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Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson

Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson

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by Chris Wilson

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As old as a roadway that was once a Native trail, as new as the suburban subdivisions spreading across the American countryside, the cultural landscape is endlessly changing. The study of cultural landscapes—a far more recent development—has also undergone great changes, ever broadening, deepening, and refining our understanding of the intricate webs of


As old as a roadway that was once a Native trail, as new as the suburban subdivisions spreading across the American countryside, the cultural landscape is endlessly changing. The study of cultural landscapes—a far more recent development—has also undergone great changes, ever broadening, deepening, and refining our understanding of the intricate webs of social and ecological spaces that help to define human groups and their activities. Everyday America surveys the widening conceptions and applications of cultural landscape writing in the United States and, in doing so, offers a clear and compelling view of the state of cultural landscape studies today.

These essays—by distinguished journalists, historians, cultural geographers, architects, landscape architects, and planners—constitute a critical evaluation of the field’s theoretical assumptions, and of the work of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the pivotal figure in the emergence of cultural landscape studies. At the same time, they present exemplary studies of twentieth-century landscapes, from the turn-of-the-century American downtown to the corporate campus and the mini-mall. Assessing the field’s accomplishments and shortcomings, offering insights into teaching the subject, and charting new directions for its future development, Everyday America is an eloquent statement of the meaning, value, and potential of the close study of human environments as they embody, reflect, and reveal American culture.

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Everyday America

Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson

By Chris Wilson, Paul Groth


Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93590-7



An Introduction

In the 1950s, the term cultural landscape rarely appeared in print. This was true even when writers needed a term to describe the intricate webs of mental, social, and ecological spaces that help to define human groups and their activities. By the 1990s, however, the term had clearly arrived in professional and literary circles. Cultural landscape or, more often, the word landscape alone, had come to refer to urban settings, building interiors, and even computer screen images, as well as planted or rural prospects. Between 1950 and 1990, people studying culture, history, and social relations had gradually realized the importance of the built landscape. The scholars who had used the term cultural landscape most before 1950—geographers and landscape architects—remained in the lead in the 1990s, with architects and planners not far behind. Even writers for the New York Times, Preservation magazine, and National Public Radio now employed the term landscape in its cultural landscape sense, without further definition. More surprising, perhaps, was the discovery of everyday built spaces as significant evidence of social groups, power relations, and culture by historians, American studies scholars, literary critics, and a growing number of anthropologists, sociologists, and social theorists.

Indeed, cultural landscape is both a useful term and a necessary concept for understanding American environments. It is a way of thinking—one with inherent contradictions and multiple approaches—that people have readily adapted to new questions and social developments. This book surveys the widening conceptions and applications of cultural landscape studies in the United States. It also evaluates the pivotal role of one writer, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, in encouraging the study of cultural landscapes. As participants in a countermovement to the homogenizing forces of architectural and urban modernization, Jackson, his compatriots, and their successors have expanded and deepened the study of common landscapes and, in the process, have revitalized a term in use since the Middle Ages.


The long and varied careers of the word landscape in English, and of its cognates in other northern European languages, have centered on the human shaping of space and also on the dynamic interaction of actual places with mental or visual images of place. The conception of landscape has expanded from genres of painting and garden design, through the study of seemingly unchanging agricultural societies, to the entire contemporary American scene, to applications in design and preservation movements and a growing interest in conflicts of race, class, gender, and power.

Old English precursors to landscape—landskipe and landscaef—already contained compound meanings. In the Middle Ages, a land was any well-defined portion of the earth, ranging from a plowed field to a kingdom. The original senses of -skipe, -scipe, and -scape were closely related to scrape and shape, meaning to cut or create. The related suffix, -ship, denotes a quality, condition, or a collection. It yields a word such as township—in Old English, túnscipe—which primarily meant the inhabitants of a town or village, but, secondarily, the domain or territory controlled by that settlement. Thus, landskipe essentially meant a collection or system of human-defined spaces, particularly in a rural or small-town setting.

The Old English sense of landscape, which was social as well as spatial, appears to have faded into disuse by 1600, when artists and their clients introduced a related Dutch word, landschap, back into English. A landscape, in this new Dutch sense, was a painting of a rural, agricultural, or natural scene, often accented by a ruin, mill, distant church spire, local inhabitants, or elite spectators. In contrast to the earlier traditions of religious, mythological, and portrait paintings done on commission for the church or nobility, landscapes were painted on speculation for anonymous consumers in emerging mercantile centers such as Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London. As a result, the term landscape and the painting genre it described were tied to the rise of a merchant class with the power and leisure to cast their controlling and organizing gaze from the city out onto the countryside. Subsequent painting genres—seascapes, cloudscapes, townscapes—extended this sense of a scape as a carefully framed and composed real-life scene.

