Meaning, mapping and making of landscape.
Origins of the term 'landscape' seem to lie in northern Europe: the Dutch, Belgian, Germao terms, Lantschap, Lantskip. Landschaft respectively. Sometimes it was used to designate land in the immediate environs of a town or city, not just natural scenery. When eventually used in terms of art, it designates the area of a religious painting that forms the setting for the central drama and its protagonists. Thomas Blount's Glossographia (1670) gives a definition that might have applied to the term through much of the early modern period:
'Landtskip (Belg) Parergon, Paisage, or By-work, which is an expressing the Land, by Hills, Woods, Castles, valleys, Rivers, Cities & c as far as may be shewed in our Horizon. All that which in a Picture is not of the body or argument thereof is Landskip, Parergon, or by-work. As in the Table of our Saviors passion, the picture of Christ upon the Rood (which is the proper English word for Cross) the two theeves, the blessed Virgin Mary, and St John, are the argument: But the City, Jerusalem, the Country about, the clouds, and the like, are Landskip.' It is the outdoor setting for the principal dramatic action, and includes towns and settlements as well as countryside scenes. However, it was during the Enlightenment that Landscape became more emphatically associated with natural, non-urban scenery. Romanticism's worship of Nature and of the Sublime in Nature, and its recoil from early industrialization and rapid urbanization pushed Landscape into remoter retreat from signs of developed civilization. We have inherited the Romantic version of landscape. However, modern understanding of landscape often emphasizes its conceptual, cultural significance rather than the topographical or material meaning. Landscape is explored as a mental construct. 'Landscape is Nature mediated by Culture' is an attractively succinct definition, until one begins to ask what exactly is 'Nature'? and question the extent to which 'Nature' itself is a cultural construct? Can we oppose Nature and Culture so easily as this definition suggests? Where do we draw the line between Nature and Culture to preserve the integrity of 'Nature'? These questions suggest that 'tastes' in landscape act as a cultural barometer of civilization's sense of its relationship with Nature.
Images of landscape often evoke sheer pleasure, a pleasure which arises from several possible sources. It might be associations, such as memories of holidays, pastoral idylls, the peacefulness, the slower pace, or a whole imagined way of life. Equally it could be from the space, light, freedom, colour found in landscape. It might also be seen as an antidote, either to an over-controlled domestic environment, or the complexity and pressure of city living. Contrasting Joel Meyerowitz's Broadway and West 46th Street with Claude Monet's Meadow with Haystacks shows the latter. Meyerowitz gives an archetypal view of the contemporary city. All is oppressive foreground with lots of people but no human interaction against a bewildering array of signs, where Monet offers depth, readability at a glance and softened forms, feathery texture and gentle gradation and soft colour against Meyerowitz's hard, sharp edges and austere geometry. The metropolis is the new wilderness, but constituted by almost the opposite components to those of the old natural wilderness: instead of a place almost wholly empty of humans and devoid of any artefacts, the city is a place overused by humans and consisting wholly of artefacts.
As we become more urbanized and mechanized, the greater our appetite for landscapes without human presence, or signs of human presence--unless, that is, the human presence is organically sympathetic to landscape, such as shepherds, cottages, or cornfields. The relish for the Sublime--for mountain scenery, horror, mystery and the irrational--arose just at the time when the Enlightenment was celebrating triumphant discoveries of Nature's Laws. In Romanticism the perception of our fragile mutability heightened a sense of Nature's stable, unchanging constitution. That mindset is less and less sustainable now: Nature we know to be a dynamic, changing process, its renewability limited. So the experience of landscape is attuned to our desires and expectations, and to our cultural conditioning.
