Aestethic qualities in cultural landscapes: between history and actuality – a methodological essay

Geelmyden, A.K., 2004, Aestethic qualities in cultural landscapes: between history and actuality – a methodological essay, in: ECLAS (Jørgensen, K. & G. Fry), ‘A critical light on landscape architecture’, ,

  • Author : Geelmyden, A.K.
  • Year : 2004
  • Published in Book : A critical light on landscape architecture
  • Abstract in English : In landscape studies on the experiential value of cultural landscapes, it is not the landscape as thing, but the relationship between a person or a group of persons and their environment that is the object of investigation. It is evidences of that relationship that must be sought out and constitute research data. The paper takes departure from a written account of a particular landscape research episode, which, the author argues, can be treated as a testimony of an historical event. If such testimonies are used as data in humanistic landscape experience research, landscape aesthetics becomes a field of knowledge similar to art history, and the activity of assessing landscape qualities may be seen as analogous to art history and criticism. Landscape appreciation then becomes an act of interpretation, as elaborated upon in the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur, where cultural tradition, cultural contexts, the interpreter’s personal matters and language play a role as important in shaping the aesthetic experience of landscape as the physical land itself. The theoretical emphasis is put on understanding landscape as an intrinsically relative phenomenon, meaning that the understanding, identification and articulation of the relationship between contexts and different objects of attention in each case are what constitute landscapes and explain changes in landscape aesthetics over time. The paper is an attempt to test a particular methodological framework of interpretation from literary and art criticism (Danbolt 1991) in the assessment of the aesthetic qualities of a cultural landscape in Central Norway, using the following passage from (Geelmuyden 1999) as its starting tableau: “Two years ago, on a late Saturday afternoon in late September, my colleague B. and I were in a small village in the upper parts of the county of Telemark in Norway, finishing a day’s work of landscape inventory. It was one of those crisp autumn days, with cold and still air, a clear blue sky and an autumn sun that baked the cut meadows and set birch and aspen aflame in a blaze of yellows and reds. We had driven up there to map and take pictures of ten farms. Earlier that same summer, a colleague of ours had visited those ten farms and interviewed the farmers there. She had talked to each of them, sometimes also to their spouses, for several hours, about their relationship with and feelings for cultural remains and the landscape in their community and around their own farms. B. and I had been quite surprised when we realized that same morning that she had not said anything to her interviewees about our coming later on in the fall. Whether it was that realization or some other observation that made me feel uneasy, I still cannot tell. It was a feeling of not being welcome, of not having any legitimate reason to be there. That uneasiness did not pass for the whole day. We met several people: they were out in the fine weather, working on or around their houses. Most greeted us with a kind of aloof curiosity: who were we and what was our business? The sun had gone over the sky and stood low, casting its last rays, but barely heating the hillside that most of the farms we had seen were perched on. We were climbing up a steep and winding dirt road in B.’s car, passing steep meadows and gradually thinning spruce forest. Finally, after a sharp left turn, the road flattened out and stopped. To the left of us, some ten meters down the slope, facing the valley and the evening sun, lay the farmstead in question, our object of investigation. What a beautiful sight/site! There were five buildings clustered on the upper edge of a meadow which, as it seemed to me, had not been cut for many years Yellow, thin straws of dry grass were moving in the slight breeze, catching the day’s last sunlight. The buildings, all wooden, and with wood shingle or corrugated iron roofs, had not been painted or tended to otherwise for a long time. They were glowing in a warm grey-brown in this light. But there was no sense of abandonment or dilapidation; I’d rather say that there was a sense of loneliness, and even timelessness: The circle of the seasons seemed to be the only relevant time-denominator. Somebody lived there: there were red geraniums and white lace curtains in the windows of the dwelling. A narrow path had been mowed from the post on which hung a mailbox up where we had parked our car, and when we got down into the farmyard we saw that the entrance door was slightly open. B. went down and knocked on the door while I stood waiting in the middle of the yard, camera in hand, but only taking in the atmosphere of the place. I heard B. call «hello» once, saw her push the door a little more open saying «hello» again. No answer. She came back, saying she had heard someone in there, and that the person had withdrawn back into the house. “They don’t want us here, I said. We should get out of the yard”. B. took a picture. I