Richard Muir. Approaches to Landscape. London: Macmillan Press, 1999. xix + 310 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-0889-7.
Reviewed by Harvey K. Flad (Department of Geology and Geography, Vassar College)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2001)
Landscape as Noun and Verb
Landscape as Noun and Verb
The study of landscape has become a rich field of inquiry and analysis; it reaches across many disciplines in the natural and social sciences and the humanities. This work attempts to accommodate the inter-relatedness of the subject, while primarily based in the discipline of geography. The volume is divided into nine chapters, each of which focuses on a specific approach to landscape analysis. Each chapter presents selections from many of the works in the particular sub-field, along with the author's commentary. As such, Approaches to Landscape can work very well as a basic text for a course in which the theoretical and methodological study of landscape is important, such as environmental or land use planning, rural or suburban studies, regional history or geography, archaeology, forestry, environmental psychology, art history, and landscape architecture.
The author's specialization is in landscape history, which accounts for the first two chapters and almost one-third of the volume. Most of the examples throughout the text are from Great Britain and especially so in the study of landscape history. To some degree, this reflects the fact that British landscapes reveal human intervention for millennia, with agricultural plots, stone circles, and sacred mounds dating back to the megalithic. It also reflects Professor Muir's own research as a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University College of Ripon & York St. John. He draws upon his knowledge of the many archaeological and historical studies of the British landscape, both natural and cultural forms, with specific examples at every turn.
One of the best features of the book is its reliance on empirical examples to document the author's statements on method as well as theory. The text is complemented by over three dozen inspiring black and white photographs taken by the author along with air photos of medieval settlements and illustrations of eighteenth and nineteenth century country manors. Unfortunately, they are not always well integrated into the narrative. For example, Muir notes the eighteenth century paintings of Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Poussin, and Slavator Rosa (p. 260), without referring the reader back to an initial comment on and illustration by the former (pp. 173 and 185). Another example is Constable's painting "The Haywain" (1812), which is used to document the author's argument (p. 266), but is not even illustrated. Meanwhile, North American examples, although mentioned, are not illustrated. Examples outside of Britain are not always recognized when they might have served as interesting and appropriate examples. For example, even in his longest and most documented chapter on "The Practice of Landscape History," Muir uses the Roman road, the Pye Lane, to demonstrate a methodological point (p. 86), without commenting on the similar role that the incised Oregon Trail tracks have played in documenting the history of the American West. But these lapses are relatively minor, given the task of the text to introduce "approaches to" landscape analysis. Rather, the reader is invited to make the comparisons to one's own local or regional historic landscapes.
In the first two chapters on landscape history Muir offers numerous definitions of the word "landscape," including J. B. Jackson's concept of the vernacular landscape as "a place for living and working" (p. 23), while he gives ample weight to the writings of W. G. Hoskins and David Lowenthal on the historical cultural landscape. In chapter three, "The Structure and Scenery Approach," he quotes Jacquetta Hawkes's beautiful writing on the natural landscape. Concluding the chapter, Muir notes that "scenery" is not simply a result of geological and geomorphological processes. All landscapes show human impact over time, while both "landscape" and "scenery" are socially constructed.
Contemporary landscape analysis has been in the forefront of the new "humanistic" geography, and Muir is somewhat ambivalent about this new direction. Nonetheless, Muir presents the various humanistic approaches with a great degree of objectivity. The chapters are liberally sprinkled with quotations from the primary practitioners of each of the approaches. For the student, these chapters are essentially an annotated bibliography and are well worth the price of the text.
Chapter four, "Landscapes of the Mind," offers the reflections of the geographers Yi-Fu Tuan and Lowenthal, both of whom are recognized as developing aspects of environmental psychology in studies of the perception of landscapes. Muir includes Pocock's literary perceptions of place as well as Martyn Bowden's study of misconceptions of the American West as desert. He completes the chapter by introducing the concept of place invention, with examples from English country villages and Joseph Woods's scholarship on the New England village.
In chapters five through seven on landscapes of "Politics and Power," evaluation techniques, and symbolism, Muir differs with both Denis Cosgroves's definition of landscape as "a way of seeing" (p. 149) and Mitchell's definition that it is "a verb" (p. 174). Post-modern "discourse" is presented as well (p. 229), while the writings of Steven Daniels, James Duncan, and Donald Meinig on symbolic landscapes are shared. He presents these perspectives by quoting the authors at length and then adds his own comments as well as others' who might extend or argue against them. Muir strikes a fine balance in the critiques, especially within the limitations of one volume. Indeed, his writing is cogent and readable, and he makes the various theoretical approaches readily accessible.
