Readings: John Brinckerhoff Jackson: Discovering The Vernacular Landscape

Grain Elevator from Measure of Happiness; Frank Gohlke
We offer this Readings selection from John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s seminal text Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. The New York Times called Jackson “America’s greatest living writer on the forces that have shaped the land this nation occupies.” His work has influenced generations of artists, designers, and writers.

As far back as we can trace the word, land meant a defined space, one with boundaries, though not necessarily one with fences or walls. The word has so many derivative meanings that it rivals in ambiguity the word landscape. Three centuries ago it was still being used in everyday speech to signify an expanse of village holdings, as in grassland or woodland, and then finally to signify England itself–the largest space any Englishman of those days could imagine; in short, a remarkably versatile word, but always implying a space defined by people, and one that could be described in legal terms. This brings us to that second syllable: scape. It is esentially the same as shape, except that it once meant a composition of similar objects, as when we speak of a fellowship or a membership. The meaning is clearer in a related word: sheaf–a bundle or collection of similar stalks or plants. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, seems to have contained several compound words using the second syllable–scape or its equivalent–to indicate collective aspects of the environment. It is as much as if the words had been coined when people began to see the complexities of the man-made world. Thus housescape meant what we would now call a household, and a word of the same sort which we still use–township–once meant a collection of “tuns” or farmsteads. From this piece of information we can learn…that the word scape could also indicate something like an organization or a system. And why not? If housescape meant the organization of the personnel of a house, if township eventually came to mean an administrative unit, then landscape could well have meant something like an organization, a system of rural farm spaces. At all events it is clear that a thousand years ago the word had nothing to do with scenery of the depiction of scenery.

Landscape; Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1897

We pull up the word landscape by its Indo-European roots in an attempt to gain some insight into its basic meaning, and at first glance the results seem disappointing. Aside from the fact that as originally used the word dealt only with a small fraction of the rural environment, it seems to contain not a hint of the esthetic and emotional associations which the word still has for us. Little is to be gained by searching for some etymological link between our own rich landscape and the small cluster of plowed fields of more than a thousand years ago.

Nevertheless the formula landscape as a composition of man-made spaces on the land is more significant than it first appears, for if it does not provide us with a definition it throws a revealing light on the origin of the concept. For it says that a landscape is not a natural feature of the environment but a synthetic space, a man-made system of spaces superimposed on the face of the land, functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community–for the collective character of the landscape is one thing that all generations and all points of view have agreed upon. A landscape is thus a space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature. As Mircea Eliade expresses it, it represents man taking upon himself the role of time. 

Open Space; M12 art collective
In the contemporary world it is by recognizing this similarity of purpose [between civil engineering and landscape architecture] that we will eventually formulate a new definition of landscape: a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as infrastructure or background for our collective existence; and if background seems inappropriately modest we should remember that in our modern use of the word it means that which underscores not only our identity and presence, but also our history.