Since the early modern period, landscape has become an increasingly precious aesthetic amenity. We like to consume it. We put a value on it. On 4 October 1769, while at Keswick. Thomas Gray encapsulated this point, [I] saw in my glass a picture, that if I could transmitt to you, & fix it in all the softness of its living colours, would fairly sell for a thousand pounds'. Modern day tourists follow Gray's line of thought. They see a grand stretch of lakes and mountains, use the camera to frame a section of the spectacle, and take the picture, supposedly 'fixing it in all the softness of its living colours'. Then they get it developed and printed and offer it for sale, and these terms, 'take', 'capture' and 'fix' all belong to the language of appropriation. Landscape is a commodity. It is commodified as an aesthetic amenity as well as a piece of real estate. In View from Mount Holyoke, Thomas Cole schematically dramatizes landscape values in a diagonally divided composition. In the sunlit river valley the new farms, wrested from the wilderness, and the grid of their fields, flourish in a benign, fertile, mappable landscape. Old savage America survives in the unmappable high-country wilderness on the left, as a Romantically precious landscape of the Sublime.
Both the camera's and the real-estate surveyor's appropriation of landscape is in contrast to some modern artistic sensibilities, for whom the appropriation of territory--metaphorical or otherwise--is morally and politically incorrect. Richard Long, for instance, has said, 'I like the idea of using the land without possessing it', and he makes this explicit when referring to his works, they 'are made of the place, they are re-arrangements of it and in time will be reabsorbed by it'.
The artist in the landscape
The history of the artist's relationship to landscape has been one of increasing intimacy with and intervention in the motif. This is partly because we have had too much landscape art. 'Today our sight is a little weary, burdened by the memory of a thousand images ... We no longer see Nature; we see pictures over and over again', said Cezanne in 1902. But Turner expressed the trend towards this intimate connection when he asked. 'What would they have? I wonder what they think the sea's like? I wish they'd been in it'. If the goal is not just to be out in the landscape but to be swept up into the forces of nature, the corollary is, as caught in Giuseppe Penone's, First Breath (1977), that the presence of the artist becomes fugitive and ephemeral. In 1999 he said, 'This work is a reminder that every breath we exhale is an introduction of one body of air into another, and that, in a sense, our innermost being is identical to and cannot be separated from the world around us'. We eat, drink, and breathe landscape.
The old dichotomies begin to collapse as artists emphasize their sense of symbiosis with, rather than detachment from, Nature. Sensing an interdependence with Nature, they sharpen ecological and political sensitivities. This profoundly affects the art of landscape in our day. Michael Snow said of his landscape film La Region Centrale, (1969): 'I recorded the visit of some of our minds and bodies and machinery to a wild place, but I didn't colonize it. I hardly even borrowed it'.
Working alongside archaeologists gave Simon Callery an opportunity 'to see how a painter of the urban landscape from London's East End would respond to a paradigm of the English landscape'. In July 1996 in association with the photographer Andrew Watson, Callery documented a 20m x 40m trench at the chalk excavation at the Iron Age Segsbury Camp in Oxfordshire with 378 black and white images taken from a height of 2.5m. Invited back for the excavation of Alfred's Castle in 2000, he was 'eager to make a work that utilized the actual surface material of the excavation'. This resulted in a plasterwork, poured in 1m X 2m sections, across a 20m X 2m Bronze Age trench, that 'captured the entire chalk surface' rather than just taking its negative form. He discusses his work with Jeremy Melvin.
One aspect of your engagement with landscape seems to be a reverse of the traditional reasons for painting nature. Traditionally landscape painting was a way of suggesting depth and distance beyond the individual, of externalizing feelings, and of setting up hierarchies according to distance from the viewer/painter. Your work seems to draw everything to the surface as if it were mirroring these sensations back to the individual, of focusing inwards rather than outwards.
I think the point where I begin a painting is the point where traditional landscape painting leaves off. I am interested in working with ideas about how and why we respond to landscape (this includes the urban landscape) on a sensual level and not in depicting its visual appearance. With the trappings of representation obliterated, the paintings offer a lean and stripped down physicality defined by specific proportion, luminosity and surface quality. They are intended to provide a slowed down, drawn out and extended perceptual experience. This experience is dependent solely on a response to the material nature of the work. This way of looking, or better, this way of sensing, leads to an experience in which the viewer is no longer the passive recipient of the visual information contained in an artist's production. The dynamic is altered and the viewer is active in an equation that is a reversal of the traditional flow between artwork and audience. The expressive end of this encounter is that the viewer, rather than the artwork or artist, becomes the subject of their perceptual process.
