Mountains and the Rise of Landscape

To ask when we started looking at mountains is by no means the same as asking when we started to see them. Rather, it is to question what sorts of aesthetic and moral responses, what kinds of creative and reflective impulses, our new-found regard for them prompted. It is evident enough that in a more or less recent geological time frame mountains have always just been there. This ineluctable thereness was famously invoked by the athletic schoolmaster George Mallory when asked why he had made repeated attempts to reach the peak of Mount Everest, the allure of which was and remains demonstrably fatal. The mountaineer’s strenuously slow “perpendicular travel” toward an upward tending horizon was “work for supermen,” the New York Times suggested in a profile of Mallory published prior to his final all-too-human attempt. He was last seen on the afternoon of June 8, 1924, near the base of Everest’s summit pyramid before disappearing into the mountain mist.

It is possible that mountains, like the sea, best provide pleasure, visual and otherwise, when experienced from a (safe) physical and psychical distance. But it might also be the case that the pleasures mountains hold in store are of a learned and acquired sort. Which is also to say that mountains, for all their unforgiving thereness, are themselves the products of unwitnessed Neptunian and Vulcanian tumults or divine judgment. For the late seventeenth-century theologian and cosmogonist Thomas Burnet, mountains were “nothing but great ruins.” A dawning appreciation of these wastelands appeared in the critical writings of John Dennis. Satirized as “Sir Tremendous Longinus” for his rehabilitation of the antique aesthetic category of the sublime, Dennis expressed the complex concept of “delightful horror.” Mountain gloom was ready to become mixed with mountain glory.

More work was still to be done on the literary and philosophical front before the Romantic breakthrough, one high vantage point being the essayist Joseph Addison’s dream of finding himself in the Alps, “astonished at the discovery of such a Paradise amidst the wildness of those cold hoary landscapes.” But a kindred innovation in seeing and feeling was called for in the formation of mountains and the rise of landscape. Mountains, among other earth forms, are both the medium and outcome of still-evolving habits of experiencing, making, and imagining. Architects and landscape architects, mutually occupied with the horizontal surface, have had a touch equally as searching as that of mountaineers and poets in sensing the terrain.

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 and architecture. We will look at texts, images, cultural constructs, buildings (mountain-scaled and otherwise), cities, wastes, and elsewhere all in search of the meaning of mountains.