Land and Beauty

“Beauty has no obvious use: nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.” Sigmund Freud[1]

Mr. Olin: The first Europeans who arrived in America were obsessed with land and God. Both the Spanish conquistadors and the Puritan settlers landed in hopes of seeking a new fortune and a setting for their life and ideology. Both saw the land as an opportunity for gain and exploitation. (ill. 1) From accounts of their early experience it doesn’t seem that they found the land ‘beautiful’, but in fact difficult, daunting, and in what we think of as a natural state, despite the fact that large portions had been manipulated by the people that had lived here for tens of thousands of years. The new arrivals had come from a landscape that had been cleared and cultivated, divided and settled heavily for thousands of years, and the jungles, deserts, prairies, and forests of North America seemed as savage as they felt the inhabitants to be.


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Illustration 1                                                                                                                    Illustration 2


When I was a child growing up in Alaska in what must surely be one of the most Sublime landscapes in the world by any measure we had a neighbor who had a subscription to a magazine called Arizona Highways, which consisted of multi-page photo essays of the desert southwest, an inordinate number of which were taken at sunset. (ill.2) The texts were minimal, really just expanded captions describing where the pictures were taken along with tid-bits of history. While not totally oblivious to the spectacular sight of the Alaska Range and its peaks spread across the horizon south of us across the Tanana valley we pored over pictures that I associate with calendar art today with a fascination only partly accounted for by the ice fog and sub-zero temperature outside. (ill.3) Just as one hears the oohs and ahhs rise from a crowd during a fireworks display, nearly everyone has stood and stared at particularly striking sunsets, especially when presented with a vast expanse of sky and territory such as the desert, prairie, or ocean.



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Illustration 3                                                                                                                  Illustration 4


This week, out of curiosity I went on line to see if the magazine still existed and there it was, (ill.4) still going strong and still full of gorgeous photos of the land. The web site offers subscriptions, shopping, and portfolios of pictures of the Grand Canyon and Sedona in the snow, of Saguaros in the fog, of golden light on various mountains and buttes, and, of course, sunsets over vast panoramic horizons.

By the 19th century a considerable amount of American painting was devoted to such scenery and visual effects. (ill.5) And still today recent and accomplished paintings and photographs of landscape that strive to portray imagery that many people feel is beautiful can be seen in museums throughout the west. What is behind this seemingly inexhaustible fascination and depiction of land? One answer is Beauty or our idea of it as exemplified by particular places, moods, or aspects of the world about us; and one central characteristic of Beauty is the provision of pleasure.



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Illustration 5                                                                                                                      Illustration 6


A designer like myself feels a certain amount of difficulty discussing Beauty partly because of the numerous theories and pronouncements centered on concepts of morality and relativism regarding values and perception that have been ladled over the topic. As a working member of in the Arts I believe that the subject (or phenomenon) Beauty exists, but until recent years I have been shy about talking about it. Great debate has been generated through the centuries concerning whether Beauty is objective or subjective, whether it is inherent in things or is simply a perception or feeling in our minds, and whether it is related to desire and arousal, whether sexual or some other emotion. This has troubled a series of writers because of its apparent ambivalence regarding social and moral issues of all sorts. (ill. 6) One need only think Marilyn Monroe, or the extraordinary weapons --swords and firearms -- one finds in great museum collections, or architecture produced by some of the most dangerous and murderous rulers of church and state in Renaissance Italy or ancient China to see why beautiful things have been seen as outside the boundaries of moral considerations. The question of where beauty is located, includes another old debate about universality versus culturally determined perception and values.

For western philosophers prior to the 20th century, Nature writ large and beyond us – whether of the Arizona Highways variety or stormy alpine scenes -- Nature as vast, terrible, unknowable, wild and truly inhuman by definition, this was the Sublime not the Beautiful. (ill.7) For them Beauty had to do with human scale, such as one sees in paintings of the 17th century that characterize an emerging sensitivity to landscape as a subject for art in the West (as opposed to History or Portraits), works that depicted a portion of the world inhabited for several thousand years. Beauty to some degree in terms of landscape was a matter of domestication and relationships of natural elements to human or social issues.