Another difference lies in the treatment of architecture. In Poussin or Claude, architecture has quite specific and defined roles (though often highly complex and allegorical), it is about objects set in a larger picture. In your work, architecture helps to define a way of looking: an example would be the way you use entasis on the frames of your paintings to help structure the way of looking.
I do not want to depict architccture or expect it to play a role in an unfolding narrative. I want the paintings to be architectural in character. For example, in recent large-scale tall paintings I have used the classical Greek architectural principle of entasis--most clearly seen in the tapering in the columns of the Parthenon in Athens.
The dimensions of these paintings are slightly narrower at the top than at the bottom. This is achieved by the introduction of a subtle curve that begins at 5/8ths up on the vertical height of the stretcher. The need to distort from the accurate rectangle satisfies a perceptive sense of rightness that a tall rectangular form appears smaller at the top. This encourages us to relate to the painting as a physical form and creates the possibility that an experience of the work is not exclusive to the eye but also involves the body.
The intention behind applying architectural principle to contemporary painting is to tap into the highly developed way we use our senses as we navigate and negotiate the built environment on a daily basis. I identify one of the defining qualities about the way we understand architecture through a process of measuring ourselves in relation to it. This could almost be considered common sense and should be as active in the art gallery as it is on the street.
In that sense, perhaps, it bears some comparison with archaeology, as a technique for drawing out perceptions, or for helping to define a surface.
I want to use architectural references to elicit a response that involves all our senses and doesn't prioritize the eye. My approach to making work from direct experience of excavation has been to concentrate on the surface material of the site. For example the 20m X 2m sculpture called 'Trench 10' was made by pouring plaster onto the chalk surface of an excavated Bronze Age ditch. The surface of the work is not simply the negative form of this ditch as the plaster acted to capture the chalk loose. Above all this is a work that is animated by our interaction with surface--in this case a historical surface.
Did working with archaeologists in the landscape offer a different sense of time to working in the contemporary city?
One of the most striking aspects of working on an excavation was a heightened awareness of time quite unlike the urban experience. Time as an element and a constituent of place was tangible on site. This sensation was not immediate but was generated by a developing understanding of the particular characteristics of the landscape.
There is also the principle of stratigraphy in excavation that defines the relationship of objects to one another in time. Objects that are found on the same horizontal plane can be considered contemporary to one another, while objects that are found at a greater vertical depth can be considered older. I began to feel that this axis of two lines was an expressive way of understanding time and could be fed into the way I use line in painting.
It follows that we could grade the landscape and the city in terms of their horizontality and verticality and draw conclusions on the extent to which an emphasis on the axis influences how we respond.
Does this sense of time seem to demand such an intimate and precise record (thinking of photography) of what you found there, in a way that the more familiar urban environment would not?
The desire that a sense of time defines the experience of the finished work is only really possible if a perceptual route to this end is established. In the case of a work called The Segsbury Project (378 large-scale black and white prints that record the surface of a 20m X 40m site at 2:1 housed in seven plan chests), the detail of the photographic prints sets up a visual encounter with an archaeological surface. In this work, detail and intimacy of the prints was necessary to bring about a questioning of the surface.
Intimacy depends on sensory knowledge and the work must communicate this, whether it is the familiar urban environment or an excavation in the rural landscape.
Given that there are differences between cities and landscapes, does architecture in cities have a compatible role with archaeology in the landscape?
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the reasons why archaeologists are drawn to certain sites tells us as much about our current interests as it does about our distant past. We seem to visit and revisit places for the reasons the original inhabitants settled there. This reflects the extent to which the quality of place defines what kind of architecture is built and the role architecture plays in defining the quality of a place.
The first excavation I was involved in was an Iron Age hill fort settlement and the second an Iron Age hill fort with the remains of a Romano-British villa at its centre. The work I made was a record of the traces of early forms of architecture and a testing ground for examining the validity of landscape as a subject for contemporary art.
