Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Alan Ward's Designed Landscapes

Alan Ward's book, Designed Landscapes, was published in 1998 by the Spacemaker Press [Washington D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts] which specializes in books on landscape architecture. Ward himself is both an architect and a landscape architect by training, but he had been photographing gardens and landscape for 20 years when this book was published. The book might be treated either as a documentation of landscape design, or as a pure landscape photography monograph.

In my case, I have a degree in landscape architecture, and am also a committed landscape photographer as well, so my interest in this work is at least twofold. Landscape design and landscape photography come together as different expressions of the same matter, but it's important not to confuse the two disciplines. Designing a landscape for use, is not at all the same thing as making an image of a finished landscape (or a wild landscape). The way a landscape "works" in reality, as a space through which one moves or rests, has really not much to do with the way it is "seen" photographically. Part of the confusion about why, for instance, the International Style, in architecture, was so persuasive and astonishing to its first audiences, seems to have had more to do with the canonical images which were made of its earliest iconic examples (i.e., Mies's Barcelona Pavilion, or Le Corbusier's Savoy Villa), than the actual experience of seeing and and being inside these structures in person.

Photographs are not reality. They present a certain view of space, from a certain vantage, in the moment of their taking, the light and atmospheric conditions varying according to the case, and they may seem more or less "true" to the actual space they depict, than the experience of literally being inside those spaces. Photographic space is a kind of "virtual" space, in which objects and perspective and tonal range are organized by the lens, and by the composer (photographer) to achieve a two dimensional construction which behaves according to the laws of representation. Being in a space is a much more complex phenomena, including, as it does, the other senses (than the visual) and the sensation of movement through it, its smells, sounds, felt textures, subtle shades of color, and so on.

All of which, by way of preface, suggests that I regard landscape photography as a poor stepsister of practical landscape architecture; as, indeed, the process of landscape design is a much more involved and laborious exercise in imagining and realizing arrangements and rearrangements of space and matter. But considered alone, landscape photography is its own art, which--though it depends upon the pre-existence of a landscape or a "garden" or cemetery or park--deserves to be treated as an art on its own, almost without reference or dependence upon its subject.

Ward's photographs in Designed Landscapes are arranged according to a series of eighteen specific sites, i.e., University of Virginia, Dumbarton Oaks, Blue Ridge Parkway, etc., with a set of plates devoted to each space. The work is exclusively black and white, and thus tends to emphasize the visual relationships and gradations of tone, rather than the interplay of colors, which would tend to detract from a purely abstract appreciation of the imagery. Again, it's important to understand that photographs, as I say, are not actual spaces, but only versions derived from them, and as such, black and white photographs are better able to define the qualities of visual definition which often may seem to trump the meaning inherent in objects and spaces in context. Colors (chromatography) have their own language and associations which relate to qualities outside the frame of any given image. And aside from this, the experience of black and white (monochromatic) imagery carries its own special interest.

I have reproduced five images from Ward's book--the first one of which is of Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I've never been to this place, but it appears to be a fairly woodsy space, compared to most cemeteries which I've seen. Sylvan settings are typical of traditional cemeteries, though usually more of the space is given over to the grave stones and monuments than to trees, shrubs and turf, than seems to be the case here. What I particularly like about this composition, is the magical light which seems to highlight the little classical pedimented rotunda to the right center of the scene. It lends a vaguely elegaic mood. When I visit cemeteries (or "graveyards" as we call them), I seldom am moved to consider the lives of those buried there. Instead, I tend to think poetic thoughts about nature, which may be the point. We would rather think of pleasant pastoral things in places dedicated to the dead, though decay itself--which one often sees in really old cemeteries--may become the overriding impression.

One of the considerations of photography like this, is its evident static quality, as if all activity and "accidental" occurrence had been removed from it. I often hear people criticize landscape photographs, because they're "sterile" or "emptied of life." Landscape photography is, however, primarily a contemplative art, which emphasizes control and precision above accident and chance. A dog achieving a frisbee at the height of a graceful jump may be a miraculous image, but it has nothing to do with the careful arrangement of objects in space--it's the expedient capture of an evanescent occurrence, all action and response and energy.

This quality--of purified perspectives and arithmetical precision of line and scope--characteristic of the best architectural photographers, such as Cervin Robinson or Ezra Stoller or Yukio Futagawa--asks that we perceive such imagery as the timeless vision of man's control over nature and materials. Art may be both an imposition and an augmentation of the order inherent in wild nature, and the resulting integration of natural forms and man-made (conceived) forms may be the perfect marriage.