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Illustration 7                                                                                                                    Illustration 8


Beauty and the Sublime especially as related to nature, landscape, and art have been major concerns of western thought for centuries. Longinus wrote On the Sublime in the first century; in 1756 Edmund Burke published his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful; Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime followed soon after in 1763, Hegel’s remarks about nature and beauty in On Art, Religion, Philosophy: Introductory Lectures in the Realm of Absolute Spirit delivered in Berlin between 1818 and 1831, between 1836 and 1847 both Emerson and Thoreau assayed the topic in their quintessentially American way. (ill.8) Despite a bevy of 20th century European (and a handful of American) thinkers dismissing this entire skein of thought as outdated and hopeless, recently some of our own contemporaries such as Stanley Cavell and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe have written thoughtfully and persuasively about these dropped threads regarding our need for and methods of consideration of these twin topics: Beauty and the Sublime.

One of the main debating points has been whether those things people find ‘beautiful’ are subjective or objective – whether the phenomena reside within the beholder or within the thing beheld. Notions that any feeling or perception could be universal or characteristic of all humans versus a belief that they must inevitably be culturally determined have contested violently through journals and institutions, a paragon of sorts between nature and nurture. There is evidence on both sides in the debate between universality and culture.


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Illustration 9                                                                                                                       Illustration 10

Among my favorite paintings are those of China from the Northern Sung Dynasty, especially the great hand scrolls of the 10th and 11th centuries. (ill. 9) In them one finds a dark and cold landscape of mountain peaks and forests, snowstorms, and deep valleys. Waters pour out and flow down, not only to the sea, but also deep beneath the earth. The masses of granite groan, and people, small and nearly insignificant, plod along on steep paths toward their goal, whether a small hut or summer palace. The Southern Sung and Yuan ink paintings that followed while less somber share a vision of humans in nature as no more than other creatures, whether of the deep or leaves on the trees, like clouds passing across the moon. (ill.10) We are part of it all, but only a piece, an ephemeral one at that. And yet it is inspiring. To me, and many others, it is beautiful: this grand sweep of nature, this landscape, and these paintings.

John Muir the man most responsible for saving Yosemite from development and a spiritual father of our national park system wrote “Bathed in such beauty, watching the expressions varying on the faces of the mountains, watching the stars, which here have a glory the lowlander never dreams of, watching the circling seasons, listening to the sounds of the waters and winds and birds, would be endless pleasure.”[2] (ill. 11)

Of all the aspects of Beauty that contribute to our sense of it, one of the most important is that of Form. The contemporary photographer Robert Adams has written “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern that one observes, for example in the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the fiction of Joyce, the films of Ozu, the paintings of Cezanne, and Matisse and Hopper, and the photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorothy Lange... Why is Form so Beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and therefore our suffering may be without meaning.” [3]

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Illustration 11                                                                                                                         Illustration 12


Centuries later and half way around the globe from the Sung poets and painters various individuals went out into the landscape of Europe to draw and paint, creating a movement that is still playing out like a great wave. (ill. 12) The world they painted, however, was largely one of human endeavor and agriculture. While aspects of it were still wild, its roots were in the literature of Rome and Greece and attitudes regarding land that had to do with order, predictability, and agriculture. These were paintings that showed a land largely cleared of its original forests, occupied by herdsmen and their animals - sheep, goats, cattle - that produced a situation of mature trees standing amid heavily grazed meadows and pasture. The landscape of the Georgics and Eclogues, this pastoral vision of a deeply pleasing countryside created for a highly urban audience later came to form the underlying trope first of Italian Renaissance vignas, later of 18th century English landscape gardens, and more recently many of our own most beloved parks and suburban landscapes.

In De natura deorum Cicero, writing in the 1st century, used a phrase that translates as “second nature” to describe agriculture and the world that humans had fashioned from the elements of the first, original natural world. [4](ill. 12) That the results of such agency could be pleasing is reflected in the construction of rural retreats and villas on agricultural estates and an outpouring of pastoral verse and paintings from classical antiquity through the renaissance. Agricultural lands engender Beauty largely due to the fact that one of their characteristics is the creation of pattern and order, of shaping the land into clear and strong forms, and the purposeful arrangement of plants at several scales. (ill. 13) The beloved parks and landscape gardens of the 18th century in England were to a large extent created as representations of earlier – especially Mediterranean – pastoral landscapes. Created at a moment when the industrial revolution was dramatically changing society, city and countryside, these creations were neither natural nor particularly utilitarian as agriculture was also in the throes of industrialization. The landscape of estates such as Stourhead and Petworth were yet a ‘third nature’ to borrow the a phrase of 16th century humanists Jacopo Bonfadio and Bartolomeo Taegio that consciously developed Cicero’s notion of artifice derived from environmental material and opportunity. [5](ill.14) Despite the fact that agriculture and life on the land can be hard and at times crushing (one thinks of Crabbe, Hardy, Rolvaag, Cather, Steinbeck and others), there is a vast repertoire of visual images depicting the land itself, its contours, of light falling across hills and fields, crops gleaming in the sun, of barns and cattle, the whole apparatus, whether it is the Samara plain in Crete, the Tay Valley in Scotland, central and southern Pennsylvania, the rolling wheat fields near Walla Walla, or terraced rice paddies in Asia, the general consensus over time has been that agricultural lands are beautiful. (ill.15) Consider for example the attitude recorded in many of the paintings of Breughel, Rubens, Claude, Constable, and Grant Wood.