By the early 1700s, well-to-do English landowners had begun to employ the aesthetics of picturesque landscape painters such as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Salvator Rosa to record the natural aspects of the lands they visited. A landscape, thereby, became a pleasing view or panorama in seemingly wild or untouched nature. Before long, wealthy landowners also had begun to remake their English country estates to match the artful asymmetries of landscape painting. Interwoven as they were with the European grand tour, picturesque aesthetics, and the Romantic movement, the conceptions of landscape in Europe and the United States by the early nineteenth century involved not only the creation of paintings of natural and rural views, but also a growing interest in naturalistic gardens, vernacular architecture, and picturesque revival buildings (fig. 1.1).

In the United States the popular fascination with the vibrant architecture, communities, and landscapes of everyday America has ranged from Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Winslow Homer through early-twentieth-century populism and on to the 1930s regionalism of New Deal writers and painters and the architectural and urban criticism of Lewis Mumford. The concern for environmental degradation caused by human activities was another American theme, spurred particularly by the Vermont writer George Perkins Marsh.

Meanwhile, the growth of universities in the nineteenth century supported the notion among at least a few geographers, anthropologists, and sociologists—all influenced strongly by European colonialism—that everyday surroundings, not just high art, could provide important evidence of social life and cultural values. In Europe, several countries developed a distinct school of thought about the proper questions and methods of cultural landscape study. In Germany, geographers such as Friedrich Ratzel, Alfred Hettner, and Otto Schlüter focused particularly on scientifically categorizing regions and settlements. These German geographers developed close associations with geologists and economic analysts and gained a reputation for emphasizing physical forms. Schlüter, in particular, promoted interest in the idea of the landschaft, a discrete area defined by a uniform, harmonious interrelationship of physical elements.

In France, sociologists and philosophers such as Paul Vidal de la Blache, Émile Durkheim, and Frédéric Le Play founded a school of thought that emphasized the interplay between cultural ways of life (genre de vie) and relatively small-scale local ecological and social regions (pays). While the Germans tended to look for general categories, the French looked for particularities of people and place, defined most of all by day-to-day lives. By World War II, each French region had its own well-written guidebooks to local social and physical landscapes.

In Great Britain, geography tended to emphasize historical approaches. The historian and geographer Halford J. Mackinder emphasized sweeping worldviews and careful descriptions of past landscapes, whose details helped explain surviving elements of the present-day scene. The British emphasis on field observation and map interpretation, even for urban schoolchildren, generated interest in local historical geography, as did the work of the Scottish city and regional planner Patrick Geddes, who applied field study to city and regional planning. After the 1950s, W.G. Hoskins's close documentation of rural landscapes and M.R.G. Conzen's attention to the details of urban streets and buildings inspired new generations of historical geographers and landscape archaeologists who are still active today.

These European approaches found their way in varying proportions to different universities in the United States and became part of the basis for the present-day complexity of landscape study. For instance, by the early 1900s German ideas dominated geography at the University of Chicago, while British geography had more influence at the University of Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1920s, Carl Sauer, who had studied in Germany and at Chicago, became the longtime chair of the geography department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he revised and updated the German landschaft idea, using the term landscape. Through Sauer, the idea of cultural landscape gained prominence in American geography. In his groundbreaking 1925 essay, "The Morphology of Landscape," Sauer set forth his definition: "The cultural landscape is fashioned from the natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result."

Landscape, in this sense, was not a painting, a vista, or a garden, but rather a particular area shaped by a cultural group and strongly influenced by the limits of soil, climate, and plant life. Sauer and the so-called Berkeley School of cultural geography shifted the sense of landscape back from a composed image to the place itself. Like Hoskins and his followers in England, Sauer and his students often equated landscapes with coherent and stable cultures and thus typically left modern, industrialized cities outside their purview. For cultural geographers of the Berkeley School, the historical diffusion of ideas from one region to another became a theme of primary importance. Fred Kniffen was one of several Sauer students who followed vernacular landscape elements—fences, building types, and settlement forms—to identify cultural hearths and migration patterns (fig. 1.2). Thus, by the interwar years of the twentieth century, the study of landscape had several competing and overlapping paradigms in Europe and in the United States.


