Copernican Preservation

Taking a photograph is finding a composition in the world. Preserving a landscape is finding a composition in the world.

Luigi Ghirri, detail of MODENA 1973

Consider that architecture cannot find a building in the same way that landscape architecture can find a landscape. That is, if the whole of an ordinary building can begin to radiate significance through the people and events associated with it, the additional possibility exists in landscape of drawing a new boundary, of making visible an enclave or squiggle, based on the interpretation of tribal boundaries or wolf habitat or a vein of silver. That is, the act of landscape preservation can make a unity that was already present appear for the first time. This is a great hidden reserve of power, if we are playing the game of rivalry. To make a landscape a park by fiat, to give it a name and a property line, is in some ways a misapprehension and a wrong; but it is also a bank of power.

Preserved landscapes can do what no newly designed landscape can do; they are grandfathered in, and so can incarnate hazard and conflict, through chips of lead paint, or precipices. They radiate risk. In this sense they can be at root more transformative places to occupy.

master small landscapes
Master of the Small Landscapes, detail of VILLAGE ROAD

If the basis of preservation is wholly invisible, if there is no precipice to be led along or bluish vein of quartz to trace, significance does not appear on its own. In such cases, the absence of interpretation means the total lack of perceived landscape. What will come first, appreciating the unique karstic formation that snakes underfoot, or traversing it overhead along a trail, following it as it wanders? The goal of explaining to people what they are seeing and feeling, and of giving them context that may lead them to value that experience differently, exists uneasily with the goal of simply seeing and feeling differently. The act of interpretation is itself routine - it proceeds along a familiar script of docentry and signage no matter what the situation. The strangeness felt by the preserver as they make the boundary appear may never carry over to the visitors they invite; and the strangeness felt in being asked to accept an anonymous tract as a landscape of significance might dissipate in the light of interpretation.


Consider as a thought experiment assigning a group of students to document and preserve first and justify later.

Ask them:

Where would you preserve?

What would constitute preservation in your case? What would be repaired, what restored, what revealed, what concealed? What would need to be documented or demonstrated in order to do so?

Having said all that, only then ask:

Why are you preserving? And who are you preserving for? Who is leading this dance?

(October 2018)