J. B. Jackson

Jackson, J.B. Landscapes: Selected Writings of J. B. Jackson. Cambridge – Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 1970. Print.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on how to understand and appreciate the social or cultural landscape. The following are some quotes from J. B. Jackson.

… It is true that Jefferson held that man is more “natural” when in a rural setting, but “natural” as he used the word had little to do with “nature”—at least in its wilderness state; a “natural” man was inevitably a social or, more precisely, a political creature. The significant relationship, the relationship which fostered better men, was that between man and man. If the rural setting was to be preferred, this was chiefly because it made the relationship easier. (p. 3)

… For to Thoreau the significant relationship is not that between man and man; it is the relationship between man and his environment. (p. 3)

… Jefferson had tried his hand at helping design the national capital. His sketches, proposing an extensive grid with the land divided into uniform lots, were scornfully rejected by l’Enfant, who had something more monumental in mind. But aside from one or two notable exceptions— Detroit, Baton Rouge, and Indianapolis—the cities built in the United States until late in the nineteenth century all conformed to the grid system; all were Jeffersonian. (p. 4)

… Yet the almost universal use of the grid for towns cannot be entirely understood without some reference to the wider regional grid of the National Survey—which automatically prescribed at least the main axes of any town – nor without some reference to the American ideal. If, in terms of design, our cities are little more than extensions of a village grid, the village itself—except in the older parts of the country – is in turn little more than a fragment of the regional grid: an orderly arrangement of uniform lots frequently focused about a public square with no particular function and un- varying dimensions. The block, whether in Chicago or New Paris, Iowa, remains the basic unit, and the block is nothing more than a specific number of independent small holdings. For all its monotony, the Jeffersonian design has unmistakable Utopian traits: it is in fact the blueprint for an agrarian equalitarian society, and it is based on the assumption that the landowner will be active in the democratic process. The grid system, as originally conceived, was thus a device for the promotion of “virtuous citizens.” Its survival is a testimony to the belief, once so common among Americans, in the possibility of human perfectibility. So it was not only logical, but appropriate, that the grid, despite its obvious shortcomings and its abuse by speculators, should have remained the characteristic national design for the environment. It is, to repeat, the symbol of an agrarian Utopia composed of a democratic society of small landowners. (p. 5)

It is one of the ironies of our history that the Romantic environment remained an urban and suburban phenomenon. Whereas the Jeffersonian concern for man as a social being determined the character of our whole rural landscape, the Romantic feeling for solitude and for closeness to un-spoiled nature was confined to the middle-class urban citizen on the Eastern seaboard. Of the thousands of square miles settled during the first half of the nineteenth century, few if any were modified or treated according to popular Romantic ideas. Only in the 1870’s did it become possible to interest the American public in the wisdom of preserving the scenic wonders of the wilderness West. (p. 6)

… Our own American past has an invaluable lesson to teach us: a coherent, workable landscape evolves where there is a coherent definition not of man but of man s relation to the world and to his fellow men. (p. 9)

It is unfortunately true that Pliny [3rd generation American farmer – who moved to the mid-west] robbed the farm of variety and human association, and made it look more like be wrong to say that he did not love it. He probably never be wrong to say that he did not love it. He probably never had that dim sense which Nehemiah [first generation pilgrim to New England] had of being in partner- ship with a particular piece of earth. Pliny was indeed a strict and arbitrary master. (p. 28)

… Pliny loved the world of unspoiled nature for the same reason Nehemiah had dreaded it: it afforded him a direct and unimpeded glimpse of reality. Nehemiah had preferred to retain a hierarchy of Scripture and clergy between himself and the source of wisdom. Pliny liked to imagine that God was separated from him by little more than the thin veil of appearances. (p. 29)

The American landscape was beautiful because it reflected a social order which was free and egalitarian. Its beauty was that of a symbol which men united in venerating. This remains true, whether we always acknowledge it or not, of many other examples of landscape beauty. But what happens when we are concerned with other aspects of the environment? Does the verdict necessarily change? Or do we still find beauty in the landscape because after all it belongs to us? (p. 48)

… In 1853 Llewellyn Park in New Jersey became the first community to be laid out in the “picturesque” style, and finally in 1856 Olmsted and Vaux won the competition for the design of Central Park with their large-scale “picturesque” composition. By that time the prestige of the style was firmly established. (p. 49)

