After the course ‘Landscape Aesthetics’ in the WUR bachelor program of Landscape Architecture, students wrote essays on their insight and perception of aesthetics. TOPOS will publish three views on aesthetics in a series. This is the third essay in the series.
This paper revolves around my view and thoughts on the subject of aesthetics and more specific: landscape aesthetics. At the start of this course I limited my interpretation of the term aesthetics solemnly to its visual aspects; The things one can see, and one -based on that- defines as visual striking, beautiful or the opposite. However, this explanation leaves, even within this limited point of view, a lot open for debate. For example: is this visual beauty then something innate to the subject (us, humans), or is it an intrinsic value possessed by the object (the landscape in this case)? Or is it something different altogether; Something predominantly social- or society based? Or both?
Although this course did not provide me fully with clear -as is- answers to these questions, it did open up a whole new theoretical spectrum in the world of aesthetics. The field of aesthetics, I can see now, is much broader than my initial understanding; And the questions I asked myself previously reflect only the tip of the enormous iceberg that is ‘aesthetics’. Below l will discuss some of the insights I gained during the development of the course.
Aesthetics, and landscape aesthetics for that matter, is not only about beauty or ugliness, nor about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’, as discussed in class. There is more to it than that. It is something much broader, maybe even holistic. Terms such as art, functionality and time were previously not inherently connected to my understanding of landscape aesthetics (at least not in the way that they are now). Let alone all the different theoretical approaches to aesthetics that we have come about during the course.
For example, I never considered to characterize landscape architecture as ‘art’; Not just ‘an art’. This view, as proposed in the article Aesthetic creation theory and landscape architecture (van Etteger, Thompson, & Vicenzotti, 2016), made for a different, refreshing view on the ‘clash’ between functional and aesthetic based approaches in landscape design; Something I struggle with at times myself. By projecting Zangwill’s Aesthetic Creation Theory onto the field of landscape architecture it is suggested that this imbalance within the discipline of landscape architecture is something we have created ourselves. By looking at it as art, it removes the strict distinction between aesthetic functions (fine art) and non-aesthetic functions (useful arts); There is no void between aesthetics and function, only layering. In design this can be useful in battling one’s parochialism.
Another awareness was sparked by the article The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? (Gobster, Nassauer, Daniel, 2007). There an ‘ecological aesthetic’ is advocated. According to Gobster et al. ecology is nowadays characterized by a binary approach based on soil types, ground water tables, lists and number of species, et cetera. However, by doing so we only focus on non-aesthetic functionality (as in the words of the Aesthetic Creation Theory). Aesthetic functionality, and therefore the overall landscape aesthetics, is left behind; A major concern for us as landscape architects I think, especially if you consider the fact that people tend to care more about the things that are pleasing to look at (Gobster, Nassauer, & Daniel, 2007). To some degree the above contradicts the theory of van Etteger, et al. since they classify ecology as a whole as a non-aesthetic function (useful art). However, if we look at ecology as having both aesthetic and useful functions, as proposed by Gobster et al., the two theories can actually be combined and even strengthen each other, making for ecologically beneficial landscapes with special attention to aesthetic values: function and appearance in harmony.
The last insight I would like to address has to do with the Buddhist approach to time and place in time. Buddhists state that nothing is permanent and that striving for a perfect permanence only results in discomfort (dhukka). For landscape design this is an interesting concept because this has consequences for the way we design. Do we accept change and anticipate on future developments? Or do we firmly hold on to an initial ideal vision? A somewhat comparable dissension can be observed between de New Urbanism movement and the Landscape Urbanism movement, where the former holds on to a fixed ideal vision and the latter adapts their vision as time changes (and with that ecology, society, et cetera). For me this basically meant that I have become a bit more aware of my position as a designer in time.
As mentioned earlier, what struck me the most was the fact that my former understanding of aesthetics was so different (and limited). Looking back, my initial exam answers very well illustrated my visual-based aesthetics approach. Now, when it comes to aesthetics, for me really ‘all is one’ is the summary; There are a tremendous amount of aspects involved (each with heir corresponding theories).
However, the biggest transition, apart from the above, is the way I view aesthetics in terms of its position in science. Although I still believe that aesthetics is for a large part subjective (whether or not influenced by social factors such as upbringing, et cetera), there now is also a large part of me that beliefs otherwise. I now start to think there are indeed also objective, scientific factors at stake. However, the line remains still very thin; Largely because aesthetics does not let itself grasp in numbers and language oftentimes functions as a barrier; We still lose nuances or simply cannot succeed in addressing the ‘true meaning’ of something.
Gobster, P., Nassauer, J., & Daniel, T. (2007, August). The shared landscape: What does aesthetics have to do with ecology? Landscape Ecology, 22(7). van Etteger, R., Thompson, I., & Vicenzotti, V. (2016, February 1). Aesthetic creation theory and landscape architecture. Journal of Landscape Architecture, 11(1).