In these chapters and subsequent chapters--eight on the "Aesthetic Approach" and nine on "Place"--Muir continues to add numerous examples to the quotations from the proponents of the various approaches. Landscapes are culturally constructed and evaluated differently by different cultures, according to Peirce Lewis (p.194), and may symbolically represent different aspects of national identity, according to Daniels (p. 238). The suggestion that landscapes are indicators of politics and power includes comments on British colonialism, Nazi Germany, and the English enclosure movement, although various studies of urban landscapes and monumentality could have been included as well. And in recalling language and literature that present a sense of place, Muir fails to include any Nature writers.
Students and researchers in geography, archaeology, and regional or rural history are generally well served by this text; however, those in landscape architecture, art history, urban history, and planning will find a number of paths less well covered. There are only four pages on the role of the Hudson River School of artists in the development of a North American perception and evaluation of wilderness and the development of national parks, mostly quoting Barbara Novak. Functional approaches, such as recreation and leisure studies are not consulted, although sea shores and mountains have a history of being perceived and evaluated as both landscapes of fear as well as enjoyment. In landscape architecture research, although Muir does refer to the "prospect-refuge" and "habitat" theories of Jay Appleton, along with contributions by Ervin Zube and Rachel and Steven Kaplan, and some of the writings of Barrie B. Greenbie, Muir fails to engage the many studies that relate to urban and suburban environments. For example, Muir might have also included comments from Greenbie's wonderfully illustrated text Spaces, which examines townscapes and urban environments as well as the countryside.
A final chapter or two might have added this important dimension, especially for historical and contemporary design approaches. Ironically, Muir even quotes P. J. Taylor (1991) who declared that the Anglo-British are "a non-rural people with an ideal rural image" (p. 235), which should have argued for a bit more concern for urban and suburban environments.
In this regard, the North American reader misses an analysis of the work of Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Even though Muir offers a caveat in his postscript that his text has "been concerned with intellectual exploration of landscape rather than with applied work such as associated with planning, landscape gardening or landscape design" (p. 297, author's emphasis), no garden designer or landscape architect works without an aesthetic philosophy. Downing, after all, brought the principles of landscape design of Lancelot "Capability" Brown, (noted by Muir for his English work on pp. 94 and 164), Humphry Repton, and John Claudius Loudon from the English countryside, which Muir interprets throughout his text, to North America. Vaux and Olmsted similarly used the English examples in their designs for New York City's Central Park (1858) and Brooklyn's Prospect Park (1871). Indeed, Olmsted's landscapes are the historic landscapes of America and are studied by landscape historians much as medieval furrows or settlements are studied by Muir in Britain.
Of a more contemporary note, the "intellectual explorations" by Ian McHarg and Kevin Lynch in regional and urban landscapes have enabled others to approach, evaluate, and understand humanized landscapes. Muir's only reference to urban landscape symbolism is a contribution by John Jakle, a geographer better known for his exhaustive scholarship on small towns and the automobile landscape, of New York's metropolis skyline as a tourist image (p. 230). A more comprehensive analysis may be found in the work of urban geographer Mona Domosh, whose Invented Cities is a compelling landscape reading of New York City's skyscrapers and department stores using symbolic and feminist theory.
One of the more interesting contemporary approaches to landscape is that of the landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn. Her most recent work The Language of Landscape incorporates photographs, historical designs, and philosophical and aesthetic theory in the reading, evaluation, analysis, and definition of "landscape." Students and scholars wishing to approach landscape would do well to read Spirn alongside Muir.
Muir's Approaches to Landscape is an essential text for the landscape historian and geographer and deserves to be on the shelf of all others examining the creation of place, space, and the cultural landscape.
In North America, this text may be ordered from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland 20706.
. Barrie B. Greenbie. Spaces: Dimensions of the Human Landscape (New Haven and London: Yale, 1981).
. Mona Domosh. Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth Century New York (New Haven: Yale, 1996).
. Anne Whiston Spirn. The Language of Landscape (New Haven and London: Yale, 1998).
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Harvey K. Flad. Review of Muir, Richard, Approaches to Landscape.
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