…. In this the American version of Romanticism differed not at all from the Romanticism of Europe; there was nothing at first glance to distinguish the effect of the American landscape on the beholder from the effect of the Alps or the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, there began to evolve—without ever achieving a coherent form—a belief that American landscape beauty was unlike any other, and that it was producing a unique American character. An anonymous writer in an art magazine in 1853 * attempted to find the answer to a twofold question: What was American scenery, and how did it influence the character of Americans ? After enumerating some of more spectacular Eastern sights—the Great Lakes, the Falls of the Potomac, the Adirondacks, the Hudson Valley—the author concluded that this scenery must inevitably affect the spirit of the people who lived in the midst of it. He cited the parallel between the clarity and grandeur of Greek scenery and the clarity and grandeur of Greek art; but for America he could find no instance. Perhaps the future would produce it. For he was convinced that the landscape of America revealed the intent of the Creator to form an American identity. ” The Infinite is influencing us in natural scenery, and in the presence of (p. 51)

The revolutionary phase of the Romantic approach to the environment was over by the time of the Civil War, but it can be said (and often is said) with some justification that the essential philosophy of Romanticism still determines our attitude toward the landscape and still inspires our designs. to reproduce its qualities in our man-made environments to reproduce its qualities in our man-made environments —and for a reason much the same as that of our nineteenth- century predecessors: we wish to be reminded that we are (in the old-fashioned phrase) “part of nature.” Certainly there has been no explicit repudiation of the Romantic approach among landscape architects or conservationists or the growing numbers of Americans worried about the environment. (p. 52)

… The natural area is to be protected not only because it conserves water (for industrial or municipal use), purifies the air (of urban wastes), muffles traffic noises, increases real estate value, and provides scientists with a laboratory, but because it offers an inexpensive and effective psychotherapy for weary urban holiday makers. No one will question the importance of those benefits; indeed, there is increasing evidence that we will demand them in every part of the country, for every population. But as we continue to require of the natural landscape that it perform certain essential services, it is logical that we judge the value of that landscape by its performance. What we even now call a beautiful landscape may not necessarily be efficient, but certainly in the future an efficient landscape, a landscape where the health-giving processes are continuous and unimpeded, will be thought of as beautiful. (p. 53-54)

U.S. Highway 1 is in fact one of the most sensationally ugly roads in America, and there is a particular stretch of it, somewhere between Washington and Baltimore, which when photographed through a telescopic lens seems to epitomize the degradation which in the last few year has overwhelmed our highways. Two sluggish streams of traffic, cars bumper to bumper, move as best they can over a hopelessly inadequate road bed between jungles of billboards and road-side stands, each sprouting a dozen signs of its own, and each with its own swarm of parked cars in front. This extends out of sight for miles and miles, varied here and there by a set of traffic lights. (p. 56)

… The stream pours itself into the black farmlands, into the prairie, and vanishes. This of course is the roadside development seen from an altitude of several thousand feet; the most beautiful and in a way the most moving spectacle the western flight can offer, because for the first time you see that man’s work can be an adornment to the face of the earth. (p. 57)

Fleeting beauty, then, and occasional usefulness; how much more can be said of many other of our products? When high-minded groups vie with each other in bitter condemnation of the highway developments, devising legal and moral means of destroying them, those two glimpses come to mind. Would it not be better—fairer, that is to say, and more intelligent—to see if the potentialities of these road- side slums cannot somehow be realized for the greater profit and pleasure of all.
A liking for this feature of the human landscape of America should not blind anyone to its frequent depravity and confusion and dirt. Its potentialities for trouble—aesthetic, social, economic—are as great as its potentialities for good, and indeed it is this ambidexterity which gives the highway and its margins so much significance and fascination. But how are we to tame this force unless we understand it and even develop a kind of love for it? We have not really tried to understand it as yet. For one thing we know little or nothing about how the roadside development, the strip, came into being, nor about bow it grows. We know (and seem to care) far too little about the variety of businesses which comprise it. Why is it that certain enterprises proliferate in certain areas and not in others, why are some of them clustered together, and others are far apart ? Which of them are dependent on the nearby town and city, which of them depend on transients ? The modern highway is of course the origin and sustainer of them all, but what a complex thing the modern highway has become; how varied its functions and how varied the public which makes use of it! To the factory or warehouse on its margin it is essentially the equivalent of the railroad; to the garage or service station it means direct accessibility to the passing public. the local businessman thinks of it as a way to reach and exploit the outlying suburban and rural areas, the farmer thinks of it as a way to reach town; the tourist thinks of it as an amenity, and the transcontinental bus or trucking company thinks of it as the shortest distance between two widely separated points. Each of these interests not only has its own idea of how the highway is to be designed and traced; it brings its own special highway service establishments into being. Which of the lot are we to eliminate ? (p. 57-59)