Biltmore - South Terrace and Wisteria Arbor at Sunset
Ashville, North Carolina

This sense of integration between inside (man made) and outside (nature) is nowhere more apparent than in this view into the garden space at Dumbarton Oaks, where the external world seems to beckon through opened doors, a symbolic seduction which carries the metaphorical implication of departure, or exile, or even mortality. Inside and outside are poised at the threshold of decision, just at the point of release. The sense of classical balance, of stasis, calm, and certainty are overwhelming, almost as if one could stop time.

Dumbarton Oaks - View from inside the Orangery

In rural settings, the arrangement of space into a meaningful balance has different implications. Blue Ridge Parkway, in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, bears the hand of man as deliberately as Dumbarton Oaks, but less oppressively. Land which may once have been given over mostly to agricultural use, fades gracefully into the picturesque, as a caricature of pastoral values. We visit our past, as surely as we visit our future (as with cemeteries), knowing full well that the meanings we deduce from it are tremulous and fleeting. ***


***Please note, Blogger went down, apparently, while this essay was in save mode--or at some point before it had been completed and initially posted online. Consequently, the last third or so of text was lost, and not retrievable. As frustrating as this is, there's nothing to be done about it. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something like 1000 words on a post about Crews's Pooh Perplex, which was suddenly schnarfed by Blogger before it could be saved. I stormed around the house for ten minutes, cursing my bad luck! Perhaps this is an harbinger of things to come--? I do hope not. Composing these essays takes time and work, even if very few people will eventually read them. I try now to save the texts in Word@ while I'm composing them, just as a precaution.


Anonymous said...

here is one of the interior rooms


'dig this' after graduating High School I went to Montgomery Junior College

in their Electrical Technology program

now this Takoma Park campus was FORMERLY

Bliss Electrical School very closely and politically tied to the Navy..
the owners of Dumbarton Oaks was the Blisses !

Kirby Olson said...

I like designed landscapes, too -- have been a fan of Fred Olmsted for years, and to some extent am interested in Robert Smithson.

The category of the picturesque as it was formulated by William Gilpin and later refined by Victorians such as Ruskin is still a very moving thing. I like picturesque landscapes.

How do you reconcile this interest with your interest in language oriented figures such as Silliman, and with figures like Eigner, or do you think these are drastically separate spheres of interest?

Curtis Faville said...

Olmstead is the giant in the field, of course.

19th Century ideas of nature still inform much of what we think of as "positive" space within the whole context of the environment--both man-made and "wild."

Science has helped to redefine our relationship to "nature"--which now incorporates ideas of order, consolidating all structural paradigms within a larger concept of universal applicability. Everything that exists--including everything we "make" (as a synthetic derivative from the given materials of all matter)--falls within this greater order. That sounds a bit religious, but isn't intended to.

I.e., there is really nothing "surreal" or synthetic or "unnatural" in the universe. Even our "mistakes" make perfect sense.

Silliman and Eigner are two poets whose works are discrete applications of the art of making things out of words. Their differences are more interesting than their similarities. Both are relatively accessible, but that accessibility is deceptive: Each has deeper layers of meaning and implication which only become apparent after some thought and dissection.

Alan Ward is a straightforward landscape photographer, concentrating on the built landscape. It's just good work, in a traditional sense. The photographs I showed are superior examples of the form.

I could go on for reams discussing the philosophical implications of landscape design.

J said...

bourgeois gardens, whether Dumbarton Oaks, Montalvo, or Yosemite--the shutterbug's usual fare (that, or ho's)

Curtis Faville said...

The natural knee-jerk reaction, J, would be to ask what kind of spaces you DO like.

Are you a nature-buff, or do you like urban ghettos? Which is more "honest"? Is nature just a cliché invented by the bourgeoisie for its own pleasure? Is good gritty decay less hypocritical?

J said...

Sir F., I too enjoy sauntering, like once a decade or so, through a grand English sort of garden, with the reflecting pond, and trimmed hedges, primroses, etc--or the Huntington. But..they are luxuries, same for golf courses, country clubs, etc. Aristocratic, actually more than bourgeois. As with Huntington's chateau---quite beautiful, yet built out of coolie labor and railroad baron land swindles.

Literary people don't usually understand the implications, and the historical relations thereof. That's not to praise Marxy Marx---but he did have some grasp of the issue

Curtis Faville said...

In England--which is certainly a country of gardeners--most of the private ones are maintained by owners, or staff, or servants--but the pleasure of walking or sitting in them needn't imply some appropriation of society's fruits. Anyone can make a garden--even public ones.