Towards the end of 1996 I had written an essay (published as 'Port Statistics' in The Unknown City, Kerr and Borden eds, MIT, 2001), which began:
'Robinson in Space, a film (35mm colour 82mins UK 1997), was photographed between March and November 1995. It documents the explorations of an unseen fictional character called Robinson, who was the protagonist of the earlier London, which was a re-imagination of its subject suggested by the Surrealist literature of Paris. Robinson in Space is a similar study of the look of present-day England in 1995, and was suggested to some extent by Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Among its subjects are many new spaces, particularly the sites where manufactured products are produced, imported and distributed. Robinson has been commissioned by 'a well-known international advertising agency' to undertake a study of the 'problem' of England. It is not stated in the film what this problem is, but there are images of Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, a Rover car plant, the inward investment sites of Toyota and Samsung, a lot of ports, supermarkets, a shopping mall and other subjects which evoke the by now familiar critique of 'gentlemanly capitalism', which sees the UK's economic weakness as a result of the City of London's long term [English] neglect of the [UK's] industrial economy, particularly its manufacturing base.
'Early in the film, its narrator quotes from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible ..." The appearances by which the viewer is invited to judge are initially the dilapidation of public space, the extent of visible poverty, the absence of UK branded products in the shops and on the roads, and England's cultural conservatism. Robinson's image of the UK's industry is based on his memories of the collapse of the early Thatcher years. He has assumed that poverty and dilapidation are the result of economic failure, and that economic failure is a result of the inability of UK industry to produce desirable consumer products. He believes, moreover, that this has something to do with the feel of "Middle England" which he sees as a landscape increasingly characterized by sexual repression, homophobia and the frequent advocacy of child beating.
'At the same time, he is dimly aware that the UK is still the fifth largest trading economy in the world and that British, even English people, particularly women and the young, are probably neither as sexually unemancipated, as sadistic or as miserable as he thinks the look of the UK suggests. The film's narrative is based on a series of journeys in which his prejudices are examined, and some of them are disposed of.'
FOREIGN OFFICE ARCHITECTS: FARSHID MOUSSAVI
At the Yokohama Ferry Terminal, Foreign Office Architects proposed a new synthesis between landscape and architectural form. Instead of the old distinction between figure and ground, which often translated into artifice--architecture--and nature, or the landscape, Farshid Moussavi explained, they see the relationship as a series of networks combining social, political and geological influences. Consequently, 'the vocabulary of landscape is replaced by a network of systems, connections and interferences', and architecture becomes a strategy for 'trying to negotiate a way across them'.
What has driven this interaction between landscape and architecture, between nature and artifice, is Information Technology. With this new computing power, geometry, once the unyielding arbiter, can now assume far more complex and sophisticated forms which increasingly mimic nature. 'Geometry', explained Moussavi, 'is now more comparable to real nature, and the distinctions between the organic and the rational are blurred.' Yokohama introduced a 'geometry that almost looks organic' and brought several other consequences. Creating 'different conditions of space, coherence and diversity within the same conception', the free-flowing forms replace prescribed circulation routes with an urban ground, increasing density of circulation and appearing to reconfigure themselves continually along the terminal's length. These complex geometries are 'close to nature', but nature manipulated to provide for human need.
A waterfront park in Barcelona conveys 'a total concept of urban landscape'. With a fall of 11m across the shorter dimension of the site, from the esplanade to the bathing area at the sea's edge, it is too steep to negotiate in a straight line, so diagonal ramps became generators of a new topography, based on the forms of sand dunes. 'We worked with the dune sizes', explained Moussavi 'to define the ramps and to enclose two auditoria': (outdoor arenas with flat areas and banked seating for activities like rock concerts). Other parts are less prescriptive, where the forms open up to create possibilities for varied types of habitation and activity. On the lee side, sheltered from the sea breezes, plants take root, just as in a natural dune landscape.
Sand dunes, though, are extremely fragile, and this park is designed for intensive use, so the surface has to be hard. The basic element, a concrete tile, is rather larger than a grain of sand, but the shape itself has geometric properties which, when multiplied, help to generate the overall forms. As Moussavi said, 'it meets most boundaries, but where it does not, it is not cut', emphasizing the integrity of its geometry. A dyed concrete resin fills residual spaces. The resulting colour stripes help to orientate visitors and to define routes and zones within the park, using communication as link between topography and function.
