As finite beings, we perceive the world around us through a range of mediators. The goal of perception is by no means to offer an accurate image of the world, but rather to help us survive, orient in space and make use of what is around us. Furthermore, neuroscientists tell us that our brains filter perception so that only a small fraction of it reaches our consciousness – that which is relevant to our goals and purposes. Even that information can be overwhelming, so in our cognitive endeavors we simplify the things we see around us, grouping them in categories based on various criteria of utility. The words we use are not descriptors of objective reality, but rather tools that help us move from A to B.
As architects or landscape designers, we operate with even more specific categories which allow us to design and analyze buildings, urban spaces, natural landscapes etc. Whenever we’re out for a stroll in the city, even if we pay attention to the urban landscape around us, we only perceive whatever is relevant to our professional knowledge. Squares; promenades, streets and sidewalks; public or private spaces; residential, office or leisure buildings; slabs, columns, walls. Brick, plaster, concrete, glass, steel. Ordered or chaotic frontage. Built environment, vehicles and people. Trees, grass, bushes, parks and forests.
These categories do more than help us to orient in an urban environment; they allow us to ignore it so that we could focus on whatever seems relevant. For architectural visualisers this can be a terrible disadvantage. If you wish to be creative in your perception and representation of a particular landscape, these mental shortcuts will need to be overcome. In this and the following few articles we will focus on some concrete ways in which this can be achieved.
One way to do it is to picture the landscape as not only infinitely complex, but also fluid, everchanging. Start with the premise that you know nothing about it. Instead of aiming to unify in abstract categories, try to grasp that flux and transformation. Thomas Ligotti beautifully captures this idea in one of his short stories, ‘The Chymist’.
“I tell you, no one worships this city as I do. Especially its witticisms of proximity, one strange thing next to another, which together add up to a greater strangeness. Just look around at these caved-in houses, these seedy stores, each one of them a sacred site of the city, a shrine, if you will. You won’t? You’ve seen it all a million times? A slum is a slum is a slum, eh? Always the same. Always?
What about when it’s raining and the brown bricks of these old places start to drip and darken? And the smoke-gray sky is the smoky mirror of your soul. You give a lightning blink at a row of condemned buildings, starkly outlining them. And do they blink back at you? […]
No two times are the same. No two lives are alike. We’re like aliens to one another. Are these the same gutted houses you saw list night, or even a second ago? Or are they like the fluxing clouds that swirl above the chimneys and trees, and then pass on? The alchemical transmutations are infinite and continuous, working all the time like slaves in the Great Laboratory. Tell me you can’t perceive their work, especially in this part of the city. […]
‘Rain’ by Jonas de Ro. Image source: DeviantArt
As I was saying, everything is just variation without a theme. Oh, perhaps there is some unchanging ideal, some sturdy absolute. But to reach that ideal would mean a hopeless stroll along the path to hypothetically higher worlds. And on the way our ideas become feverish and confused. Perhaps, then, we should be grateful to the whims of chemistry, the caprices of circumstance, and the enigmas of personal taste for giving us such an array of strictly local realities and desires. […]
From this lofty keep I could nightly look out upon the city and its constant mutations. A different city every night. Yes, the city is indeed also a vessel. And it’s one that obediently takes the shape of very strange contents. The Great Chemists are working out unfathomable formulae down there. Look at those lights outlining the different venues and avenues below. Look at their lines and interconnections. They’re like a skeleton of something… the skeleton of a dream, the hidden framework ready at any moment to shift its structure to support a new shape. The Great Chemists are always dreaming new things and risking that they may wake up while doing so.” – ‘The Nyctalops Trilogy, The Chymist’, Thomas Ligotti
There are clear references to Heraclitus and Plato in this quote. According to Popper (‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’), these two were among the first Greek philosophers who realised that the world we inhabit is not static, like a huge edifice, but fluid and ever changing like a river. ‘No man steps in the same river twice’. In order to find some meaning and consolation in this chaos, the two philosophers tried to discover something that is rigid and unchanging and came up with phantasmagoric notions like ‘the measure of things’ or ‘the eternal world of Ideas’. Their desire for absolute certainties went in the way and prevented them from understanding the world they inhabited. Instead of falling in the same trap, Ligotti’s character chose the exact opposite – to reject the impulse to categorise and unify and rather observe and celebrate fluidity, circumstance and mutation.
The Irish poet John O’Donohue had a fascination with the contemplation of natural landscapes. He too realised the negative consequences of familiarity and categorisation:
“When we are familiar with something, we lose the energy, edge and excitement of it. Hegel said ‘generally, the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’ This is a powerful sentence. Behind the facade of the familiar, strange things await us. This is true of our homes, the place where we live and, indeed, of those with whom we live. We reduce the wildness and mystery of person and landscape to the external, familiar image. Yet the familiar is merely a facade. Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown which it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation” – ‘Anam Cara’, John O’Donohue
It is necessary to perceive landscape as Otherness in order to find the motivation to explore it and then represent it visually in creative ways. As Ligotti suggests in the last paragraph of the quote, fluidity not only describes the world around us, but also our activities as humans. It can be used as a design tool.