… Our highways margins are littered not only with the decaying refuse of what might be called the premotorized-leisure age—shanties, one-pump filling stations, rows of empty overnight cabins, miserable bars— they are also growing a second jungle crop of ill-planned, ill-designed, uneconomic enterprises. These still far out- number the good ones. One American town and city after another is finding to its shame that its highway approaches are becoming intolerably ugly and unwholesome. And the aftermath of this discovery is more often than not a wholesale condemnation, especially on the part of the right-thinking, of the local highway strip.
We have become entirely too fastidious, too conformist, m architectural matters. In our recently acquired awareness of architectural values we have somehow lost sight of the fact that there is still such a thing as a popular taste in art quite distinct from the educated taste, and that popular taste often evolves in its own way. Not that a recognition of such a distinction would automatically lead to an acceptance of roadside architecture; most of it, by any standards, is bad. (p.61-62)

Most of us can recall a time when our leisure and holiday activities were essentially imitations of the everyday activities of a superior social group—the so-called leisure class. If we dressed up on formal occasions it was because these enviable people dressed that way all the time, and our dress was an imitation of theirs. We went to hotels which resembled at a dozen removes the palace of a prince, to movie houses which resembled court operas, to restaurants and bars a- domed with mahogany and crystal and gold. All places associated with group good times—football stadiums, circuses, theaters, transatlantic steamers, even stations and parlor cars, were designed and decorated to suggest a way of life more sumptuous than our own. Such was the other-directed architecture of the period: in the Victorian phrase, our good times were largely spent in aping our betters. (p. 63-64)

A sudden increase in holiday and free time travel, faster and more comfortable cars, more money to spend, all helped precipitate the change. Across the country at strategic intervals of one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles (the average distance covered between meals) one new and ex- pensive highway strip after another burst into activity. Sometimes they rose outside of large cities, more often they rose next to some small town remote from any neighbor. In every case their presence affected the local pattern of leisure activities even while it served the traveling public. Never before had there been so total and dramatic a transformation of a portion of the American landscape, so sudden an evolution in habits, nor such a flowering of popular architecture. (p. 65)

There should be no misunderstanding at this juncture of the importance of the city. No one is suggesting that a man-made environment is inherently unnatural; no one is advising a return to more primitive ways of living. On the contrary, the city is (or should be) an environment where certain natural influences operate unimpeded by others. If it is not “unnatural” when creatures dig or build themselves shelters to provide the kind of small-scale environment they need, then it is not “unnatural” for us to build cities for the same purpose. There is merely one condition attached, attached a perfectly sensible one: that the man-made environment satisfy our native physical and psychological requirements. So the job of the urbanist and architect is essentially to design a man-made environment which is as natural as possible. (p. 79)

… We have all been educated to ignore, or at least to minimize, the testimony of our senses, to rationalize our sensory reactions in social or ethical or formal aesthetic terms; and this is particularly true of the urban environment. Yet it is not unlikely that much of the enjoyment we derive from exploring a foreign city, whose social and historical background is unfamiliar to us, is primarily sensory: an indefinable but very real delight in a novel sequence of lights, colors, spaces, sounds, and forms. … (p. 83)

