Landscape is not a scene

Landscape is not a scene

By Sylvia Barnett

Landscape is not a scene: not a static and distinct entity or the passive backdrop to our living performance. It is not trees and grass and the patch of Nature where we distractedly consume sandwiches at noon or the shrubbery that adorn the sidewalk outside office buildings, leafy afterthoughts. We know that landscape is complex — scientifically, politically, socially, ecologically. It’s a systemic mess, so intricately connected to every facet of human existence that it can only be understood as a manifold web of interactions. Why, then, as designers, do we continue to objectify it, imposing frames that manipulate it into a palatable scene for human consumption, ridding it of its function and rationalizing its continual becoming? Why do we set it apart from ourselves as humans, when in fact we are a part of it and it is a part of us? Humans have a profound effect on the operations of landscape, but landscape transgresses the embodied boundary of the human.

Perceived borders enforce the separation between the self and other, human and nature. Landscape architects are in a prime position to interrogate these borders, expanding the notion of landscape to reveal immense implications for the design of our cities. As our world urbanizes and as what is understood as ‘Nature’ is restricted to national parks and designated wilderness, we should seek opportunities to make landscape processes legible in our daily lives. Now more than ever, as we begin to understand our damaging impact on our environment, it is vital that we challenge inherent binaries in our understanding of the world around us. Public space has the potential to demonstrate through design that we as humans are ingrained in a larger living system. By elucidating the ecological functions of a given place, we can avoid static public space and stunted environments that teach us little about our role in their becoming.

Framed through a study of its etymological roots in German, Dutch and Old English, landscape implies the delineation of a bounded area. It traditionally connoted property and ownership, imposing boundaries on land. Later, there emerged a schism between this culturally embedded concept and an objectified landscape defined by its distance from an observer. Contemporary notions of landscape are located on a discontinuous spectrum between these two definitions – we seem able to acknowledge that we move through landscape in our daily experience but we still separate it from ourselves as a distinct construct for anthropocentric consumption. This is the inheritance of the Western Salon-Academy archetype, which we can find in the work of artists such as Annibale Caracci, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, unwitting players in the game of idealizing and objectifying landscapes. Throughout the early modern period, they purveyed an image of landscape as pictorial scene, an inert platform on which the escapades of human culture unfold, affected and affective but always defined in opposition from the thinking subject.

Parallel developments in the physical and chemical sciences are likewise deeply embedded in the ideal of the scenic landscape. The Enlightenment gave us the gift of rationalism, and consequently everything became reducible. According to systems ecologist Nina-Marie Lister, the mechanist approach of understanding the world, analyzing smaller components in order to induce the whole, has been a perpetuating force for our misaligned view of nature. She describes the pragmatic quantification of genes, species and ecosystems as falsely hierarchical classifications that neglect the performative and regenerative abilities of living systems (1). To assume that nature, like the landscapes extracted from it, is ordered and bounded, separate and distinct from the ideally rational self, is to overlook the multitudinous connections between things. The world is a collection of relationships, and humans are one component.

Humans need to understand their role as intensifications in the spatial and temporal terrain that is landscape, a multidimensional field without borders. In order to do so, we seek ways to communicate our interconnectedness with the world around us. In the 1970s, Rosalind Krauss introduced the “logically expanded field,” a diagrammatic explanation of sculpture’s position within cultural production. Sculpture was frequently identified as “not landscape” or “not architecture,” meaning that it occupied an unbordered zone characterized by negatives (2). By diagramming sculpture’s assumed oppositions, Krauss found that sculpture inhabits a space of possibilities guided by other aggregated formations including landscape and architecture. Krauss uncovered a gaping vacancy in artistic definition, illustrating the difficulty in categorizing anything that represents movement and change. Like sculpture, landscape architecture needs to reexamine the constructs within its genesis and to discover a new language that speaks to the spaces between catalogued concepts and distinct disciplines, opening up the field of landscape to a wider range of collaborative power and organic possibilities.

The revaluation of borders within a preconceived medium can be extended even further when one considers the object-field relationship. On Kawara merges process and product, suggesting that the distinctions between art objects and discourse are non-existent: each condition is the effect of some other occurrence. His Today series consists of a date painted in the same format, in the language of the country in which it was painted, every day for twenty years. When the painting is not exhibited, it is stored in its own box lined with a newspaper from the place on that day. Kawara absorbs the creation of art into his daily experience, and when his work is exhibited, it is not just art on display, but his life.

Photograph by Rob Cleary

To observe landscape as field is to see relationships rather than objects, systems rather than figures. There is no ground, surface or horizontal plane on which actions play out. There is only field — interactions occurring within space-time and the resulting effects. Rather than a genius architect, or steward of the land, the landscape architect thus becomes an orchestrator of matter-energy (3). The role of designer reflects that of landscape. Through the design of publically accessible space, she can communicate the fluctuations of the field but she herself is always an event or moment within the multi-dimensional manifold and thus cannot have authoritative control over it. Once her work is built in the world, it is absorbed into the greater network of connections, subject to change at the whim of natural disaster, politics or development.

