Serious landscaping

artist Timofeev 2010
artist Timofeev 2010

Since the eighteenth century the word ‘aesthetics’ has made a fashionable rise amongst European intellectuals. Hence forth, the meaning of ‘aesthetics’ has not changed drastically. It is still, according to most encyclopedia and dictionaries, a matter of good taste and beauty.

Concerning landscape design, there is at least a rather broad range of aesthetic principles to choose from. Besides the beautiful – harmless, feminine, tranquil and gentle, there is the sublime. That what is two-faced because it represents something that is too big to present and therefore frightening in a Godlike sense, yet at the same time it pleases the mind because it is only an image of the frightening, not fear itself. You will survive the sublime, invigorated and more alive. The sublime however, in it’s initial eighteenth century masquerade, became too demanding to deliberately design. The costs to design a realistically eruption volcano (for example in the Garden Realm of Wörlitz near Berlin) were enormous and always quite misplaced in places that naturally do not contain such features. In the end the design of deep canyons, dark woods, grotto’s and scary features (for example the Mostri di Bomarzo) became dull and predictable. Fashion always erodes sensations to fit a comfort zone and so a middle ground was found in the picturesque. A perfecting of techniques to trick spatial perspective and besides that a more efficient financing by using the existing qualities of the land. After some estates, the whole countryside became pictured as a ‘landscape’. This way, tourism could develop, while traveling the countryside that was managed in little bits here and pieces of improvement there. Just enough to make good compositions from certain viewpoints – always the same, since people tend not to leave a dominant pathway while being in strange terrain.

There have been introduced no new aesthetic categories ever since. The picturesque has become dominant and is implicitly equal to the beautiful: a typical landscape beauty = picturesque.

Too bad for the sublime? Is landscape design now full of good taste? Hardly, there are so many (urban) environments that cannot even be called ‘landscapes’, yet they are part of our living world. What to do? Do they have to be transformed to become picturesque as well?

If the picturesque is the instrument for frivolous landscaping, to nicely play the audience into desirable illusions as is done by successful design firms like West 8 and Piet Oudolf; then congruent to this, the future sublime is the instrument for serious landscaping, to enable individuals to discover their own authentic source of authority. A landscape treat that is in great demand, I would expect.