An unbuilt proposal for a 'hortus medicus' [medical garden] for the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in Basel also consciously blurs boundaries between natural and artificial. On an undulating surface, areas are seeded in different patterns with different parts, but the undulations are actually openings to a subterranean car park, or 'lungs for the body of car parking', as Moussavi puts it. Here 'the figure of the human body' becomes a way of combining the ancient motif of physic gardens, perhaps the earliest places for the work that Novartis now does in laboratories and factories, with the eminently modern function of car parking. Neither traditional landscape nor conventional urban form, the landscape uses complex geometry to form a new synthesis which is both historically aware and sensitive to contemporary needs.
HAMISH FULTON: BIODIVERSITY, WALKING IN RELATION TO EVERYTHING ...
It would seem there are two possibilities for so-called 'Landscape' art: painting, from the past, and outdoor sculpture in the present. However, the starting place of my own art is the experience of walking ... and walking is not an art material. In terms of self-imposed rules this means every piece of art I make is the result of a specific walk. From 1970 to the present I have made 238 identifiable walks, walking from one full day to 64 consecutive days. The longest distance I have walked is 2838km and the highest altitude I have climbed to is 8175m.) To outline my ideas I would like to present the following statements. Each small concentration of words implies larger issues.
IRRESPECTIVE OF ITS APPEARANCE 'CONTEMPORARY ART' IS A NECESSARY 'POLITICAL' FORCE IN SOCIETY.
WALKING CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. (CONVERT ROADS FOR CARS--INTO PATHS FOR WALKERS AND CYCLISTS?)
TO BE COMMITTED TO WALKING MEANS--TO SLOW DOWN TO THE PACE OF WALKING ...
A WALK CAN EXIST LIKE AN INVISIBLE OBJECT IN A COMPLEX WORLD. (WALKING--CUTS A LINE THOUGH TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LIFE.)
Q. WHAT KIND OF ART COULD RESULT FROM A WALK?
A. ART INSTALLED ONTO THE FLATNESS OF EXISTING ARCHITECTURE. (A FILM ... A WALK TEXT AS AN URBAN BILLBOARD. WALK TEXTS ETCHED INTO GLASS FOR WINDOWS. WALK TEXTS CAST IN IRON AND SUNK INTO PAVEMENTS.
WALKING IS AN 'EXPERIENCE'. CONSEQUENTLY, THE RESULTING ART COULD BE PRODUCED IN ANY MEDIUM OR SITUATION.
REPEATABLE ART REQUIRING NO TRANSPORT (MUSICAL NOTATION ON THE NET) OR, NON-REPEATABLE ART REQUIRING TRANSPORTATION (CARGO JET POLLUTION) OR, REPEATED UNTRANSPORTABLE ART? (AUSTRALIAN FIRST NATION CAVE PAINTINGS.) WALKABOUT ...
THE STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS OF ART IS THAT IT'S ALL ABOUT OPINIONS.
THE PRICE 1 PAY FOR NOT MIMICKING 'NATURE' IS THAT I RECORD ALL MY WALKS IN WORDS.
THERE ARE NO WORDS IN 'NATURE'.
AN ARTWORK CANNOT RE-PRESENT THE EXPERIENCE OF A WALK.
EVERY THING IS (MADE OF) SOMETHING--AND ALL 'CONTEMPORARY ART' IS URBAN.
ABSENT. THE LOCATION OF THE WALK IS NOT IN THE GALLERY AND THE WALK ITSELF IS A PAST EVENT.
AN OBJECT CANNOT COMPETE WITH AN EXPERIENCE.
WALKING IS PRACTICAL NOT THEORETICAL.
A WALK HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN--A BEGINNING AND AN END.
WALKING INTO THE DISTANCE BEYOND IMAGINATION.
ONCE A WALK HAS BEEN COMPLETED, IT CANNOT BE DESTROYED.
A WALK, IS AN INVISIBLE MONUMENT TO 'TIME' ('LANDSCAPE' ART SHOULD ENCOMPASS MORE THAN JUST THE HISTORY OF ART.)
