Mountains and the Rise of Landscape

Though mountains are generally understood to be “natural” and “grand,” the way we consider, experience, describe (and design) them has radically changed throughout history. In the European tradition, mountains were considered until the eighteenth century the source of revulsion and dread. Beginning in late antiquity, they were regarded as symbols of worldly decadence, and this view long remained in place. Thomas Burnet’s treatise The Sacred History of the Earth (1681), for one notable example, saw mountains as the actual ruins of the Great Flood and a form of memento mori; that is, places of dangerous temptation.

New and different forms of appreciation developed with the empiricism of the New Science and physico-theology, and later with the rise of an aesthetics of the sublime. Early-modern theories of the genesis of mountains and the emergence of geology as a historical discipline sometimes contrasted with and at other times coalesced with redrawn categories of “wild” nature, experienced in the course of picturesque tours, scientific expeditions, and unsettling confrontations with the unknown. These intellectual, physical, conceptual, and interpretive gestures modified the ways mountains were perceived—they provide an object lesson in the pathetic fallacy—and prepared the (rugged, jagged, time-worn, etc.) terrain of study for a new approach to the form and forming of the earth’s surface.

The discovery or “invention” of mountains had important consequences, especially in the field of landscape. Arguably, experiencing a landscape (as opposed to representing one, as in paintings and drawings) is directly linked to the way in which the “grand tourists” approached, step by step, the fascinating realm of mountains. Landscape experience was, in other words, an encounter with torrents, rocks, steep valleys, etc. with the Alpine territory functioning between 1670 and 1770 as a vast laboratory in which to test fundamental scientific, artistic, and aesthetic issues. The architectural sublime, present in the dreamlike visions of Claude Nicolas Ledoux or Étienne-Louis Boullée, seems to have their source in mountains. There exists, however, other subtler forms of interaction between mountains and architecture, notably the important tradition of faux mountains and man-made artefacts.

The ostensible object and subject of this seminar, appearing as isolated peaks and as ranges, chains or systems, measurable and scalable but also cloud-shrouded and remote, rising and falling, massive and imponderable, will be studied across time and place with constant and careful attention to how mountains define and defy the discourse and practice of landscape architecture. The seminar is being taught in conjunction with a major exhibition on mountains to be installed in the Druker Design Gallery (Winter 2019). Students are invited and encouraged to contribute to the conceptualization and preparation of its contents.