The well-designed city is one where we everywhere feel at home; it reminds us, everywhere and at all times, that we are in an environment no less natural, no less stimulating than the environment of the country dweller. Its trees and parks and lawns are more than agents of health; they tell us of the passage of the seasons, and its open places tell us the time tact with other forms of life it provides us with the society tact with other forms of life it provides us with the society it cannot provide us with the sounds of the remoter landscape it at least provides us with areas where the sound of human voices and footsteps are not drowned out by mechanical noises, it provides us with quiet. It cannot imitate all of nature, but it gives us archways and pools of daylight, and flights of steps and views; the splash of water in fountains, echoes and music; the breath of damp cool air, the harmony of colors and the unpolluted sun; indeed it gives us so much that our excursions into the countryside cease to be headlong flights from a sterile environment, and become a conscious searching for the missing ingredients: solitude in the presence of other forms of life, space, and mystery. (p.86-87)

… Ascribe it if you like to a kind of sour grapes, but in the course of years of travel I have come to believe that in the home, the domestic establishment, far from being a unique symbol of the local way of life, is essentially the same wherever you go. The lovely higher income residential zone of Spokane is, I suspect, hardly to be distinguished (except for a few interesting but not very significant architectural variations) from the corresponding zone of Oslo or Naples or Rio de Janeiro. Granted the sanctity of the home, its social, cultural, biological importance, is it necessarily the truest index of a society? Offhand I would say the stranger could derive just as revealing an insight into a foreign way of life by listening to a country sermon or reading the classified ads in a popular newspaper or watching the behavior of a crowd during a street altercation—or for that matter by deciphering the graffiti on public walls. (p. 93)

… “Town” in English comes from a Teutonic word meaning hedge or enclosure; strange that this concept, obsolete a thousand years and more, should somehow have managed to stow away arid cross the Atlantic, so that even in America we are reluctant to think of our cities as places where strangers come; with us the resident is always given preference. I gather it was quite the opposite in ancient Egypt; there the suffix corresponding to “town” ton” meant “The place one arrives at”—a notion I much prefer. (p. 94)

Nevertheless it might be well if we ourselves studied some of those communities in order to find out a little how they have evolved, physically as well as socially, and what quality it is that they possess which enables them to multiply and endure. For it looks as if suburbs and a suburban way of life would be with us for a long time to come; and if we some- how learned to see them as belated American versions of an ancient and relatively effective world-wide community form instead of as land-speculation-induced nightmares we might adjust to them a little more gracefully and intelligently than we are doing now. (p. 115)

There exists, however, another way of approaching the neglected and mismanaged landscape, and this other way is just as much concerned with the people who live there as with the countryside or town itself. Health and recreation are essential to the people, of course, but no less essential are the possibilities of making a good living and of being active members of society. Who belongs to this other school ? Some are rural sociologists, some are government officials— Agriculture, OEO, Welfare. Others are the latter day homesteaders, like those the “Green Revolution” and “Way Out” describe; advocates of “intentional communities,” refugees from the metropolis. Then there are members of farm reform movements, decentralists, rural priests and school teachers. Very few come from the design professions. What they all seem to have in common is a desire to see rural small-city America revitalized socially and economically, and they are all trying to do something to bring this to pass. (137-138)

… The proportion of substandard housing in rural America is four times what it is in the cities, and though this includes the shanties of the cotton South, the shacks, tents, chicken coops, and car bodies where some 60,000 Southwestern Indians live, it also includes the squalid trailer courts, the miserable do-it-yourself houses along unpaved streets on the edge of town, the company tenements which no large city would tolerate, if only for health reasons. The trailer and the trailer court are for hundreds of thousands of Americans the only alternative to slum living. But they have an- other virtue: along with the new highway they disrupt the old pattern of the city and destroy established land values, and thus represent real possibilities of change. (p. 140-141)

… But what is also essential is for every responsible American to add a new social dimension to his definition of landscape beauty. We will have to see that an inhabited landscape is neither beautiful nor sound unless it makes possible an unfolding of the individual in work and social relationships just as much as in health and recreation. (p. 145)

