Friday, August 27, 2004

Beautiful Decay

John Brinckerhoff Jackson was a founder of "landscape studies", an interdisciplinary collision of environmental sensibilities and aesthetics. The book A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time is a collection of essays on diverse but related subjects. Half the book deals with the landscape of New Mexico as it has been formed and interpreted. The second half considers various ways that the American landscape has been informed by, and has deviated from, European notions of man’s relationship with land and nature.



The book is filled with interesting and useful observations:
  • Architecture is built on European notions that home is more than shelter: it is refuge from the private sphere. Consequently, non-European cultures like the Hopi do not have the same concern for architecture is their dwellings, seeing no boundaries between shelter and public life.
  • Climate determines much of the ritual calendar. The Colorado Plateau, which begins in central New Mexico, is the definitive end of the Mexican world: the plateau experiences winter weather, which affects how people live and plan.
  • Jackson appreciates the value and functionality of "vernacular buildings"--specifically mobile homes--even though they do not fit into architects' and urban planners' ideals of beauty and community.
  • Most Americans find respite in recreational spaces that resemble nature rather than in nature itself. Much of the natural landscape is not penetrated by Americans.
  • All new construction, once stridently different and foreign among its natural surroundings, finds its place in time. The fact that it was foreign is forgotten, and people act as if "radio and television towers" are a natural part of the ecology.

Jackson's discussion of how New Mexico was painted and photographed grabbed me. New Mexico is a landscape of ruins--Indian and Spanish Colonial--and ruins were the site that tended to attract artists. Decay became a premier means of describing and depicting the New Mexico landscape:
The relentless progress of ruin and abandonment has been interpreted as a kind of romantic flowering, something to be recorded before it is too late ... There was never a face but the old and defeated, never a sign of continuing life, but many sad pictures of deserted graveyards. This vision, repeated by artists in many other parts of the country, seems in retrospect to have been less a reflection of reality than a way of expressing a nostalgic version of history: a desperate, last-minute recording of old and once cherished values, the New Mexico chapter in that once popular chronicling of "vanishing America" ...

Fascination with ruins ran deep in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Landscape painters and illustrators from Europe painted ancient buildings that had since collapsed and had become unusable. They also painted local life around these ruins, showing that they continued to attract people.

This was also the attitude of travelers who visited my beloved Rhine and in southwestern Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. They focused on the decaying castles that lined the hill tops along the middle river valley. They tried to contact something of the emotions of the past, looking for a mystical experience in the crumbling stones. (Celia Applegate did a great job of analyzing how people in the Palatinate took to those same ruins, propping them up and studying them extensively.)



This was but one Rhineland that travelers could have seen--there was also the industrial region, the Rhine as one of the roots of industry on the continent. The geography of the river valley framed a very specific view, blocking any view of the modernizing world. In this way, too radically different interpretations of the landscape could coexist. Ironically, some of the popular tourist attractions are the factories that are collapsing on themselves.

Something that I wish that Jackson would have addressed is why ruins continue to be useful. Why did people settle near missions and churches that had been abandoned? Why did governments undertake expensive projects to complete buildings in styles that were centuries old? Why did a failed and abandoned world become the focus of settlement in so many places?

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