on site 33: on land :: intentional landscapes, inadvertent results

from the original call for articles:

What is landscape?  The discussion of landscape, in contrast to land, geology, dirt and soil, is often one of aesthetics. And, conventionally, aesthetics seem to be dissociated from politics, social conditions and most things unpalatable.

It is possible that ‘landscape’ is a screen or mask that beautifies a set of ugly exploitations. The greening of oil sands tailing ponds, much advertised as remediated landscapes of grasslands and marshes, presents landscape practices that excuse industrialised extractive industries.  The relationship is quantified as surface area: so many hectares of remediated land vs hectares of open pits. I’m not sure it is exactly about numbers. Is there ever a time when landscape is more than a historical record – not just a panacea, but a solution?

‘Landscape’ is sometimes understood as a designed condition that mediates between malign forces of nature and the more controllable forces of human settlement.  We hold the lines on the map to our hearts and minds, despite their irrelevance to things such as weather, or jihad, or chemical spills: on site there is a different reality, a different ‘landscape’ and it is one we don’t quite understand and certainly can’t control. Very easily one can be in the wrong place in the wrong landscape through sheer bad timing. 

And then there is the beautiful ‘landscape’ of the Red River that flows through Winnipeg, currently being dragged for murdered aboriginal girls. Or BC Highway 16, the Highway of Tears, a stunningly beautiful landscape across northern British Columbia that is forever blackened, not by fire, but by systemic racialised abuse. These are landscapes of fear.

Landscape is the tag by which we transform land – that mysterious entity of climate, geology and potential resources – into some sort of human endeavour, the unfamiliar made familiar by applying rules which make us feel that we can own the environment.

Although the word landscape, like the word architecture, appears frequently as a metaphor for social relations, we would like to look here at actual land and landscape: subversive landscapes, landscapes of exclusion and privilege, landscapes used as social tools for social order, landscapes of intent.  

What do they look like?  How do they work?  What is landscape for?

This was the call for articles for this issue. In the middle of the process of collecting articles and essays, David Birchall, a musician in Manchester, ordered On Site review 28: sound. His website shows a most beautiful collection of sound drawings of landscapes, encompassing so many of the issue themes of recent On Site reviews: writing, drawing, mapping, narrative, sound and, importantly for this issue, landscape. Beyond the images, beyond the meaning, the semantics, the manipulation and the machinations behind some of the most innocent-seeming landscapes, especially in our national parks, David Birchall’s landscapes are sweet records of birds, rain, trees; cars, airplanes – a landscape of intention and an inadvertent result.


the making of a magazine

This was an unhappy issue, not by way of the contents which as usual were brilliant, wide-ranging and complex. Rather, I was trying a different process to shepherd a conversation about land and landscape into something that could go through a printing press and be sandwiched between two covers.

As an editor who also set the terms of each issue with the call for articles and also did the copy-editing and the layout, I felt so very privileged to have such an intimate relationship with every word that each contributor had thought about and written. I wished all readers could have this relationship for there was a constant conversation running through my head with each article and its author: so many questions were raised, so many interesting points of discussion, tangents and sidelines. How can this extra material crowd its way onto the page so that there is an ongoing dialogue started, and then continued by each reader: that was the project.

Well. Quelle catastrophe. My very short-lived editorial board assembled to help with this issue saw its role as critical, in that they were very. Of everything. I ploughed ahead, running a commentary to each article in a different typeface to the main text. The authors were insulted; some, not all, saw their essays as fait accomplis, unassailable, obdurate. I thought about the review system every one of them had gone through in five years of architecture school: it seems to make us more thin-skinned while the intention is to toughen us up to meet the demands of clients and the profession. Not that this was architecture, just a series of thoughts about landscape. Perhaps this is why reviews go so badly always. Reviewers think they discuss, students feel attacked. It becomes a ritual battle every time. These weren’t students, but the ritual continues. I was losing heart at this point. However, deadline loomed, it went to press, people complained they didn’t get enough free copies, whole boxes FedExed for launches went astray; I was happy to see the back of it.

Going through the issue now, several years later, it is the content that is so beautiful, so rich; I shouldn’t have lost heart, should have trusted the material more. It is enough.