Our relationship with the environment, natural and man- to believe that a truly harmonious relationship would result to believe that a truly harmonious relationship would result when man took his identity from his setting. Environmentalism, under one name or another, was a popular doctrine: we were all products of our environment, and so the design and care of the environment was of great importance. Now we have begun to search for identity in other ways; and more and more we are inclined to manipulate the environment, use it as a tool for creating our identity.
The search for identity assumes many forms; one which directly affects the landscape is a growing dependence on other people, a gregariousness. What we are (or think we are) is not simply a matter of what we do and accomplish, unless there is an ear to register it, we also assume that there unless there is an ear to register it, we also assume that there is no human identity unless there is another person to recognize it. We seem to be redefining man once again as a social animal—though not as a political animal—and the necessity for communication. Nothing can more vividly illustrate this change than our present attitude toward hundred and fifty years ago. At that time solitary confinement was not thought of as a punishment, but a speedy and effective type of reform therapy: the individual was confronted was safe from the contamination of society. Now it is considered the harshest punishment that can be inflicted.
The process of self-definition cannot go on by itself; it calls for the presence of others, and people of the younger generation know this better than anyone else. It is a dialog, not a monolog, and that is why existential writers in particular attach such importance to language, to communication. Existence means shared existence. We are all increasingly dependent on the presence of our fellow men—not necessarily on their approval; their reaction to our existence is just as essential.
The results of this tendency to get together, informally and perhaps briefly, are very evident. Urbanization is one obvious example; but it is visible on a much smaller scale as well. What we are likely to notice, when we look social life of the average American small town or city, is the favorite places of social interaction are not the institutions which previous generations preferred: the church, the public building, the public square, the club or lodge, or the so-called community center or the school. These are no longer popular except on special occasions. We have found other places for meeting together. (p. 146-147)

If the desire for communication is one of the most important aspects of our drive for self-definition, then the high- way is the prime symbol of this drive. Communication can be defined in several ways: it means passage from one place to another, and it means the transmitting of a message. In terms of the highway, it means an unending flow of traffic— perhaps much of it essentially aimless, a kind of search for some place or person to help reinforce our identity; it also means the signs and billboards and lights and signals a chorus of communications such as no generation has ever before seen. We are told that this confused collection of messages is undermining our sanity, but we somehow contrive to find our way through it. We may not enjoy it, but one virtue of our being communications-minded is that we have learned how to filter out those communications which don’t concern us. We deal with the familiar, recognizable symbols. (p. 148)

The highway has many shortcomings, aesthetic, economic, and social; it is often ugly, inefficient, and destructive to many communities. Yet even the most cluttered, the most garish and vulgar specimen has an immense potential. Moreover, the highway strip is developing a remarkable aesthetic style of its own. Its lighting effects—not merely the neon signs but the indirect lighting of filling stations and drive-ins —are often extremely handsome; so are the bright clear colors of the buildings and installations; so are the open spaces, even though they are not coordinated. It often seems that America is evolving a taste for a new kind of beauty: clean- cut geometric forms, primary colors, vast smooth surfaces and wide spaces uninterrupted by any detail, and bright lights. It is the beauty of newness, efficiency, and cleanliness, but to date, at least, it represents a thoroughly unsophisticated popular taste. (p. 149)

It is possible for the landscape to provide us with some symbols of permanent values. It is possible for it to provide us with landmarks to reassure us that we are not rootless individuals without identity or place, but are part of a larger scheme. The landscape can do much to reinforce our identity as political beings. (p. 152)

… The advantages of the megastructure are that the individual is provided with certain necessary facilities and also a greater freedom of choice. The megastructure is prior to the individual installation and, presumably, more lasting.
Few of us realize that there is another kind of megastructure, a megastructure in terms of a whole environment; one of the oldest creations of man. This megastructure consisting of the environment organized by man can be called the public landscape. A more correct term would be the political landscape; but since we associate that word not with citizenship as we should, but with politicians and politics, the term public is more effective.
There are certain installations, modifications of the physical environment that every organized community has to have if it is to function and endure. Among these are boundaries, roads> public places, and monuments. In some societies their primary purpose is to help keep the state physically intact. In others their purpose is also to insure a certain quality in the lives of the citizens—to promote civilization.
This public landscape is invariably the result of an historical process. We can say of it what we have said of the architectural megastructure: it is prior to the individual citizen or individual holding. The public landscape is prior to the private landscape. But unlike its architectural counterpart, the public landscape can and does change, and that is why it is of interest to us now: we must change the existing public landscape if we are once more to have a political identity. (p. 153-154)

… The environmental megastructure—to revert to the earlier comparison—supplies essential facilities for a civilized way of life; it thereby fosters the private landscape, the private realm. A properly functioning public landscape allows the private landscape to specialize and achieve individuality. (p. 160)

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