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What is Landscape Theory For?

Federico L. Silvestre
Lecturer in Aesthetics and Art History, University of Santiago de Compostela

Some years ago Yves Lacoste tried to explain what landscape was for. If it is necessary to explain landscape*, should we not also be asking about landscape theory? My own view is that, if it is badly oriented, landscape theory can become the most useless pastime ever proposed by academics (one of many, some might say). However, if it is well conceived, it can be of great value.

The uselessness of badly conceived landscape theory comes from the same source as all bad theories. They are wonderful constructions which gradually distance themselves from their field of study, until they acquire the dimensions of great towers. They look impressive but there are no lifts in them. The person entering them wastes years climbing up endless scaffolding, step by step, until they reach the top and find that the height has distanced them from the real object of their interest, an object which is still far below them at ground level, where they left it. For example, the extent to which the complex vocabulary of structural semiology throws light on the meaning of War and Peace is a question we should be considering, even today.

The same thing could happen to landscape theorists: they could come to feel so secure that they begin to consider that there is no need to ask whether the object referred to in their theories (the landscape) really exists beyond the set of ideas that they have put together. Although this pessimistic scenario is a possibility, I think that contemporary landscape theory is healthy and has broad, well-formulated objectives.

Landscapes are the open spaces that surround us, viewed as a whole and not in fragments, and landscape theory is a discipline which not only defines the concept of landscape but also enquires why people value it in one way or another. The criteria can be of different types. They may be aesthetic or ethical, i.e. ideological, or they may be based on functional, ecological or planning considerations. In the most sophisticated theories, all these factors will be taken into consideration and, depending on the school, the universal nature of landscape or its cultural features will be emphasised. Nevertheless, irrespective of these differences, in a good landscape theory any of these interpretations will be supported by evidence and logical argument. So why do we need clear criteria of this kind? Obviously, to know how to proceed or not in the real world. Despite its theoretical approach, the Paisaje y Teoría [Landscape and Theory] collection published by Biblioteca Nueva (Madrid) was created for precisely this reason. Both the editor and the directors thought that in Spain the landscape that surrounds us was subject to too much intervention without prior thought. We can, therefore, begin to answer the question we asked above as follows: landscape theory serves to define the idea of landscape and helps us to identify and decide on criteria for intervention or non-intervention in the context of current social conditions.

Personally, I think these criteria are not objective, exportable or immutable. As all good architects know, everything depends on dozens of factors and a certain degree of tact. However, I am not writing here to set out my own ideas, but to explain the reasons for the existence of a discipline. There is a second interesting point regarding landscape theory: it is very much alive and deals with today's issues. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that theorising is not enough. Theories, of whatever type, must address the problems of their time. One of the problems concerning knowledge in our age is its dispersion, i.e. the disease of over-specialisation. In this scenario, landscape theory and landscape studies in general have become one of the few meeting points for intelligent individuals from widely varying disciplines. Work is clearly being done on many fronts. As a result of the deregulating zeal of rampant capitalism and the fear of illegitimacy characteristic of the 1970s, a number of theories and initiatives emerged, whose basic effect was to reaffirm inherited artistic and landscape values. Today other problems have also arisen. For example, the tourism market's appropriation of landscape and the banal use to which it is put. This appropriation is filling our country with cloned beauty spots which, for this very reason, are no longer truly beautiful, i.e. living, different and well adapted. A landscape theory which pays little attention to change would be impassive in the face of such developments. Indeed, many of the interesting chapters in the book Theory and landscape: reflections from interdisciplinary perspectives, which has just been published by the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia and Pompeu Fabra University, deal with this key issue. As I said before, work of this kind emphasises the extent to which landscape theory is alive; it is a theory in which approaches going beyond the restricted view of excessively specialised studies constantly converge.

Finally, I would like to put forward a third justification for landscape theory. It is a question of educating our vision, its ability to use words which reflect the cultural, emotional and sensitive bond that links us to our surroundings. Only a chosen few have the ability to formulate theories which are exciting and full of texture, and this is, without doubt, the main purpose of an authentic 'philosophy of landscape'. I once had a curious conversation with the mayor of a village in Galicia. He was proud of the fact that he had just given approval for a delightful hill, which could be seen from all parts of the village, to be levelled so that a new estate of terraced houses could be built. As the mayor was a friend of mine and I could speak freely, I spoke out in defence of the landscape and asked him how he had allowed such an atrocity. As one might have expected, he retorted 'The landscape -what's that to us?' and told me to come down to earth: the project had provided jobs for a lot of people and brought money into the village. This true story shows the enormous gulf between lovers of the landscape and the general public, who usually ask what landscape is and what it is for. As far as I can see, if members of the public think like the mayor, no reasons, however justified, will make them change their minds. They will answer our reasons with their own and we will then begin the tedious to and fro of all pointless arguments. Instead of arguing, we should look for other ways to change people's attitudes: a literary walk, a suggestive description, a page viewed as a space for leisure, illustrating and describing the delights of landscape in general, the local hill, that oasis of calm with its green smells and fascinating history, the magic of the nearby orchards, and the portrayal of the landscape in good art. We could call this option the philotopic approach to landscape theory. And I wonder, can there be a greater interest for any philosophy than that of awakening our dormant capacity for love?

Federico L. Silvestre Lecturer in Aesthetics and Art History, University of Santiago de Compostela

*Hérodote, núm. 7, pag. 3-41, 1977.

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