“In the Manner of a Picture”: The Lure of the Picturesque

“Instead of trying to wrest order from chaos, the picturesque now is wrested from the homogenized, the singular liberated from the standardized.”
— Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace

When the picturesque emerged on the scene as an aesthetic issue of consequence in the 18th century, it stood poised between the philosophical categories of the beautiful and the sublime. This seminar proposes to revisit the historical roots and significant repercussions of the picturesque as an approach that continues to provoke, even today, new modes of thinking in architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism. We will begin by revisiting some of the foundational treatises by Edmund Burke, William Gilpin, Humphry Repton, and others. We will also consider the impact of those optical technologies that made the picturesquemanifest (from the Claude glass to the camera obscura), explore the visual techniques and objects with which it was associated (the contingent blot, the fanciful folly, the melancholy ruin), and study the compositional strategies of gardens, parks, and cemeteries (Lord Lyttelton’s Hagley, Marquis de Girardin’s Ermenonville, or Mount Auburn Cemetery). We will then turn to those 19th century theorists and practitioners, including A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin among others, whose works enlisted the picturesque theme in order to wrestle with issues of locality, construction, stylistic revivals, communal identity, and national memory. We will conclude with a reflection on modern and contemporary examples including Le Corbusier’s architectural promenade (the picturesque and movement), Nikolaus Pevsner’s “Townscape” (the picturesque as difference and variation), Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building (the picturesque and the “making of nothing”), as well as current performative attitudes and what it means to aestheticize ecology.