Source: Axioms for Reading the Landscape – Lewis

Doing some readings of seminal texts for an upcoming essay/book chapter on landscape urbanism, and want to capture some of the content, at least in fragments.  ‘Source’ will be the code for snapshot of a particular essay – not a thorough review but an abstract and some specific reflections.  In this case the instructive ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene’ by geographer Pierce Lewis (1979)*.

The main thrust of Lewis is to provide a roadmap for reading the ‘cultural landscape’.  The concept of understanding this wider view of ‘landscape’ is important, as it moves us from the more bucolic associations of the term to one in which it is understood as part of the human experience.  The associations of the word landscape are covered often and referenced in literature on landscape urbanism, which eschews the idea of ‘landscape’ as beautification, rather echoing Lewis as encompassing “everything from city skylines to farmers’ silos, from golf courses to garbage dumps, from ski slopes to manure piles… in fact, whole countrysides, and whole cities, whether ugly or beautiful makes no difference.” (p.23)

This expanded view of landscape is vital, as it moves us from viewing nature as a detached process to a more broad idea of landscape, even the most banal, as attached with cultural meaning, and in the words of Lewis: 

“Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form.” (p.23)

The Axioms, then are derived from a dearth of academic scholarship on the ordinary, in the vein of J.B. Jackson, giving us the grammar and usage for this cultural landscape.  The axioms therefore, are:

1. The Axiom of Landscape as a Clue to Culture
 In essence, our culture and who we are is reflected in our landscape, per the quote above our ‘autobiography’ in a visible form.  This includes some corollaries to this, including that of ‘cultural change’, implying that changes to landscape reflect changes to culture, the ‘regional’ corollary, that the landscapes in certain regions indicate differences of culture; the corollary of ‘convergence’, meaning that homogenization of culture is reflected in the landscape; the corollary of ‘diffusion’ whereby changes in culture and landscape occur through imitation; and finally, the corollary of ‘taste’ where the cultural landscape form is tied to culture.

2.  The Axiom of Cultural Unity and Landscape Equality
The presence of items in the cultural landscape almost always reflect the culture – and they are assumed to be equal with others.  Lewis uses some examples, such as the equality of the ubiquitous McDonald’s to a architectural landmark like the Empire State Building.  This gives us the latitude to not elevate certain aspects of the landscape as more important that others in a hierarchy, but give equal weight to the ordinary, at least in terms of what they say about our culture.

3. The Axiom of Common Things
There is inherent difficulty in reading the landscape through traditional academic methods, for a number of reasons.  The lack of study of the ‘ordinary’ is due to these elements, as content, seeming to be of lesser value to scholars.  Therefore, we look to journalism, trade journals, advertisements, travel literature, and the occasional enlightened author to paint this picture of the ‘common’ elements of our cultural landscape. 

4. The Historic Axiom
The content of the cultural landscape cannot be divorced from history, as the past provides the context in which certain elements were constructed.  This is expanded with the corollary of ‘historic lumpiness’ which shows not a linear timeline but in fits and starts; the ‘mechanical’ or ‘technological’ corollary, where the actual mechanics of creation and the technologies used, such as the lawn and it’s devices for care, need to be included in the reading – in the words of Lewis, “where things started, when, and how.” (p.30)

5. The Geographic (or Ecologic) Axiom
Similar to history, the geographic context of the landscape must be understood, giving specificity to place in determining the spatial relationship that is shaped by culture. Culture is a major driver of the arrangement and use of places, thus determination of what is there is definitely tied closely to the opportunities and constraints that exist there.

6. The Axiom of Environmental Control
Related to geography, there must be knowledge of the physical environment in which cultural landscapes exist, and this influence on the spaces.  Not just the land use of human-defined spatial arrangements, these derive from climate, topography, geology, and other environmental features – which in turn are reflected in how we build, the use of energy, and myriad responses to the local patterns of the environment.

7.  The Axiom of Landscape Obscurity
The issue of legibility is key to reading the landscape, and this axiom reinforces that although messages exist, they are somewhat difficult to extract or translate.  The reaction is to look at other sources for this information, but much of what we seek is not available, is sometimes contradictory or difficult to confirm.  The only way to be sure, is to go right to the source and that this “alternation of looking, and reading, and thinking, and then looking and reading again, can yield remarkable results, if only to raise questions we had not asked before.” (p.32)

Together these provide a working method for urbanism, which is not derivative of a preconception or prescription, but based on the actual, on the ground interaction with the cultural landscapes in which our decision-making rests. 

* The essay was originally published in The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes by (Meinig & Jackson, 1979) and reprinted in Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (Almy. ed., 2006) – page citations from Almy, ed.

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