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Illustration 13                                                                               Illustration 14                                                                               Illustration 15


Which brings us to gardens and the designed landscape, the terza natura of the humanists. Gardens frequently partake of and espouse an ambition to possess Beauty. (ill. 16) If the Grand Tetons, Yosemite, or the Li River in Guilin transcend traditional definitions of the beautiful, and in their stunning physical presence are visually arresting, even overwhelming, and are superb examples of what Kant, Schiller and Burke categorized as Sublime, not the Beautiful, just what then are some of the aspects of nature that people have attempted to embody in the design of parks and gardens?


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Illustration 16                                                                                                                 Illustration 17


The first obvious answer is the creation of a space that is not part of everyday domestic life or our working world. (ill. 17) Like Beauty, gardens are not particularly necessary for survival, they have come to exist for their own sake, and are in many ways what Michel Foucault describes as Heterotopias -places that are out of bounds - that bring together and summon up experiences for pleasure, that gather together plants and spaces, visions and references to places, things and ideas beyond the garden, whether in time, location or imagination, that are of the world, but separate from it. [6]Gardens and parks have been developed as particular portions of land in which to lose oneself in something other, a place to step outside ourselves and our daily issues, places that bring together or recreate properties such as those found in nature, especially those that we find to be beautiful, that stimulate our senses and emotions: color, texture, pattern, seasonal change, diverse and harmonious forms, spatial variety and extension, the magic of light and water, of sound and smell, in short a representation or microcosm of that which we find beautiful. That there are little or no rules or formulas to achieve this is demonstrated by the enormous variety of Beauty that has been created. (ill. 18)


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Illustration 18                                                                                                                         Illustration 19

Robert Adams has remarked:

“the only thing that is new in art is the example; the message is broadly speaking, the same – coherence, form, meaning…we respond best to affirmations that are achieved within the details of life today, specifics that we can, to our surprise and delight and satisfaction, recognize as our own.”[7]

For a time it has been fashionable in Academia (as well as in certain religious sects) to attribute many of the ills of our day to the Enlightenment. While I think this is ridiculous, it is true that there has been a move toward privileging intellect and quantification over feeling and intuition, as we understand them. (ill. 19) Hegel famously argued (and many today still question) that the Beauty of human endeavor was superior to the Beauty we experience in nature:

“in common life we are in the habit of speaking of beautiful colour, a beautiful sky, a beautiful river, and moreover, of beautiful flowers, beautiful animals, and above all, of beautiful human beings…

…natural beauty ought to be recognized as existing beside artistic beauty. (ill. 20) We may, however, begin at once asserting that artistic beauty stands higher that nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born – born again – that is – of the mind; and by as much as the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances, by so much as the beauty of art higher than the beauty of nature.”[8]


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Illustration 20                                                                                                                  Illustration 21


I am well aware that many of my peers in academia, the art world, and professional practice are uncomfortable with the phenomenon of Beauty, preferring to engage in work that is political, historical, technical, ecological, rhetorical, sexual or something else, anything else but definitely not ‘merely’ beautiful. (ill. 21) to them it smacks too much of commerce – whether consumerism, products, advertising, sales, or the business of art, the galleries and the exploitation of pleasure and desire to sell everything from clothing and cosmetics to cars and real estate. Many artists and designers who actually make things remain interested in beauty and its terrible demands, its promise of rare moments of fulfillment, which in the case of some art, design, and landscape seem to continue to occur.