WHEN WALKING AND CAMPING ALONE, I ATTEMPT TO PRACTISE THE 'WILDERNESS' ETHIC OF LEAVE-NO-TRACE.
IN THE COURSE OF PRODUCING MY ARTWORKS I USE ONLY COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE MATERIALS.
IN 2003: CREATE EMPLOYMENT, BUT DESTROY A 'WILDERNESS'? THE HUMAN ENERGY SOURCE FOR SOLVING THIS DILEMMA IS--OUR SPIRITUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH 'NATURE'.
THE RIGHTS OF NATURE? ON MY WALKS I DO NOT REARRANGE THE 'LANDSCAPE' OR ORGANIZE THE REMOVAL, SALE AND NONRETURN OF 'FOUND-NATURAL-OBJECTS' THEREBY TERMINATING THEIR NEIGHBOURHOOD LIFE INFLUENCED BY SUNLIGHT, WIND AND RAIN.
MY ART IS A SYMBOLIC GESTURE OF RESPECT FOR NATURE.
IT'S HARDER TO LEAVE THINGS ALONE THAN TO CHANGE THEM.
CHANGE PERCEPTIONS NOT THE 'LANDSCAPE'. THE 'LANDSCAPE' AS LOCATION--NOT RAW MATERIALS.
LIVING AND NON LIVING BEINGS. WHY SELL SEA SHELLS? BIG TRUCKS MEANS BIG BUCKS.
BATTLE OF LITTLE BIGHORN 25 JUNE 1876. (TWO PEOPLE, THEREFORE TWO POINTS OF VIEW?)
NAVAJOLAND EUROLAND CLUBLAND HOMELAND DISNEYLAND TIMBERLAND VOLVOLAND OBERLAND BORDERLAND SWITZERLAND WONDERLAND--LANDSCAPE SEASCAPE CLOUDSCAPE DREAMSCAPE E-SCAPE CITYSCAPE CULTURESCAPE MEDIASCAPE FINANCESCAPE WALKSCAPE
MAKE A WALK--WRITE A TEXT--READ IT TO AN AUDIENCE. BODY AND VOICE.
THE CHANGING SHAPES OF CLOUDS. THOUGHTS SILENCED BY BIRDSONG.
EACH WALK MARKS THE FLOW OF TIME BETWEEN BIRTH AND DEATH.
Measuring America argues that America came to be what it is through the way it defined its landscape. Anyone who has flown across the US sees the world's largest human-made construct, though its significance is almost invisible unless you know what to look for--straight lines. In California's Great Central Valley they show up in the chequerboard arrangement of orchards; flying over the Sierras they appear in the rectangular farms deep in valley bottoms; crossing any big city, Phoenix, Arizona or Salt Lake City, or Chicago itself, they're revealed in the graph-paper grid of streets; all across the Midwest they can be found in the great squared-off pattern of corn and soya fields. Around this framework, a particular kind of democracy and a particular kind of capitalism and a particular kind of spirit developed.
These lines all derive from the US Public Land Survey which began on 30 September 1785 when Thomas Hutchins, first Geographer of the United States, unrolled a 22 yard Gunter's chain on the west bank of the Ohio river. The US needed to raise money, and the only asset that it possessed was land beyond the Appalachians. A few explorers had penetrated beyond the mountains and brought back wonderful reports of this mouth-watering land. Hutchins' job was to measure it out and map it on a surveyor's plat. It was a kind of magic--unmeasured it was wilderness, measured it became real estate.
But he did it in a very particular way. Congress required him to lay out lines running due east-west and six miles apart, and these were to be cut at right angles by other lines running due north-south, and also six miles apart. This created a grid of squares, known as townships, each measuring 36 square miles. The townships divided into 36 one-mile-square sections, which would be sold at auction. This pattern of squares was Thomas Jefferson's idea. Squares could be easily measured, easily subdivided, easily bought and sold. Squares would put land into the hands of the people. From the start, therefore, the survey was expected not simply to raise money, but to shape a society.
