TOPOS asked researcher Paul Roncken for a contribution to the topic of contemporary landscape aesthetics. As assistant professor he is connected to the landscape architecture group of Wageningen University and works on several topics involving aesthetics and design education and research. He shares his view on the development of sublime landscape experiences during childhood.
Being alone in an all pervasive landscape, provides an intriguing advantage for experiences: every sensation directly relates to you, in person. Every index ﬁnger pointing at some external cause, is a seeking ﬁnger pointing outward at sounds, movement, smells, views and pointing inward to some sort of judgement. Such an explorative means of sensing both deals with external objects and with the consequences of resulting responses. Landscape experiences create the impression that objects and phenomena can be understood by a subjective interpretation. A personal, unarguable interpretation.
To some philosophers this is described as phenomenology, an interpretative interaction between the subjective and the objective, a tension between an individual and all of existence (e.g. Petrarca in Lemaire 1970: 17,18; 2002). The ability to identify something external according to ones internal categories is a challenge that has fascinated philosophers, poets, painters, designers and psychologists since the eighteenth century with more rigor than ever before. Back then, 300 hundred years ago, eighteenth century western individuals had yet to learn how to deal with the empowering and at the same time diminishing aspects of newly observed natural features like high mountain views, wild ocean currents, volcano eruptions and projected images like those by Dante’s inferno. As one of the sublime effects it was suggested that ‘through loss of individuality, humanity could gain’ (Stormer 2004: 233). One could also argue that this eighteenth century experience was a naivety, like that of children. Very serious man and women were consciously describing their childish associations and responses, and were rather surprised by them.
Only decades ago, research has revealed that the capacity for lateral thinking – as is needed for an individual to respond in naivity – requires an instinct that should already be introduced at a very early age (Jonnson Abercrombie 1969: 66). A child needs a secure place to allow itself to drift to places beyond habits. If we have not learned to do so as a child, it might become impossible as adults. Abercrombie mentions for instance the inclusion of a child with mother’s love or family love (1969: 66). Such an inclusion allows the realms of imagination and reason to be mutually effective. It is a precondition to become intimate with ones habits and the demands made by the external world. Dutch educator Dasberg discusses research in which a child requires a secret or secluded place. Such a place is most effective when custom made to ﬁt the individual (Dasberg 1981: 99-100). In such a personal environment one can be inventor and investigator of ‘the secret of the dawn of our day, of our not yet externalized self’ (translated by me, citation of Langeveld 1963: 21).
In my classes at Wageningen University I often wonder what to do with 19 year old students that want to become landscape designers and did not experience such childhood conditions. It has occurred to me that many have not learned to do so. One of the possible educational methods to help them is: walking. Walking the landscape seems to be a major trend as an awareness raising experience. You can do this in remote places (Macfarlane 2012; Wylie 2005, 2007) and in urban landscapes (Bunschoten 2010; Debord 1995). The ritual of walking and strolling is deeply intertwined with the design of landscape parks, vista’s and views (Conan 2007). Another interesting domain to explore is the amateur involvement with landscapes. Most gardens and landscapes are amateur made and amateur analyzed (e.g. bird spotting). This ‘vernacular’ (Jackson 1984) range of experiences offer many implicit and undocumented rituals that bind people to a place and enable them to engage with a ‘secret place’. One more suggestion that I will raise is the discussion whether or not it is better to raise children using art and literature that are also studied by adults (Dasberg 1981: 8). The main argument for this viewpoint is that the quality of a work is presented only by the exact version, length and size of the work.
I think this last statement holds an important truth. A shortened version of a work will focus on the highlights only and will leave less room for personal explorations and wanderings. Any new child in this world should be able to design its own conception of the world (e.g. Louv 2005). Any pre-conceptualization by someone else is an intrusion into this intimacy and will disrupt the construction of a personal position: a realisation of the self (Dasberg: 100). Children will only shallowly learn about their position in the world if what they receive is ﬁtted for their age and gender – and thus contains an immensity of highlights and peak experiences in concentrated form. Children most likely can learn to interpret and experience an understanding of themselves if they themselves create a safe spot, a ‘secret place‘ in the void that is left for them to ﬁll. They learn not so much due to what is offered, but despite what is offered. Voids that are often present in unabridged artworks and inﬂuential designs. This however means that paintings cannot be represented by reproductions on screens, and landscapes cannot be represented by video games, and so on… (note: this also means that nature cannot be represented by parks).
Nevertheless, I am convinced that people can learn to sublimate past their childhood time. To be a child is not age related, it is perception related. A relevant question therefore is by what method people can be educated to sublimate: to learn to question their conditioned perspective and to create personal ones. Analogues to the arguments above I argue against speciﬁcally ﬁtted products or types of (urban) landscapes. Unlike many contemporary marketing strategies to deliver custom made design for speciﬁc target groups, I opt for non speciﬁc designs, no obvious concepts and no downgrading of long and boring parts. If you ﬁnd this strange, then consider that I am backed up by one the greatest landscape architects that has lived: Frederick Law Olmsted. He pursued this openness of imagination and once had a memorable ﬁght with the board of Central Park. He strongly objected against rich and ornamental ﬂower beds along the pathways for they would only distract the attention of the public. ‘Too much wanting in art’ he would say (Olmsted 1902: 51). As a boy Olmsted had read the book ‘Solitude’ by the Swiss physician Johann Georg Zimmermann, discussing the powerful ability of scenery to ease a person’s melancholy. This rather serious work at a boy’s age made an impression that built a conviction about the general audience of Central Park who should not be ﬁxated at kitsch concentrated display, but to let their minds wander across the wide and empty sight lines and changing scenery while strolling along. To allow a mechanism to create new images and forms that identify not only a sense of place, but above all, a sense of self.
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