So why did the creation of great gardens and the representation of landscape become a subject for painting, contemplation, and pleasure in such diverse parts of the world and periods of history -- in each case accompanying periods of poetry and philosophy that discuss the phenomenon such as Sung and Yuan dynasty China, 17th, 18th, and 19th century Europe, and 19th and early 20th century America? (ill. 22) I would speculate that in each case one finds a society in upheaval, urbanizing and industrializing (to varying degrees) and faced with the loss of traditional agrarian ties, as well as a growing leisured elite who can consider the landscape as an aesthetic stimulus to thoughts regarding man’s fate. (ill. 23) Whether it be fading sunlight on the granite peaks of the Sierra, the wind through the snow covered branches of pines north of Xian, the advancing shadows from live oaks across the Roman Campagna, or the animate sleeping forms of eroded mesas near Abiqiu, the color of hardwoods in New England, water spilling over a ledge in the wilderness, or a vast panorama opening out before us, whether unexplored or tamed by human endeavor, our predecessors have been driven to record their encounters and feelings regarding land. Yet, to what purpose? What is it that we have cared so much about in either the representation or original scene that prompted the effort to record it, to express a particular aspect, vision or supposed meaning, or to try to build aspects of it for ourselves?


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Illustration 22                                                                                                                           Illustration 23


I would speculate that as animals we have a sense of our being of the world, that part of our being alive is to sense the living nature of our environment, our kinship, relationship, and destiny to share it for a time with energy and perception. (ill. 24) As creatures of society we also are invested with ideas and concepts, values and habits, memory and history, regarding the world, our struggles, and endeavors regarding the land, its wilder and grand aspects as well as our own transformation – both banal and magnificent – of portions of land and landscape. Landscapes whether natural or contrived normally exceed our ability to absorb or understand them in one glance. They contain a surfeit of detail, extending beyond our ability to count or measure, to comprehend completely without spending time looking or physically exploring them. (ill. 25) They stimulate our senses: the movement of leaves and clouds, the sparkling, shifting and shimmering of light on the surface of water, the shadows and light playing upon the ground nearby or distant hills, the infinite variation in depth of field for our eyes to shift their focus upon, the colors, textures, forms of plants and topography, the heft and weight of the bones of the earth, the smell and color of the earth, wind moving through trees or in tall grass, the distant glint of light on a peak or bend in a river, birds scudding overhead, animals in the distance, a train or traffic crawling up an incline, a patch of yellow aspen leaves amid the dark spruce. The list, like the world is nearly infinite.


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If one definition of beauty is a surplus of gratuitous stimulus and pleasure, it is easy to see the relationship between land and beauty. (ill. 26) Another aspect of Beauty is our inability to possess and hold it, its fugitive and ephemeral nature that engenders a sharp sense of the moment, and frequently, thereby, one of incipient loss. So much of what has been painted records nostalgia for disappearing places and scenes that were once ubiquitous or momentary. If another possible attribute of Beauty is its eternal and timeless nature, one understands the recurrent and atavistic themes of people wandering and reposing in nature and landscapes, of an emphasis upon mountains and water, ancient trees and agricultural scenes.


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Illustration 26                                                                                                                        Illustration 27


Whether as a result of knowing these things, or from an irrepressible optimism and sense of hope – which seem to be common traits of designers and many artists – I don’t limit my consideration of Beauty to museum visits and vacations, but also seek through what I do for a living, to foster the opportunity for Beauty to come once more into being. (ill. 27) To do so, however, isn’t as easy as it might seem. It’s close to impossible to set out to force Beauty to occur.

In a recent conversation with the poet Michael Palmer this came up. In answer to one of his questions I said, “…Do we ever try to put beauty into things? Yes, but in a way it’s a by-product of other activities.” He said, “It’s the unstated goal. It almost has to be unspoken.” To which I replied, “If you go straight at it, you miss every time.” And Michael concluded, “You end up with pretty instead of beautiful, without the depth because the primary consideration can’t be surface in terms of beauty. Pretty is about surface.”[9]

The implication, of course, is that Beauty is serious, it is deep, and that it has great value for sentient humans. (ill. 28) While there are many manifestations, one of the most accessible has been and remains to be found in land whether natural or designed. A loss or diminution in our interest or comprehension of Beauty regarding Land or Landscape would indeed be a great loss.


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speaker laurie olin Speaker Laurie Olin, University of Pennsylvania, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. Photo by member John Gullett.


