Who is present in a beautiful landscape? Other than you, beholding the scene, there might be at best a few isolated souls. If there used to be a few blank-faced peasants in a Book of Hours, working the foreground, most likely today there will be a one or two strollers, up to nothing in particular; maybe a hang glider off in the sky.

If one or two people gives an appropriate hint as to the desired use or affect of the landscape scene – the wanderer on the path, or the hermit on the cliff – any more than that threatens to overwrite the landscape itself. Such is the power of people to distract other people. This is as much the fear of the vacationer as the Sunday painter or the architectural photographer. But while the obvious solution is to minimize the amount of people present in the picture, another is to multiply the actors inside the scene while keeping them all roughly at the same level of emphasis. (That takes a little more skill, especially in a perspectival view.) This is not a matter of approving the social good of people cohabitating, or appreciating the access to social contact for yourself; it is the aesthetic experience of an abundance of interaction. And in painting all over the world – the mural of the paradise of Tlaloc at Teotihuacan, the amphitheater fresco at Pompeii, the dismal publics of Bruegel the Elder – we find all-over compositions where a field of human activities coexist, solidly rooted in a common landscape.

We have the habit in landscape architecture of thinking of aesthetic experience along the continuum established in the 18th century: from the beautiful to the sublime, with the picturesque somewhere halfway in-between. There is nothing to say that our actual aesthetic experience of a landscape needs to take place along this pole; particularly since each of them privileges being the sole wanderer in the landscape. The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has argued for recognizing a larger galaxy of aesthetic modes in her Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. For instance, Ngai has contrasted the instantaneous experience of the beautiful – an aesthetic judgment that is immediately decided, and not subject to discussion – with that of the interesting – one that is provisional, subject to change. We might find such as aesthetic mode in a stimulus-dense landscape that can only be picked through one strand at a time, always balancing the risk of tipping into tedium with the reward of immersion.

bruegel gloomy
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, THE GLOOMY DAY
berner wimmel
Rotraut Susanne Berner, SUMMER LAKE

If we had a name for it, we might well recognize this tendency throughout the cultural field, from Altman’s Nashville to – once again! – OMA’s proposal for Parc La Villette. But what name can we put to it? The quickest way to do this is to once again dip into our German dictionary, and introduce into English the word wimmel. It literally means “teeming,” and is customarily used to describe a certain genre of landscape picture that is so full of information – little stories, people acting, various structures – that it cannot be taken in at a glance.

In the German sprachraum, the term is usually associated with a genre of children’s books that emphasize such pictures. You’ve probably seen the equivalent in English, from the Where’s Waldo series to Richard Scarry’s immortal Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Google Translate tellingly renders wimmelbild as “hidden object,” matching the ostensible point of looking through many such books – but the German wimmelbuch is precisely not about finding a single important detail in the noise, but about tracing a multiplicity of equally important threads – systems, narratives, events – that are coinciding in the same place. The attention is free to wander among the scene.

The power of wimmel is that it is an aesthetic experience of landscape that does not speak to nature, or try to naturalize. It does not resort to a single principle. The friction of wimmel is greased by the urban principle of indifference – multiple things are possible at the same time, most of them not touching. Instead, the experience of wimmel is one of wondering at the provenance and trajectory of each thread – what happened here? What else is happening now? What will happen next?

Why is the landscape important, and not only the field of actors inhabiting it? Because the landscape dictates the affordances of the scene; what it is actually possible to do. In fact, while the presence of a few different parties of people increases the likelihood that we will perceive a scene as wimmel, a scene can be unpopulated and still maintain the same quality. In such a case, it is only necessary that the record on the landscape make obvious a series of events that have occurred over time. (The ability to achieve this may vary – a geologist could find wimmel where someone else sees a single outcropping.)

To achieve wimmel in a design, then, is not only to provide a maximally welcoming public space for people. It would also be about making it stochastically more likely for wimmel scenes to occur.

(February 2022)