the discussion of landscape. We know that landscape is a dynamic relationship between human and world that is mediated by a lens of culture and belief. The investigation of that focal point, the crux of the relationship, the point of transformation, mediation, and tension, becomes the key to understanding the production of landscape in all of its complexity.