Illustrations – please note that many of the slides used in the talk are of copyright and privately owned material and cannot be reproduced for publication with out the owners’ permission:

1. Talkeetna River near Denali, Alaska; John M. Olin, 1959

2. Aspens, Grand Canyon National Park; David Meunsch

3. Sunset, Steiger Farm, Blue Spring Run, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania; Laurie Olin, c. 1990

4. Grand Canyon National Park; David Meunsch

5. Kaaterskill Falls, New York; Thomas Cole, 1826

6. Marilyn Monroe; Richard Avedon

7. Rural landscape; Meindart Hobbema

8. Kindred Spirits (Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant in the Catskills); Asher Durand, 1849

9. Summer Mountains, northern Sung handscroll; Chu Ting, c. 1050

10. Southern Sung Album painting; Yen Tz’u-Yu

11. Yosemite Valley (from Tunnel-view overlook); Ansel Adams

12. Vigna of Villa Madama, Rome; Claude Lorraine c. 1640

13. Stooks in fields, Tay River Valley near Killiekrankie Pass, Scotland; Laurie Olin, 1970

14. Petworth Park sunset; J. M. W. Turner and Wivenoe Park; John Constable

15. Wheat fields near Walla Walla, Washington: Laurie Olin, 1971

16. Genralife Garden, Ganada, Spain; Laurie Olin, 1982

17. Vizcaya Garden, Coral Gables, Miami, Florida; Laurie Olin, 2003

18. Silver Sea and Cone, Sand Garden, Ginkaku-Ji (Silver Pavilion),Kyoto, Japan, Laurie Olin, 1983

19. Mountain laurel in bloom. Tuscarora Mountains, Pennsylvania; Laurie Olin, 1995

20. Allee between Rotunda and Abigail House, New Albany, Ohio; Laurie Olin, 1995

21. Pergola and vines by Gertrude Jeckyll, Hestercombe, Somerset England; Laurie Olin, 1998

22. Four Seasons four fold Screen, Kano School, Japan, c.1630; Freer Gallery

23. Yosemite Falls, Yosemite; Chira Obata, 1930

24. Beach near Brighton, England: John Constable

25. Lackawana Valley, Pennsylvania; (unavailable)

26. Mountain near Abiqiu, New Mexico: Georgia O’keefe,

27. Cactus GArden, Getty Center, Los Angeles: Olin, c. 2000

28. “Clear Dawn”, from 36 Views of Mount Fuji; Hokusai, 1830-32


Selected Bibliography of references and related reading

Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, Aperture, 1996

Bill Beckley with David Shapiro, eds. Uncontrollable Beauty, Toward a New Aesthetics, Allworth Press, New York, 1998

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Allworth Press, New York, 1999

Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000, originally published By Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1965

Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967

G.W.F. Hegel, On Art, Religion, Philosophy, ed J. Glenn Gray, Harper & Row, New York, 1970

John Dixon Hunt, Greater Perfections, the Practice of Garden Theory, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2000

John Muir, Meditations of John Muir, Nature’s Temple, ed Chris Highland, Wilderness Press, Berkeley, 2001

1 Quoted by Hubert Damisch, The Judgment of Paris, University of Chicago Press, 1996, p 57 and by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, Allworth Press, New York, 1999, p 41

2 John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras, Houghton Mifflin Company, The riverside Press, Cambridge, Boston, New York, 1911, quoted recently in Meditations of John Muir, Nature’s Temple, ed. Chris Highland, Wilderness Press, Berkeley, 2001, p 29

3Robert Adams, Beauty in Photography, Aperture, 1996, pp 24-25

4 Cicero, De natura deorum, 2.152. I am indebted to J.D. Hunt for developing this insight in his discussion of Bonfadia and Taegio first in our joint lecture course and in more depth in Greater Perfections, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, pp 32-34. He rightly points also to C.J. Glackens landmark book, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of he Eighteenth Century, Berkeley, 1967, pp 144-149, which discusses Cicero’s essay in the context of Stoic thought.

5Ibid, Hunt, pp 32-34

6Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, Diacritics, Vol.16, Spring 1986, pp 22-27, originally entitled “Des EspacesAutre”, published by the French journal Architecture-Mouvement-Continuite, October 1984

7 Adams, p79

8 G.W.F. Hegel, On Art, Religion, Philosophy; Introductory Lectures to the Realm of Absolute Spirit, ed. J. Glen Gray, Harper & Row, New York, 1970, p 21. This is a translation of Vorlesungen uber die Aesthtik, Erster Band: from the translation of Bernard Bosanquet in the Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art, published in 1905 by Routledge & kegan paul, Ltd. London

9Laurie Olin, et al, Olin: Placemaking, Monacelli Press, New York, 2008, p15