To expand something is to split it open, extending its reach. A world of “hybrids, relationships and tensions [allows us] to see the received histories of the modern landscape as the ideologically motivated social constructs that they are” (4). Expanding the field, landscape becomes a co-creative field of competing interactions between humans and nonhumans. Landscape architects can, perhaps, discover a new language, speaking to the spaces between catalogues and concepts.

Stan Allen encourages the designer to think of the field as “characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity,” implying that it is an emergent condition only dependent upon individual components for what they contribute to the whole (5). Understanding landscape as field depends on the realization that humans are part of the systems at play. By dissolving the subject-object divide, design can attempt to create a sense of continuity between human experience and the landscape condition. Yayoi Kusama explores this dissolution in Fireflies on the Water, in which the reflection of millions of lights creates the unsettling appearance of undifferentiated space. Immersed in the illusion, the observer loses sight of the boundary of her embodied experience: she is no longer able to detect where she ends and the space begins.

Contemporary landscape architecture often fails to highlight our relationship to the continual flux of landscape, instead perpetuating the myth of pictorialization. How do we break down the borders that set us in opposition to the world around us? Consider the Highline, which offers Nature canned and perfectly groomed for touristic consumption. A controlled park gliding above the messy streets below, the Highline has successfully induced the revitalization of its neighborhood without offering any real connection to what it once was — a remnant of infrastructure colonized by all manner of species. The Highline is landscape’s prior condition, bordered and framed. Any sense of losing yourself to the world around you is absent because the physical design has such tight command over your experience. The consequence is a sense of passing through; you feel as though you don’t belong. It is not a place for dreaming or wandering, discovering or exploring. Instead it ushers visitors to carefully composed selfie spots and predetermined vistas. Art critic Jerry Saltz mourns the effect of such control, recalling less scripted New York City parks where “I'm within this enclosing volume where space and self merge and become a vessel. I feel my inner book being written and rewritten”(6). Recent public spaces provide little potential for such experiences, and until they do, the border between subject and objectified field will remain.

The recently constructed Hunters Point South, on the banks of the East River in Long Island City, Queens, still has that new car smell. It offers a serene, polished frame directing our attention toward the glossy Manhattan skyline. Gleaming pavements that lead to a sandy “beach” surround a sculpted oval of synthetic turf. A reminder of what the park once was remains in the yet-to-be-developed, wild and wooly peninsula jutting into the East River just to the south. It has all the markers of a post-industrial in-between zone, replete with weeds, chain link fences and random detritus. It may not be attractive, but at least it does not give the impression of stasis. It won’t be long before this too is banished in favor of inert hyperspace. Why does the transformation need to be so pristine? New York City’s waterfronts are being transformed rapidly and vapidly through private funding and public incentives. Yet these amphibious edges are an opportunity to reveal the landscape processes involved in their becoming. Frontlines during storms, borders to boroughs and prime real estate, these edges are rich ecotones where ecological processes and market forces converge. Can’t public space put on display our intersection with the ecosystems of the city, however messy?

The application of field conditions to the urban realm acknowledges the potential of the city to be self-organizing and adaptive in a manner similar to the biologic structures in living systems. Embedded in this regenerative capacity is the notion that cities are open systems – they absorb disturbance and are creative as a result: any change is uncertain and occurs from the bottom up. Landscape as field is a way of understanding living systems as rich in diversity and complexity, with constantly changing and uncertain futures. It means little without consideration for human experience. There is room for exploration in the space between subject and objectified landscape, room to open up possibilities for completely new interactions. If we can understand our public spaces as vital, dynamic and multidimensional, and recognize our own role in their becoming, then the borders fall away.


(1) Nina-Marie Lister, “Bridging Science and Values: The Challenge of Biodiversity Conservation.” In The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty and Managing for Sustainability, edited by David Waltner-Toews, James J. Kay and Nina-Marie Lister. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) 83-107.

(2) Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (1979): 37.

(3) Rod Barnett. Emergence in Landscape Architecture (New York and London: Routledge, 2013) 68.

(4) Elizabeth Meyer, “The Expanded Field of Landscape Architecture.” In Theory in Landscape Architecture: A Reader, edited by S. R. Swaffield. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) 51.

(5) Stan Allen, “From Object to Field,” Architectural Design 67 (1997): 24

(6) Jerry Saltz, “New York Has Solved the Problem of Public Art. But at What Cost?” Vulture, December 17, 2015,

Sylvia Barnett is a New York City based designer with a special interest in the relationship between the arts and landscape architecture, and the power of this hybrid to affect positive change in public space and the environment. She has a Bachelors in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Auckland and a Master of Landscape Architecture from Auburn University. 

Featured photographs by Rob Cleary.