The surveyors' equipment was basic: a compass through which the surveyor took a sighting on a distant mark to find due west on his compass, and a 22 yard chain to measure the distance. Once the surveyor had the direction, a team of axemen would be sent to hack out a path or vista through the trees. Finally, the foreman took the front end of the chain and marched towards the mark; when the chain was fully stretched he cried 'Tally!', stuck in a tally pin, and waited for the hindman to join him, gathering up the chain. So they moved across the country like caterpillars, hunching up and stretching out, through forests, over swamps, up mountains, and down ravines, but always travelling in straight lines.
By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the continent had been squared off into townships, and sections. Each township section is a square mile or 640 acres, a number easily subdivided into smaller squares. It can be halved, quartered, eighthed, and sixteenthed, and still leave a whole number. And each is easily measured by a chain--a mile is 80 chains, a half-mile is 40, a quarter is 20, and to a surveyor nothing could be easier to measure--a 40-acre square was merely 20 chains by 20. Its numerical neatness ensured that 40 acres became the basic unit on which Jefferson's great landed democracy was built. Owning a 40 was the bottom rung on the property ladder.
The 10 acre square is integral to the planning of US cities--10 chains by 10--such as the central square of Salt Lake City, or of Philadelphia, Chicago, and others. It was an extraordinary transformation. Within a century, the land that had no shape had become property. Anyone could own it. The government sold it for $2 an acre, offering credit for those with no cash, and even after the 1862 Homesteading Act you could get 160 acres by squatting.
Winners and losers
It was the survey that underpinned the legends of the frontier. It guaranteed the pioneers legal possession of their land. But it was not just an administrative exercise. In the process a society was being created around the mass distribution of property. To European visitors, accustomed to thinking of land-ownership as the key indicator of social class, this was revolutionary, and the outlook of these property-owners seemed to them astonishing. As early as 1813, the traveller John Melish remarked approvingly: 'Every industrious citizen of the United States has the power to become a freeholder ... and the land being purely his own, there is no setting limits to his prosperity. No proud tyrant can lord it over him.'
In her book The Domestic Manners of the Americans written 20 years later, Fanny Trollope took a less admiring view of the egalitarianism that came from allowing absolutely anyone to acquire land. 'Any man's son may become the equal of any other man's son, and the consciousness of this is certainly a spur to exertion', she observed. 'On the other hand, it is also a spur to that coarse familiarity, untempered by any shadow of respect, which is assumed by the grossest and lowest in their intercourse with the highest and most refined.' For the first time an entire society was being created, peacefully and legally, around a horizontal model of land distribution. However different their viewpoints, both John Melish and Fanny Trollope were testifying to the effectiveness of Jefferson's social engineering.
The losers in all this distribution of property were the native Americans. Almost every Indian war fought by the US government from the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 had its origins in the urge to prise ownership of land from the original occupants, and almost every Indian defeat was followed by a treaty in which they ceded territory to the US government. Immediately afterwards, the surveyors would arrive with their chains and compasses, and in their wake came the settlers.
It required a paradigm shift to accept that land might be a commodity, have a monetary value, be used as a guarantee against which cash could be borrowed. Without it, what we recognize to be a modern way of thinking could not come into being. Nowhere did land as commodity take hold more strongly than in the US--the squares made it easy--the result was a fiercely competitive society.
As the first visitors to the US recognized, the experience of owning property forged a new society that no one had seen before. Around this structure American democracy and capitalism grew.
Joel Meyerowitz, Broadway and West 46th Street. New York (1976). [c] Joel Meyerowitz.
2003/Courtesy of Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, New York.
Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs Russel Sage, 1908 (08228). Photograph [c] 1995 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Giuscppc Penone, 'Primo Soffio', 1997. Photograph 60X 15cm.
Claude Monet, French 1840-1926, Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny, 1885. Oil on canvas. 74 X 93.5cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Arthur Tracy Cabot. 42.541.
Photographs of the installation at the Officers' Mess, Dover Castle: John Riddy. The Segsbury Project is a collaboration between the Henry Moore Foundation Contemporary Projects, English Heritage and the Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.
Sponsored by DERWENT VALLEY
Edited by Jeremy Melvin.
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|Title Annotation:||Royal Academy Forum|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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