First of all I must start this book review with an apology to the author.
It was November 2011 when I was asked if I'd like a copy of An Introduction to Landscape to reviewfor Landscape Juice and it's sat on my desk ever since. A +300 page paperback written by a career academic, it's not light reading and I was dreading wading through.
Although sometimes too heavy going and more suited to the academic serious reader, I found just reading the intro had me deep in thought and challenging the author's views.
Landscape's a complicated subject
It soon became clear that the word Landscape doesn't define a single subject (but I think I really already knew that as it's often been a topic of discussion on Landscape Juice).
Peter Howard, even tries to explain that it's the reader's job, and not his as author to determine what landscape really is and says "I cannot even promise that you will learn what 'landscape' is, although you will be given some of the arguments and elements that might allow you to answer the question for yourself. At the very beginning we cannot assume very much more than 'landscape is out of doors".
It's just page one and I'm being stimulated and challenged - Peter Howard does say in the intro that his aim is to make me learn more about myself and my attitude to landscape - in my accepted concept of what a landscape is.
Howard says: "The view from my back window looks out across Dartmoor in the distance and this is much more "landscape" than the view from my front window to the road and the garage next door".
No it isn't, I hear myself say! Surely the word landscape applies equally to both scenes but what differentiates them is that in one the landscape is naturally appealing and stretched as far as the eye can see and the other is local and more of an architectural landscape?
But it suddenly becomes clearer. Howard reminds the reader that landscape isn't a single discipline and not at all rational and then he hits the nail on the head by saying it's 'intensely personal', adding, '[landscape] reflects our own history'.
I'm only into page two of the intro and my thoughts and emotions are already all over the place. There's part of me thinking that Howard is deliberately winding me up and there's another part intensely questioning my previous approval of what I considered a landscape.
"Landscape is not very rational. It is intensely personal and reflects our own history, our own nationality and culture, our personal likes and dislikes. It is always about 'my place', or at least somebody's place."
What does this mean? I'm currently in France so when I look out of my window, or walk in the open landscape, am I seeing history in the sense that I planted that tree or laid that patio therefore that is my personal landscape? It is certainly influenced by my personality and likes and I might also have a desire to personalise it further by replicating a part of England that I'd left behind.
I can understand if I'd influenced the landscape mechanically but if I were to imagine Roman soldiers marching down the chemin. The landscape might be thousands of years old and largely unchanged but I'm but a mere time traveller also passing through. I've not impacted on it nor has it been part of my culture or history...yet to me it's still a landscape.
It's not conventional thinking
I guess what the Peter Howard has done right from the off is make me realise that there's a convention in the sense that all latter day - especially from a commercial landscaper's perspective - landscaping is conceptual, designed and then built to specification.
What I am finding is that Howard makes me consider further the instances of contrived design that seemlessly connect with natural landscape.
Howard isn't wrong when he says that "The biggest problem with landscape is that it means so many different things to so many different people".
The early part of the book talks about how cultural landscape is influenced by geographical landscape - I guess in a sense Howard is saying that events, fetés and ceremonies, for example, may have only evolved because of a physical place where people have historically gathered.
One example springs to mind; Stonehenge is just a lightly undulating landscape grazed by sheep until the stones and their presence is considered. Because the henge has been a place of gathering and ritual for thousands of years it has become more than just geographical landscape: it's become intertwined and partially defined by its cultural connection to the landscape.
Connecting landscape architecture with landscape design
The book asks of me a question in a subliminal manner.
Howard talks about how town and city landscapes have evolved outward often without a cohesive town plan.
Previous to reading the book I might have thought that the buildings defined the landscape because they came first. The landscape, i.e. the gardens, parks, trees and roads were accidentally defined because they were what remained of the space where no buildings stood. But it seems as though a town development is defined partly by its cultural development.
I think, partly, what Howard is saying is that where, for example, an historical footpath or route existed, say for hundreds of years, that it has not only become physical development and landscape boundary but also a cultural landscape legacy which defined where the next part of the landscape jigsaw goes: be that in terms of a solid building, a tree or a soft landscaped space.
How Ashgate Publishing describes An Introduction to Landscape by Peter J Howard:
Inspiring deep emotion, landscape carries many meanings. This book follows the development of several threads of the concept of landscape as they have evolved across disciplines and across countries, leading to the European Landscape Convention and the designation of cultural landscapes as World Heritage Sites.
The book introduces the key notions of landscape, such as landscape as meaning, as picture, as scale, as scenery and as place. It also considers the various factors which influence the way in which landscape is perceived now and in the past, with all of the senses. Finally, it looks of the various ways of protecting, managing and enhancing the landscape, taking into account a future of climate change.
Beautifully illustrated and including 'capsules' in each section which provide fascinating insights into subjects from reading pictures, to mapping and GIS, through a discussion of the range of types of landscape to issues such as eco-museums, this book provides an excellent introductory overview for any students with an interest in the landscape around us.
I have to say I do like the black and white photos. In a sense I feel it's how our memory stores images. A kind or sepia tinted effect - maybe too nostalgic at times but it works.
About the Author: Peter Howard is a geographer who studied at Newcastle and later at Exeter. He taught landscape ideas to students of art and design, and later ran degree courses in landscape and heritage, at Plymouth University. He is now Visiting Professor of Cultural Landscapes at Bournemouth, and is editor of the Landscape Research journal.
Comment: I have not finished the book as yet..I think, for me at least, it's the kind of read I will sometimes tackle sporadically and not necessarily the order its written. But the book helps you do this; what helps in this process is the addition of capsules that are individually defined, thus giving the reader the feeling that it's OK to meander and not follow a set agenda.
If you've read the book (or part of it) and you'd like to add comment about your findings or understanding 9or not) of what the author has tried to do then please feel free to join in.
An Introduction to Landscape is written by Peter J Howard and is published by Ashgate Publications priced £25.00.
Add a Comment