The independent writer, editor, and landscape philosopher John Brinckerhoff Jackson played a central role in the maturation of cultural landscape studies in the United States. Although Jackson made his reputation with the study of ordinary, everyday settings, his background was one of wealth and privilege, his education a traditional one in the fine arts. Jackson was born in 1909 in Dinard, France, to American parents. His father, William Brinckerhoff Jackson, was a Washington, D.C., lawyer who had inherited a substantial fortune built in part upon real estate developments in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City. Jackson's mother, Alice Richardson Jackson, was a descendant of another long-established Hudson Valley family. Jackson's parents divorced when he was four years old. His mother subsequently supported herself as a buyer for the Bonwit Teller department store in New York, which often took her to Paris, with her son in tow. The young Jackson attended a series of private boarding schools in the United States and Europe, including two years at Le Rosey in Switzerland, known as the "school of princes," where the future shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was a fellow student. Jackson's father provided only for his school expenses; his mother paid for the rest, and her income was more limited. Thus, one assumes Jackson's childhood included having to learn (particularly by close observation) the dress, manners, and speech of people far wealthier than himself.

With such a background, it is hardly surprising that the young Jackson was fascinated by the contrasts of different languages and cultures. By his teenage years, he was fluent in French and German, had traveled widely in Europe, and was already adept at sketching as a method of recording travel impressions. In the mid-1920s, he began spending his summer vacations in Santa Fe with his uncle, Percy Jackson, a Wall Street lawyer who also served as treasurer and legal advisor to the School of American Archeology, headquartered there. Percy Jackson was well acquainted with the circle of artists and anthropologists then remaking Santa Fe into a tourist center and art colony. In one particularly memorable summer, Jackson accompanied his uncle to Mayan archaeological digs on the Yucatan peninsula, where the Jacksons dined with the senior scholars as they discussed emerging interpretations of the Mayan past, based primarily on the physical landscape record, and where Jackson also added Spanish to his linguistic skills.

Jackson finished preparatory school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and, at the urging of his headmaster, enrolled in the multidisciplinary Experimental College of the University of Wisconsin instead of following the family path to Harvard. The program at Wisconsin eschewed disciplinary boundaries and devoted an entire year to the study of one place during one century. Students were encouraged to examine their surroundings with their own eyes and to consider the importance of religion in understanding culture. A series of visits by Lewis Mumford encouraged several students to study architecture.

Although the Wisconsin experience greatly influenced Jackson's later work, he was unhappy in Madison, and after one year he transferred to Harvard, completing his bachelor's degree in history and literature in 1932. After studying architecture for one year at MIT and commercial drawing in Vienna, Jackson traveled by motorcycle around Europe for two years. His articles on the rise of fascism for the American Review and Harper's Magazine led to a 1938 novel, Saints in Summertime, which he published under the name of Brinckerhoff Jackson. The New York Times called the book "a remarkable piece of work, crafty, witty and original," and the Saturday Review of Literature placed Jackson on its cover (fig. 1.3). But instead of immediately pursuing this literary success, Jackson returned to New Mexico to work as a cowboy on an isolated ranch near Wagon Mound.

In 1940, Jackson enlisted in the United States Army. His European experience and his command of Spanish, French, and German led the army to make him a combat intelligence officer. In northern France during the latter stages of the war, Jackson interrogated German prisoners and pored over aerial photographs, guidebooks, and regional geography studies to form his first comprehensive conceptions of cultural landscapes—the ones where his unit would next fight. Studying the libraries of successive chateaux occupied as military headquarters essentially became Jackson's graduate education in French sociology and geography.

Discharged from the army in early 1946, Jackson drove across the United States in a surplus jeep—sketching, taking notes, and applying the skills he had developed during the war to the American cultural landscape. He ran a ranch in east-central New Mexico until he was thrown and dragged by a horse. During eighteen months of traction, surgery, and convalescence, Jackson decided to go back to writing and to start a magazine inspired by the vivid French regional geographies he had studied during the war, and by a new French journal, Revue de géographie humaine et d'ethnologie. At Santa Fe, in the spring of 1951, a forty-one-year-old Jackson began publishing his small magazine, entitled Landscape. His first statement of intentions concludes:

Wherever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us.We have but to learn to read it.


Excerpted from Everyday America by Chris Wilson, Paul Groth. Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Chris Wilson is J. B. Jackson Professor of Cultural Landscape Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is the author of The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition (1997) and Facing Southwest: The Life and Houses of John Gaw Meem (2001). Paul Groth is Associate Professor in the Departments of Architecture and Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (1994) and the coeditor of Understanding Ordinary Landscapes (1997).

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Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book to give background on J. B. Jackson's contribution to landscape studies.