This idea that all gardens somehow signify exploitation is quite simplistic, and curmudgeonly.

Anonymous said...

I'm partial to dead twigs
in a cracked yellow vase

standing on my window-sill
over-looking the
fig rats
that are chewing
on my neighbor's
baby's face

J said...

Suburbanite X's 1/4 acre of roses and marigolds is not the Duchess of York's 100+ acres, obviously. I interpreted you as referring to the grand sort of aristo-garden.

I favor public takeovers of the English/euro estates--better than, well, detonation. Then, have them cared by the public for the public--IIRC there are some estates/forests in Germany which have reverted to the state, and are quite impressive (then, a competent State is needed as well--not the US exactly). But detonation shouldn't be ruled out entirely.

J said...

Blogger was down for about a day--they apparently deleted all blogs that were posted 5/12. So it wasn't in save mode--GoogleCo decided to "repair" the mysterious bug by a nationwide moderation/deletion--in fact some blogs are entirely gone (like Kirby O's fave teabag hole, Althouse)---
or so they say . My posts--and comments-- from yesterday were "disappeared" as well. ...That said, you are correct Sir F. insofar that any serious writing (the sort of sh*t I avoid) should be saved in Word

Kirby Olson said...

Ann althouse lost a few years worth of stuff, but got it back the following day. I lost your poem in my poetry contest. Would you repost it (Frida Kahlo)? I didn't keep a copy of it.

At some point the whole net will crash and everything on it will be lost.

It can't last forever, any more than Atlantis could.

It will be gone in a twinkling.

Big good things like Olmsted's landmark parks have to have millions of dollars for maintenance every year. I think the current budget at Central Park is about 15 million annually just for maintenance. Even Prospect Park over in Brooklyn requires 11 million a year.

Things cost a lot to maintain.

J said...

A-house still is missing a great deal of her archives. No biggie. She scrawls a few interesting things at times but the regs merely spew their Limbaughish drivel, ad nauseum. Then, so do the regs at LutSur.

Frida Kahlo? You mean the commie, bisexual, latina artiste type? Surely you wouldn't mean her, since both of you are rabidly anti immigration conservatives, and at least crypto-racist (granted Sir F. does at times waft a bit blue-dog Demo). Perhaps it's like marketing-- dead leftist broads are product but the living ones can be ignored.

Curtis Faville said...


I've asked you before not to discuss subjects from other blogs in this comment space. I've nothing against you arguing with Kirby on his own site, or on this one, but at least keep the subject-matter of this blog-site in mind. I did post an essay on Frida Kahlo's wardrobe and clothing design many months ago, which you might find of interest. Here--

Kirby Olson said...

I think Curtis and I are both against ILLEGAL immigration. What that has to do with landscapes is another question. Most of the border is desert. That's a landscape. Central Park is far more lush. It was originally a swamp. Olmsted and Vaux engineered or had someone engineer a massive dehydration scheme that is under the ground and keeps Central Park dry.

A lot of Irish labor was used in the Park -- 100s of thousands of jobs were created by the park, but it was all legal, insofar as I know. I'm for legality.

As is Curtis.

Kahlo, like most well-known artists, was from the upper classes.

I'm sure if we did a breakdown of the Hollywood left: some 75% would be upper class. true also of most publishing authors. They went to places like Harvard and Yale.

Olmsted himself was upper class as was Vaux.

My family were farmers until the last generation (my dad got out and got an education due to the GI bill), which allowed me to get on the lower rungs of the literati.

I know no one in the upper echelons of literature.

I know no one in any of the major publishing houses in NYC.

I shouldn't have even gotten as far as I have.

Besides, I don't share the ideology of all the muckety-mucks.

What fascinates me about Olmsted's parks is the fight on the inside over every inch of space. He fought the upper class who wanted their kids to design the monuments.

He wanted a more democratic approach.

Many of the sculptures are those of the kids of the elite who ran the boards who decided what went in, and what stayed out. Olmsted resigned finally over some of the politics.

Politics is shot through every landscape.

every border, every inch of space, is fought for.

And has a meaning.

J said...

Olmsted was an early supporter of Yosemite valley, along with all his park-design projects (including, alas, Stanford U and Cal Berkeley, and the hacienda-italian phoniness--tho' Cal not quite as nauseating as SU).

Ive been to Olmsted Point a few times-- right by Tenaya Lake. No sculptures, stucco-adobe decorations, or Kahlo gloom needed.