Category Archives: new cultural landscape studies

133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.
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126: Groth & Bressi’s Understanding Ordinary Landscapes

The essays in Paul Groth and Todd Bressi’s collection Understanding Ordinary Landscapes are compiled from a two-day symposium at Berkeley in 1990 called “Vision, Culture, and Landscape” that was intended to both celebrate and critique JB Jackson’s version of cultural landscape studies.  In general, while the essays underscore Jackson’s reliance on and use of visual and spatial information as a way to understand past and present cultures, they grapple with ways to deal with the realities of social and cultural pluralism and their effects on the landscape.  While in many ways Jackson’s work was radically subjective and Postmodern before its time, in others it is distinctly Modern, particularly in its emphasis on underlying universals, empirical research, and continuity.

According to Groth, cultural landscape studies defines landscape as the combination of people and place, with an emphasis on the history of how people have used everyday or vernacular space – buildings, rooms, streets, fields, yards – to establish and articulate identities, social relations, and cultural meanings.  When JB Jackson started publishing Landscape in 1951, he also emphasized the activist mission of cultural landscape studies: the more people know about ordinary environments, the more they will become attached to them and the less likely they will be to wantonly destroy them.  Groth and Bressi build on cultural landscape studies via a 6-part framework updated for the 1990s:

  1. focus on ordinary landscapes to get at cultural meaning and environmental experience
  2. shift from a rural emphasis to both rural and urban landscapes, as well as landscapes of production and landscapes of consumption
  3. continue to study diversity and uniformity, but emphasize difference, fragmentation, intertextuality and hybridity instead of a single, unifying narrative
  4. continue to write for the intelligent lay reader
  5. support a broad notion of interdisciplinarity that includes cultural, human, social, critical, landscape architecture, art history and other approaches
  6. engage with visual and spatial information, either in support of or in direct opposition to it; the landscape must remain the primary object of study.  Respect JB Jackson’s argument that “landscape… must be regarded first of all in terms of living rather than looking.”
This collection includes many heavyweights: David Lowenthal, Peirce Lewis, Dolores Hayden, Wilbur Zelinsky, and more – all folks who are contributing to and thinking about what a new cultural geography might mean and how it might be updated to include social difference and PoMo cultural theory.  It also holds up JB Jackson as the methodological exemplar of cultural landscape studies – which makes sense, because as far as I know, he invented it.