was a little faster in my retreat back up to the car. We both thought that we couldn’t leave without at least a few pictures and notes, if only from a little distance. So we walked along a path on the upper edge of the farmstead so that we could get a look at it as a whole from the side, without intruding. The unusual beauty and peacefulness of the place contrasted dramatically with the feeling inside me. I was scared. “Let’s get out of here, I said and started walking back to the car.” B. followed me, but when we reached the mailbox, where a tailless cat now sat watching us, she decided she needed a few more pictures from the other side of the farm. I did not like the idea of staying there, but, on the other hand, I was aware that the fear I felt was entirely my own, that there had not been any actual incident to warrant it. B. was obviously not feeling the same thing. I thought I must be going mad, that I was getting tired and that the uneasiness I had been feeling all day was playing tricks with me. As I opened the passenger door and inadvertently looked down into the farmyard. I suddenly caught sight of the upper part of the body of a man walking across the yard, carrying in his right hand what looked to me as a potted plant by its branches. We saw each other simultaneously, held each others eyes for what couldn’t have been more than a tenth of a second, and without a nod or any other kind of acknowledgement, he disappeared behind a tree and I sat down in the car. I sat waiting, noting down the configuration of the buildings to each other and to the surrounding meadows and the observation that the forest above the farm had been grazed not more than maybe ten or fifteen years ago. I also sat wondering at how different this place seemed from the one we had visited just before, although many physical characteristics, such as the type and number of buildings, the situation on the valley slope, etc. were essentially the same. I also remember thinking that B. should hurry up. Then I was suddenly startled by a sharp and loud sound. I looked up and around me, but couldn’t see anything. I remember associating the sound to the flowerpot I had seen the man carry and had a notion that what I had heard was the pot being flung violently into a metal barrel. But I must have been puzzled by the strangeness or unlikeliness of that notion: I could not settle on it as the right «picture» for the sound I had heard. “Or was it a shot?” I can remember myself wondering next, and as I sat contemplating that possibility (I haven’t heard many shots in my life, so I really wasn’t sure), I heard a man’s angry shouting from down by the farmhouse. I couldn’t see anything there, but when I looked back behind the car, I saw B. walking resolutely towards me, looking down, apparently ignoring the person who was shouting at her (us) not far from her to the left. “He shot at me” - was the first thing she said when she had sat down behind the steering wheel. It seemed to take her an eternity to get the car started, turned around and heading away. It was only with great effort that I was able to repress showing the impatience I felt: It seemed like she was moving in slow motion, but I didn’t say a word! It wasn’t until we had gone a ways back down the road that B. said: «He was standing at the corner of the house pointing his rifle at me all the way while I was walking back to the car”. Was it because he had seen fear in my face that he had shot in the first place? And was it her incredible composedness that had kept him from really hurting her? Back home again, on the following Monday, B. called the local police and told them about the incident. That surprised me: I realized that I hadn’t thought of doing that myself. I somehow felt that the man had had a right to shoot.” The paper analyses this landscape along the following dimensions: The landscape is seen - • As a description of a real physical environment (what are the objects it refers to?) • As a form (what is its style?) • As a historical document (What historical category of landscape does it belong to? How was it looked upon at the time it was first published?) • As a representation that has something to say us today; on a cognitive level, on an existential level and on a utopian level. In conclusion the paper aims at opening a concrete and systematic humanistic methodological discussion about landscape assessment. This is necessary in order to gain a broader understanding of the various levels of meaning that can be attributed to landscapes. Also, it would open for a more systematic understanding of the aesthetics of landscape as a distinct discipline within the humanities, with clear bearings on the professions of planning and landscape architecture. One of them is that this approach may result in a transparent and negotiable theoretical explication of changing landscape values. References: Danbolt, G., 1991: Kunsten mellom historie og aktualitet. I Gundersen K. Og S. Wikshåland (eds.), 1991: Est II. Grunnlagsproblemer i estetisk forskning. Norges allmennvitenskapelige forskningsråd. Pp. 19-53. Geelmuyden, A. K., 1999: The landscape architect as landscape researcher: between empathy and reflective detachment - Notes on the assessment of landscape values. I “Shaping the land”, Vol. I. Papers from the Department of Geography at the University of Trondheim, pp.116-127. ISSN 0809-2958.